7 To the exile
When, at the end of his life, Shostakovich asked his son Maxim to let it be known that he considered his orchestral song-cycle ‘Suite on Verses of Michelangelo’ to be his Sixteenth Symphony in all but name, he was in no way being sentimental or grasping at straws. This is indeed a work on a symphonic scale, which pays tribute at one and the same time to two of his greatest musical heroes, Musorgsky and Mahler. In this work we find the essence of Shostakovich’s Musorgskian mastery of bass voice and orchestra (in a language with obvious debts to the Pimen scene from Boris Godunov, not to mention the death-scene of Boris himself), as well as a rugged reinvention of that unique harmonic capacity of the 19th century Russian composer that one fine musician has called ‘Musorgskian truth’ and another, Debussy, described as ‘penetrating to the naked flesh of the emotion’. But the face of Mahler keeps appearing from behind the mask of Musorgsky, and it is naturally and inevitably the Mahler of Das Lied von der Erde, and especially the breathtakingly sorrowful and stripped-bare counterpoint of the aching last movement of that work, Der Abschied (The Farewell).
Shostakovich arranged his chosen texts from Michelangelo (translated into Russian) into a cycle of ten songs, with an eleventh hanging at the end, like a leaf about to fall from the tree. The ten songs trace a dramatic circle carefully worked out by the composer. Every text has to do with the life and work of the artist, with his achievements, his set-backs, his loves and his sense of destiny. The opening song about truth and lies, and the burden of being an artist, is followed by three bitter-sweet love songs. Then comes ‘Anger’, a passionate outburst against corruption and the abuse of power. Two further songs about the relationship between an artist and those in power lead to two meditations on the joy and limitations of creativity. Finally, ‘Death’ returns us to the music of the opening song, drawing all the poetic themes together as Michelangelo contemplates his end and balances his yearning for further life and love and artistic creation, against the dismal and hopeless prospect of the real world all around.
After this, the eleventh song, ‘Immortality’, enters like a strange ray of sunlight, or the sudden appearance of a child in the artist’s mind. And that indeed is what it was, for in the opening bars, a curious little toy-march like a nursery-rhyme, Shostakovich is actually quoting something from his own childhood, a miniature piano-piece he had composed at the age of nine. Thus the dying artist looks back to his earliest youth. And Michelangelo’s words make the significance of this moment for Shostakovich absolutely clear:
Here fate has sent me eternal sleep,
But I am not dead. Though buried in the earth,
I live in you, whose lamentation I hear,
Since friend is reflected in friend.
I am as though dead. But as a comfort to the world
With its thousands of souls, I live on in the hearts
Of all loving people. And that means I am not dust.
Mortal decay cannot touch me.
Note by Gerard McBurney