How Music Can Stimulate Musings and Memories: Shostakovich's Symphony #5 Adagio

Written by

The Decca Sound, an elaborate and superbly produced volume 50 cd’s with all the great works captured on tape by this great British label.

Decca was also known for its audiophile high fidelity sound; the English company even manufactured high-end phono cartridges still prized by audiophiles.

Listening to the cd’s inside, recorded over a 55-year span beginning in the 1950s, you realize that although recording technology has changed, sound quality really hasn’t gotten much better than what’s on these 40 and 50 year old sessions, all captured on analog 10” reel-to-reel tapes.  The 200 page booklet makes it even sweeter.

One of these was a recording of Shostakovich’s sweeping 5th symphony (Bernard Haitink conducting Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra).  While I was listening to its famous adagio—lush and sweet like Mahler’s  similar Adagietto in his 5th—I pondered about how the composer had been censured by Stalin for some overly-Western earlier works and was under pressure to produce something more Russian and in line with the entrenched principles of Socialist Realism.  Remember that Stalin put offending artists who deviated from the straight and narrow path into Siberian gulags.  Many never returned.

The fifth, however, was a triumph for Shostakovich.  An hour of ecstatic applause followed the debut 1937 performance. Russians lucky enough to attend stayed up and out on the streets celebrating until dawn.  And this was during the darkest hour of Stalin’s iron-fisted rule.

I thought of my growing up during the Cold War, with neighbors building bomb shelters (you made sure you were friendly with them, just in case you didn’t have one in your own back yard).  I remember going with my mother to Hughes Market in Pacific Palisades in October, 1962,  where hysterical housewives clearing entire shelves of canned goods during the Cuban missile crisis, and our fear of nuclear annihilation by Castro and Khrushchev.

Little Richard, at the height of his early fame, was on an ocean liner en route to Australia in October,1957 just after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite to make it to space and orbit the earth.  He was afraid of flying.  It was so weird for him—and for the rest of us old enough to remember—to see that little yellow dot slowly traversing the heavens.  For American scientists and politicians, it meant that the Russian had enough rocket science to lob a nuclear missile onto our shores; for Little Richard, a superstitious person, it meant the end of the world.  Little Richard told me he threw all his gold rings and jewelry into the sea in an act of repentance; when I interviewed him on Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1985, he pleaded “fish, I want my rings, release my rings!!!!!”

Ironic but not surprising that the Russians were just as afraid of us.  Pat Metheny once told me that there was an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missle) site near his home in Lee’s Summit, Missouri; he used to play nearby as a kid.  When he played for a month in Leningrad in 1987, he got to meet and hang out with both apparatchiks and regular folk.  Metheny remembered that those ICBM’s from his childhood were aimed at Leningrad.  And for the people in Leningrad, the fear of nuclear attack was still there:  Reagan and Gorbachev had hardly reconciled their differences, and both sides had huge nuclear arsenals.

For his part, Stalin hated jazz.  One of his henchman—I think it was Maxim Gorky—compared the sound of jazz to monkeys copulating. Sounds pretty racist to me.  When Hitler condemned jazz after having invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin changed his tune and declared that jazz was the jubilant musical expression of the oppressed masses in America.

Artists like the great Polish-Soviet trumpeter Eddie Rosner, called the Russian Louis Armstrong, went from privilege to prison and back into stardom each time Stalin changed his mind.  His wife, Ruth Turkow-Kaminska, wrote an amazing book on his life in an out of Stalin’s prisons, called I Don’t Want to Be Brave Anymore.

A later Russian premier, Yuri Andropov, who served between Khrushchev and Brezhnev, once said he loved Miles Davis.  He died after just a year in office under mysterious circumstances.  Was he poisoned for enjoying Miles?

It’s so weird to look back at history. All the worries we had, my mom and dad had about the Cold War, went away with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  I wish my parents had been alive to see that.  But glad they weren’t here to see what happened to us on September 11, 2001, when a new and more elusive enemy extinguished our sense of security forever.