When it comes to composing music about terror, Dmitri Shostakovich is the dean of despair, the ace of anguish, the tsar of horror. He was a master of his craft who knew how to get the desired effect. And, after all, the poor man barely survived perhaps the most wretched period of history–with its revolutions, civil wars, purges and pogroms–any country has ever endured.
This past weekend the Boston Symphony performed his Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.” The hour-long symphonic historical novel depicts the massacre of innocent petitioners in musically graphic terms, such as a militant battery of concussive percussion instruments, including snare drums imitating machine guns mowing down the praying women and children. There are almost unendurably long periods of demonically frightening loud and fast music interspersed with almost unendurably long periods of lugubriously slow, sotto voce music.
I don’t doubt Shostakovich’s sincerity in attempting to convey to the concert hall the terror so many Russians felt for so long. However, he had gone down this same road many times—and more effectively—before; for instance, in the Tenth Symphony which immediately preceded “The Year 1905.” One gets the sense that Shostakovich felt a need to outdo himself each time. Unfortunately, when terror becomes old hat there is a danger it ceases to be perceived as terror, whether in the concert hall or the real world.
Paired with the Shostakovich on the BSO program was the Beethoven Piano Concerto in G, Op. 58. It contains one of the most remarkable movements in the orchestral literature, the second movement Andante con moto. With only a Mozart-sized string orchestra playing in unison and juxtaposed with the piano Beethoven creates a more powerful contrast between torment and prayer in five minutes than Shostakovich did with an army of an orchestra in an hour. And the final movement of the concerto is sheer joy. Shostakovich would have done well to listen to the concerto before he wrote the eleventh symphony. Both men were very familiar with tribulation. One was able to go beyond it.
After the concert, I took my fifteen-minute walk back to my apartment on Newbury Street. There were swarms of people. Concertgoers, Saturday night revelers, tourists, scads of Berklee College of Music students carrying instruments, and beggars. The beggars were ignored, even the ones sleeping on the sidewalk, rendered invisible because no one wants to have a shadow overcasting a pleasant evening. It is slow, silent despair, not the stuff of a grand musical statement, and I wonder who is going to compose the symphony for them.