Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shostakovich: a warning from history

Shostakovich in 1950
Photo: Deutsche Fotothek
I'm not sure that listening to a completely terrifying performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 was the best way to spend my birthday. Of course there was no way the LPO could have known, when they scheduled it, that there'd be a general election the next day. Suffice it to say that this piece is an hour-long tone poem depicting an eerie silence, a people on the march, a horrifying massacre, its tragic aftermath and a renewal of elemental yet hideous energy beyond.

It is supposedly the Russian revolution of 1905. It was actually written shortly after Russia crushed Hungary in 1956. Shostakovich is living on the edge here - how could anyone have believed his excuse for the piece? - but his warning comes to us loud and clear: it could happen then, it can happen now, it can happen again, anywhere. The impact, as brought to us yesterday by Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO, is more than shattering. Hear it on Radio 3 iPlayer.

Totalitarianism doesn't begin as totalitarianism. It starts with crackpot ideology that speaks to a sect of zealots. It may be idealistically founded, but it bears no relation to helping ordinary people live in peace. Its perpetrators are sometimes elected when ill-informed electorates decide they want a 'strong man' to lead them. Gradually the promulgators face challenges to their power, from the judiciary, the media and more. They start taking control of such organisations to ensure they get rid of those that disagree with them and would stop them. The process continues, small step by small step, and it ends with people on the streets and those to whom ideology is more important than human life (as it will be by then) crushing them. And killing them.

Take a look at the state of Britain today and then consider what will happen if we allow a gigantic drop in GDP, starting from what's already a pretty grim position - a wealthy country that's home to some of the poorest places in Europe.

Yesterday's concert set Shostakovich beside one of the weirder British piano concertos of the last hundred years: John Foulds' Dynamic Triptych, which was brilliantly performed by Peter Donohoe, whose heroic effort for it should really be called upon for more than one outing. It's another piece of the jagged puzzle that is the music of the late twenties and early thirties (written 1929, performed 1931); a craggy, individual voice rooted in the concertos of the past but transformed with a wholly personal take. Each movement is based on a different motivating idea, respectively mode, timbre and rhythm. The result is bizarre, puzzling but also haunting, leaving one wanting to hear it all again to grasp a little more of what is going on within it.

I am mesmerised by Foulds' life story, but suspect that his music will not travel especially well, so far does it sit up in the tree of individual ideology. One would love to think it could have a wider currency, but in terms of realpolitik, sadly I doubt it. (Read more about him here, in an article I wrote for the Independent 12 years ago, in the days when a national newspaper would still take an article this size about a maverick classical composer.) Ahead of his time he may have been; out on a limb, assuredly; but with hindsight he represents another kind of Englishness that is not often acknowledged these days: the eccentric individual, an independent thinker, a person with a different creative outlook that does not tally with any party line in their art. It will never be easy to be a Foulds, or to get to grips with his creations, but we need these people more than ever, and not only in music.

If Shostakovich brings us a warning, Foulds brings us an alternative - but one that may not catch on strongly enough for long enough to prevent the juggernaut heralded by the side-drum and crowned by the demoniac roar of the tam-tam.

Today, Thursday 12 December, please get out there and vote against the mendacious monomaniacs who have taken a wrecking ball of greed, cruelty and lies to Britain and will take a worse one if we give them the chance. If you have a vision of a country that is open-hearted, international, sensible, long-termist and responsible to its people, its partners and its world, today is the day to get the new-look fanatic-Brexit Tories gone forever. It may be our last chance.