Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor (Op. 113), subtitled Babi Yar, was completed on July 20, 1962, and first performed in Moscow in December of that year. The hour-long work requires a bass soloist, men's chorus, and large orchestra and is laid out in five movements, each a setting of a Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem. This unusual form gives rise to various descriptions: choral symphony, song cycle, giant cantata. The five earthily vernacular poems denounce Soviet life one aspect at a time: brutality, cynicism, deprivation, anxiety, corruption. Kirill Kondrashin conducted the 1962 premiere after Yevgeny Mravinsky had declined the assignment under pressure; Vitaly Gromadsky sang the solo part alongside the combined choruses of the RSFSR State Academy and Gnessin Institute and the Moscow Philharmonic.
- Babi Yar: Adagio (15–18 minutes)
- In this movement, Shostakovich and Yevtushenko transform the 1941 massacre by Nazis of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kyiv, into a denunciation of anti-Semitism in all its forms. (Although the Soviet government did not erect a monument at Babi Yar, it still became a place of pilgrimage for Soviet Jews.) Shostakovich sets the poem as a series of theatrical episodes — the Dreyfus affair, the Białystok pogrom and the story of Anne Frank —, extended interludes in the main theme of the poem, lending the movement the dramatic structure and theatrical imagery of opera while resorting to graphic illustration and vivid word painting. For instance, the mocking of the imprisoned Dreyfus by poking umbrellas at him through the prison bars may be in an accentuated pair of eighth notes in the brass, with the build-up of menace in the Anne Frank episode, culminating in the musical image of the breaking down of the door to the Franks' hiding place, which underlines the hunting down of that family. The Russian people are not the anti-Semites, they are "internationals", and the music is briefly hymn-like before dissolving into the cacophony of those who falsely claim to be working for the people.
- Humour: Allegretto (8–9 minutes)
- Shostakovich quotes his setting of the Robert Burns poem "MacPherson Before His Execution" to colour Yevtushenko's imagery of the spirit of mockery, endlessly murdered and endlessly resurrected, denouncing the vain attempts of tyrants to shackle wit. The movement is a Mahlerian gesture of mocking burlesque, not simply light or humorous but witty, satirical and parodistic. The irrepressible energy of the music illustrates that, just as with courage and folly, humor, even in the form of "laughing in the face of the gallows" is both irrepressible and eternal (a concept, incidentally, also present in the Burns poem). He also quotes a melody of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion by Bartók ironically, as response for the criticism toward his Symphony no. 7.
- In the Store: Adagio (10–13 minutes)
- This movement is about the hardship of Soviet women queueing in a shop. It is also a tribute to patient endurance. This arouses Shostakovich's compassion no less than racial prejudice and gratuitous violence. Written in the form of a lament, the chorus departs from its unison line in the music's two concluding harmonized chords for the only time in the entire symphony, ending on a plagal cadence functioning much the same as a liturgical amen.
- Fears: Largo (11–13 minutes)
- This movement touches on the subject of suppression in the Soviet Union and is the most elaborate musically of the symphony's five movements, using a variety of musical ideas to stress its message, from an angry march to alternating soft and violent episodes. Notable here are the orchestral effects — the tuba, for instance, hearkening back to the "midnight arrest" section of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony — containing some of the composer's most adventurous instrumental touches since his Modernist period. It also foresees some of Shostakovich's later practices, such as an 11-note tone row played by the tuba as an opening motif. Harmonic ambiguity instills a deep sense of unease as the chorus intones the first lines of the poem: "Fears are dying-out in Russia." ("Умирают в России страхи.") Shostakovich breaks this mood only in response to Yevtushenko's agitprop lines, "We weren't afraid/of construction work in blizzards/or of going into battle under shell-fire," ("Не боялись мы строить в метели, / уходить под снарядами в бой,) parodying the Soviet marching song Smelo tovarishchi v nogu ("Bravely, comrades, march to step").
- Career: Allegretto (11–13 minutes)
- While this movement opens with a pastoral duet by flutes over a B♭ pedal bass, giving the musical effect of sunshine after a storm, it is an ironic attack on bureaucrats, touching on cynical self-interest and robotic unanimity while also a tribute to genuine creativity. It follows in the vein of other satirical finales, especially the Eighth Symphony and the Fourth and Sixth String Quartets. The soloist comes onto equal terms with the chorus, with sarcastic commentary provided by the bassoon and other wind instruments, as well as rude squeaking from the trumpets. It also relies more than the other movements on purely orchestral passages as links between vocal statements.
The symphony calls for a bass soloist, bass chorus, and an orchestra consisting of 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling cor anglais), 3 clarinets, (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, castanets, whip, woodblocks, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, bells, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 harps (preferably doubled), celesta, piano, and strings.
Shostakovich's interest in Jewish subjects dates from 1943, when he orchestrated the opera Rothschild's Violin by Jewish composer Venyamin Fleishman. This work contained characteristics which would become typical of Shostakovich's Jewish idiom — the Phrygian mode with an augmented third and the Dorian mode with an augmented fourth; the iambic prime (a series of two notes on the same pitch in an iambic rhythm, with the first note of each phrase on an upbeat); and the standard accompaniments to Jewish klezmer music. After completing the opera, Shostakovich used this Jewish idiom in many works, such as his Second Piano Trio, the First Violin Concerto, the Fourth String Quartet, the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, the 24 Preludes and Fugues and the Four Monologues on Texts by Pushkin. The composition of these works coincided roughly with the virulent state-sanctioned anti-Semitism prevalent in Russia in those years, as part of the anti-Western campaign of Zhdanovshchina. Shostakovich was drawn to the intonations of Jewish folk music, explaining, "The distinguishing feature of Jewish music is the ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations. Why does a man strike up a jolly song? Because he is sad at heart."
In the 13th Symphony, Shostakovich dispensed with the Jewish idiom, as the text was perfectly clear without it.
Shostakovich reportedly told fellow composer Edison Denisov that he had always loathed anti-Semitism. He is also reported to have told musicologist Solomon Volkov, regarding the Babi Yar massacre and the state of Jews in the Soviet Union,
...It would be good if Jews could live peacefully and happily in Russia, where they were born. But we must never forget about the dangers of anti-Semitism and keep reminding others of it, because the infection is still alive and who knows if it will ever disappear.
That's why I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar"; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko's poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko's poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.
People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.
Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961 and, along with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in Novy Mir, happened during a surge of anti-Stalinist literature during the premiership of Nikita Khrushchev. Publishers began receiving more anti-Stalinist novels, short stories and memoirs. This fad soon faded.
The symphony was originally intended as a single-movement "vocal-symphonic poem." By the end of May, Shostakovich had found three additional poems by Yevtushenko, which caused him to expand the work into a multi-movement choral symphony by complementing Babi Yar's theme of Jewish suffering with Yevtushenko's verses about other Soviet abuses. Yevtushenko wrote the text for the 4th movement, "Fears," at the composer's request. The composer completed these four additional movements within six weeks, putting the final touches on the symphony on July 20, 1962, during a hospital stay. Discharged that day, he took the night train to Kyiv to show the score to bass Boris Gmiyirya, an artist he especially admired and wanted to sing the solo part in the work. From there he went to Leningrad to give the score to conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky.
Yevtushenko remembered, on hearing the composer play and sing the complete symphony for him,
... I was stunned, and first and foremost by his choice of such apparently disparate poems. It had never occurred to me that they could be united like that. In my book [The Wave of a Hand] I didn't put them next to each other. But here the jolly, youthful, anti-bureaucratic "career" and the poem "Humor," full of jaunty lines, were linked with the melancholy and graphic poem about tired Russian women queueing in a shop. Then came "Fears Are Dying in Russia." Shostakovich interpreted it in his own way, giving it a depth and insight that the poem lacked before.... In connecting all these poems like that, Shostakovich completely changed me as a poet.
Yevtushenko added, about the composer's setting of Babi Yar that "if I were to able to write music I would have written it exactly the way Shostakovich did.... His music made the poem greater, more meaningful and powerful. In a word, it became a much better poem."
By the time Shostakovich had completed the first movement on 27 March 1962, Yevtushenko was already being subjected to a campaign of criticism, as he was now considered a political liability. Khrushchev's agents engendered a campaign to discredit him, accusing the poet of placing the suffering of the Jewish people above that of the Russians. The intelligentsia called him a "boudoir poet" — in other words, a moralist. Shostakovich defended the poet in a letter dated 26 October 1965, to his pupil Boris Tishchenko:
As for what "moralising" poetry is, I didn't understand. Why, as you maintain, it isn't "among the best." Morality is the twin sister of conscience. And because Yevtushenko writes about conscience, God grant him all the very best. Every morning, instead of morning prayers, I reread - well, recite from memory - two poems from Yevtushenko, "Boots" and "A Career." "Boots" is conscience. "A Career" is morality. One should not be deprived of conscience. To lose conscience is to lose everything.
For the Party, performing critical texts at a public concert with symphonic backing had a potentially much greater impact than simply reading the same texts at home privately. It should be no surprise, then, that Khrushchev criticized it before the premiere, and threatened to stop its performance, Shostakovich reportedly claimed in Testimony,
Khrushchev didn't give a damn about the music in this instance, he was angered by Yevtushenko's poetry. But some fighters on the musical front really perked up. There, you see, Shostakovich has proved himself untrustworthy once more. Let's get him! And a disgusting poison campaign began. They tried to scare off everyone from Yevtushenko and me.
By mid-August 1962, singer Boris Gmyrya had withdrawn from the premiere under pressure from the local Party Committee; writing the composer, he claimed that, in view of the dubious text, he declined to perform the work. Conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky soon followed suit, though he excused himself for other than political reasons. Shostakovich then asked Kirill Kondrashin to conduct the work. Two singers were engaged, Victor Nechipailo to sing the premiere, and Vitaly Gromadsky in case a substitute were needed. Nechipailo was forced to drop out at the last minute (to cover at the Bolshoi Theatre for a singer who had been ordered to "get sick" in a performance of Verdi's Don Carlo, according to Vishnevskaya's autobiography "Galina: A Russian Story", page 278). Kondrashin was also asked to withdraw but refused. He was then put under pressure to drop the first movement.
Official interference continued throughout the day of the concert. Cameras originally slated to televise the piece were noisily dismantled. The entire choir threatened to walk out; a desperate speech by Yevtushenko was all that kept them from doing so. The premiere finally went ahead, the government box empty but the theatre otherwise packed. The symphony played to a tremendous ovation. Kondrashin remembered, "At the end of the first movement the audience started to applaud and shout hysterically. The atmosphere was tense enough as it was, and I waved at them to calm down. We started playing the second movement at once, so as not to put Shostakovich into an awkward position." Sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who was present, said, "It was major! There was a sense of something incredible happening. The interesting part was that when the symphony ended, there was no applause at first, just an unusually long pause—so long that I even thought that it might be some sort of conspiracy. But then the audience burst into wild applause with shouts of 'Bravo!'"
Kondrashin gave two performances of the Thirteenth Symphony; a third was scheduled for 15 January 1963. However, at the beginning of 1963 Yevtushenko reportedly published a second, now politically correct version of Babi Yar twice the length of the original. The length of the new version can be explained not only by changes in content but also by a noticeable difference in writing style. It might be possible that Yevtushenko intentionally changed his style of narrative to make it clear that the modified version of the text is not something he initially intended. While Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay maintains that such a volume has yet to surface, the fact remains that Yevtushenko wrote new lines for the eight most offensive ones questioned by the authorities. The rest of the poem is as strongly aimed at the Soviet political authorities as those lines that were changed so the reasons for these changes were more precise. Not wanting to set the new version to music, yet knowing the original version faced little chance of performance, the composer agreed to the performance of the new version yet did not add those lines to the manuscript of the symphony.
Even with these changed lines, the symphony enjoyed relatively few performances — two with the revised text in Moscow in February 1963, one performance in Minsk (with the original text) shortly afterward, as well as Gorky, Leningrad and Novosibirsk. After these performances, the work was effectively banned in the Soviet bloc, the work's premiere in East Berlin occurring only because the local censor had forgotten to clear the performance with Moscow beforehand. Meanwhile, a copy of the score with the original text was smuggled to the West, where it was premiered and recorded in January 1970 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.
Second to the "Babi Yar" movement, "Fears" was the most viciously attacked of the movements by the bureaucrats. To keep the symphony in performance, seven lines of the poem were altered, replacing references to imprisonment without trial, to neglect of the poor and to the fear experienced by artists.
Choral symphony or symphonic cantata?
Scored for baritone, male chorus and orchestra, the symphony could be argued to be a symphonic cantata or orchestral song cycle rather than a choral symphony. The music, while having a life and logic of its own, remains closely welded to the texts. The chorus, used consistently in unison, often creates the impression of a choral recitation, while the solo baritone's passages create a similar impression of "speech-song." However, Shostakovich provides a solid symphonic framework for the work - a strongly dramatic opening movement, a scherzo, two slow movements and a finale; fully justifying it as a symphony.
Influence of Mussorgsky
Shostakovich's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina and Songs and Dances of Death had an important bearing on the Thirteenth Symphony, as well as on Shostakovich's late work. Shostakovich wrote the greater part of his vocal music after his immersion in Mussorgsky's work, and his method of writing for the voice in small intervals, with much tonal repetition and attention to natural declamation, can be said to have been taken directly from Mussorgsky. Shostakovich is reported to have affirmed the older composer's influence, stating that "[w]orking with Mussorgsky clarifies something important for me in my own work... Something from Khovanshchina was transferred to the Thirteenth Symphony."
- Vitali Gromadsky, bass; Men of the Republican State and Gnessin Institute Choirs and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, recorded live during 2nd performance on December 20, 1962 (with original text), released 1993 by Russian Disc. Reissued 2014 by Praga Digital.
- Vitaly Gromadsky, bass; Moscow Philharmonic and Male Chorus; Kiril Kondrashin; recording of Sep 1965 (revised text version); Everest Records LP released Nov 1967; remastered to CD by Essential Classics 2011 Historic Recording reached 9 in Billboard USA Classical Chart. The liner notes of the LP state that the tapes were "smuggled" out of the Soviet Union.
- Artur Eisen, bass; Men of the Republican State Choir conducted by Alexander Yurlov and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin on Melodiya, recorded in 1965 or 1971 (revised text version) and released 1972.
- Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; Yevgeny Yevtushenko, reciter; Men of the New York Choral Arts and New York Philharmonic conducted by Kurt Masur on Teldec (live performance from 1993)
- Marius Rintzler, bass; Men of the Choir of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink on Decca Records, recorded 1984 (available on Spotify)
- Nicola Ghiuselev, bass; Men of the Choral Arts Society of Washington and National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich on Teldec
- Sergei Koptchak, bass; Nikikai Chorus Group and NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca Records (live performance)
- Sergei Aleksashkin, bass; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons on EMI Classics, recorded in 2005 (available on Spotify)
- Tom Krause (bass-baritone), Philadelphia Mendelssohn Club Male Chorus, Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. RCA SB6830, recorded January 1970.
- Alexander Vinogradov (bass), Huddersfield Choral Society, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos: 8.573218, recorded 2013
- Peter Mikuláš (bass), Slovak Philharmonic Chorus, Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ladislav Slovák. Naxos: 8.550630, recorded 1990
- Nikita Storojev, bass; Men of the CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Choir, University of Warwick Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu. Chandos 8540 (LP ABRD 1248), recorded January 1987.
- Anatoli Safiulin, bass; Male Chorus of the Yurlov State Academic Russian Chorus and USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra - State Symphony Capella of Russia conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky.
- Dimiter Petkov, bass; London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn. EMI Classics, recorded in 1980.
- Michael Sanderling, Dresdner Philharmonic, 2019 (available on Spotify)
- Eliahu Inbal, Vienna Philharmonic, Robert Holl. Denon (available on Spotify)
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