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Chaos and Music: Inspired by the Novel ‘The Noise of Time’

Shostakovich and Co - A playlist inspired by Julian Barnes’ novel ‘The Noise of Time’. Curated by Albrecht Selge.Read more…

“It was life he was afraid of, not death”. Dmitri Shostakovich, the most famous composer of the Soviet Union and a quintessential artist of the 20th Century, truly had every reason to feel that way. His life was torn between extremes that threatened his existence: firstly physical, renounced indirectly by Stalin as a national enemy in the article “Chaos statt Musik” (“Muddle Instead of Music”), and later moral, as chairman of the Soviet Union of Composers.

The English author Julian Barnes reflects on this chaotic musical life in his compelling novel “The Noise of Time” (Jonathan Cape) at three key points: on the stairs of his apartment, where Shostakovich waited night after night in 1936 for his arrest and execution; in the airplane on the way home from the USA in 1948, caught in a wave of emotions and the feeling of having betrayed one's own principles (“One fear drives out another, as one nail drives out another”); and finally, sitting in a chauffeur-driven car on the way to his holiday home - as a representative artist of the State and a despairing, sick man.

Although music isn’t the focus of this novel about an artist’s life during a terror-filled time, Shostakovich’s music always resonates with the narrative, and to hear his music makes this intensive reading experience even more powerful.

The playlist follows Shostakovich’s flow of consciousness in the novel: the Polka in which the memories of the musical father resonate, and the early piano trio for his first love Tanja; the “Song of the Counterplan”, Shostakovich’s Bolshevik superhit; the (according to Stalin) chaotic and neurotic ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ and the defeatist cello sonata; banal propaganda music of the 50s (The Song of the Forests) and the immortal ‘morendo’ of the late string quartets.

The famous symphonies are also represented here: the First, at whose premiere in Charkow the dogs howled and whose dedicatee was later shot; the Fourth, "like a medley of quacks and grunts and growls", which the composer withdrew in fear for his life; the Fifth whose (ironic?) jubilant finale helped to save his neck; the wartime Eighth symphony composed in a henhouse; and the desperate, sarcastic Thirteenth.

In between are works by other composers that affected Shostakovich’s life and art: Stalin’s favourite opera ‘Boris Godunov’ by Mussorgsky; the ‘Symphony of Psalms’ by Stravinsky, who Shostakovich considered the greatest composer of his time but was forced to publicly vilify; Bartók’s inspirational string quartets and music by Prokofiev, the fellow sufferer scorned by Shostakovich.

However, a word of caution! When listening one should never forget what Barnes’ elderly Shostakovich thinks: “When listening to his own music, he would sometimes cover his mouth with his hands, as if to say: Do not trust what comes out of my mouth, trust only what goes into your ears!”

Original citations from Julian Barnes: ‘The Noise of Time’, Jonathan Cape - Penguin Random House UK.

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