@RebelYellJSWGC: Arvo Pärt Deux: When Silence Shouts Loudest

@RebelYell’s last post concluded with Arvo Pärt’s 1968 expansion of Bach’s opening prelude to the Well-Tempered Clavier. Credo was a gesture as faith-filled as the church bound Bach before him, and yet still somehow presaged the movement of punk. To its original audience – the official atheists of occupying Soviet officials – Credo was like genuflecting with the force and effrontery of flipping the middle finger, and yet in its reconciling conclusion felt simultaneously – and certainly with post-Soviet hindsight and the Credo’s future use in tandem with other memorials to truth and reconciliation – forgiving.

Truly forgiving.

Forgiving before anyone asked for forgiveness.

 And isn’t that when forgiveness itself is an act of rebellion?

Therefore, because across the decades and in different contexts Pärt’s Credo retains its capacity to challenge and, alternatively, console us as we undertake that challenge, it is not just “classical” music, but classic, as in one of the attributes we identified at the outset of this blog as a prerequisite for any liturgical Rebel Yell.

But having genuflected the middle finger, where was Pärt to go from here?

Nowhere, as he must have known, for the Credo’s inaugural conductor had to withhold the text of Pärt’s composition (“I believe in Jesus Christ…”) from Soviet censors to prevent what would have been a certain cancellation of its premiere.

But did it matter that Pärt’s Credo left him nowhere to go?

As author Paul Elie concluded in his book, Re-Inventing Bach, “Pärt’s government commissions were withdrawn, and he went silent. But for Credo once was enough.”

By contrast, Dmitri Shostakovich – by far the better-known composer in his time and at that time, also working under the watchful eye of the Soviet state – once was not enough. He could not – would not – stop, and thereby subjected himself to the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, sometimes lauded as a hero, other times castigated as a pariah, and without always knowing why – an intentional tactic of totalitarians to instill paranoia in artists of merit, to prevent their full realization of the threat of celebrity, the power of a unified, thematic body of work to move the masses.

To be fair, the Estonian Arvo Pärt lived and worked in a Soviet satellite state, coming into his own as a composer during the years of Khrushchev and after; Shostakovich lived and worked in the geographic belly of the beast, the prime of his career coinciding with Stalin’s reign of terror.

So let’s not judge them as men – for few of us could measure up to the pressures either man suffered – but instead focus on the music.

Much is made of Shostakovich’s earlier compositions, trying to decipher whether they were paeans to or tweaks of the Stalinist regime, or both in alternation, this last whether in order to survive or in earnestly fluctuating feelings of patriotism for his homeland.

However, more telling in this case is to listen to the less attended music of Shostakovich toward the end of his career, that which is contemporaneous with Pärt’s Credo and subsequent silence:

  • October, symphonic poem in C minor for orchestra, which predates Credo by a year, bears a title referencing the Bolshevik revolution that brought the Soviet state into being. It is modern, it is classical, but I would not venture that it is classic by virtue of any of the attributes described above. Nor would I describe it as the Bach to which Pärt alluded, who was in a continual state of instructing and revolutionizing music to the end of his career, or Beethoven, wrestling against all (physical) odds with forces untried right up through his final symphony. No, this is a master composer weary with his work, but unable to stop composing, putting his talents to use for an overwrought, but what he knew was acceptable, subject. It is therefore, by definition, not a Rebel Yell. In contrast to Pärt’s Credo, which despite its derivation from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier became a Rebel Yell by virtue of its context and deviation, Shostakovich’s context makes October’s deference to revolution a humiliating emasculation of the artist. Any superficially rebellious qualities it may possess in terms of technique are null and void; its subject makes October feel even dated, a piece of mostly historical interest. Classical music, yes, but not classic.
  • March of the Soviet Police is the Shostakovich composition that most immediately postdates Pärt’s 1968 Credo. Just listen and contrast this with Shostakovich’s compositions before 1960, when debates over whether Shostakovich was an official or dissident Soviet composer somewhat ceased with his capitulation to joining the communist party – an act that ironically came after Stalin’s death and even that dictator's denunciation. It makes the Stalin-Khrushchev combination seem almost like a good cop-bad cop routine that wore the composer down, March of the Soviet Police and other compositions from this period the artistic equivalent of Shostakovich turning state’s evidence.
  • Then there is Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 – for soprano, bass, string orchestra and percussion – premiered in 1969, a year after Pärt’s Credo, and sandwiched between October and March of the Soviet Police. Of the three, this is Shostakovich’s most – and arguably only – personal work. However, in it we hear less rebellion than resignation: an artist ridden rough shod by politics to the point that, even if it not the proximal cause, his mental circumstances were certainly exacerbating a host of physical problems to which he would ultimately succumb. Hence his chosen subject – death – and its treatment.

Officially, Shostakovich wrote the following about his subject at the start of the symphony’s score:

“I want listeners to reflect upon my new symphony ... to realize that they must lead pure and fruitful lives for the glory of their Motherland, their people and the most progressive ideas motivating our socialist society. That is what I was thinking about as I wrote my new work. I want my listeners, as they leave the hall after hearing my symphony, to think that life is truly beautiful.”

However, the following is what Shostakovich is alleged to have written about this piece in his posthumously published artistic diary, Testimony:

“[My critics] read this idea in the Fourteenth Symphony: 'death is all-powerful.' They wanted the finale to be comforting, to say that death is only the beginning. But it's not a beginning, it's the real end, there will be nothing afterwards, nothing. I feel you must look truth right in the eyes ... To deny death and its power is useless. Deny it or not, you'll die anyway ... It's stupid to protest against death as such, but you can and must protest against violent death. It's bad when people die before their time from disease or poverty, but it's worse when a man is killed by another man.”

Shostakovich’s true sentiments may lie somewhere in between – just as his life was in between being able to claim a normal and a slow, tacitly torturous, and therefore nonetheless violent, death – but they were decidedly toward the more nihilistic end of that spectrum. On the one hand, writing about Symphony No. 14, author Alex Ross asserts in his book, The Rest is Noise, “this outwardly bleak work offers a kind of hope of life after death, in the form of an immortal solidarity between artists who transcend the stupidity of their time,” citing the text of the Küchelberger poem at the symphony’s core as his evidence. However, Ross also concedes that Shostakovich told his audience, in contrasting his 14th symphony with other composers’ more mystical (and hopeful) portrayals of death, “Death is in store for all of us, and I, for one, do not see anything good about the end of our lives.”

Ironically, the poem for the symphony’s fifth movement contains the line “now has struck the hour of death,” at which point during the premiere one of the attending Soviet cultural functionaries who had hounded Shostakovich, Pavel Apostolov, suffered a heart attack that did indeed prove (a month later) to be fatal.

And that anecdote actually brings us back to Arvo Pärt.

In a (much more recent) BBC interview, Pärt told Icelandic musical artist Björk:

“Sound is a very interesting phenomenon. People don’t know how strong music influences us, good or bad. You can kill people with sound. And if you can kill, then there is maybe also the sound which is the opposite of killing. The distance between these two points is very big, and you are free. You can choose. In art everything is possible, but everything that is made is not necessary.”

Was October necessary? The March of the Soviet Police, necessary? The nihilism that Shostakovich was made to feel by the end of his life in music, necessary?

As Paul Elie wrote – and, decades later, as was perhaps part of Pärt’s own reflection during his on-air conversation with Björk – “for Credo [in 1968] once was enough.”

Once was all that was necessary.

Once you have genuflected the middle finger, nothing shouts louder than silence, because that silence makes the Rebel Yell that preceded it seem all the louder.


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