It’s been a month full of getting used to a new fulltime job and having no time for much of anything else but eating and sleeping. I’d forgotten how demanding the adjustment process can be. So, I apologize for my silence, and I hope that will change and I’ll get back to my usual once a week posting schedule in the not too distant future.
But today, I was listening to a performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was written in 1953 in a white heat following Joseph Stalin’s death in the spring. It’s big classical music, i.e. the kind of classical music firmly and sublimely evolving out of big emotion and experience.
Shostakovich had a precarious relationship with Stalin’s regime. He fell out of favor with it when he composed an opera Stalin didn’t like. He regained some favor with his Fifth Symphony, and then enjoyed a great reception for his Seventh Symphony. But when everyone, including Stalin, expected a big, triumphant symphony to mark the end of World War II, Shostakovich gave them a light, quick Symphony No. 9 with a bit of a nose-thumbing attitude to it. And since his opera’s premiere, Shostakovich had been living in fear of that knock at the door late at night from the KGB coming to haul him off to prison. He was denounced at one point, including by his children at their school. So, there was no love for Stalin and his regime in Shostakovich. His Tenth Symphony reveals his experience and his emotion regarding Stalin — the extremely difficult Scherzo is famous as a possible musical portrait of the dictator — and the final movement is a personal statement of victory. Shostakovich had already used his signature D – S – C – H (the notes D, E flat, C, B following the German spelling of his name) in his Eighth String Quartet and Eighth Symphony. In his Tenth Symphony, it becomes a loud, victorious statement of Shostakovich as an individual who has survived. A thrilling symphony to listen to whether recorded or in concert.
And as I listened to this symphony, I began to think about big music, big literature, big art — the creative expression of artists in the throes of big emotion or big experience. It is the kind of music accessible to everyone no matter what their experience with classical music may be. It is the kind of music we associate with earlier times, not today. Why is that? Why aren’t composers writing big music today? And what about big literature? Are writers grounding their creative expression in human emotion and experience or merely in curiosity?
When I listen to classical music, I want the emotion. It validates my humanity. And that’s what art needs to do whether in music, literature, painting, theater or other creative expression. When we experience the art, we experience our humanity by the art bringing us closer to it through emotion. I know that in classical music, what I’ve been hearing the last few years has been an over abundance of interesting sounds but nothing that even comes close to big classical music. And contemporary composers wonder why people don’t want to hear their music again!
Shostakovich composed his music living under a political and social system that oppressed people, oppressed creativity, oppressed free expression of all kinds. He was not free, but he still composed music that endures to this day and will probably continue to endure. Beethoven lived under a monarchy, in an empire, where the aristocracy patronized the arts. His struggles were more personal, and yet his music is full of emotion and humanity. Artists need to recognize and confront what it means to be human, what being alive means.
The literature that I love is literature that reveals humanity in all its glorious colors, follies, struggles, and emotion. The stories of people being human — strengths, weaknesses, flaws, struggles, triumphs. It is also the kind of literature that I do my best to write.