A shortened version of this article has appeared in the Guardian (link) It has been originally written in Hebrew for the Opus magazine (link)
Today I would like to talk about pianos. Not necessarily from a historic point of view (invented by Bartolomeo Christofori around 1700, attained its present shape and characteristics towards the later part of the 19th century), nor from the technical one (a complex mechanism of levers, rails, pins, wires and springs that transmits the pressing of a key onto the hammer, which is then thrown and hits a string), but rather from the personal one – to discuss the special bond between the pianist and the piano. Without a doubt, violinists have just as personal and special a bond with the violin they play on, and so do trumpeters, clarinetists or guitarists—but as opposed to them (and, indeed, to all other musicians, except for organists), the absolute majority of pianists do not play their own instrument onstage. The piano is not portable, it is cumbersome and costly to transport, and hence we have a kind of a status quo: the pianist practises at home on their piano, but performs at concert halls, each one with another, different, strange piano. A piano that belongs to the hall, and which, in most cases, we haven’t touched prior to setting foot at the hall that morning.
Piano at Musikverein (photo: Bösendorfer / David M. Peters)
The moment of the first encounter is worth describing. You enter the hall, looking forward to (or full of trepidation before) the encounter with a new and unknown piano (those of us who are optimistic hope for a good piano each time). The instrument stands in the middle of the stage, you approach it, remove your watch, empty your pockets of wallet and phone, sit down, adjust the piano bench… All the while somebody from the hall stands nearby, also expectant: while you may travel from one hall to another, and for you this is just one piano out of many, for them it is the only piano that matters, and they care, sometimes very much so, about the way you react and whether the piano pleases you.
So, the promoter stands beside you, waiting politely, hopefully, expectantly, and you, fully aware of the importance of the moment, finally play something on the keyboard: a chord, a passage, a few bars from one of the works—and the piano immediately ceases being a generic and unknown something, a specimen of the grand pianos genus, and becomes the most concrete, tangible, real thing there is. This is the piano you are going to play on tonight, and your encounter has just begun.
Piano lore can be summarised in a few short sentences:
There are good and bad pianos. This might sound self-evident, but it is possibly the most basic fact in a pianist’s life. Both kinds are to be found in all sizes, manufactured by all piano firms, and at any price point. That is to say that a concert grand piano (2.70m or more) costing over £100,000 can be bad.
Size both matters and does not matter. Smaller can be better than larger, but between two good pianos, the sound of the larger one will be richer (a function of the longer strings and larger soundboard). Sound volume and projection also change with size; a baby concert grand (1.50m) will struggle to fill a 2,000 seater hall.
One can get used to any piano. Seriously. There are no exceptions to this rule, even when the instrument is terrible. The better a piano is, the less time is required, and vice versa. At the same time, a good piano is multi-layered; there is always something else to discover in its tone. A bad piano functions in what-you-see-(or rather hear)-is-what-you-get mode, producing the same sound even after hours of practice.
One can practice on a piano to one’s heart’s content, and it’s certainly necessary and helpful, but if you want to really get to know a piano, there is no better way than playing a full concert on it, before a real audience. By the end of the concert, if not earlier, you will know the instrument; my word of honour..
It is perhaps important to mention another thing. When we see two identical objects, our natural assumption is that they are indeed identical, and if there is an element of function to those objects, we expect the two to function in the same way (we wouldn’t expect, let’s say, two cars of the same model to accelerate or brake differently). With pianos the situation is fundamentally different—they are unique, each one of them. The manufacturing process of a grand piano takes up to three years, and includes hundreds of processes, both active, such as construction and assembly, and passive, physical and chemical, the drying of layers of lacquer or glue, for example; also, adjustments, most of them hand-made, and each one of them affecting the final tone of the piano (here’s a website explaining the process in detail). So, in the end, two pianos of the same model, manufactured by the same company in the same year, will sound differently, even to an untrained ear. The contrast in sound between different models, or between pianos made in different years or from different companies will be even more apparent.
This is to say that looking at the shiny and beautiful outward appearance of the piano is not of much help; it can conceal a superb or a very bad instrument. This trait—each piano being one-of-a-kind—guarantees a challenge, an interesting or a frustrating one, depending upon the circumstances. On one hand, there is a constant element of uncertainty, adding to the pressure and stress that accompany each concert. But this basic difference also has a positive side to it, as the pianist is involuntarily affected by the piano. We react to the tone we hear during the performance, we are forced to overcome certain technical difficulties while playing, but it goes beyond that: one could say that a good piano (like a good conversation partner) can offer new directions to our interpretations. Should we be flexible and spontaneous while playing, should we not force our will upon the instrument, but rather remain attentive to its tonal character and try to connect with it in an organic way, the piano will prove capable of taking us to lands far more distant and interesting than those we had foreseen or planned. Those lands would change from one piano to another: an instrument which possesses a warm, human tone will lead the performer to a very different place than one whose tone is transparent and crystalline.
Personally I see an advantage in this: each concert, even if the pieces in it were performed dozens of times, becomes an journey of discovery; everything remains fresh and new, and you are kept on the edge of your chair, alert and wide–awake, curious to find out how the Beethoven, the Ravel or the Rachmaninov will sound tonight. This is anti-routine. (One cannot talk about routine when discussing musical performance, of course, but this element of uncertainty, brought about by the unending variety of pianos, makes each concert even less commonplace; and if were it removed from the equation; if, one day, I were given the opportunity of playing each concert on my home piano—an instrument I know inside out—I think I would miss the situation which exists today.)
To return to our narrative: those first sounds which you had just played will give you an admittedly approximate, but usually quite accurate picture of the instrument’s sound. And you know right away, even before the brain has the time to process what it has heard. There is certainly room for adjustments and acclimatisation, both to the piano and to the acoustics in the hall, but I can’t recall a single instance in recent years in which the initial gut reaction was completely refuted later. Several hours of practising will yield an improvement of X percent in the sound you are able to draw out of the piano and will help you overcome the technical imperfections of the keyboard, but unfortunately no number of hours of practice will change a ‘don’t like’ into a ‘like’. Unfortunately, I say, as I would have loved the situation to be different.
For if you think of it, we are completely at the mercy of the piano currently standing on the stage. It is our main ally for that night, and those short moments of initial playing reveal the character of our future brother-in-arms. A comfortable piano, one which feels as the natural continuation of one’s hand, can help a pianist who feels insecure to forget their worries during the performance and to become engrossed in the music and in the process of playing. And exactly so, a bad piano can heighten the feeling of insecurity, can treacherously ruin the pianist’s concentration (always at the most dangerous moment), and make even the best-prepared pianist trip and fall. This, just from the technical side of the equation; speaking of music, those first notes are a forecast, a sign of things to come—whether the piano’s sound will give inspiration, will invite the pianist to a profound performance full of poetry, or contrarily, whether it will thwart any attempts to make the keyboard sing, to transcend the lines of notes and to try and touch the listeners’ souls.
These are, of course, extreme examples. Pianos that ‘make or break’ concerts are not ubiquitous. But the piano’s influence over the performance is very tangible, and just imagine how grand it would be if we were able to turn ’cooking pans’ (as one wryly calls unsalvageable instruments in Russian) into piano-masterpieces by sheer willpower and determination. Yet the only possibility to affect significantly the tonal character of a piano is meticulous work done by a highly-qualified technician; work which takes hours if not days, and this is rarely possible under normal circumstances. Mostly, what stands on the stage is all there is, and this is the main reason why an initial ‘like’ is so gladdening, and a ‘don’t like’ is so unfortunate.
But what is this ‘like’? I’ll try to describe my dream piano: it possesses a singing, translucent sound with a long decay, rich, varied, lacking any aggression (what is called a ‘banging sound’—this is 90% the responsibility of the pianist, but the piano contributes to it as well, as, if its natural sound is too open and shouting, it will be harder to control). Every note is perfectly formed, rounded and bell-like. It has as broad a dynamic range as possible between pianissimo and fortissimo, with many levels in-between. All the registers of the keyboard (bass, middle, top) are uniform in colour, and there are no weak or unclear areas; nor are there any overly bright or open ones. Mechanically, an utterly even keyboard (keys equally weighted), a touch neither too heavy nor too light, allowing full control over the sound. And all of this is combined and united—a whole larger than the sum of its parts; a piano with an intriguing and fascinating character, making each interaction with it a true experience and inviting you to go further afield and explore new ares and layers in the works that you are playing.
I may have got slightly carried away. But a performance on such a piano can be unforgettable.
From this you can infer the ‘don’t like’: a metallic or unclear sound, flat and unvaried, a narrow dynamic range, an uneven keyboard, lack of personality—you get the idea. A dull, characterless piano, “neither fish nor meat”, to quote another Russian saying, is included in this category too.
You might well think that the demands are exaggerated, and how much of it will the audience hear anyway? This is both true and not true. The demands are high indeed, and each and every pianist has their own ‘bugs’. Some are especially sensitive to technical imperfections, some care about nothing beyond the beauty of the sound. Neither will every pianist be so demanding: the scale ranges from Sviatoslav Richter, who displayed almost complete indifference to the subject (though one can infer from his interviews that he was very well aware of the quality of the pianos he played on), and up to Gregory Sokolov, who is nearly infamous for the demands he poses of his pianos: demands which are fully justified, in my opinion, as Sokolov’s control of the keyboard is peerless in all what regards colours, nuances and separation of voices. The rest are located between these two poles, and in my opinion (which I cannot prove scientifically) we would find more pianists closer to Sokolov’s side of the scale, than to Richter’s.
But if we regard this from a broader perspective, these demands are not so different from those posed by any artist or craftsman of the tools and materials with which they work: the painter the brush, paints and canvas (and the light); the cook the knives and ingredients from which to prepare the meal; the photographer the camera and lenses (and once again the light!), and, if we go a bit further, the race-car driver the car they drive (which perhaps is not such a far-fetched comparison, as both cases concern the interaction of a single person with a single yet highly complex tool). The schema is similar: an artist, in whatever field, will obtain a fine result even when working with subpar materials and tools, but will achieve so much more when those are choice (on the other hand, no-one but a true master will be able to draw out the true potential of the very best materials and tools). Hence, perhaps, it is not surprising that most pianists tend to demand more rather than less from pianos.
The answer to second part of that question—what of this will reach the audience’s ears?—might come as a surprise: quite a lot. Speaking with audience-members post-concert, I have found that the listeners were very much aware of the beauty of the piano’s sound: a singing vs. a harsh/metallic sound, as well as of its volume—whether one needs to strain oneself in order to hear clearly, or whether the sound carries and easily fills the hall. However, it seems that unless the piano is singularly good or bad, after a short while the listeners’ attention switches from the instrument to the interpretation, and from then on it’s all in the performers’ hands.
An interesting question which is related to the subject, is how two different pianists would sound if ever they played on the same instrument. I once had a heated discussion with a lecturer (a musicologist, not a pianist himself) who maintained that the difference in the sounds of Horowitz and Rubinstein (click the links for a comparison) stemmed only from the differences in their pianos, and if one had only seated them behind the same instrument, they would have immediately sounded the same. At the time I could find no riposte (though I sensed this assertion was absurd), while today I would first of all refer him to a recording of any round of whichever piano competition: it is enough to hear two contestants playing on the same piano and the argument collapses immediately, as those are significant and easily audible differences. One could also compare recordings by the same pianist throughout various decades: to go on with the example of Horowitz and Rubinstein, we will find that there is much more resemblance between the sound of young Horowitz and that of mature Horowitz than between Horowitz and Rubinstein at any given point of time. In other words, each interpreter has their own specific sound which they try to reproduce on every piano they play on. Perhaps this is another way of judging the worth of an instrument: how easy it is to produce from it the sound the pianist desires.
So where does this difference stem from? My opinion is that the ‘sound’ of pianist A or B is not a simple variable but a complex one which includes both the way a single sound is produced (where there are numerous options as well, such as which muscles take part—whether the fingers only, or the palm as well; the forearm, the upper arm or the entire arm from the shoulder, or even from the shoulder blades—how tense or relaxed those muscles are; which joints are employed as ‘shock absorbers’ to avoid a harsh sound, etc.), but also the use of pedal, the way the voices are separated (such as the difference in sound strength between the melody and the accompaniment), the rubato or ‘stolen time’—the prolongation of certain notes at the expense of others to gain freedom of musical expression—and most probably many other variables, which can all be combined in countless variations and which we, the listeners, perceive as a single element, the sound of the player.
Let us return one last time to our narrative: we have tried the piano, have had the first impressions, our heart rejoiced or fell in disappointment, and then practising begins. Without our noticing, a slow and interesting process of acclimatisation occurs: the aural and tactile equivalent of eyes adjusting with time to darkness. Our ears require time to get used to the specific way the sounds spreads in that hall, and our fingers need time to adjust to this specific keyboard. The body does it by itself, and it seems that nothing is required besides time and an unwillingness to give up, plus often reminding oneself of Piano Lore Point No. 3 (“one can get used to any piano”). Several hours pass, and suddenly—it is always the same: “wait a minute, how did this happen?”—the sound becomes fuller, deeper, you have more control over hues, the piano feels less and less as strange, uncharted territory. This is the time when the practice session is at its most productive: our growing acquaintance with the instrument spurs us to intensify our attempts, as we want to test our newly found control over the sound in many different parts of that night’s programme. Simultaneously, the intensive work accelerates the speed of getting used to the instrument. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s a virtuous circle; a good place to be.
Whether we managed to fully adapt to the piano or not, the time comes, and we go onstage, take a bow, and sit behind the piano with a clear and focused knowing: this is for real. A few seconds of concentration, hands are raised onto the keyboard, the fingers play the first notes, and… wait, is it the same piano? Nearly always a small (or a big) surprise awaits us in those first notes: with the presence of the audience the acoustics in the hall has changed imperceptibly (or unrecognisably), and we need a bit of extra time (or half the concert) to re-adapt. This is the customary explanation; but it seems to me there is another element at work: the most intensive concentration during practice hours cannot compare with the standard concentration one maintains at a concert. For the duration of the live performance we simply hear things differently, as if our ears’ capability became augmented. The silence is different too: the silence of an empty hall is much weaker than the live, breathing silence of a hall filled with attentively listening people. I often feel that at that moment the connection to the outer world is severed, and we find ourselves in a kind of enclosed space and time, in which nothing exists beside the audience, the piano, the music and the player, all united by the silence. And then it should come as no surprise that the piano sounds different at first: we have been transported into a world of our own.
What drives us during the daily practice sessions is the love we feel for the composers and the musical worlds they created in their works. Before a concert, our appreciation for the audience is added into the mix, as is our desire to share with the listeners the feeling of wonder, nearly of awe, which stems from the magical process of creating the music anew on the stage. And at the moment we begin to play it is the piano which is the centre of our existence. Imagine the silence just before the concert begins, out of which emerge the first notes of… Beethoven’s 4th concerto, with their softness and nobility, or the toll of funeral bells in the opening of Rachmaninov’s 2nd concerto, or the luminous, polished tones of the opening Aria from the Goldberg Variations, or any other piano composition, of which there is a myriad, and there you shall find our love for the instrument itself, for the enormous richness of sonorities hidden within it, a richness only limited by our imagination, a richness sometimes discovered at this very moment, on the stage, in the presence of the listeners. And there you shall find our love for the gentleness and the might which is in the piano, for the virtuoso brilliance and the beautiful cantilena that it can produce, for the feeling of the keys beneath your fingers, for its polyphony and the multi-layeredness.
We finish the concert in full knowledge of all the secrets which the piano may have kept hidden previously: no corner remains unlit under the intensive spotlight of a live performance. If it was a good piano, we are left with a feeling of warmth and love, no longer directed towards some generic and abstract idea of ‘piano’, but rather to this very specific piano, the one that was a complete stranger to us not so long ago, and which we are now deeply and intimately acquainted with: the piano that shared with us the musical ups and downs of the previous two hours, the moments of musical elevation and also the blunders (and perhaps contributed to a few of them itself), that was an equal partner in all that had just now transpired onstage. And if we are due to leave on the following morning, heading to another town and another hall, in which there is also a new, different and unknown piano, then the feelings of warmth and love are tinged with sadness over the prompt farewell.
So when you next hear me or any other pianist complain about the great challenge inherent to our profession (“there is a new piano to get used to every time”), don’t believe us, or, at least, take our words with a large grain of salt.
“We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read”, thus the great and fictitious restaurant critic Anton Ego in the movie Ratatouille. Every artist, whether a performer or a creator, is acquainted with the sinking feeling of opening the morning newspaper or the website, skimming through the content (the eyes stop on their own at key words), and then the growing realisation that the show, the book, the movie, the exhibition were slaughtered by the critic. But in our everyday experience, whether the artist was offended or not, the entire thing stays within the inter-personal field: as a dialogue between the critic and the artist (with the readers´ crowd for audience). But imagine a cardinally different situation – living under a dictatorship, where art is carefully monitored by the regime, and woe to the artist who treads a path frowned upon by the powers above! In such a case the ramifications of a bad review, especially one that reflects the regime´s opinion, might go much further than just a bruised ego.
Such was the situation in Soviet Russia in 1936, when Dmitry Shostakovich, the young and well-known composer, bought the Pravda from the 28th of January. Almost at once he stumbled upon an editorial titled Chaos instead of music. The subtitle explained: “about the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” – an opera which Shostakovich finished composing in 1930 and which was at that time being staged at the Bolshoi, the main opera house of Moscow. And under those titles came the most slaughtering of slaughtering reviews:
“From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible…
Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all…
While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich’s creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism…
And all this is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts, and growls, and suffocates itself in order to express the love scenes as naturalistically as possible. And “love” is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar manner…” (trans. Victor Seroff)
And it goes on and on – “shrieks”, “cacophony”, “noise”, “nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music” – the critic didn´t like, to put it mildly (we will return later to the question of that anonymous critic´s identity). But while the quotes above could have – theoretically – appeared in a review dated from our time (with the exception of the “socialist realism”, to which we will also come back), the following lines would have caused greater bewilderment:
“The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demands of Soviet culture…
…[this] carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of “Meyerholdism” infinitely multiplied…
The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear. Leftist distortion in opera stems from the same source as Leftist distortion in painting, poetry, teaching, and science.
Here we have “leftist” confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning…
These paragraphs read as a political, rather than an aesthetic accusation, and were more dangerous by far. This is hard for us to grasp – why was the music expected to be… anything at all? Shouldn´t every artist create whatever stems from his own talent and his own inner world? And shouldn´t Art be judged only upon its own artistic faults and virtues?
To understand this, one must explain the official stand on art in the Soviet Union. “Art belongs to the people”, proclaimed Lenin, and as such art was bound to serve the people to whom it belonged (this, of course, was only a slogan; in reality, art “belonged”to those who had the power to permit or to prohibit the publication of a written text, the staging of a play or the filming of a movie – the Communist Party and those leading it). Art had to be catchy, simple, clear and accessible to all. In the 20´s there was still place in the Soviet Union for a multi-voiced artistic discourse, including, among others, avant-guard theatre, abstract painting, symbolist and nonsense poetry. But since the early 30´s, together with the ongoing struggle against the “enemies” within the Party (i.e. opposition, real or staged), the regime started severely censuring every art movement which strayed from the artistic ideology proscribed by the state – that selfsame socialist realism, by the name of which the music critics swore.
What was this strange beast? The official definition was given in 1934 at the first congress of the USSR Writers´ Union. An artist creating according to the principles of the socialist realism was expected to offer a “truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.” Couldn´t be clearer, could it? What it meant was that the artist was expected to stick to the truth, but only to that truth which suited the “ideological transformation” led by the Party. In addition, the demands for simplicity, clarity, accessibility were preserved – they were all united under the affable word narodnost´ – which can be loosely translated as “folksiness”.
Formalism, of which the opera was accused, was the embodiment of all things contrary to those demands. The historical roots of the definition relate to an artistic concept according to which form supersedes content in importance. But in the Soviet Union of the 30´s the term became an ideological cliche, and was applied to every work of art which was perceived as being “elitist”, and as such distanced from the people and from the demands of the socialist realism.
Shostakovich himself had been previously accused of being a formalist, including for Lady Macbeth, but had heretofore always defended himself bravely. In April 1935 he wrote in the newspaper Izvestia: “In the past I was harshly condemned by the critics, first and foremost for formalism. I categorically refused to accept those accusations and will not accept them. I never was and never will be a formalist. Slandering a work as formalist only because its language is complex, or because it is not immediately apparent, is an impermissible recklessness.” Responding in such a way at those times was an admirable feat of bravery and artistic integrity.
But now there was no one to respond to. The review was published anonymously – as an editorial – at the official Party newspaper. Herein lied the danger: such accusations, in particular when they came from such a source, were reason enough for artistic blacklisting, public persecution, and in extreme cases for arrest, exile and even death. One needn´t look far to find an example: Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was mentioned by the critic (Shostakovich, according to him, brought “Meyerholdian” traits into the opera), was one of the greatest theatre directors of Russia. After the October Revolution he applied himself excitedly to the Socialist cause, and in the 20´s even enjoyed the regime´s plaudits. But towards the 30´s, a change in his artistic attitude led his plays to become increasingly abstract, grotesque and bitterly satirical. Those changes distanced him from the party´s line, and caused an unending stream of accusations of formalism. His art was denounced as foreign to the people and hostile to the realities of Soviet life. His end was tragic. In 1938 his theatre was shut down. A year later he was arrested, interrogated, and under harsh torture made to “confess” to betraying his motherland and spying for the “capitalist enemy”: the British and the Japanese. In 1940 he was executed by firing squad. Prior to that, near the time of his arrest, his wife, the actress Zinaida Reich, was murdered in their apartment by multiple knife stabs.
They were not the only ones – in those years (and in fact, all through the existence of the Soviet regime), there was not a single person in the Soviet Union who could vouch for his own safety, the safety of his family or at least for his working place. Nothing granted protection from the regime – neither one´s position in the Party, nor one´s previous achievements, and certainly not one´s artistic talent. Therefore, the following sentence from the review reads especially dark and threatening: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.”
Some of you might now be curious to know what happened in the opera, and what this formalistic monstrosity sounded like. To start with, a few words about the plot: Katerina, a young woman, is married since five years to the merchant Zinovij Izmailov. Loveless and without children, Katerina is ready to claw walls out of endless boredom and sexual yearning:
“…but no one will come to me,
no one will put his hand round my waist,
no one will press his lips to mine.
No one will stroke my white breast,
no one will tire me out with his passionate embraces.”
Her husband lacks a backbone, and his old father, Boris, rules over house and trade with an iron fist. The merchant Zinovij departs the house – a dam has been breached, and his presence is necessary – and before leaving presents a new labourer, Sergey, handsome and arrogant, of whom the rumours whisper: was thrown out of his previous master´s house for getting involved in an affair with the mistress herself. Katerina encounters him chasing the cook in the head of a group of trade workers (today this scene is often staged as a gang rape), and their quarrel, which includes a bit of manhandling, excites him so strongly that he sneaks up to her room that night, to “borrow a book”. Books she has none: she herself is illiterate, and her husband doesn´t read books – but their conversation, which at first concerns Katerina´s bitter fate and Sergey´s “sensitive” soul, soon slides onto other rails. Sergey overcomes Katerina´s resistance (she is torn between her yearning for Sergey and the vow of chastity she had sworn to her husband) and carries her to the marital bed, accompanied by some very graphical music indeed (in 1935, the New York Sun critic dubbed it “pornophony”, which, one must admit, is pretty close to the truth).
Sergey is not the only one wishing for Katerina´s company. Her father-in-law, Boris, walks around the courtyard with a lantern, lurking for thieves, and upon seeing the light in Katerina´s window, decides to visit her too:
“Seems she can’t sleep;
of course, she’s a young woman;
and there’s no one to console her.
Now if I were younger,
just ten years or so,
what I’d do!
She’d have it hot from me;
hot, yes, by God, so hot,
it’d even be good enough for her!
A healthy woman like that
and no man around, no man,
no man, no man ,
no man, no man around;
no man, no man at all.
No man, no man,
no man, no man;
it’s dull for a woman without a man,
I’ll go and see her, yes I will!”
But too late – he hears the lovers part, realises right away what was going on (“You´re too late, Boris Timofeyevich!”), and rushes to catch Sergey as he climbs down the drainpipe. The punishment: 500 lashes given by his own hand, and all the while Katerina cries in supplication and hate and struggles against the labourers who hold her. When Sergey faints and the rest of the punishment is postponed to the following day (“We can´t do too much at once, or he´ll peg out.”), Boris, hungry and tired, orders Katerina to bring him food. She brings some mushroom – leftovers from dinner – which please him a great deal (“They’re delicious mushrooms, you’re really an expert, Katerina, at preparing mushrooms”). But they soon seem to accord with him less: Katerina had put rat poison in his dish. Suffering terribly Boris Timofeyevich dies, and is buried.
Katerina´s husband hasn´t returned yet, the father-in-law is done away with, and she enjoys a short spell of happiness (“Kiss me!…Not like that, not like that; kiss me so it hurts my lips and the blood rushes to my head and the icons fall from their shelves”). But Sergey refuses to cooperate. He is “not like other men, who don’t care about anything, so long as they’ve got a woman’s soft body to caress.” How can he, with his “sensitive soul”, see Katerina go to bed with her lawful husband? She calms him – “that won´t happen”. And indeed it doesn´t. One night her husband returns, accuses Katerina of cheating (“Everything, everything we´ve heard about your affairs, everything, everything), struggles with her, she calls Sergey to protect her, and together they overpower Zinovij and strangle him. “Get a priest…”, gurgles Zinovij, as Sergey lets go for a moment. “I´ll give you a priest all right!” answers Sergey, and hits Zinovij over the head with a heavy candlestick. After the deed, Sergey drags the body into the basement by the light of Katerina´s candle, and hides it there. “Now you are my husband”, says Katerina.
But their joy doesn´t last for long. On their wedding day, a “shabby little man”, as he is called in the libretto, sneaks into the basement, looking for a bottle or two of vodka, and discovers the body. Terrified, he runs to the police. The accompanying music, however, radiates pure schadenfreude and even a kind of grotesque happiness derived from the entire affair. The singer Galina Vishnevskaya, one of the greatest interpreters of Katerina´s role, recalls in her memoir “Galina: the story of a life” (1991), that Shostakovich used to say about this scene: “to the police he runs, the bastard – delighted he is going to inform… a hymn to the informers… it´s a hymn to all the informers!”
At home, during the wedding feast, Katerina notices the open basement door, and full of real terror, entreats Sergey to leave everything and run away. But too late – the polices already knocks at the gate (“You didn´t invite us, but here we are anyway! A little matter has arisen!…. There´s a little matter of a certain kind, to put it bluntly, a matter!”). Katerina gives herself up, Sergey tries to resist arrest but in vain. They are sentenced to a public flogging and exile to Siberia.
On the long and hard road to Siberia, Sergey´s “sensitive” soul tires of Katerina and he begins to woo another beautiful and young woman – Sonetka. She, on the other hand, feels no rush to oblige by granting him “his heart´s desire”, and demands a proof of his love. And what proof? Her stocking are torn, and she is cold. Let him get her another pair. Sergey exploits Katerina´s unwavering love for him and obtains the stockings, seemingly for himself. When Katerina sees her stocking on Sonetka´s legs, all becomes clear to her. And Sonetka even mocks her:
“Thank you, Katerina Lvovna,
thank you, Katerina Lvovna,
thank you for the stockings!
Look how fine they look
on my legs.
Seryozha put them on for me
and kissed my legs to make them warm!
Oh, Seryozha, my Seryozha,
Katerina’s a fool,
she couldn’t keep Sergey.
Ha, what a fool! Ha, what a fool!
And you won’t see your stockings again.
They’re mine now, look!
I’m warm now!”
Katerina doesn´t say a word. After a few moments, when she sees Sonetka standing on the edge of a cliff and looking down, she slowly approaches her, grabs her in her arms and together with her jumps into the foaming waters. End.
Indeed, this is no pleasant or easy entertainment. But what those paragraphs cannot convey is the boundless emotional power of the music that accompanies those rather horrible events. Like a mighty river flow, the tension doesn´t ease up from Katerina´s entry aria till the last knock of the timpani and the shouting chord that ends the opera. And all that time the music reflects not only the transpiring events, but first and foremost the feelings of the participants. Shostakovich distills the most basic feelings: fear, desperation, hate – but also passion, love, hope for happiness – and pours them into an aural picture projected to us, the listeners.
It is as if he broke the unspoken theatrical conventions, and instead of presenting us with theatrical feelings, penetrated deep into the tangible life with a might which permits no indifference on the listener´s part: under the music´s sway the listener is bound to feel. The effect is almost scary in its strength, and therein lies, in my opinion, a large part of the opera´s psychological power.
Luckily one can find online the Soviet musical film which was based on the opera, made in 1966, in its entirety:
This is based on a shortened and edited version of the score, but among the existing recordings, I feel it´s hard to find another one so true to the spirit of the work, and which can boast of such a musical cast. (Moreover, it seems to me that the opera benefits from its very being filmed: the acting and the editing enhance the music a lot). Galina Vishnevskaya, whom I mentioned above, is the only one to both sing and act in the movie – the rest of the participants are movie actors, who “sing” in lip-sync with the singers.
I can warmly recommend watching the entire movie, but here´s a shortlist of the strongest moments: Sergey´s being flogged by Boris (41:25), the poisoning of Boris (44:53); Zinovij return and death (1:05:04); the scene with the shabby little man (1:11:06, and especially the orchestral interlude at 1:14:00); the song of the exiled to Siberia (1:22:49 – “O, you, road ploughed by chains, / the road to Siberia, sown with bones, / this road has been watered with blood and sweat, / death groans arise from it…”); the purest, most lyrical moment of the opera – Katerina´s words to Sergey as they meet after a day´s march (1:29:12 – “Seryozha, my dearest! At last! I´ve gone the whole day without seeing you, Seryozha! Even the pain in my legs has gone, and the tiredness, and the grief, now you are with me…”). And finally, her final monologue, terrible in its disconnectedness, after Sergey´s betrayal, as for the first time since the opera began she understands what she´d done, and we see the dark chasm yawning before her (1:38:10):
“In the wood, right in a grove, there is a lake,
almost round and very deep
and the water in it is black,
black like my conscience.
And when the wind blows in the wood,
on the lake waves rise up,
huge waves and then it’s frightening,
in autumn there are always waves on the lake
and the water’s black and the waves huge.
Huge, black waves…”
Who then wrote the review in the Pravda? And why did it only appear two years after the opera´s premiere – when the opera had already seen more than 170 performances in Moscow and Leningrad (to say nothing about premieres in London, New York, Zurich, Stockholm, Buenos Aires et al)? And what of all the previous reviews in the Soviet press, which were nothing but stellar: “the first classical Soviet opera”, “a great victory of the Soviet music”…?
The archive information points to David Zaslavsky as being the review´s author. Zaslavsky (1879-1965) was a talented yet unscrupulous journalist, who changed political sides whenever it was worth his while. A Menshevik during the revolution, he joined forces with the Bolsheviks thereafter, and took part, among others, in the persecutions of the poets Ossip Mandelshtam and Boris Pasternak (two stories that ended badly: Mandelshtam was exiled to Siberia in 1938, but died of illness before reaching it – even though one did not walk that way anymore, it still remained “sown with bones”. Pasternak died of lung cancer in 1960, two years after the prolonged persecutions in the media and the heavy social pressure made him decline the Nobel Prize in literature).
But the question is, did Zaslavky write the review on his own, or was he acting upon orders from above? Here we enter an area of speculations, but it´s hard not to connect the review´s appearance with Stalin and his entourage visiting the Bolshoi and seeing the opera two days before that, on the 26th of January 1936. Stalin loved opera, frequented the Bolshoi and even had favourites among the singers. But all evidence agrees that he loved melodic, easy to follow tunes, loved the Russian operas of the 19th century – Prince Igor, The Queen of Spades, Ivan Susanin – as well as folk music.
Moreover – he did not tolerate any kind of unbecoming behaviour or attire. Vishnevskaya, the singer, recalls in her book how disgusted Stalin became seeing Tatyana in a light morning gown in the last scene of Tchaikovsky´s Eugene Onegin – a scene, in which according to Pushkin she is “sitting peaked and wan, / alone, with no adornment on;” (trans. C. Johnston).
Seeing her thus unadorned, with Onegin before her, Stalin cried: “how can a woman appear before a man like this?!” And since that day, writes Vishnevskaya, Tatyana always wore a heavy velvet dress in that scene, her hair arranged for an evening ball – and to the devil with Pushkin.
And now Stalin was presented with Lady Macbeth, with its piercing, strident musical language, light years away from Tchaikovsky´s nobility or Borodin´s colourful folk-like melodies – Shostakovich´s music was soaked with passion and lust, full of explicitly sexual scenes. It´s not surprising to discover that Stalin left the theatre before the final act, infuriated.
In juxtaposition to Stalin´s personal tastes, Solomon Volkov, author of Shostakovich and Stalin: the artist and the Tsar (2004), presents a line of political reasoning to explain Stalin´s reaction to the opera. Stalin, writes Volkov, was at the time leading a wide anti-formalistic campaign in all the arts; the Pravda was publishing one anti-formalistic article after the other – against formalism in cinematography (13th of February, 1936), in architecture (Feb 20th), in painting (March 1st), in the theatre (March 9th). The review of Lady Macbeth becomes in such an analysis a single link of a bigger chain: the regime needed an appropriate negative example in the field of music, and Lady Macbeth fit the bill. From the ethical point of view as well, continues Volkov, the opera did not agree with the line led by the Party at that time – the agenda was strengthening the institute of the Soviet family: obstacles were being put before those who wanted to divorce; abortions were outlawed, and photographs of Stalin with young kids were often published in newspapers. And here came an opera lauding “free love” (or as the critic put it, “a glorification of the merchants’ lust”), in which the divorce problem is solved simply and brutally – by killing the hated husband.
The combination of those two reasons can possibly explain the double-edged nature of the review´s accusations: aesthetic on one side (“a confused stream of sound”), and political on the other (Shostakovich “ignored the demands of Soviet culture”). But whether the hit came from here or from there, after the review was published, the days of Lady Macbeth on the stage of the Bolshoi were counted – the run was closed down after just three more performances. Within less than a month the composers of Moscow and Leningrad published condemning resolutions, and the opera was stricken out of the repertoire of the Soviet theatres till 1962, when it was staged again in a second, shortened and edited version, created by Shostakovich in 1955 (this is the version upon which the movie mentioned above was made).
Shostakovich, as opposed to many other in that era, was not arrested, was not exiled, was not executed, his immediate family remained unharmed. In the creative field, we, as observers from the future, can too say that he came out victorious – his next large-scale symphonic work, which was called “a Soviet artist’s creativeresponse to justified criticism” (i.e, one which was seen by the regime as Shostakovich´s agreement to compose within the limits set by the Party), was his Fifth Symphony – one of the pinnacles of the symphonic composition of the 20th century, and perhaps Shostakovich´s most popular work in concert halls today.
His following relationship with the Soviet government followed the carrot and stick approach – though one must admit that in Shostakovich´s case the number of carrots exceeded the norm – five Stalin prizes, five orders of Lenin and one Lenin prize, Hero of Socialist Labour, order of the October Revolution, USSR State prize and many others. The stick, when it came, was just one but very heavy. In 1948, Shostakovich topped the list of the composers accused of formalism and of distancing themselves from the people. The vast majority of his works were blacklisted, he was fired from the Moscow Conservatory, all his privileges and those of his family were rescinded, and till Stalin´s death in 1953 he was forced make a living out of writing film music (work which he hated) and a few pro-Party pieces. The public condemnation and the persecutions in the media need not be mentioned – those were self-evident.
The cynics will say – so what, even then he wasn´t arrested, he wasn´t exiled, he wasn´t executed. He survived in a place where millions perished. But it seems to me that there was a price to pay for the ongoing fear for himself and for his family, for the public insults, for the need to constantly lie and pretend, both in his outward appearance and sayings and in his “state” compositions: all of those left their mark in his “real”, sincere music – starting with the Fifth Symphony, that “creative response to justified criticism”, through his Second Trio, his Eighth and Tenth Symphonies, the Eighth Quartet (which, according to his children, he composed in memory of himself); and till his last works – the 14th Symphony (a symphonic cycle of death-related songs), the 15th Quartet (a string of six Adagio movements, including a funeral march and an elegy); the cycle of songs to the Sonnets of Michelangelo, and his very last composition, the Viola and Piano sonata. I think one need not be a student of history of music or even be acquainted with the circumstances of his life to hear the boundless pain in these works, the brokenness and the blazing anger. And at the same time – the freezing, the static blankness of having no choice and no escape. And since Lady Macbeth, despite numerous proclamations regarding his future creative plans, he never wrote another opera.