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Shostakovich Studies

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Shostakovich Studies

Putting my musicologist hat on, I can trace my interest in Dmitri Shostakovich in several stages. Long, long ago I heard a Shostakovich symphony on CBC radio one morning and thought it was pretty good and started wondering why he was never mentioned in my undergraduate classes. Then I heard the Piano Trio No. 2 with its eerie harmonics in the cello at the beginning in a summer chamber music concert. But the real involvement came as a result of a graduate seminar in the symphonies when I went back to school as a PhD candidate in musicology. Back then the professor lamented that the study of Shostakovich was in its very early and rudimentary stages as archival work in Russia had yet to be done and there were virtually no published studies of the works. In fact, just about all we had access to, other than the complete Soviet edition of the works, were the Musical Times articles that accompanied the London premieres of the symphonies. So we worked our way through the symphonies doing what little research we could. I came away from that class with a profound appreciation of the music of Shostakovich and in subsequent years acquainted myself with his remarkable sequence of string quartets, his piano music, and some of his vocal music. Oh, and some concertos as well, particularly those for violin, cello and piano. I'm still mostly unaware of his operas and film music.

Right around the time of my seminar, in the mid 90s, the first book of Shostakovich Studies was published by Cambridge University Press containing a superb paper on the Symphony No. 5 by Richard Taruskin, some interesting ones on Russian modes and other preliminary research. I don't think we were aware of it at the time as reviews and the library acquisition lagged a couple of years.

This excellent collection was followed by an excellent biography by Laurel Fay and other secondary materials. But the original archival research was still mostly missing due to a gulf between Russian musicology and the English speaking world.

But there is a newer collection, published in paperback in 2016 from Cambridge University Press: Shostakovich Studies 2, that goes quite a ways to improving our knowledge of Shostakovich with several archival studies as well as a lot more analysis, interpretation and context. I just got my copy and am reading it avidly. So you will likely find me delving into it in future posts.

One of the excellent papers in this new collection has to do with the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin on parody and irony and the way this could be used to examine Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14, a challenging one to interpret. Here is Valery Gergiev conducting the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. The opening movement will haunt you down to your toes. This performance was just posted to YouTube less than a month ago.

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