Thursday, 1 November 2007

When Britten met Shostakovich

There's some interesting stuff about the links between Shostakovich and Britten in a blog posting by a US music journo called Marc Geelhoed.

(He's actually reviewing a new book called The Rest is Noise, which sounds fab, but being skint I'm obviously going to get the Barbican Library to order it for me.)

A parallel is drawn between the desolate soundworlds of Shostakovich (such as in the Quartet No. 8) and of Britten (such as in the final mad scene of Grimes, where Peter loses it completely). In particular, it's the obsessive woe-is-me repetition that interests him of, on the one hand, Shostakovich's D-E flat-C-B signature, and on the other, Grimes belting out his own name.

Grimes hounded by the slow-witted, suspicious inbreds of the Borough, Shostakovich by the Party: it's a telling comparison. The Quartet was written in 1960, 15 years after Grimes, which Shostakovich must have known well - he was a fan of Britten and became an acquaintance. Shostakovich was being pressurised to join the Communist party, something he'd avoided up till then; but, for reasons still unclear, he succumbed. Letters to his friend Glikman suggest that he was suicidal, and that the Quartet was some sort of suicide note - hence the saturation with DSCH. Grimes, of course, does end up killing himself.

And there are other bits in Grimes that sound very Shostakovich-like. The dark tragedy of the Passacaglia foreshadows that of the Passacaglia in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, written two years later. The very opening bars, with parping woodwind that usher the court into session, have typical early Shostakovich characteristics of odd, sideways harmonic shifting and skippy, jerky rhythms. Many of the bustling big orchestral stampedes - 'Grimes is at his exercise' for example - recall the Shostakovich juggernaut.

But it's the bleakness that's most telling. Most of Grimes is pretty bleak: grey shapes that appear out of the musical mist like ghosts, such as in the first Interlude, which provides the background for Act I. You can see where the opening of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14, dedicated to Britten, comes from.

Both were master orchestrators, impeccable craftsmen, and geniuses who could push the aural envelope just far enough to make great, original music that still appeals to the normal listener. When I say 'normal listener', I obviously mean me.

And they did become friends. Shostakovich managed to come over to England in 1966 for the World Cup - he was a big footy fan - and had even learned some English. I have the irresistible image of these two great composers meeting up that year (they'd first met in 1960), and only one wanting to talk about football (I don't know that Britten was a fan of sport - there are references to him playing school cricket though):

BB: Dmitri Dmitrievich! Very nice to see you!
DS: Ah! Benjamin Robertovich! Khello! Khello! Pleased for see you! Tell me, what you think of manager A. Ramsey drop Greaves from team?
BB: Er, well, I don't really follow football, I'm afraid. I wanted to ask you about your Thirteenth Sym...
DS: Why England not play weenger? What team is Hurst? Is West Kham? Very unusual, two foot player. Shoot right foot, shoot left foot. Also, can khead ball. Need such player in Russian team.
BB: Um, yes. Now, I was talking to Slava the other day about your second cello concerto, and...
DS: And Bobby Moore! Best player midfield in world! He hev... he hev... ah, what is word... (to interpreter) Splyoozhy khoozhy blatchka natchka pleetky neetky?... ah, kharasho... (to BB) Ah! Veesion! Veesion! He hev veesion! Also Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters, Gordon Banks... (etc)

Time to go to rehearsal, I think.

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