“Papa, what if they hang you for this?”
Symphonic music is sometimes obviously beautiful, relaxing or pacifying—and sometimes not. Music has many sides: it can comfort or disquiet—soothe or jar. Independent of circumstance, and without prejudice, music distills humanity—lovely or unlovely; sunny or hopeless. Music might soothe, but just as often it might stir a savage breast, or rile a listless spirit.
This year, the Delaware Symphony’s season has been colored by the Bells of Remembrance. These magnificent instruments—as beautiful to see as to hear—were commissioned by Brother David Schlatter as a way of remembering, mourning, and finally celebrating the lives of those who perished in the September 11 attacks. Brother David has brought the largest of them to each performance—parking them on their trailer outside the hall—for audience members to see, hear, touch, and ring themselves, feeling the cathartic power of a singe pull of the cord. It is hard to be unmoved—either as a listener, or as a “toller", by the magnificence, purity, and quantity of their sound. Some of the smaller bells find their way to the DSO stage, lending our performances an element of verismo and power that is rare and thrilling.
Like the bells themselves, some of this season’s repertoire, though often beautiful, has at its core unsettling drama.
On May 6, the Symphony will play the most affecting work of the season: Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony. Like much of his music, it reflects on Russian and Soviet history, and so is driven by violence, tragedy, loss and isolation.
The 11th Symphony is a musical telling of the first Russian Revolution. In 1905, peasants gathered at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg for a peaceful protest in what was to become known as Bloody Sunday when the Tsar’s forces opened fire. The consequences for the Imperial regime were fatal, leaving the Russian people facing unimaginable challenges.
Though Shostakovich was at times officially fêted by the Soviet State, he was acutely aware of Stalin’s fickle disposition, and reflected on it in his music. Are the triumphant moments in his symphonies celebratory or mocking? Does the music revel in Soviet pomp and grandeur, or aspire freedom from it?
While sitting in the audience with his father during a rehearsal of the 11th Symphony, Shostakovich’s son, (who was sharply aware of the political subtext of the work as a musical condemnation of the brutal Soviet suppression of the1956 Hungarian Uprising disguised as patriotic bombast) whispered, “Papa, what if they hang you for this?”
Music ostensibly based on Bloody Sunday, written in a cripplingly repressive Soviet state, cannot soothe. It is at turns frighteningly violent and inconsolable. And though it is often beautiful, Shostakovich’s beauty is frequently haunting, fragile and desolate. Rather than comfort, Shostakovich strikes a paradoxical balance that unsettles as it affirms.
The idea that this art was created in the shadow of the gallows precludes an easy beauty. Were Shostakovich capable of suppressing his creative urge, his son’s dark question would not have been asked. But Shostakovich was compelled—as dangerous as it was—to write music that illuminated those injustices with a merciless light. Tough, nasty, brutal stories make powerful art.
This is not the sort of art that, in Congreve’s words ‘has charms to soothe the savage breast’ (nor beast!). Instead, this is art that inspires us by placing a resonant context around circumstances that defy both common sense and humanity. Much of what we play might be uplifting. But an artist who sees evil and suffers at its hand will create art.
When the Bells of Remembrance toll at the end of the Shostakovich 11, the drama of the work will take on an additional dimension of realism tapping into an irrepressible torrent of human passion—a conflation of Shostakovich’s circumstance with our own memories of the September 11th attacks. This is art that confronts and questions. This is art that riles and unsticks the spirit. It is also art that illuminates and clarifies our own experiences. The marriage of riling and clarity gives solace. And in the end, that’s what art does: It helps us find our way—and our place—leading us out of chaos toward peace, from misery to comfort. In that exhausting, moving way, music does indeed soothe the savage breast.