Shostakovich suffered all his life from bad health. From 1958 he began
to suffer from a debilitating nervous illness that turned out to be a form of
polio; this seriously affected his ability to play the piano. He also had a
heart condition. In May 1966 as part of his sixtieth birthday celebrations he
nerved himself to accompany the bass Yevgeni Nesterenko for the premieres of
his satirical song cycle Five Romances on
texts from Krokodil Magazine and
the delightfully ironic miniature Preface
to the Complete Edition of My Works and a Brief Reflection apropos of This
Preface. He had not performed in public for two years, so the combination
of his nervousness and the stifling heat led
to his first heart attack. While recovering from this in hospital, he chose the
Alexander Blok texts for a commission Rostropovich had given him for some
vocalises for himself and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya. But after he returned
home, forbidden to smoke or to drink, he suffered a creative block for nearly a
year and began to wonder if he had dried up.
Then one day his wife Irina went away for a few days and he started
looking through the cupboards and lo and
behold there on the bottom shelf was a half bottle of brandy. She had hidden
all the drink in the house, but by chance I discovered this bottle. And you know,
I had this sudden urge to drink, which I couldn’t resist, so I had a glass. And
you know, it was so good that I sat down and everything came to me at once, and
I finished the work in three days. One wonders what Irina made of the gaps
in that narrative. In later years he used to say that a sure sign of an
imminent heart attack was when he stopped enjoying his vodka.
Shostakovich told Rostropovich: Slava,
you understand, you see, I wanted to satisfy your request – I found some
suitable texts to set and I wrote the first song as you wanted for voice and
cello. But then I started the second song with a whacking great pizzicato on
the cello, and I realised that I didn’t have sufficient instruments to
continue, so I added the violin and piano.
Alexander Blok was a great turn-of-the-century symbolist poet whom
Akhmatova met and greatly admired, though she distrusted the demonic quality in
his nature. But his poetry was hardly the sort of material that would be
approved by the authorities. Shostakovich wrote the piano part for himself,
taking into account his physical limitations. Unfortunately he broke his leg
before the premiere in October 1967 and the composer-pianist Weinberg deputised
for him in a stellar line-up, where Oistrakh joined Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya.
Ophelia’s song is a quiet Lover’s Lament to the accompaniment of the
solo cello. The text of Hamayun would never have got past the censor in
Stalin’s time; to thunderous piano chords the singer hurls out her dreadful
prophecy of dictatorship and executions, the
power of the wicked, the death of the righteous – the final comments of the
piano say everything. The third song is accompanied by the violin singing the
haunting tune of love’s loss, the inextricable intertwining of music and love.
The fourth song brings the first duo accompaniment, cello and piano, to that
mystical moment when a whole city seems to be asleep and only the poet awake.
Each of the songs, you will have noticed, takes place at dusk or dawn
or night, but for the last three interlinked songs the night is pitiless, and
the poet-composer is clearly face to face with dreadful demons. After the
raging storm in the fifth song, the singer turns to her dreams but can find no
solace outside a fading book containing a golden braid, and she looks in horror
at the approaching end. And so we reach the final overwhelming declaration of
faith in the power of music. This last mystical and impassioned song puts music
at the centre of the universe and, in words that Shostakovich clearly took desperately
seriously, tells of the sacrifices that may have to be made. The ending is not
an easy one.