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Shostakovich Symphony number Thirteen

Raw, emotional, powerful, frightening work. Anyone who has written a PhD thesis on it may wish to contradict me on my analysis, so far I have just read what limited information I could find on it and listened to it many many times. Entitled "Babi Yar", its central theme concerns the ravine of that name outside Kiev where in September 1941 34 000 local Jews were massacred by the SS and Wehrmacht. The symphony, composed in 1962, was written for orchestra, male choir and bass soloist, setting a series of poems by Yvgeny Yevtshenko, who rose to great popularity among young audiences in the early 1960s with his readings of anti-Stalinist poetry. Shostakovich chose to set his music to words because, by his own admission, this offered him "a certain safeguard against stupidity". (I think I've missed the point a little there, in my own understanding of the work, thanks to my non-existent knowledge of Russian. Ah well, he was primarily referring to the Soviet Authorities, who had misinterpreted and banned many of his earlier works.)

The opening movement recalls the annihilation of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt to the Soviet Union, centering on the massacre at Babi Yar. Integrated with this is an allegretto associated with Anne Frank and a scherzo presenting a grotesque charictature of nationalism and racism. Neither Shostakovich nor Yevtshenko were Jewish, but a line from the opening declares "To Jew haters I am a Jew."

The climax of the first movement is one of the most terrifying things I have ever heard. I first heard this symphony in a live performace, completely unaccustomed to Shostakovich, and I was filled with an urge to either run out of the hall screaming or curl up under the seat and hide, as I always did as a small child in movies. I did not know what it was about, other than that a friend in Israel listened to it as a Righteous Anger restoration device. I didn't need program notes. It screamed PEOPLE DYING to the most clueless listener.

The third and fourth movements are equally dark and equally powerful, with similar themes getting bleaker, if possible as the work progresses. Possibly in a carefully engineered attempt to prevent people from going home, hiding under the bed, and never coming out, the fifth movement is, mostly, at least superfically hopeful. Flute solos go a long way in counterbalancing the frantically swirling strings and terrible, overpowering brass chorales punctuated with almost erratic bass drum in the earlier sections, but the work maintains a raw and slightly menacing edge that is pure Shostakovich. I went home and hid under the bed.

Its most hopeful, most relief-filled moment for me comes in the Second Movement, with a violin solo, approximately 2.5 minutes in. I listened to this recently with an Israeli friend of mine, and at the end of it we both burst out laughing. It said exactly the same thing to both of us, something along the lines of

"*evil grin* *does a little dance* Oh, yes, look at you and your big tank. Aren't YOU good! Oooh, we're SOOO scared of your big scary tank! *snigger* SCHMUCK! YOU MAY BE ABOUT TO KILL ME BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN YOU'RE NOT CRAP!"

The official literature on this highly whimsical, mildly arrogant and viciously satirical little tune talks more about peasant humour overcoming dictators, but to me it seemed more rebellious, more heroic, than telling jokes behind a dictator's back.
It seems a shame that just after this finishes the tanks come rolling in, in the form of the full brass section, and our arrogant little violinist is presumably crushed like a bug. It's all ok, though, his tune is taken up by everyone else and mockery wins in the end. Heartwarming, really.

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