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Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 14

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    "We don't have all the answers"

    With broad consensus at their disposal, modern secularists keep trying to tell us that they have something to say about death-- something more conclusive than Christianity. The collection of poems set to music in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 expresses this motive. Rather than offer philosophical demonstration, these cultural works are supposed to represent authoritative response-- perceptions without explanation. The slow pace and stifled passion of "Le Suicide" sets up a foil to the percussive and clever "On Watch," which is followed by the companion poem "Madam, look!" But what do these two poems by Guillaume Apollinaire have to offer? The standard dog-in-the-manger observation that war is always inglorious because conventional people believe otherwise. Shostakovich's symphonies cover the ground from heroism to elegy to satire. Symphony No. 1 provides all three, starting with cutesy-poo satire of the 1920s anti-romantic sort in the first two movements, then elegiac sorrow in the slow third and ending with some degree of heroism in the fourth. Symphony No. 14 is naturally elegiac, given its stated theme. "In the Santa Prison" is brilliantly ponderous. The eighth number "The Zaporozhian Cossacks' reply to the Sultan of Constantinople" is a nifty piece of invective. It reminds me of Edward Albee's uproarious verbal assault on his landlady in The American Dream or one of those plays. Rilke's "Death of the Poet" is too sophisticated for my taste. It expresses the sort of grief that verges on the inarticulate. But Shostakovich is such a brilliant composer that he can keep even sophistication from sounding foolish. The culture that dictated this symphony unites to confess that "We don't have all the answers"--which really means that it doesn't have any.

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