The composer and the cosmonaut

Dmitri Shostakovich & Dmitri Kabalevsky, Russian composers, with Yuri Gagarin, Russian astronaut. Photo by Tully Potter.

One moment of our Shostakovich 13 performances leapt off the page at me the first time I heard our soloist, Matthias Goerne, sing it. Toward the end of the final movement there is a complete shift in tonality as the soloist, contrasting those who knowingly perpetuate falsehoods for the sake of their career, sings:

Talent is talent, whatever name you give it.
They’re forgotten, those who hurled curses,
but we remember the ones who were cursed,
(but we remember the ones who were cursed…)
All those who strove towards the stratosphere,
the doctors who died of cholera,
they were following careers!

“Career,” Yevgeny Yevtushenko (trans. Andrew Huth)

Underneath the line about “strove toward the stratosphere” is an unusual chord, one that appears just one other time in the symphony, when the soloist sings about Galileo’s accomplishment at great personal risk. It’s striking and drew my attention to the passage. In the rehearsal I wrote, without thinking too much about it, Gagarin!

(Aside: this whole part of the symphony helped me frame Shostakovich’s perspectives. What I now think is that Shostakovich was a deeply idealistic person who believed in the mission of the Revolution. While he clearly fell out with the Kremlin’s implementation of the ideals of 1917, he remained committed to the idea that life could be better, and held out hope that post-Stalin Russia could make things better for the people. Or at least that’s my read on his newly hopeful tone at the end of the work.)

Shostakovich started work on the 13th sometime after the publication of Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” in September 1961, and completed it on July 20, 1962. A few months previously, on April 12, 1961, Russia’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, completed his one orbit of earth, becoming the first human in space. Shostakovich would certainly have known about Gagarin, so I assumed that he and Yevtushenko were writing out of a sense of well earned pride in the accomplishments of the Russian people.

What I did not know is that Gagarin and Shostakovich shared a number of other connections. As you can see by the photo at the top of the stage, the composer actually met the cosmonaut (alongside Dmitri Kabalevsky), sometime after Gagarin’s historic flight.

And Gagarin took Shostakovich into orbit with him. The story goes that—after the ground control piped in some love songs so that he would have something to listen to, after takeoff, after orbit, and after a scare where the capsule failed to successfully separate (but ultimately succeeded)—Gagarin began to sing or whistle a tune. The tune? Shostakovich’s song “The Motherland Listens,” whose first line is given in English as “the Motherland hears, the Motherland knows (where her son flies in the sky),” written in 1951 as part of his Op. 86, Four Songs to Words by Dolmatovsky for voice and piano.

So Shostakovich wrote about Gagarin striving toward the stratosphere, and Gagarin sang Shostakovich on his historic flight!

Shostakovich Symphony No. 13

I spent the weekend with Dmitri.

As part of the Boston Symphony’s ongoing (and almost complete) project to perform the complete symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, I’ve been able to participate in multiple concert runs over the last few years that performed his choral symphonies, and which were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon for eventual release as part of a unique partnership that began in 2015. The first two symphonies, Shostakovich’s Second and Third, were, candidly, hard to love. Exciting and loud, but the choral parts featured a word salad of Soviet propaganda.

The Thirteenth is a different beast altogether. Written from a set of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the subject matter touches on Soviet antisemitism, inextinguishable humor in the face of repression, the everyday hardships of Russian women seeking to provide for their families, the fear felt under Stalin’s leadership, and the sacrifice of principles in pursuit of a career. And the music is gorgeous and subtle, with multiple earworms that threaten to consume my brain.

I’ll have more to say about some of the interesting corners of the symphony, but for now I’ll just note that it’s been a remarkable journey. Reviews of our performances are in the Boston Globe (paywalled), the Boston Musical Intelligencer, and the Boston Classical Review.