Exploring a composer’s music can be a bit like visiting a foreign city.
Most tours will take you to the famous postcard sites, yet of course a different kind of visit or, better still, a rambling stroll is required before a city gives up its more intimate treasures: the secret courtyard tucked away off a bustling street, the neighborhood restaurant blissfully lost in time, that one transfixing view of the sea. It can be these more modest encounters that linger in one’s memory, if only because they disclose the essence of a place in its purest and perhaps most beautiful form.
The musical estate of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) by now requires little introduction. The tour buses have circled, the major monuments — 15 Symphonies, 15 String Quartets — have been duly annotated in our guidebooks. Even the rancorous debates over the composer’s political beliefs are by now, it seems, themselves slowly receding into history.
But among his vast catalog of works, there are still so many smaller gems, and all too invisible. Having spotted a rare upcoming performance (July 7 at Yellow Barn music festival) of one of the composer’s more extraordinary pieces of vocal music, I can’t resist devoting today’s column to the “Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok.”
This song cycle of 1967, scored for soprano, cello, violin, and piano, not only contains some of the most piercingly beautiful music Shostakovich ever wrote, but also speaks with his most deeply personal tone. The texts by Blok, Russia’s most revered Symbolist poet, are transfigured by Shostakovich’s musical voice, sounding here free of accent or strain. One senses in this music that a composer of many masks has momentarily dropped them all. The songs glow with the quiet light of the real.
Their story begins in May of 1966, when, after years of declining health and nervous agitation, Shostakovich suffered a heart attack. His recovery was long and dispiriting, and he feared his creative gifts had been lost. The hospital doctors forbade him from composing, but he read Blok’s poetry. Months later, aided by a few furtive swigs of brandy, the floodgates opened and, in just three days, out poured this group of seven songs.
The composer had his pretexts. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich had requested a piece of music to perform with his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and Shostakovich later claimed this was the impetus behind the Blok cycle, before, that is, he realized how many instruments were required to draw out the full implications of these remarkable poems. At another point, Shostakovich asked his wife to suggest her favorite Blok poems so that he might set them to music, but the final suite reflects none of her choices.
No, in the end, this was music written for no one but Shostakovich himself. His friend Isaak Glikman called these songs the composer’s “confession” and later wrote that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy.” Vishnevskaya, to whom the cycle is dedicated, praised their “agonizing beauty” and wrote that Shostakovich, having survived his brush with death, “seems to survey his journey as if from the vault of the heavens.”
That sense of serene distance from scenes of great emotion certainly permeates the opening “Ophelia’s Song,” a silvery lament for a lost lover. Shostakovich interweaves just two plaintive lines: the cello sings with a vocal quality, the soprano leaps for the moon.
But the cycle’s moments of repose are fleeting. The next poem, “Gamayun, bird of prophecy,” finds Blok, who died in 1921, in high apocalyptic mode, with the soprano shrieking out, warning of “bloody murders, earthquakes and famine and fire … the villains’ power, and the destruction of the just.” Shostakovich had lived through too much Soviet history to survey Blok’s premonitions with cool detachment; the song is wrenching and volcanic.
The third setting, “We were together,” for violin and soprano, returns to a music of hovering, this time recalling a youthful love with a kind of pitch perfect wistfulness. “The City Sleeps” is a tenderly melancholic tribute to the composer’s own St. Petersburg, followed by a return to terror in “The Storm,” in which the poem’s narrator leaves his own dry shelter to embrace the lot of those shivering in the streets.
The enigmatically ravishing sixth song, “Secret Signs,” opens with the composer’s first ever use of a 12-tone row. The text reads, “I take refuge in past moments, and close my eyes from fear. … Above me the firmament of heaven is already low, dark dreams lie heavy on the heart.” The final song in the cycle is the only one scored for all four performers, and begins with the words, “at night, when cares are set at rest.” Moments of unease reappear but cannot dispel the air of calm radiance. Blok did not provide a title for this final poem, so Shostakovich supplied his own. He called it “Music.”
There is an excellent recording of the cycle available on EMI with Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich joined by two lesser-known performers. But the one I treasure most is a rougher live recording made at the work’s premiere in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in October 1967, with Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich, the violinist David Oistrakh, and Shostakovich’s friend Mieczyslaw Weinberg, filling in for the ailing composer himself, on piano.
We hear the occasional cough and rustle of Shostakovich’s audience, but mostly we hear a rapt silence pressing in around the edges of the notes. Vishnevskaya sings with a kind of majestic luminosity, and, in the darker songs, fearsome intensity. Having sensed the evening’s import, Oistrakh in this performance was apparently gripped with nerves and suffering from chest pains. It is surreal and, in a way, touching, to hear one of the century’s mightiest violinists stumble in a passage easily playable by a fourth-grader. Oistrakh knew, he later said, that Shostakovich was at home experiencing the performance over the radio. That too makes one love this recording: We are listening alongside the composer.
In an essay called “Art in the Light of Conscience” the poet Marina Tsvetaeva describes two perspectives on the idea of art, depending on where one stands: It can represent either the spiritual edge of the physical world, or the physical edge of the spiritual world. Shostakovich in his Blok cycle seems to be looking out by turns from both shores. Distinctions between the composer’s “public” and “private” music, often found in discussions of his symphonies and quartets, also feel less germane here. The Blok cycle, finally, is music about the sources of music, addressing itself to both a personal and a collective past. And doing so with a cumulative wisdom that somehow lies beyond the province of poetry alone.
Back at home after the premiere, Shostakovich was helped down the stairs to join a celebratory dinner. The composer was happy, offering a toast to the music itself, calling it, with ample understatement: “a work I composed apparently not in vain.”