Friday, January 22, 2010

I’m not a trained musicological professional but…

Let’s call this post sort of a review.

I fell in love with a piece of music for the first time my junior year of college. Sure, I’d listened to songs incessantly before, pop shaping and pinning down the tiniest details of my life. Hum “I am a Rock” and I taste 10th-grade January air; play anything from The Shins or Iron & Wine on your café soundtrack and you’ll transport me back to daydreaming in Willets Underground. But classical music (Am I allowed to call it that as a blanket term, guys? If the piece I’m going to talk about is from the 20th century?)... That’s a different story. While there are pieces I grew up with—New World Symphony, lots of Beethoven, the strains framing Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery—I never had a symphony that was mine.

Then one fall day I followed some friends to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening concert. I don’t remember the company (could’ve been anyone—you’re all musicians, dear friends, aren’t you?) or the other piece on the program. But there was Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. And there I was. A piece of music never gripped me so viscerally before. From the ominous opening to the—seems to me—perfectly wistful melody at the end of the first movement; from the long beautiful largo to the crazy finale march, everything about the symphony made me want to know more. Not that I thought it could tell me a story, or that I could presume to analyze its chords and learn something about 20th-century composition. I just wanted to know every note of that thing, to have it live within me.

And so it has. I feel confident asserting that I am the world’s most opinionated Shostakovich 5 non-musical-scholar. Let’s talk recordings, for instance. I downloaded and fell for an unlabeled version of the symphony. When my ipod broke and the file’s anonymity meant I couldn’t get it back, I was really upset. Just ask anyone in the music library at the time. So I listened to a variety of other recordings until I found out which one was mine. In the meantime, I had plenty of opinions about some of the unchosen few…like the Bernstein recording I acquired, with its slow and thunderingly menacing conclusion. Argh. Thanks to musicological M— I now know a lot about the historical context of the piece. It’s pretty basic knowledge that Shostakovich wrote it in a time of Soviet censorship and oppression. People have argued that the ending is a positive, triumphal vindication of the principles of communism. They’ve said that Shostakovich was a secret dissident—listen to the menacing sound of those final bars. Dance, damn you! Or we’ll kill you. I don’t know which of these is true. What speaks to me is the uncertainty itself. I’m fascinated by moments when two realities seem to exist at the same time. My recording of choice sticks with me because of the way it brings out this ambiguity. There are moments when everything is ready to come crashing down; there are moments when it seems like a note of victory lances through the oppression and promises to get us all where we need to be. Anything could happen.

And so I’ve made Shostakovich 5 a fiber of my being. I’ve listened to it while reading Kafka in the Science Center and on my way to a fancy dinner. I’ve listened to it as I thought my heart was about to break for one reason or another and while sitting on a swing outside my dormitory on a cool sparkling spring night. I’ve listened to it in the morning, disembarking from a train—watch how the bright station is suddenly rendered sinister—and at night drifting off to sleep. (“Yeah, nice bedtime music, if you want to dream about someone eating your babies!” quoth my roommate at the time.) I’ve walked through the city and through the woods with it. If I grow to love another piece of music even half so well (and I might have—more suggestions always welcome!), I will be lucky indeed.


  1. :)

    I don't understand how you can listen to anything that energetic (whether the energy is sinister or not) and then go to sleep.

    for that day when you tire of ambiguity and just want an accordion ensemble and a dude with a megaphone shouting speeches by Lenin:

  2. Oh man, some day that day will come and I will now be prepared! Thanks.

  3. mb, thanks! I am a huge sucker for Prokofiev, and that piece sounds AMAZING.

  4. Maybe that day will come soon. Seconded that the piece sounds awesome.

    Hm, I should put in more of a plug for recs since my birthday's coming up and I anticipate acquiring the means to procure some more music...

  5. Warning: long comment ahead! First off, Harmonielehre is good and all (it is extraordinarily good!) but IMO the Violin Concerto is Adams' straight-up masterpiece. Also, Gnarly Buttons.

    It's funny how our favorite songs tend to get stuck in time, inexorably linked with the memory of place and emotion, taking on the characteristics of our minds at the time we first started listening to them. (Especially when that process is helped along by listening to the piece a zillion times in a row...)

    I've definitely found this to be more true of pop songs than classical- I think it mostly has to do with the fact that pop songs have lyrics which serve as another "hook" to latch meaning onto, whereas most of the classical I listen to (at least) is instrumental, which encourages a more purely-musical appreciation of things. In addition, pop songs are short, so you can listen to them ten times in a row before you're done with that symphony once. Or obsessively listen to them fifty times in a row, if you're so inclined.

    Which I, erm, may or may not (I admit nothing!) have done wrt "I Am A Rock" during tenth grade as well...

    But even classical can (and has!) left some of these indelible markers- I hear just a bit of Sibelus's 2nd symphony, and it's like I'm back taking insomniac walks among the mansions in Ardmore by night, cataloging orchestra broadcasts by day. Or Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony, where the late-night walks were in the Crum woods instead. Or... wait, do they *all* involve late-night walks?

    Anyway. If you like Shosty 5, you'll love Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (if you don't already, of course). I'm partial to Fritz Reiner's recording, which is supposed to be the gold standard. That's my recommendation- if you want more, just ask and I'll be glad to keep blabbering on about music...