Mussorgsky and Shostakovich

In category: Song of the Day

Published April 27, 2017

Day 4’s pairing: Today we go all Russian!

From Phil:
Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death: Trepak

Mussorgsky’s last great work is the four-song cycle Songs and Dances of Death, written in the years 1875-77, when he was in serious decline. He would be able to write only a few more songs (one of them the Chaliapin favorite “Song of the Flea”) before his death in 1881. Songs and Dances, like his other great cycle Sunless, were written to poems of Mussorgsky’s friend and distant cousin Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. Each of the poems presents us with a realistic situation of individuals in extremis–an infant, a young woman, an old drunk lost in a snowstorm, soldiers on the battlefield–and adds death in human form as a charismatic and seductive catalyst.

While tempted to choose the ghastly Serenade, where Mr. D addresses a dying young lady as if “he” were her lover, I went for the Trepak. Here as a snow squall howls in the night, we discover an old drunk, hopelessly lost on his way home. Now, “she” caresses him and they dance a sprightly trepak. Finally, she lies him down in the snow and utters the coldest parting words: “Sleep, my little one, you happy wretch. Summer has come.”

Two things about this recording. This orchestration was made by Shostakovich in 1962, and seems to have inspired him to write his 14th Symphony, which is more or less a continuation of Mussorgsky’s theme. And while this is normally Russophone turf, Brigitte Fassbaender is amazing here, creating a delirious blend of passion, terror and tenderness.

From Aleba:
Shostakovich: Ophelia’s Song from Seven Romances to Poems by Alexander Blok (1967)

Gloom! In college I discovered this beautiful, seldom-performed late song cycle by Shostakovich based on poems by Russia’s turn-of-the-century Symbolist poet Alexander Blok. Blok’s poetry is known for its foreboding and apocalyptic tone, and Shostakovich’s music is the ideal match. I was taking a Russian music history class with the great Richard Taruskin (funny enough, Phil took a class with him at Columbia). His lectures were full of rare unpublished music samples and hilarious stories, and my classmates and I would often scribble down memorable Taruskin quotes. In contrast with his intimidating demeanor, Taruskin was the most supportive and generous teacher, always there to help, to answer questions. I wrote a paper dissecting this Shostakovich/Blok cycle, and Taruskin told me he wasn’t sure if he should give me an A or an F! I think it was a bit too expressionist for academia. But I was swept away by Shostakovich’s music and Blok’s words that foretold Russia’s troubles. The cycle has seven songs; each tells a story, and every note has meaning. Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman wrote that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy.” The recording I listened to over and over was on Melodiya and featured a live performance by soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (Shostakovich dedicated the cycle to her), her husband Rostropovich on cello, Moisei Vainberg on piano, and David Oistrakh on violin. This was the very first performance of the work. Here is the opening song from that world premiere, Ophelia’s Song, a spare beginning to what will soon become quite stormy. This song is just Vishnevskaya accompanied by Rostropovich. The piano and violin join later in the cycle. Blok’s poem with translation:

1. Ophelia’s Song
1. Песня Офелии
[Based on Hamlet, Act IV, scene v]
Parting from your sweet maiden, friend,
Parting        from   maiden  sweet    friend
Разлучаясь    с     девой     милой, друг,
Razluchajas   s     d’evoi    miloi,   drug,

You swore to love me!
You    swore   me   to love
Ты      клялся мне любить!…
Ti       kl’alsa  mne l’ubit’!

Parting for that dreary land,
Parting for  land  dreary
Уезжая   в  край постылый,
Uyezhaja v krai  postyly,

To keep the vows you made!
Vows    given    to keep
Клятву данную хранить!…
Kl’atvu dannuyu khranit’!

There, far from happy Denmark,
There,  from   Denmark  happy,
Там,     за       Данией     счастливой,
Tam,    za       Daniei       schastlivoi,

Your shores are shrouded in mist . . .
Shores your  in mist
Берега   твои во мгле…
Byerega tvoi  vo mgl’e …

The waves, murmuring angrily,
Wave  angry      murmuring
Вал    сердитый, говорливый
Val    s’erdityj,     govorlivyj

Wash up tears on the rock . . .
Wash  tears   on  rock
Моет  слёзы на скале…
Mo’et sl’ozy na skal’e . . .

The sweet warrior will never return,
Sweet    warrior  not   will return,
Милый  воин     не    вернётся,
Mylyj voin ne vern’otca,

All dressed in silver . . .
All    dressed   in   silver
Весь одетый   в    серебро…
Ves’ od’etyj v serebro . . .

In the grave will wave in heavy agitation
In grave heavy  will rock (become agitated)
В гробе тяжко всколыхнётся
V grobe t’azhko vskolykhn’otca

The ribbon and the black feather . . .
Ribbon  and   black    feather
Бант       и      чёрное перо…
Bant i chornoe pero . . .

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Composer Phil Kline and Aleba Gartner, a specialist in public relations for adventurous classical and new music programming, are both longtime friends of NYFOS.

This musical husband and wife is co-hosting Song of the Day together in anticipation of our first NYFOS Next evening curated by a married couple, Lauren Worsham and Kyle Jarrow, on May 10 at National Sawdust. Get your tickets today!


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