In 1967 Dmitri Shostakovich wrote to a friend with characteristic understatement: "Two days ago I sent you a little present of my Collected Songs. Naturally there are some rather weak ones among them, but there are also some that are by and large successful." In fact, Shostakovich was a masterly song composer and contributed to the genre throughout his life. And the songs, perhaps even more than his instrumental works, offer fascinating glimpses into what made Soviet Russia's foremost composer tick.
Hearing the songs for the first time, one is struck by the literary breadth of the texts Shostakovich selected and by the variety of aesthetic approaches the songs take. A voracious, rapid reader with a great capacity for retention, Shostakovich turned to texts by Russian authors, by Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and even Michelangelo, as well as texts from Japanese, Greek, Spanish, and Jewish sources.
The opportunity to hear in three consecutive evenings these astonishing songs is a rare treat indeed, and Carnegie Hall audiences will be delighted with A Singular Voice: The Songs of Shostakovich, presented from November 10 to 12 in the intimate Weill Recital Hall. Performing will be members of the Mariinsky Academy of Young Singers — Russia's premier assemblage of budding vocal talent — with its director, Larissa Gergieva, at the piano. Each concert will be prefaced by a talk from Marina Frolova-Walker of Cambridge University, with the added bonus on Saturday, November 11, of Discovery Day: The Songs of Shostakovich, an exploration of the political and cultural influences on the composer, featuring today's top Shostakovich scholars, as well as dramatic readings of correspondence and reminiscences, a screening of A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich, and a lecture-demonstration with musical selections from the three concert programs.
Among the many riches to be heard will be the cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, which, with its catchy melodic idiom drawing on actual folk songs, would seem to comport nicely with the Soviet dictum that all art be simple and readily comprehensible. Yet, soon after the set was composed in 1949, Stalin embarked on a vicious program of anti-Semitism that immediately rendered From Jewish Folk Poetry — a work motivated by Shostakovich's firm opposition to anti-Semitism — politically taboo. Just to hear the song "Winter" from that cycle, for instance, with its wailing vocal line, is to understand how deeply Shostakovich felt about oppression.
George Loomis writes frequently about the arts.