As much as I love listening to a favorite piece of music, I love even more hearing great music for the first time. When listening to something new, I often think of Humphrey Bogart’s line at the end of “Casablanca”, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” I was overjoyed when I found Valentina Lisitsa’s recent recording of Shostakovich’s second sonata – which was altogether new to me – on YouTube. I was moved not only by her playing, but by her writing as well. I had only the vaguest awareness of what happened at Leningrad in WW II, but was inspired by her notes to look more fully into this horrific event.
I will have more to share regarding the Siege of Leningrad in a future post. What follows are the notes Valentina wrote that were so moving to me. I invite you to read what she has to say about it, and to hear what she has to play.
We all wonder from time to time how things look “on the other side”, but resign ourselves to the thought that nobody ever came back from “there” to tell us how things are. With a few exceptions…
Dante created his own, albeit imagined, Inferno. Shostakovich descended into a real inferno, lived through it, and came out alive to tell the story, to bear testimony to a hell on earth. What else can you call it when people – bright, thinking, loving people, millions of them – are sentenced to living on 125 grams a day of 50% sawdust/bread ration (and only for those who are able-bodied or well-connected), then to eating their pets and pests, belts and shoes (with scraped-off-the-walls wallpaper paste an exquisite delicacy), then – their dead, and then – their living.
This September (8th- 21st) marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Siege of Leningrad, one of the deadliest and darkest episodes in the history of European civilization (if you can still call it “civilization”). This magnificent city, rightly called the Venice of the North, a cradle of modern Russia, a hotbed of progressive thought, a showcase of the best in Russian art, music, and literature, was condemned to a most cruel death by starvation by two tyrants, dictators, who despite being on opposing sides of a war, shared a common hatred of humanity. In the 900 days of the siege, 750,000 people died out of a population of 2.5 million. Shostakovich, abandoned like the rest of the population of Leningrad, lived through it and continued composing. His 7th (the “Leningrad”) Symphony, the sheet music of which was smuggled across enemy lines and performed around the globe, was a call of defiance, a promise of eventual victory, of imminent triumph of life over death.
There is nothing triumphal about this sonata. Instead, it is a sad and subdued reflection, the testimony of a witness to an abyss of human suffering and death. Everything is warped here: a waltz turns into a funeral procession; usually “happy” major key episodes are the most sinister and menacing.
The first movement is full of foreboding and unease. There are two main themes here. The opening one – in a minor key – is rather sad and very sincere. The second theme, in a blazing major key, is reminiscent of those awful Soviet-era patriotic marches. If music can be called “creepy”, this theme personifies the word.
The second movement is a slow and unsteady waltz, constantly on the verge of falling apart. It is more a reminiscence of happier times than a real dance. The waltz bore a special significance in the lives of these people. It was a waltz that commenced graduation from school, a waltz that was the first dance at a wedding. In the middle of the movement, the waltz gives way to a bone-chilling half-march/half-sarabande theme. You can hear the steps of a funeral procession, but these steps are hesitant and halting, just as in the iconic Leningrad documentary videos of starvelings dragging their deceased in makeshift sleds to common pits while those still alive walk by unfazed.
The last movement: a finale. Those words have more significance here than in other sonatas, with the sole exception of Chopin’s Sonata in B Flat minor. This movement is a set of variations written on a very simple, folk song-like theme. The opening theme is for one hand only – an ultimate expression of loneliness and desolation in music. A set of variations follows the theme, some maniacally busy and high-strung, some solemn and grave. The last ones deserve our particular attention. Just as in other movements, everything is in a minor key and ANY sign of major (usually a symbol of something nicer, happier, gentler in music) pierces the music like a ray of bloodied sunrise on the eve of a storm. We get more and more “major” – at 5:20 when octaves in left hand are decidedly major, then at 6:00… Then, at 7:00 we enter the final agony in the drama of life. This variation is hauntingly similar to the “dotted” variation from Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. This repeated dotted rhythm is like a heartbeat: heavy, boomy, halting, weakening.
This variation is probably the most powerful and graphic depiction of death – of actual dying and death – in music. Eventually everything transforms into a vibrant, shining major key (at 10:19) and comes to a complete, final, stop. Death comes in a scintillating major here, but it doesn’t sound like a promise of paradise awaiting, but rather a complete resignation and making peace with everybody and everything, a complete cessation of life, passion, and struggle. The only thing left for onlookers is a brief prayer (at 10:30) and one final act of kindness to what was once a living, breathing human being – closing his eyes (a truly chilling moment at 10:57). Then there is a gaping silence… and life returns to its daily, almost banal pace – for everybody else, of course – while we bury our dead (12:30).