illustration by Avi Katz
The sniffles turned into sobs during the dissonant piccolo solo. The Israel Philharmonic was about four minutes into the first movement of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony and the weeping distracted me from the conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, who seemed not so much to be cuing the orchestra as to performing a long slow death dance.
The tears were coming from a little girl in a long-sleeved dress who was sitting two rows in front of me in the Jerusalem Convention Center’s high balcony. She looked to be about eleven years old and she held her hands tightly to her cheeks as she wept. Her shoulders heaved in a way that seemed to indicate that she was holding much more sorrow inside than she was letting out. But then the strings returned with a desperate restatement of the opening theme that descended a chromatic scale into a lower depth of agony. When the music dissolved completely into a virtual silence, she let out a very audible throaty gasp. The older couple sitting in front of her turned around to eye her. A boy in a black kipah who was sitting one seat away—apparently an older brother—sidled over beside her, gave her a smack on the back of her head, and whispered something angry in her ear.
“Good day, Dmitri Dmitryevich.”
When the phone first rang, the composer had removed his glasses begun to polish them obsessively. It rang again and he tried not to be at home. But Nina had said gently: “You must pick it up,” and signaled that she would listen in on the extension.
He cleared his throat and said: “Good day to you, Iosif Vissarionovich. What may I do for you and the Soviet state?”
“We would like to ask a favor,” the voice on the other end said. “I have been told that you have said that you are too ill to attend the world peace conference in New York. I was hoping that you might make a special effort, given the importance we attach, in the wake of the Great Patriotic War, to promoting anti-imperialism among the world’s artists, writers, and musicians. Just four years after the defeat of Germany a new fascism is rearing its ugly head and it is my feeling that your contribution to the struggle is essential.”
Dmitri closed his eyes.
“Comrade Stalin,” the composer said haltingly, “how may I speak for Soviet music in New York when so much of my own music is not being played in my own country?”
“What do you mean, isn’t being played. What isn’t being played?”
“Well, for example, my Sixth Symphony.”
“Oh that,” said Stalin. “Wouldn’t you agree that it is not one of your best? So cold and formal. Not at all music of the people. And that first movement theme. I believe some of the critics termed it ‘cosmopolitan.’”
Dmitri put on his glasses to look at Nina, who mouthed the word “Jewish.” He nodded.
Noseda’s arms swooped to the sky, his baton pointing straight up as if it were a straw through which he hoped to gain a breath of air. When an oboe entered with what seemed to be a reassuring variation on the theme, the conductor’s arms came slowly down to his sides. A solo flute flitted by like a songbird flying home to nest at dusk. I glanced at the girl. She was leaning slightly forward, her hands gripping the armrests of her chair as if, rather than comforted, she was anticipating a nightmare. Her brother glared at her and elbowed her in the side, but she did not respond.
A solo bassoon spoke for the night and then the strings came in again with the plaintive theme, softer and softer, as the conductor bent, then recoiled as if receiving a blow. His knees bent and he slowly contracted himself. The violins faded into darkness.
“The socialist revolution requires music that the workers can easily comprehend,” the dictator said. “It must express their feelings, simply and directly. I believe you are well aware of that. You have wisely criticized some of your own music for being too far removed from the people.”
“Of course, Iosif Vissarionovich,” said the composer. “Still, my Sixth Symphony.”
Nina, cradling her receiver against her shoulder, flourished with her right arm, as he himself did when he wanted the orchestra to offer more.
“My Sixth Symphony,” he said with a grimace that the phone could not convey, “expresses both the sorrow that the worker feels at temporary setbacks in battle and production, and the joy of accomplishment and victory.”
He heard papers being shuffled on the other end.
“Oh come now, Dmitri Dmitryevich. First consider its structure. You begin with a long slow movement, then add a scherzo and a finale. As if you mislaid your first movement somewhere. Every symphony worthy of its name beings with a stirring allegro that lightens the cares of the worker after a long day at the factory. The only exceptions I can think of are manifestly bourgeois works by the likes of Mahler and Schoenberg. Certainly you do not want to be in a class with such champions of the capitalist esthetic.”
“But Tchaikovsky …”
“But beyond that you build that entire slow movement around a four-note motive that includes only two tones. You are playing abstract games there, Dmitri Dmitryevich, not writing music. It has no authentic feeling at all.”
The boy was clearly embarrassed. During the brief pause between movements, the people sitting around him and his sister turned to stare. He tugged at the girl’s sleeve and dragged her out of their row and into the next one back, a section over, where there was a cluster of vacant seats. The girl sat down in her new seat obediently and turned her face toward the orchestra below. The second movement scherzo began with a snickering clarinet. Noseda perked up like Petrouchka coming to life and seemed to be pointing to sections of the orchestra not just with his hands but with his feet as well. The girl began moving her limbs in concert with the conductor’s. Her brother grabbed her right arm.
“The scherzo,” the composer said defensively, “was inspired by works of our great founding comrade, Lenin.”
“It has been said,” Stalin noted, “that the scherzo is insincere.”
“I can assure you,” Shostakovich said, “that I mean every note of it.”
“And the presto finale,” Stalin said. “It makes my skin itch, it’s so frenetic.”
Noseda leaped into the air. Literally leaped, as if this were the only way he could get the cellos’ attention. The music took off like a train going off its tracks.
“Elation,” the composer said. “It is elation. Victory. The victory of the socialist will.”
“Really?” said the dictator. “It sounds almost like a parody to me. It leaves me cold. No, not cold. Annoyed.”
“I defer of course to your superior insight, Iosif Vissarionovich.”
The girl suddenly clambered up on her seat and began conducting the orchestra herself. Her brother doggedly tried to get her down but she shoved him away, fixed only on the music.
“I know of no order banning the symphony,” said Stalin. “But I can understand why our orchestras might be reluctant to play it.”
“Thank you, Iosif Vissarionovich.”
“So you will make the trip to New York.”
Dmitri eyed Nina. She shrugged helplessly. Could he trust even her?
“I will be only too happy,” the composer sighed, “to be of service to the people.”
When the drums and trumpets came in for the final climax, the girl turned and looked straight at me. Then she leapt from her chair and bowed and beamed at the concertgoers around her. Her brother hid his face in his hands. She extended her hand to him and pulled him up beside her, shaking his arm with gusto. Noseda held out his hands and raised them triumphantly heavenward. The crowd applauded. “Bravo!” I shouted. “Bravo!”
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