Music Under Stalin’s Shadow

Music composed under Stalin’s regime provides emotional escape

Most people have deadlines for work, an annoying boss, and feel underpaid. The Soviet era composers, artists and writers, including Dmitri
Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev had to deal with all of that plus the fear of winding up in a labor camp or being shot for displeasing the dictator Joseph Stalin with their music. When Shostakovich wrote his 5th symphony, he needed a piece that was acceptable to Stalin because his previous works had been criticized by Stalin. Luckily for Shostakovich, Stalin approved of the piece.

Most symphony players think the piece is a masterwork. There are wonderful dramatic moments and beautiful, heartbreaking moments.
There’s a great march in the first movement, a unusual semi-waltz in the second, a haunting third movement, and a fourth movement that ranges from a martial opening to a slow, sobering section. At the end of the section, it feels like the clouds open and things will eventually be all right. I always thought of the ending of the last movement as triumphant. I’d grown up listening to and performing the last movement as an upbeat triumphant end to a great symphony.

And then, I heard the Dallas Symphony play the piece, conducted by the composer’s son, Maxim. He dragged out the ending with a tempo that for me, was painfully slow. I hated it, and thought that the piece had been ruined. But Maxim claimed that his father had always wanted the final movement to feel dragged out as though people under the Communist regime were being forced to celebrate. In other words, it was a celebration that was too long and too slow to be natural.

So which way is better? Check out these two versions of the 4th  movement and decide for yourself. (Start the first version at about the 7 minute mark.) (Start the second one at about the 42:50 minute mark.) Which way will we perform it? You’ll have to come to the concert to find out.

Tchaikovsky predated the Stalinist era, although he had his own internal demons to reckon with. He was a master of melody, and left us with two great ballets that are performed frequently, six symphonies, and two concertos that get played frequently. And it doesn’t get much better than the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. It’s a great concerto, and I’m looking forward to playing it again Oct. 18 & 19 at the Tennessee Theatre. Tickets here.

It’s a pleasure to be part of an orchestra that weaves its way into the life of the community where it lives. If you weren’t there for the “UnStaged” concert at The Mill and Mine, we played for people doing yoga along with the music. The next night, we were part of a loud and enthusiastic concert of “Women Rock.” Two very different audiences and performances, but both were exciting in their own way. Thanks for having us in your lives.




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