Symphonies and

An Owner's Manual
David Hurwitz
(Amadeus Press)
When I was thirteen or so, I would crank up Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony on the old 78-rpm player, the discs going around ever so fast, each of the four movements chopped into bits so they would fit on the 12-inch disks (4-1/2 minutes running time maximum), interrupted so that the new disk kerplunk would drop down atop the previous one, and then when that was over, again kerplunk until at the end you'd pick up the six pitted heavy-pressed disks and turn them over so kerplunk the next two movements could start dropping down anew.

I'd be in bed next to the record player, the turntable and my mind moving at what now would be considered lightening speed. Usually I would be reading the books of the times: Betty MacDonald or Richard Wright or Miki Waltari or, my true passion, the first book I was to sup at again and yet again, the Seven Famous Novels of H G Wells. My favorites of these stories were "The Invisible Man," "The War of the Worlds," and "The Time Machine." I went through them endlessly, kerplunk, listening to this odd music from the frozen east, kerplunk, reading this fat, odd book from a half-century past, published in England. My sisters would move through the room, my room, from time-to-time, letting me know that they considered me quite mad.

The music was perfect background for Wells; Tchaikovsky or Brahms or Beethoven couldn't have cast the spell, the right spell. Only Shostakovich's Fifth, so weird, disturbed, haunted. They say when it was played in Moscow, during the war, the audience was weeping. No other music could match Shostakovich, raging about, circling with the invisible, struggling, kicking doors from somewhere in the room behind us. And the time traveller, battered by the time that was lost in time, poking into the last days of earth, then to return, at last at home, pulling a dry flower from his jacket pocket ... a genus that no one could identify.

It was only many years after that I was able to hear other Shostakovich works, and --- except for some of the middle period chamber pieces --- I am afraid that the Fifth is so engraved on the wax of my brain that as soon as Amadeus Press' Shostakovich Symphonies and Concertos, An Owner's Manual appeared with CD, I popped it in the computer and, I swear, as I am telling you this, I'm back in 1946 again, alone with violin, harps, and celesta in coda whirling about slower and slower taking me back in time where there is no time and all the time in the world for this child we haunt the hill where the Time Traveler and I first land to meet a happy, simple people playing in the stream, Weena with a circle of flowers about her neck, not at all curious about how this tall studious man arrived from years ago riding in his seat atop a large white metal box, the levers in front, the shimmering bar that made his trip to 900th Century possible.

And as the dying fall of Shostakovich's melody takes hold, the man from Victorian England looks up at the box-like structure on the hill, hears a faint humming inside, and we will soon know about the Morlocks --- did Wells have something about creatures eating other creatures? --- the Morlocks who lunch on Weena's brothers and sisters and, presumably, babies. Then the hymn for strings takes hold, and we --- Weena and I --- wish the Time Traveler would stop going down that damn tube, stay off the metal steps, as the desolate flute leads us down into the dark chambers below, where there are tables, and half-consumed, bloody hunks of ... hunks of (gack).

§     §     §

Shostakovich Symphonies and Concertos is nicely put together, comes, as I have said, with a CD of the Symphony #5, Op. 45, recorded (at a much slower speed, I must say) in 1987. Hurwitz, in his commentary, deals exclusively with Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies, broken into their component parts, putting words to music without turning fuzzy or maudlin on us. Apollinaire's "Suicide" appears there in the 14th Symphony, "Three Lilies on my grave without a cross,"

    the second grows from my heart which suffers so
    Upon a verminous bed; the third one's roots lacerate my mouth...

Shostakovich had a pretty gory time of it, considering that Stalin used to call him up in a snit at some musical misdeed, preferring to ring him up personally at two or three in the morning, hinting that if he didn't shape up his Allegro non troppos, he might find himself fiddling in the gulag. The party newspaper, Pravda, reported that the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was "crude, primitive, vulgar ... The music quacks, moans, pants and chokes in order to render the love scenes as naturally as possible. And 'love' is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar form."

The violinist David Oistrakh recalls living in Moscow in 1937, like Shostakovich. Night after night, he relates, they and all Moscow feared the NKVD. "In our building, only our apartment and the one facing it on the same floor survived the arrests. All the other tenants had been taken off to God knows where."

    Every night I expected the worst, and I set aside some warm underwear and a bit of food for the inevitable moment. You can't imagine what we went through, listening for the fatal knock on the door or the sound of a car pulling up. One night a Black Maria stopped out in front. Who were they coming for? Us or the neighbors? The downstairs door slammed and the elevator began its ascent. Finally it stopped on our floor. We listened to the footsteps, and went numb. Whose door would they come to? An eternity passed. Then we heard them ring at the apartment across from us.

The surprise is not only that Shostakovich survived, but with all the government spooks and the Chairman's hate calls ("Dmitri ... Dmitri ... that Tale of the Priest... the noisy part, in the middle, grinding, Dmitri, grinding and screeching. You know what I think, Dmitri?" he would whisper, "You know what we might have to do?" he would whisper. "You know, don't you, Dmitri?") With all this tension, Shostakovich continued to produce, and some of his works were quite wild. Symphonies and Concertos lists over 100 that came from his pen between 1922 and 1975. All through his adult life, he knew that he might be, unwittingly perhaps, composing his own Requiem. Those who met him said that he appeared to be the the most ingrown, fearful, and uneasy person they had ever met

--- Francis Rich, MA
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