Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Month of Music, Day 11

“I have no idea why these two pieces seem to be linked, but there it is. Whenever I hear the Barber violin concerto, I think about the Shostakovich piano concerto number 2. Which, by the way, Shostakovich later said ‘had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.’”

“Well, shouldn’t he know?” said Lady. “After all, he is the composer. So if he says the work has nothing going for it, well, why play it?”

“Because everybody loves it,” I told her. “Especially the slow movement, which is so gorgeous it’s suspicious.”

“Suspicious,” she said, “why ever so?”

“Oh, it’s the snobbery of classical music,” I told her. “You know, there’s the famous thing about taste in music and in wine being essentially the same. Meaning that the less about either, the sweeter you like it. Anyway, Shostakovich had been writing movie music, and it definitely shows. In fact, you really want to make a movie just to use the score….”

“Isn’t this the piece he wrote for his son?”

“Yup, and it’s tender and sad. Not surprising, since Shostakovich had this little problem: he kept getting denounced….”


“Everything is—or was—political,” I told her. “So music had to serve the masses, which meant that it couldn’t stray to far into the abstract and the obscure. The first time he got denounced was for his opera Lady Macbeth; the composer had to sit through the whole evening and watch Stalin grimace, shudder, and finally laugh. At a love scene, of all things. Then he had to go take a bow, and people said he was white as a sheet. The next day Pravda came out with the famous headline, ‘Muddle instead of Music,’ and that put Shostakovich firmly into the doghouse.”

“Dear me….”

“Yes, and then the Great Terror began, and everybody including his mother-in-law got executed or sent to the camps. Then he crawled out of his hole and wrote his Fifth Symphony, which restored him to grace. But there was a second denunciation, and the public humiliation by Nabokov….”

“What? What did Nabokov do?”

“He showed up in New York City, where Shostakovich was representing the Soviet Union in some cultural conference. And the Soviets had just condemned Stravinsky, who is definitely a giant in 20th century composition, and whose music you won’t hear in this blog at all. Sorry—I know it’s low class, but I’ll take Rachmaninoff over Stravinsky any day. So Nabokov nailed Shostakovich by asking whether he supported the censure of Stravinsky and watched Shostakovich squirm. Horrible position, really, and Shostakovich couldn’t say anything except that he agreed with the censure. Nabokov said the obvious: Shostakovich was the musical lapdog of Joe Stalin—he put it better, but it was essentially the same—and Shostakovich never forgave Nabokov.”

“Why not just say….”

“Put it this way: at the nadir of his relations with the regime, Shostakovich was spending the night outside of his apartment, sitting next to the lift.”


“Well, when they came for him, he figured it would be better if he were there. Less bother to the family….”

“That’s incredible.”

“It is,” I told her. “Hard for us to imagine the fear and anxiety. In a way, it’s amazing that Shostakovich ever wrote anything but movie music. I’m not so sure I would have been so brave.”

“Did it ever get any better for him?”

“Don’t think so. In 1960, he joined the Communist Party, but no one really knows whether it was a career move, or bowing to pressure, or just his choice. Anyway, the last 15 years of his life were fairly miserable….”

“Actually, none of his life sounds particular wonderful,” said Lady.

“It probably wasn’t,” I said. “Apparently, he was obsessive-compulsive, and a guy named Meyer called his face ‘a bag of tics and grimaces.’ So it’s hard to imagine that he was ever a completely happy guy….”

“Sad,” said Lady. “Well, then, what’s up with Samuel Barber?”

“Another sorry tale,” I told her. “He achieved fame relatively early on, and his work is often wildly lyrical. Not surprising, since his aunt was Louise Homer, who was a famous contralto at the Met. Anyway, the violin concerto was written in Europe in 1939. Most of it, that is. But war broke out, and Barber had to leave and return to the states….”

“So is that why it’s such a melancholy piece?”

“It could be,” I told her. “It was an utterly awful time, the 30’s. And there is certainly the feeling that a way of life is ending. But there is also, to me, the feeling of a young man discovering love for the first time. And since Barber was gay, and in love with fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti, well, you have the feeling of a love that is wild and passionate, but also very much forbidden.”

“Was it?”

“It’s so hard to know,” I said. “Yes, it was. And Barber had been born into comfortable circumstances, and then found himself in New York and Philadelphia. And really, when you think of it, practically everyone in the classical music field was gay. Barber, Menotti, Copland, Bernstein, Hoiby. I have a couple of friends who were living in New York at the time, and who got invited up to Barber’s house, which he shared for many years with Menotti. Both my friends reported that the parties were pretty drug-fueled, and tended to turn into orgies.”

“Ah yes, gay men….”

“They can be fun,” I told her. “But only in small amounts and at a certain time of life. Otherwise, the whole affair becomes joyless. And joyless was a fairly good description of Barber’s life, at the end.”

“Why? Was he denounced too?”

“Actually, he was in a way. And like Shostakovich, it was an opera that brought him down. Anthony and Cleopatra, which he wrote to open the new Metropolitan Opera House, and which was severely panned.”

“Was it that bad?”

“Probably not, though people try to revive it, periodically, and it always seems to get the same reviews. Flashes of great music, write the critics, which mean pages of not-so-great music. Anyway, the real problem seems to be that the director was Zefferelli, and he went nuts (as he often did). So it was completely overblown, and the sets were so heavy that they broke the stage. Nor did it help that Leontyne Price—who was at the top of her career—got trapped inside a pyramid, of all things. So there she was, poor dear, knocking around in the pyramid and trying to get out….”

“No, Marc….”

“Yup, and I think they had to bring down the curtain, and attack the thing with crowbars. Or maybe not. Anyway, The New York Times came out and said it was ‘a hair-curlingly awful production. … The night has gone down in the annals of opera as a landmark of vulgarity and staging excess. Mr. Barber’s score, as we discovered from subsequent exposure to revised excerpts in concert and on records, was to a great extent an innocent victim of the over-all fiasco"       


“Yes, the virtues of obscurity—is it better to be ignored or slammed?”

“Well, there is a third option,” said Lady. “But I presume that there was some licking of the wound to do.”

“Worse than that: Barber started to hit the bottle, and even though he puttered around with the score, it never quite got off the ground. Sad. He died at the comparatively early age of 70, and was buried in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Sort of sad, that….”

“Why so?”

“Well, it’s almost as if he never quite escaped. He could go to Europe, he could live with Menotti in upstate New York, but in death, he was still dragged back to his roots. You know, one of Barber’s best-known works is Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which is this tremendously lyrical and poignant piece of music and poetry. You know, it’s the world of childhood and small town America. But also tinged with the death of a father. Which is a good enough metaphor for what Barber have felt, growing up in his comfortable but conservative small town.”

“Do we know that?”

“Of course we don’t. Sadly, we have to imagine a lot. And you know, it’s very likely that being gay was not the only thing going on with Barber. In fact, Menotti says that Barber’s family welcomed him, but he soon saw that the proper exterior covered a lot of ‘terrible things.’ Among which he listed alcoholism and incest….”

“Time for another ‘ooops.’”

“Sadly, it does tend to be a package deal. Anyway, Barber was probably by nature morose and repressed—wouldn’t you be?—and adding being gay didn’t help. There is something about respectability, isn’t there?”

“Well, well—two sad men,” said Lady. “A shame, since they were obviously gifted. Although I sometimes think that happiness is of no great use to an artist.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Barber apparently never had to work: he just composed. Granted, he probably made money from his compositions, but there’s always the feeling that he had a nice nest egg, somewhere. And what a boon! He never had to teach in a conservatory, or write movie music. No—he was luckier in some ways than Shostakovich. But both men, I think, had demons aplenty, and suffered in their various ways. Hard to know which is worse, the internal or the external demons. Though both men had both sorts….”

“Well, maybe it’s the old question: are you better off being a race horse or a plow horse?”

“On that, I have no information. I can tell you, however, that it’s a special corner of Hell…”


“…to be a race horse put to work as a plow horse!”