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What Are You Listening To Right Now?

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Dimitri Shostakovich had one of the most dangerous careers of any classical composer. He happened to be in the generation of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and instead of fleeing the country as many more established musicians did he remained behind and had to work for the Communists, writing propaganda pieces for them because it was the only work he could get. Undeniable talent hardly meant safety in Stalin's Russia -- quite the opposite in fact, because the regime viewed practically anything as threatening. Shostakovich was given many propagandistic commissions and played his part well, but the ever-changing whims of the authorities put him in censorship trouble -- and frequently made him fear for his life and that of his family.

 

Take, for example, a recent discovery I made on Rhapsody -- The Golden Age. From his early career in the 1920s, this is a comedic ballet about what happens when a Soviet soccer team visits the West. Evil industrialists (and in Communist writing all industrialists are evil by definition) abuse, threaten, manipulate and finally imprison the heroes, only to be overthrown by the inevitable Worker's Revolution. Unfortunately for Shotakovich, you had to have your sense of humor surgically removed to work in the Soviet cultural bureaucracy. The ballet was a considerable success until the authorities closed it down after 16 performances.

 

the full ballet has not been performed since, but Shotakovich's complete score survives and has been recorded by a Scottish orchestra. The music is humorous, provocative and cheeky. There is a lovely bit of satire when Shostakovich uses the then-popular Broadway hit "Tea for Two" as a symbol for the banality of American popular culture. the Soviets didn't care about American copyright laws for the better part of the Soviet era.

 

The story has a somewhat happy ending. even with all his troubles, Shostakovich outlived Stalin for a good twenty years and was even welcomed into the good graces of the Party in the later part of his life. He and Sergei Prokofiev (who died the same day as Stalin) are the two principal Soviet-era composers whose work survives in the repertoire regardless of politics. Today he is appreciated for his emotional sweep and sense of drama -- even though his attempts at drama rarely ended well for him personally (The opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was another work that drew the ire of censors, and is now considered one of his masterpieces).

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Bruce Springsteen performing Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land", and only Bruce would choose to cast that song into a minor key. The performance by the Weavers, made 30 or 40 years earlier, is unabashedly upbeat in a major key.

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