What do you do when you’re in hospital due to a heart attack? Well, if you are a composer, it perhaps gives you even more pause for creative thought.
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) had his first heart attack in May 1966. According to his friend and fellow composer Venyamin Basner, Shostakovich got the idea of setting the poems of the great Russian symbolist poet Alexander Blok (1880-1921) to music while admitted in hospital. He had been forbidden from composing by his doctors, so he read Blok’s poems instead. But he feared that his heart condition had stifled his creativity along with his health.
The next creative impulse came in the form of a favour asked of him by his friends in 1967.
The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya wished him to write a few ‘vocalises’ that they could perform together. Shostakovich was a notorious drinker, and his wife had to confiscate or conceal all the alcohol in the house after his heart attack. Then, this is what happened, in Shostakovich’s own words: “”Three days ago, Irina Antonova (Shostakovich’s wife) left the house. I was alone. I opened a cupboard, and, lo and behold, there on the bottom shelf was a half a bottle of brandy. She had hidden all the drink in the house but by chance I discovered this bottle. And, you know, I had this sudden urge to drink, which I couldn’t resist, so I had a glass. And, you know, it was so good that I sat down and everything came to me at once, and I finished the work in three days.”
The first Blok text Shostakovich set to music was a love poem, ‘Song of Ophelia’. He expanded the accompaniment for the remaining six poems to a piano trio, to include in addition to Rostropovich (cello), his two other close friends David Oistrakh (violin) and Sviatoslav Richter (piano).
The second poem ‘Gamayun, the Bird of Prophecy’ was inspired by a painting by Victor Vasnetsov of a bird with a woman’s face, and is set by Shostakovich for soprano and piano. The bass line in the piano is a remorseless, inexorable forward march (reminiscent of an invading army?) to accompany the lyrics that forecast “the yoke of the Tartars, bloody executions, earthquakes, hunger and conflagration.” Could Shostakovich be using artistic license to recall ‘conflagrations’ from his own time: the horrors of World War II and the worst excesses of the Stalinist regime? Stalin had died thirteen years earlier, but he still cast a long shadow.
‘We were together (that troubled night)’ is scored for voice and violin, a love duet (“A kiss was aiming to the lips and the sounds of a violin were aiming at the heart”) in tender, interweaving contrapuntal melodic lines. ‘The City Sleeps (Deep in Sleep)’combines voice with cello and piano and celebrates St. Petersburg by night.
‘The Storm’ for soprano, violin and piano pulsates with frenetic energy, evoking the wind and rain, while a calmer central section reflects on the plight of the homeless in the midst of this fury. In ‘Secret Signs’, Shostakovich uses a twelve-tone row for the first time. The vocal line is accompanied by the strings, with ominous references to ‘war and conflagration’ again. Only in the final poem ‘Music’ (the name for this poem chosen by Shostakovich, as Blok had left it untitled) do we hear the full piano trio. The last three songs are performed without pause, bringing to a close a truly unusual work by Shostakovich, born under unusual circumstances and celebrating some of the greatest friendships in his life, in music.
The impetus may have come from his friends, but the choice of the poems was his own. It is said that Shostakovich asked his wife for her favourite Blok poems that he might set them to music, but none of them made it to the final seven. Isaak Glikman, Shostakovich’s friend, found the choice of poems so intimate that he termed them the composer’s “confession”, going on to write that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy”. The soprano Vishnevskaya for whom the song cycle was written extolled their “agonising beauty” and that the composer, having been given a fresh lease of life after his recovery from his heart attack “seems to survey the journey as if from the vault of the heavens.”
The work was premiered in October that same year (the official pretext being the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution), in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, with pianist- composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, another close friend, filling in for the ailing Shostakovich himself (who was compelled to listen from his home to the performance broadcast live on radio), on piano.
Music lovers will get a rare opportunity to hear Shostakovich’s ‘Seven Romances on poems by Alexander Blok ‘performed by our very own Patricia Rozario with the Fidelio Trio from Ireland on 21 July 2015 6.30 pm at Institute Menezes Braganza Hall. So come, survey this journey from the vault of the heavens!
(An edited version of this article was published on 19 July 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)