I’ve long had a thing for the Russian composers. If you look back across the Thirty-Three Project list you’ll see three of them, but no Bach, no Mozart. I don’t know where my fascination comes from— though in this case it’s quite clear. I discovered Dimitri Shostakovich thanks to William K. Vollman and his Europe Central which fictionalizes the life of the composer with exquisite and haunting beauty. (Read more about Europe Central here.) For this reason, I cannot separate these notes from the words that describe Shostakovich’s life in Leningrad and later, in Moscow.
Opus 40, the Seventh Symphony, and Opus 110 are the three acts (three movements) into which Vollman divides Shostakovich’s life so those are the three works I’ve listened to the most intently. Op. 40 with its almost optimistic tones just barely tinged with the hints of despair to come. The Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony with its earworm of a “rat theme” and percussion like siege guns. And finally Opus 110, which I listened to as I read its chapter and cried and cried and cried.
In the chapter, Vollman quotes the dissident Solzhenitzyn in calling Shostakovich “a genius in chains” as his work was constantly previewed an reviewed and judged by the Soviet State. And yet he kept composing. What incredible music.
Here’s a playlist of the three pieces together.