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Nelsons, the Boston Symphony, and Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar”

Andris Nelsons
Marco Borggreve

Saturday, May 6, 2023
8:00 PM

Encore broadcast on Monday, May 15

In the final program of the 2022-2023 season, the Boston Symphony and Music Director Andris Nelsons traverse the devastating landscape of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar, and Augustin Hadelich is the soloist in Britten’s deeply emotional Violin Concerto.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Augustin Hadelich, violin
Matthias Goerne, bass-baritone
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Burton, conductor
New England Conservatory Symphonic Choir, Erica J. Washburn, conductor

BRITTEN Violin Concerto
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar

BSO program notes

Read translations of the texts sung in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 (courtesy of BSO Archives)

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Hear an interview with The Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler about Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 – which Eichler recently wrote an article about, and which plays a central role in his forthcoming book Time's Echo – use the player above, and read the transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT (edited for clarity):

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at WCRB with Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe. Jeremy, thank you for coming to the studio today. I appreciate it.

Jeremy Eichler Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian McCreath You recently wrote an article in The Boston Globe about Shostakovich's 13th Symphony and some of the resonances of the performance the Boston Symphony is about to do with the premiere performance of the piece. We won't get into all those details just right now, but you mention the book that you've been researching and writing for some time now, Time's Echo, a book about music and memory, the way that music can memorialize particular memories in a way that seemingly nothing else really can. I wonder if you can flesh that out a little bit more and describe what it is in you want to communicate to your readers in Time's Echo.

Jeremy Eichler I think in some level we all understand that music is such an evocative medium. You think about being in the car and a song comes on the radio and you're instantly transported to your childhood. So, we know that music can be a powerful medium of memory, but its ability to memorialize these tragedies in the past is also something quite profound. And in the book, I try to think a lot about this question of how music is different from other mediums of memory, like, for example, memorials in music versus memorials in stone.

Brian McCreath And the way that that plays out is through a series of specific pieces. And each individual piece that you feature through the book takes us deeper and deeper into that approach to memory and memorial. Shostakovich's 13th Symphony plays a key role in this book because of what it is literally memorializing. It's one of the most horrific massacres of World War II, when the Jewish population of Kyiv was marched out by Nazis to a ravine. And I think the term is the machine gun holocaust. Is that the right —

Jeremy Eichler The Holocaust by bullets.

Brian McCreath The Holocaust by bullets, yes, which is a gruesome term even to speak of. And tens of thousands of people, mostly Jews, lost their lives in that horrible way. Then you describe in great detail what happened in the aftermath, as the Nazis first tried to obliterate the memory of those people. And then, as the Soviet Union moved in at the end of the war, they also tried to obliterate the memory. We get to the point in the early 1960s when Yevgeny Yevtushenko visits the area, ironically, after the failure of a dam that was supposed to somehow assist in the obliteration of this landscape.

He writes a poem that is remarkable in its power. We don't think of poetry having nearly that incendiary kind of power in our own culture today. Even those of us who love poetry have to say that it's rare that a poem has that kind of power. What does the fact that Yevtushenko's poem became such a powerful force in the Soviet Union say about the Soviet Union at that time?

Jeremy Eichler In that culture, which I come to, obviously, as a student, not with any direct family ties, but from everything I've been able to read and put together, you really have a sense of a culture where these performing arts and these literary arts, poetry, music, and aspects of visual culture came to take on this kind of enormous power.

I often come back to something that the critic Lionel Trilling said, that if you ever want to understand the real power of art, all you have to do is look at how adamant and fiercely reactionary governments go about trying to silence that art and squelch that power. And I think you see that in the case of the poem that Yevtushenko published. On the one hand, it was snatched up by readers all across the country, with copies flying off the newsstands. On the other hand, the official reaction and the censure was very harsh and swift. And then, of course, the setting that Shostakovich makes for his 13th Symphony is also subjected to a lot of pressure. And the authorities very much do not want this premiere to proceed.

Brian McCreath And what I love in how you describe this in Time's Echo is the way that Shostakovich calls up Yevtushenko. They've never met before, and he asks for permission to set the poetry to music. Yevtushenko says, "Yes, you may set it to music." And Shostakovich says, "Well, that's great, because I already have. Can you come here right now?"

Jeremy Eichler Yeah, that's a great moment.

Brian McCreath So Yevtushenko and Shostakovich become artistic allies through this process. And as you alluded to, the creation of the 13th Symphony becomes another point of contention in a long line of these points of contention in Shostakovich's life. He was constantly getting himself into trouble with the authorities and then somehow writing music of more acceptable nature to get himself back in their good graces. So, I think that what I'm curious about is the place of this symphony in Shostakovich's life at the time. From your research, what you've read, and the people you've talked to, what was it about Yevtushenko's poem that compelled Shostakovich to set it to music?

Jeremy Eichler Shostakovich, from 1944 onward, had occasionally used Jewish themes in his music. And he was not Jewish, but he clearly had a sympathy for the Russian Jewish and Soviet Jewish experience. And one of his closest friends, a composer named Moisei Weinberg, was Jewish. And I think Shostakovich had insight into the kind of suffering that Russian and Soviet Jews had experienced.

And all of this is speculation to some extent from scholars as well, because he never really spelled it out. But this idea, I think, that Jewish music for him took on this kind of symbolic valence as a way of describing a more universal kind of suffering. He speaks of the kind of laughter through tears, and this way that Jewish music conveyed these expressive depths that he seemed to identify with.

One thing that doesn't get mentioned very often in the context of the history of this symphony is that Shostakovich, just about a year prior to reading Yevtushenko's poem, had done something remarkable to the people who knew him well, which is that he had finally relented and agreed to join the Communist Party. He had resisted for many, many years, and many of his friends were left, frankly, flabbergasted because it seemed as if he had survived the worst of the pressure, and why would he relent now? But he writes to Yevtushenko, thanking him for allowing him to pay a debt to his own conscience, and to express, through Yevtushenko's words, all of these thoughts that he wanted to express about Soviet society.

And it's important to note here that the Babi Yar poem is just one of five Yevtushenko poems that stretch across the 13th Symphony. And taken as a group, it's really the most overtly critical statement he was ever able to make through his music, and the most particular in a way, because music can speak without words so powerfully. But it also speaks abstractly. And the specificity of Yevtushenko's language allowed him to make these really pointed critiques of Soviet society in a way that he never had before.

Brian McCreath And the way that you describe that makes what appears to be a sort of adjacent fact of joining the Communist Party almost feel central. We don't know completely. As you say, Shostakovich never spelled out why he decided to set this poetry, but the alignment of these events in his life certainly can make us believe the possibility that whatever his reasons for joining the Communist Party, this symphony, in the wake of that, is somehow his own coming to terms.

Jeremy Eichler Right. And possibly, it cut both ways. You know, on the one hand, perhaps there was some aspect of a kind of guilty conscience. On the other hand, it's also possible that his newfound membership gave him a sense of security or stability in his public stature that allowed him to feel emboldened enough to make these kinds of comments.

I had the privilege of speaking about the symphony a little bit with Shostakovich's widow, Irina Shostakovich, who was his third wife and was very much on the scene at that time. And I was asking her a very similar question. What was the appeal, what was the attraction? Why did Shostakovich seize on this Yevtushenko text as soon as it was published and decide he wanted to make it the centerpiece of this major symphonic work? And she sort of turned the question on its head and essentially said, "How could he not?" It was such an important cultural statement and an ethical position he so firmly supported and so many people in their circles supported, that it seemed like the most natural thing that he would instantly seize upon this poem, as the rest of the country had, and give it the boldest treatment he could imagine.

Brian McCreath The experience of meeting Shostakovich's widow must have been extraordinary. What were her memories of the first performance of the piece? To give a little bit of context, it happened under really severe scrutiny by the Soviet authorities. They somehow knew they couldn't completely shut it down for whatever reasons, of appearance, I suppose, because Shostakovich was so famous. So, the performance happened, but it was downplayed by the Soviet authorities to such a great degree. What were her experiences of that time?

Jeremy Eichler At this point in the kind of evolution of Soviet cultural power, hard power and soft power, as it’s sometimes called, the regime did not want to be seen as summarily canceling the performance from above. But they were very much hoping that they could convince the performers themselves to cancel it. And they came up with all kinds of pressure tactics, including pressuring the bass soloist to withdraw, and pressuring the conductor and pressuring Shostakovich himself up until the day of the premiere to cancel it on all sorts of different grounds. They wanted this not to go forward. All of the different players to some degree resisted.

You know, we read about this era, and it might seem to people of certain generations as fairly distant history. I mean, the entire country we're speaking about is now in the dustbin of history. It no longer even exists.

And yet sitting across the table with someone like Irina Shostakovich, you come to realize how deeply it still resides, very much in this sense of living memory, in relating the events of that day, and in particular the pressure campaign that was exerted on her husband just hours before the performance. She still became very emotional in describing it and retrieving these memories. It was clear that the day still existed in this very, very personal and powerful place for her.

To me, speaking with her and with another performer who had been in the Boston Symphony for many years, Slava [Vyacheslav] Uritsky, who participated in the premiere of the 13th, what really came across more than anything was this sense of the power of music in that time and place, just this idea that the state would take such an interest in the goings on of a symphony orchestra, that the whole nation's attention, that the whole government's focus would zero in on whether this concert could go forward. It requires some power of imagination for many of us who grew up far away to appreciate the context.

But visitors from that time, from the outside, who looked in at Soviet musical culture came back with these reports of just being astonished by how deeply not just the government, but the people, cared. You have these reports from visitors witnessing these ovations that were given for Shostakovich after his premieres, and one Western writer said it was like nothing he had ever encountered in the West, and that clearly this was a deeply felt appreciation from Shostakovich's public, not only for his artistry, but for everything that he represented. It was an appreciation for him as this fellow sufferer and as a cherished life companion as he was giving voice to this lived experience that they could not give voice to, either because they lacked the words themselves or because those words were forbidden.

Brian McCreath I'm so glad you mentioned Slava Uritsky, who was a member of the Boston Symphony for many, many years, but who participated in the premieres of not only the 13th Symphony, but also the 4th Symphony. It sounds like, in your conversation with him, he had a sense while sitting in the violin section of the historic import of these times. Is that the sense you got from him?

Jeremy Eichler Yes, I did. He had reports of how, in Moscow, all the musicians knew each other, at least by face. But suddenly, on the day of the premiere, there were all of these strange faces in the hall, these men in rumpled suits who looked like they had slept the night in the hall. And you get this sense that they were in the center of this fishbowl, and all of a sudden, there's this kind of enormous interest and enormous pressure exerted on the premiere.

And he, of course, shared the story as well – which has been reported from many other folks who participated – about the original bass soloist withdrawing at the 11th hour, and this incredible moment of suspense because there was an understudy who had prepared the part, but nobody knew how to reach him. He had already been told he wouldn't be performing. He lived far from the city. He did not have a phone, and nobody knew if there was going to be any way to reach him. Suddenly he just shows up at the hall, seemingly thinking he was going to watch the dress rehearsal. And of course, they pressed him right into service and he performed the world premiere.

Brian McCreath That must have been extraordinary to hear this as a first-hand account.

Jeremy Eichler Yes, absolutely. It really was.

Brian McCreath Another firsthand experience that you had, though, in researching Time's Echo, is your own trip to Kyiv and to Babyn Yar, the site of this horrific massacre that's memorialized in this piece of music. To be clear, it's before the aggressive Russian invasion that's going on now. This was even before COVID. But tell me about your experience, just being in that space and what memorialization there is or is not there, and what your own sense of the space is today, or at least at that time a few years ago.

Jeremy Eichler It was 2018 when I visited, and it was really a very remarkable visit on a lot of different levels. As I write in Time's Echo, the Soviet regime forbid any monuments to be built on the site for decades after the original massacre. There was eventually a single Soviet monument that was put up in the 1970s, but it did not acknowledge any of the specificity of what had happened at the site. And it drew a veil over the Jewish nature of the massacre, that the victims were Jews as opposed to just Soviet citizens. After the war, there was this pressure to collectivize the losses, and as the saying went at the time, not to “divide the dead.”

And so, the Jewish nature of that original massacre at Babi Yar was masked and not acknowledged at all by the regime. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, all of these memorials were suddenly permitted. And there was one, a prominent one put up that memorialized the Jewish losses at Babi Yar. There were many other memorials also put up for the murdered gypsies, the Roma at Babi Yar, the murdered priests, the murdered Ukrainian nationalists, the murdered children, and on and on.

So, in some levels today, you walk around and it's almost like a memorial sculpture park where, every minute or so, you come across another very powerful memorial. On the other hand, I really felt this legacy of this Soviet era, erasure of memory, in the sense that this space today really feels simultaneously like a memory scape and like a space of forgetting. I felt that in the sense that I saw many everyday Kyiv citizens just enjoying their time as if it were just an urban park. There were Frisbees being tossed amidst the memorials, dogs being walked, people sunbathing, all in this space that's supposed to be the Babyn Yar Memorial Preserve. And so in that sense of attention to memory and at the same time, a sense of pushing it to the side, I really felt of a piece with the complicated history of that place itself.

Brian McCreath The way you describe it makes it all the more important that Shostakovich's 13th Symphony exists as a memorial, because it sounds like the place itself will not communicate the ways that Shostakovich can through this music about what transpired there, what the aftermath was, everything about it. So, while those physical memorials may be, I don't know, maybe it sounds too trite, but a step in the right direction, the symphony remains perhaps the most important memorial to that time.

Jeremy Eichler Absolutely, a memorial to the massacre, but also a memorial to the erasure of memory and all the suffering that was caused by that act. In writing the book, I also came to think a lot about this whole question of what music can do as a medium of memory that other forms cannot, memorials in stone, memorials in verse, or in the visual arts. And one of the things I thought a lot about was sound as this kind of abstract medium that it can communicate so powerfully, and yet it's diffuse. It's not anchored to any one particular place. It can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

And some of those qualities I came to think make musical memorials, in a way, the ultimate medium for holding the memory of what we might call the placeless dead. You know, historians of war memory talk about what they call the missing grave syndrome. So, in these cases where, for example, during the Holocaust or other horrific moments in both of the two world wars, you have people dying and no grave being established, no place for family members to visit. It's almost like, for millennia, there's been this human impulse to somehow mark on the earth a placeholder of memory for an individual life, and to be able to visit that place. But what happens when there is no place to visit? In a lot of ways, I think music is the most powerful memorial, and in some sense, it has the deepest capacity in that it is a placeless art. It can, in that same sense, hold the memory of the placeless dead.

There is a tendency to think about music like this as really just a bridge back to these unspeakably tragic times. There's this heaviness, this sadness, this sense of trauma from the past carried forward. And all of those things are true. But what I came to think about in writing the book as well was that there is also a more hopeful and forward-looking aspect to the whole project of memorialization through music, or through any other medium. To create, to compose a memorial is also to think about which moments of the past need to be remembered and which values from the past we want to specifically affirm. And those things that are carried forward can then be built upon for the future.

So, one thing I write about in the book is how, in a sense, every memorial also points towards the future. In the case of Shostakovich's Babi Yar Symphony, I think it can also serve as a memorial to the courage of these artists to stand up and respond to the injustices that they saw in their own society, create these extraordinary works of art. And something of their own statements, their own protests, their own refusal to accept the injustice of their times has now also been preserved in this music and in these stories.

Brian McCreath That's beautifully said. Thank you, Jeremy.

Jeremy Eichler Thank you, Brian.