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"More music in this music"

The quote is from a 2002 BBC interview with Valery Gergiev introducing a performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. This one, I believe:


In the surrounding context, Gergiev says that we need to move beyond the ideological dimensions, evil, the Soviet empire, simple tragic drama, to an understanding of the music qua music. Because, damn it, this is such interesting music.

To this end, David Fanning has made a huge contribution in an essay in the new Shostakovich Studies 2 volume titled "Shostakovich and structural hearing." In his introduction to the first volume he briefly offered a kind of Schenkerian graph of the first movement of this symphony. In this essay he fleshes that out at length and offers the best analytical interpretation of this music I have seen. I have done a lot of poking around in Shostakovich's music, including a long series of posts on the string quartets, but never got much past the surface. Fanning makes a good argument for the possibility that the methods of Heinrich Schenker might be applicable. He calls his approach neo-Schenkerian because, as he says, "I believe that enough of Shostakovich's music is sufficiently grounded in the 'Bach to Brahms' tradition to justify the application of what is -- at least by more or less common consent in the West -- the most powerful theoretical tool for explaining such works in musical terms." [op. cit. p.78]

I have to confess that I managed to get through two and three-quarters music degrees (bachelor's, concert diploma and all the seminars for a doctorate in musicology) without ever encountering Schenker except in disparaging terms, so I probably need to examine his methods in some detail. But I notice one large challenge in adapting Schenker to Shostakovich: the basic harmonic structures are different. How different? Well, in this movement, the second theme, which should be in the dominant in traditional first-movement sonata form, is actually in the minor flat super-tonic: the movement is in D minor and the second theme is in E flat minor. This is very far away in the circle of fifths, but that's not how Shostakovich rolls. For him, this is a very near key (though far away in key signature terms). Here is how Fanning describes it:
The relationship of Eb minor to D minor, i.e. flat supertonic minor to tonic, five degrees flatwards on the circle of fifths, may not sound like anything as dramatically potent as an evocation of Russian operatic fatefulness; but neither is it something purely formalitst. Think of musical distance: Eb minor is so near to, and yet so far from, D minor. So near diastematically -- in terms of up or down (the term derives from the theory of medieval notation prior to the invention of the musical staff, where position on the page conveyed an approximate intervallic relationship) -- but so far functionally, in terms of the circle of fifths.

A distematic relationship is one of vertical distance. In fact, I have noticed this interesting phenomenon in my own composition where I see it as a voice-leading situation. You can get from almost any harmony to any other harmony if you can join them by step. Here is Fanning's graph of the structural bass line and modal structure of the first movement:

I apologize for the tiny notes. I rotated the image so that I could make it larger. As you can see, the structural bass line is D, Eb, F, D, Eb, D, E, D. All movement by step. As he says, this is a diastematic structure, not one based on the circle of fifths. He also has a lot to say about the motivic relationships and the use of modes. I like his description of F Phrygian as being "darker than minor." [p. 87]

In fact, he broadens the scope of his discussion to show how the symphonies from five through ten (excepting six) all share certain structural similarities. And then he goes on to discuss how and why the Symphony No. 6 does not. Really great stuff.

Every time I listen to Shostakovich I have the feeling that one of the things that makes this music great is the structural power of it--something shared with Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, of course.

Now let's listen to the newer recording of Gergiev with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater.



 



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