World premiere of version
Second Contemporary Music Festival, Gorky
Galina Pisarenko, sop / Larisa Avdeyeva, mez / Alexei Maslennikov, ten / Gorky Philharmonic Orchestra / Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
1 Lament for a dead child
2 The solicitous mother and aunt
4 Before a long separation
6 The abandoned father
7 Song of want
9 The good life
10 Song of the young girl
After his fearsome 1948 condemnation at the hands of the Union of Composers and Stalin’s ‘cultural’ henchman Andrey Zhdanov, Shostakovich was understandably careful about what he composed next and what he revealed in public. His position was undoubtedly dangerous. In the autumn of the same year he compiled a strikingly unusual song-cycle for three singers and piano: the texts were taken from a collection of Russian translations of Jewish lyrics, mostly originally in Yiddish but one or two Hebrew or Russian; the melodies he created were original but closely related to the style of ‘klezmer’ music which Shostakovich knew and loved. The ensemble of three singers gives almost the feeling of a chamber opera.
In their simple folksy musical idiom, these songs were not offensively ‘difficult’ or ‘modern’. But they had a problem: the obvious Jewishness of their text and melody, and also their clear address to the horrific fate of the Jews in Europe. Although this could most obviously have been taken to refer to the Holocaust which had only just ended three years before, the late 1940s were a time when Stalin was once again malevolently stirring the pot of Russian and Soviet anti-semitism. Arrests, state-sanctioned murders, harrassments and threats were all around. So these songs took on a doubly intense quality of political pathos and moral outrage. They could have been thought to refer to Nazi Germany but they applied as much to the Soviet situation.
The musical result is one of Shostakovich’s most touching, unusual and melancholy works, whether performed in his original for voices and piano, or in the orchestral version he made afterwards. The political result was something else. Inevitably and correctly, 1948 was thought not a good time to perform such a piece. Although the work was briefly tried through in 1948, its official first performance had to wait to less oppressive times in 1955.
Note by Gerard McBurney