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News April 03, 2015

Andris Nelsons on Dmitri Shostakovich and His Music

Interview conducted by Harlow Robinson at Symphony Hall, April 3, 2015
Andris Nelsons headshot

Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons recently sat down with Harlow Robinson at Symphony Hall to talk about the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, in connection with the recordings of the Shostakovich symphonies that the BSO releasing in collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon under the series title "Shostakovich Under Stalin's Shadow." It was a wide-ranging conversation, touching upon Nelsons' early exposure to the music of Shostakovich, his reflections on growing up in Soviet Latvia, studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the place that Shostakovich occupies both in Nelsons' own personal creative history and in the history of Soviet and Russian music.

Born in Latvia in 1978, Nelsons was a teenager when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991. An independent democracy between World War I and World War II, Latvia suffered under Soviet and Nazi occupation during World War II, when it also became part of the USSR. Many Latvians protested Soviet rule and some were deported to Siberia. Nelsons' native language is Latvian, but he also speaks fluent Russian, English, and German. He grew up in Riga, the capital of Latvia and the most important musical and cultural center in the Soviet Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia). Later he continued his musical education in St. Petersburg, another Baltic city but also the longtime Imperial capital of the Russian Tsarist empire, and the city where Shostakovich was born in 1906.

Formative Years: Early Exposure to Shostakovich's Music in Latvia

How did you first come to hear and experience the music of Shostakovich?

When I was about five years old I entered music school, first studying piano and then trumpet. I think I was around six years old when I was introduced to Shostakovich's music, it was part of what we studied and played. The Fifth Symphony was one of the earliest works; it was played quite often by the orchestra in Riga and by those that visited from the USSR. Vasily Sinaisky was the conductor of the Latvian State Symphony then, and he played all of the symphonies, and of course I went to these performances. But the Fifth was the first one that I consciously first analyzed, then the Eleventh.

As an orchestra trumpeter, I also played several of Shostakovich's symphonies. And my very first concert as a conductor included the orchestral transcription by Rudolf Barshai for chamber orchestra of the Eighth String Quartet. I was probably 19 years old when I conducted this, my first professional concert as a conductor. Also I remember playing the Fourth Symphony as a trumpeter in orchestra. The trumpet parts in Shostakovich's symphonies are great, and the brass is very important. The second movement of the Tenth Symphony has an especially important part for trumpet, I think it represents the voice of Stalin, or certainly something sinister and official. The trumpet and trombone represent the voice of the devil, of Stalinism.

Like all Soviet citizens, Nelsons grew up in a highly structured society that was organized at least theoretically on the ideas of Communism. All cultural organizations, including orchestras and conservatories, were financed and operated by the state.

What were your own feelings about the Soviet system when you were growing up?

When I was growing up we were taught to believe that Vladimir Lenin was almost like a god. I came from a Christian family but it was dangerous to go to church. My mother was a teacher and she was called in by Communist Party officials because she had been seen in church. She could even have gone to prison. In school we were taught every week that Lenin as a child had been so good, that he helped others-that is the way we were brought up. I am sure that Shostakovich was brought up this way, too, and that was just normal.

My parents were musicians and they were most concerned about culture. We were equally drawn to German and Russian culture and music and literature. I was always very excited about the great Russian writers, Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, and the composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. There was never any negative feeling about Russian culture or the Russian nation generally. Of course the tensions increased in the late 1980s with perestroika and glasnost and the movement for independence in Latvia and other Soviet republics. We were all listening to Gorbachev on the news and the whole family was watching. Russian was a required second language, but we spoke Latvian at home. There were many Russians living in Latvia, about half of the population of Riga was Russian.

In Riga we lived in a communal apartment, with four people to a single room, and one toilet to share with other families, down the hall and without plumbing. Music was like the food for our soul. We got a television only from when I was 11, black-and-white. I listened to recordings of Shostakovich's symphonies on records, conducted by Yuri Mravinsky and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Kiril Kondrashin, Yevgeny Svetlanov.

Of course the time I grew up in Latvia was nothing like the Stalinist period that Shostakovich experienced. But there was still a feeling of fear. My stepfather's father was sent to Siberia for 15 years after World War II, because he was too open in his expression of his philosophical and religious beliefs. He was very intellectual, and listened to Western radio, Radio Free Europe, which was officially banned, and he was noticed for free thinking. He was a carpenter and he managed to survive Siberia because he had a practical skill.

Did the situation change during the late 1980s, when the USSR was falling apart, and Latvia and other republics were trying to declare their independence?

Yes, suddenly everything became black and white. And that was quite shocking for a 13-year-old. It was confusing and hard to believe. Then the Russian tanks came into the Baltic states. This happened just before the 1991 putsch in Moscow when some generals tried to overthrow Gorbachev, it was very scary. This was a very patriotic time for Latvians. At that moment the unity of the nation was the strongest ever. Everyone felt like a brother. There was a very special feeling on the streets, and there was tension between Russian speakers and others.

Study in St. Petersburg

Nelsons continued his musical studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, training ground for many generations of legendary musicians including Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Nelsons arrived just after the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, when the Conservatory, city, and country were experiencing severe economic and social problems in the transition to a post-Communist society.The people of the city had just voted in a referendum to change the city's name from Leningrad, as it had been called since 1924, back to the original St. Petersburg.

Really it was a disastrous time for Russia. But personally it was quite exciting, the program was very full, with conducting lessons and other lessons, in the mornings we would go to the Mariinsky Theater or the Philharmonic to see the different conductors in rehearsal, we were all sitting up there with the scores and analyzing. Another Latvian, Mariss Jansons, was my teacher and one of my biggest influences. He moved from Latvia when he was 14, his father was a violinist and then second conductor at the Mariinsky. Mariss studied in St. Petersburg and was an assistant to Yuri Temirkanov, conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

The musical and social life in St. Petersburg was intensive and wonderful but the living conditions were terrible. I lived in a dormitory in a very old room with toilets down the hall. The windows were broken and it was minus 20 degrees Celsius, there were terrible drafts, I slept with my coat and hat and gloves on. And there was one shower. But all that was not important. The music and atmosphere of culture was so special. I was very happy then.

I lived in St. Petersburg for three years, going back and forth to Riga, on the overnight train. And there was always a two-hour stop at the border, I was never sure whether they would let me in or not. Relations were tense. The border guards would open everything. But in my eyes Russian culture didn't suffer at all.

Feelings About Shostakovich

In Shostakovich's music you can feel the extreme strength of a fragile person. He was nervous, and not physically athletic. When you see photos of what he looked like, and then you hear his music, it doesn't come together somehow. He had a sort of whiny voice. The external Shostakovich and the internal Shostakovich of his music somehow don't seem to correspond.

Shostakovich believed in the Soviet regime. You can hear this at the beginning of his career. He believed in Communism-so did I! We all did.

Shostakovich, Stalin, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk

Shostakovich's career began brilliantly in the late 1920s with his First Symphony and other works. He was celebrated as the great hope of the new Soviet music. But this all changed in 1936, when an article entitled "Muddle Instead of Music" appeared in the official Communist newspaper Pravda, apparently at Stalin's personal order. The article denounced Shostakovich's popular 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as "coarse, primitive, and vulgar" and the score as "a deliberately dissonant, confused stream of sound." Lady Macbeth vanished from Soviet stages, and Shostakovich's brilliant career-even his life-were suddenly in jeopardy.

What impact did the attack on Lady Macbeth have on Shostakovich and on his music?

I think Shostakovich believed in the Soviet system until the appearance of the article in Pravda. He had written this opera because of his enormous talent, not to attack the Soviet system. He had been one of the most popular and successful young composers, and suddenly he was an "enemy of the people." People were even afraid to greet him on the street.

The relationship between Stalin and Shostakovich started with this article. There was a very personal relationship between Shostakovich and Stalin that goes beyond the political aspect-it was a competition between these two egos. And Shostakovich was easily insulted, he would take offense. I think he was more personally insulted by Stalin than by Communism or the system. It was more of a personal protest against Stalin than against Communism. What he wanted was the right to express your soul, the right to express feelings through music that are not always necessarily optimistic. It was not Shostakovich's intention to upset the regime with Lady Macbeth. He was a genius, and he heard this music beyond any political considerations. The harmonies and darkness in this piece are what he heard. He was perhaps a depressed person, he saw the world in these dark colors-not necessarily because Stalin was there. It was just the way he felt.

In all the symphonies that follow, No. 5 to No. 10, written just after Stalin's death, you feel this tension between these two men. These six symphonies form a group, they represent his personal struggle-his competition-with Stalin. The later works after Stalin's death are more about death and other concerns.

He was a very patriotic Russian and Soviet citizen. He wanted to live in the USSR, he wanted to be a Soviet artist. He was disappointed and unlucky that things happened the way they did.

Symphony No. 7

What are your thoughts on what is probably Shostakovich's most famous symphony, the Seventh, the Leningrad, written immediately after the Nazi armies had encircled his home city of Leningrad. Do you believe, as has been written, that this symphony is not only about the evil of Hitler and Naziism, but also about Stalin and Stalinism?

Yes, I agree that the Seventh Symphony is not only about Hitler, but also Stalin, who did even more evil against his own people than Hitler did. It's about both of them. Shostakovich was really patriotic, more so than many other Soviet artists. In the Seventh there is this real Soviet patriotism. He goes beyond politics, he says "Okay, we don't live in a perfect country, but I am a Soviet artist and I live here and I must defend St. Petersburg as a cultural center, I need to write. I need to protest what's happening." In some ways the Seventh is the least political of the symphonies, although I do see a parallel between Hitler and Stalin. These were two disastrous personalities. It's not about the country or the people.

Symphony No. 10

The Tenth Symphony was composed immediately after the death of Stalin in 1953. It was immediately acclaimed as the composer's statement of personal and national liberation from the dictator's reign of tyranny and fear. In the third and fourth movements, Shostakovich makes extensive use of his musical "signature," the motif D-S-C-H (the notes D, E-flat, C, B-natural in German notation).

What are your feelings about the Tenth Symphony?

The "cold colors" of the opening of the Tenth Symphony are full of the fear ("strakh")that ruled during Stalin's time. People never knew what might happen next. What we hear is that Stalin may be dead, but the fear remains. You don't feel any sense of joy or relief. Remember when Stalin died, people were crying, and some were shot because they were rushing to try to get near to his body. Stalin was not one of those leaders who convinced you or persuaded you to believe. With Stalin nobody really believed, but they were afraid-even those close to him were afraid. People knew that what Stalin was doing was wrong, but they were afraid. He maintained this atmosphere for 20 years. And that's what you hear in the opening bars of the Tenth Symphony.

How about the use of the D-S-C-H motif in the Tenth Symphony?

What I hear in this D-S-C-H motif is Shostakovich saying to Stalin: "You are dead but I am alive! I'm still here!" There is a feeling of protest in the Tenth Symphony from the very beginning. There is irony and sarcasm there too. He is saying "I survived!"

What are the challenges of conducting the Tenth and other Shostakovich symphonies?

First of all, there are no weak symphonies among Shostakovich's fifteen. His first symphony was already perfect. There are no symphonies that you can leave out. The only symphonies that I have not yet conducted are the Second, Third, and Twelfth. Really, everything Shostakovich composed has the mark of genius, in every genre. In this way he is like a Russian Mozart-he wrote quite quickly, he thought it out first and then wrote it down fast. Everything was formed in his mind before he wrote.

In the long movements of the Tenth Symphony, or Eighth, or Sixth, you can overdramatize the music. Whether it's sarcastic or whatever, you have to avoid being too literal. It needs a strong bite. There's always much more going on than just the written notes. Whatever is the indication (marcato, staccato) always goes together with the deeper meaning, you have to be careful to put them together. The technical indications are always connected with the character.

There has to be a careful [WORD MISSING: balance?] between tension and release, relaxation-if you have a constant half-hour of tension, it might not be the right approach; in order to reach the next level of intensity, you have to have release. It's like the human body. This isn't written-it's in the music and you have to feel it; it is subjective. When you are very young you think it is very important to have constant energy or the music gets boring, but there should be moments of release.

After Stalin's Death

The character of Shostakovich's symphonies changed significantly after Stalin's death and the Tenth Symphony. How do you view the evolution of his work later in his life, and how it has been viewed?

Shostakovich very much feared death. This comes out in the works after the Tenth Symphony, his fear of death and the big questions about life. These were the sort of questions Mahler faced all the time. Until Stalin's death Shostakovich's music was more about what life brought to him, perhaps it was more of a protest, or about his searches as a composer, but it was never about "me." For Mahler it was about "me" from the beginning. Shostakovich was not an egotist, not egocentric. After Stalin's death his music becomes more about Shostakovich himself. His later music is much more inward.

For me, his music stands on the same level as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, and Mahler.

Political Assessments of Shostakovich

Has Shostakovich's music been viewed too much as a political statement?

The greatness of his music lies beyond politics. It speaks to people whether they know the times he lived in or not.

Sometimes what has happened is that Shostakovich and his music have been used to support our own political views. The same thing has happened to Wagner. There has been a tendency to use the music of composers in a political context to justify certain viewpoints. During the Soviet times certain music was seen as supporting the regime, but afterwards the same music was seen as critical of the regime. The music hasn't changed, but our view of it has. We know that Shostakovich was critical of some aspects of the USSR. But what Shostakovich really thought will always remain a mystery, something mystical. Music is not like photographs, it doesn't correspond exactly to certain images we have in front of our eyes-Stalin, for example. It is much more complex.

Shostakovich did not really like to talk. He only protested through his music, not through his words. He was not like Beethoven or Wagner who could tell people to "shut up" or make pronouncements. He was so intelligent. He was an excellent friend. No matter what path you had taken politically you could still see him in a sympathetic light, because he was shy and didn't seek the limelight. He was diplomatic and gentle. It is hard to be unsympathetic towards him, no matter what side you were on. And maybe that's why in the end he wasn't killed. Because he had his suitcase prepared to go, waiting to be arrested at any time during the Stalin years. If he had been less intelligent or more arrogant he might not have survived.

The spoken word is the easiest thing to judge. So we can kill you for what you say. But with music it's very hard to say what it means. And he could say things so pleasantly to the Communist Party that they couldn't object.

Personal Connections to Shostakovich's Music

What do you feel you have to say that is new about Shostakovich's symphonies, which have been so often performed and recorded?

I could not live without his music.

Part of my strong personal connection to this music comes from having grown up in the USSR, and my connection to the tradition of the great conductors there. But there is something else that I can't explain. I feel very close to him. I am a very self-critical person, it's not like I feel like I want to say "I have something to say about this music that I want everyone to hear." I don't feel that way. And maybe that is how unconsciously I feel close to Shostakovich. Because he was a shy person.

I don't like arrogant people-I can't relate to them-so I feel close to Shostakovich, being somehow naively shy myself. There is something about his music that shows how to express yourself, but not in words. And there is this mystical part of all music, but especially in his, that cannot be expressed in words. I feel like I know him in a mystical way. It is such a great opportunity to record the symphonies with this amazing orchestra with its great tradition and quality of sound. The BSO has a seriousness, a depth that goes beyond flashiness. This is very important for Shostakovich. There is of course external showiness, but there is an essential philosophical depth that this orchestra can deliver.