Reflections on a program: Beethoven and Shostakovich

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, “Emperor”; Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10. Pacific Symphony, Carl St.Clair conductor; André Watts, piano. May 3-5, 2018.

Beethoven was, of course, famously against emperors. When Napoleon, the original dedicatee of the “Eroica” Symphony, crowned himself emperor in 1804, the composer angrily erased his name from the title page. No, he obliterated it; there’s a hole in the manuscript where Napoleon’s name was. He had just as little reason to dub his Piano Concerto No. 5 as the “Emperor” and indeed did not. During the time of its composition in 1809, Napoleon’s troops were bombarding Vienna, where it is said that Beethoven cowered in a basement with a pillow over his head, trying to protect what little hearing he had left. He wrote a letter to his publisher at the time, describing the Viennese scene: “What a destructive and disorderly life I see and hear around me, nothing but drums, cannons, human misery in every form.”

No, though this concerto, contrary to the circumstances under which it was composed, is celebratory and heroic in character, it celebrates no emperor of this world. The name is said to come from a French army officer, who stood up at the Vienna premiere in 1811 and shouted “C’est l’Empereur!” If the composer heard it, surely he was not amused. If anything, Beethoven would have seen the concerto form as elevating and honoring the individual above any ruler or state. The meretricious soloist becomes the ideal citizen, overcoming all obstacles, including emperors.

In the ever-controversial “Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov),” Shostakovich has a thing or two to say about emperors, or more exactly a dictator named Joseph Stalin. “I did depict Stalin in … the Tenth,” Shostakovich says there. “I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis.” 

There are unresolved issues with the book’s authenticity (though many who knew Shostakovich attest to its basic veracity). What’s more, Shostakovich’s statement itself raises aesthetic questions as to what music is able to express. Music suggests adjectives, not nouns. Still, there can be no doubt, taking “Testimony” at its word or not, that this desolate and anguished symphony reflects something about life under Soviet rule. There are few things in music as bleak and chilling as the duetting piccolos at the end of the first movement. If we don’t see Stalin’s mustache and uniform in the scherzo, it is nonetheless fierce and threatening. 

And the work’s resolution is provocative in its implications. In the third movement, shortly after the Stalin “portrait,” Shostakovich introduces a theme, foreshadowed previously, that is made out of the initials of his name in its German spelling, DSCH or D, E-flat, C, B. This theme eventually takes over the symphony, and is loudly reiterated over and over at the end of the finale, ultimately by pounding timpani. Calling this the triumph of the individual over the state is no stretch. Calling this Shostakovich having the last laugh on Stalin isn’t either.