There’s a Concert coming up
THERE IS A CONCERT COMING UP in Berlin on 20th January, the thought of which is already going through me like a whirlwind. I am so excited about it that I can hardly even think straight! Two of my favourite musical works ever. An emotional maelstrom of music written in the 1930s. Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto in D minor (1939) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s monumental 4th Symphony in C minor (1936). To programme these two pieces in the same concert is a stroke of genius as they are woven from very similar cloth. Britten wrote his concerto on the eve of the Second World War when he was just 26 years old. It is a 30-minute outpouring of passion for life in the face of the impending horror of war. Wrapped up in a strangely exotic Mediterranean lustre, with an almost gypsy feel at times in the violin (both vivace tempestuous and lingeringly impassioned), it powerfully demolishes your composure and cuts you to the quick. Getting through it without tears is strictly for psychopaths. Of all violin Concertos (alongside Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto), it is my favourite. Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony is what he later called his “problem child”. The problem was that, at 29 years old, he had composed a kaleidoscopic vortex of emotion (clearly influenced by Mahler) which he knew the Stalin regime would suppress. His opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, had already been denounced by Stalin as “chaos not music”. In those days, one had to create optimistic art which glorified the workers and the regime. Any hint of melancholia was likely to be accused of “bourgeois formalism” or other such politically correct nonsense! So he took the step of withdrawing the symphony and it didn’t have its first performance until 25 years later, after Stalin had died. It wasn’t that he was frightened of Stalin. In fact, Stalin was frightened of HIM. While Shostakovich watched almost all his artistic friends being assassinated or disappeared after a “3 0’clock knock” (the early hours visit which they would receive from the secret police), he survived because Stalin superstitiously accorded the composer “yurodivy” status, as if he was some kind of prophet who must not be touched. The composer encoded many dissident references into his works, for example through the use of Russian folk song and even in special notation. While the rest of the world was whooping with delight that Hitler was gone and Europe was free, Shostakovich knew otherwise. Thus the deep melancholy which pervades much of his work was directed at the fact that Bolshevism had descended into the same kind of totalitarianism which it had purported to overthrow. For me, his 4th Symphony is the most important of his fifteen symphonies, as he himself called it his “composer’s credo.” One has to take notice of that. While the whole symphony is like a crazy journey through a myriad themes and moods, somehow it all leads inexorably to a jaw-dropping coda which is both shattering and epic. In fact, I first became aware of this symphony in the 1980s when the coda was being played as soundtrack music, alongside Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, in a BBC documentary about outer space. Yes, that’s where this symphony takes you! I am determined to get to this concert on the 20th. It will be a life-changing experience (the only kind of experience in which I am now interested).