Cataclysm Catechism

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.

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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.

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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.

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Street person




4 thoughts on “Cataclysm Catechism

  1. ccyager

    Of course, the irony about Shostakovich and Beethoven is that Shostakovich revered Beethoven and his music. The Eleventh symphony is about the revolution of 1905 and if I remember my Russian history correctly involved starving peasants and didn’t have the political ramifications the 1917 revolution had. The 12th symphony is much more accessible. And then there’s the 13th, Babi Yar, when Shostakovich paired with Yevtuschenko to set his poem to music. The two of them nearly got dragged off to the Gulag as a result. Being a composer in the USSR could be an extremely dangerous occupation. While his 10th symphony is wonderful, for sheer terror I recommend the scherzo in the 8th symphony. The Beethoven 4th piano concerto — sublime. I wrote a paper in college comparing it with Mozart’s 21st piano concerto. They were far more alike than I initially thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. eliaspattn Post author

    I wasn’t aware that Shostakovich had such an affinity for Beethoven. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It makes a lot of sense in many ways, but one core difference is their vision of the future. With only a single exception (the Coriolan Overture) EVERY ONE of Beethoven’s orchestral works, including symphonies, concertos, and overtures end in a major key. This speaks volumes of his faith in the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over adversity. One wishes that Shostakovich had a bit more of that indomitable soul, though considering what he went through it’s no surprise he was overwhelmed by pessimism.


  3. frances dearman

    Dear Jerry,

    Walking home of an evening in a great city…….. Nice… I love Boston…..

    As a single woman, walking alone, I choose not to encourage the panhandlers who share with me our beautiful city of Victoria BC to expect money from such as me; what I do choose is to carry with me some quantities of oatmeal powerbars to place in their hands, and we wish each other a nice day, and I call them Sir of Ma’am. So far no one has ever tossed one back at me in disgust……..

    And clearly you answer your own question, Gerry–you should write it, the symphony for beggars, or at least frame it out and find someone else to do so….. You already know how to crowd fund……

    And a novel, from the perspective of a street musician. In my beautiful home city of Victoria, one must audition to be a street musician…..

    Be well, walk in beauty, may you bless the city and yourself with your compassion……

    Fran in Canada

    ps: I stole the last two lines of this “prayer for the wakeful” from the old book of common prayer they use at King’s Chapel in Boston, made it the second of seven sections in a Latin Vespers I wrote for the use of Unitarian Universalist choirs when I was off work for a year. Nick Fairbank was contracted to write the music for the piece, and will premiere it in Victoria November 26th. Even UU choirs love to sing in Latin, all those open vowels; I write them words they can sing with a whole heart. Doesn’t mention beggars specifically; next thing I pull together, I will…. fd

    2. Preces pro vigilantibus ~ Prayers for the wakeful

    Navigat nauta per mare stellatum, pecus pastor custodit, vigiles tecta in urbe defendunt, magna cum cura. Nutriuntur infantes. Curantur lapsi in morbum. Mortui maerentur. Curantes aegri dolentes sustineantur.

    The sailor steers his ship through a starry sea, the shepherd guards his flock, the night watch guard well the peace of the city. Infants are suckled. The sick are tended. The dead are mourned. Those who tender care, those who suffer, those who sorrow— may they be comforted and supported.


    Interim Minister the Rev. Fran Dearman serving the Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda, Essex County Ontario I read e-mail at random intervals; if your message is time sensitive, please telephone: home study land line: 519.398.8436 (home study and voice mail) dire emergency cell phone: 1.778.835.8616 (cell, no voice mail) ________________________________________


  4. frances dearman

    just fyi, Jerry……..

    Fran in Canada. Nick Fairbank of the Victoria Conservatory of Music has done the music for this–all seven sections, libretto attached; it premieres in Victoria 26 Nov 2017. Fran

    4. Miserere Modo quid faciam, cogitare non possum. Tum in silva ambulo. Sedeamus nunc paullulum, stellarum cursum observemus.

    Tot homines in egestate sunt, tot nihil habent quod edant, vitam inopem sustentant. Scio casum non aequum. Fieri sentio et irascor. Quantulumcumque, aliquid tentare debeo.

    Sometimes I can’t think what to do. Then I walk in the woods. Let us sit for a little while, and watch the journey of the stars.

    So many live in extreme poverty, so many have nothing to eat, they only just get by. I know that life is not fair. I feel it to be so, and it makes me angry. However small a thing, I must try to do something.

    the whole piece is in the attachment……..

    Interim Minister the Rev. Fran Dearman serving the Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda, Essex County Ontario I read e-mail at random intervals; if your message is time sensitive, please telephone: home study land line: 519.398.8436 (home study and voice mail) dire emergency cell phone: 1.778.835.8616 (cell, no voice mail) ________________________________________



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