Paolo Hooke talks with the eminent British conductor about Shostakovitch

KMATG6 Dmitri Shostakovich(1906-1975). Russian composer and pianist. Portrait. Watercolor.

British conductor Mark Wigglesworth has conducted many of the world’s leading orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony, and New York Philharmonic. Wigglesworth has recorded the complete Shostakovich symphonies with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, to critical acclaim.

Prevailing attitudes towards Shostakovich seem to have shifted; from the possibility of satire and dissent to audiences being invited to make up their own minds. My opinion is that Shostakovich was a secret dissident who expressed protest against Stalin’s Terror and the regime through coded language of irony and satire. I would be fascinated to hear your views on Shostakovich. 
Shostakovich was able to use the emotional ambiguity of music to express emotions and thoughts that would not have been tolerated in more explicit artistic genres. Many of his literary friends, for instance, were imprisoned or shot for publishing opinions that we know Shostakovich agreed with. Music gave him the opportunity to articulate the fear, the loneliness, the anger, the depression, that so many in the audience could relate to. But his works also express courage, hope, resilience, acceptance, human dignity and compassion, and it is these positive forces that meant so much to so many, and still do today.

I vividly remember your performances in August 2019 when you conducted the Sydney Symphony in Shostakovich’s Symphony no 4. For me the unforgettable ending featuring harp, strings and celesta brings specific images to mind, of prisoners tapping on their cells. It is said Shostakovich was in the midst of writing the symphony’s final movement when the notorious articles in Pravda were published. What do you think that Shostakovich is conveying here? Does his music spark a particular imagery in your mind?  
One could come up with all sorts of images for specific moments in Shostakovich’s works. Although that has value for each individual, I think sharing my own view of what those images might be limits the imagination of people listening, people who could feel drawn to my own specifics in a way that denies their own individual response. So, though it helps me to have a clear extra-musical idea of what any particular moment might be about, I prefer to keep that to myself and hope my own specificity enables it in others even if it is not the same!

The notorious Pravda article – which was all but a virtual death sentence for Shostakovich – did indeed appear during the composition of the 4th Symphony. Where exactly is hard to tell, as Shostakovich would often compose an entire symphony in his head before committing it to paper, but whatever the exact moment, it was clearly not the time to have this piece performed. Shostakovich put it in a drawer in the hope that the time would one day come when it could be heard without the fatal consequences that would have undoubtedly come in the 1930s. And yet it is significant that Shostakovich called his next Symphony his 5th, thereby admitting that there was a 4th, albeit one that was not to be performed. He was not stupid enough to blatantly flout the government’s demand for populist music, yet he was brave enough not to pretend that he had not written something subversive.

The music of Shostakovich’s youth is full of irreverent wit and irresistible tunefulness,
such as the Hypothetically Murdered Suite. Why is Shostakovich’s early stage and theatre music relatively unknown?

I think the early theatre pieces are very much of their time. I am not sure if theatrical aesthetics and conventions stand the test of time as much as music. It feels a little dated to us now, theatrically speaking, and though the music maintains its brilliance and wit, there is less appetite for the dramatic conventions of a hundred years ago.

The Pravda censure derailed Shostakovich’s blossoming career as a composer of opera and ballet. What composer do you think Shostakovich would have become without the Pravda condemnation?
This is a fascinating question. Stalin’s intervention forced Shostakovich to express himself in a much more accessible way than he would otherwise have done. Without this change in direction he may well have become an even more interesting composer but, inevitably, would have had less popular appeal. There is no classical composer who has written more symphonies in the mainstream concert repertoire. Though two or three of his symphonies are not performed regularly, that still leaves a dozen or so that are considered staples of concert hall programmes around the world. That is more than the number Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Mahler have performed on a regular basis. So, one could argue that the compromises he made as a musician have been outweighed by the mass appeal urged upon him by the dictator. It is ironic that Stalin’s attempts to shut Shostakovich down merely served to increase the composer’s popularity, and spread far and wide the knowledge of how Stalin’s reign of terror affected so many millions.

Do you think it’s essential to understand the historical context and the composer’s circumstances when listening to Shostakovich?
I think music benefits from a performer’s understanding of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the piece, both the personal situation of the composer and of those who would have been in the audience. But a concert is not an illustrated history lecture and ultimately music has to speak on its own terms. Audiences can listen to Shostakovich’s music without any knowledge of his situation and allow it to speak to them in whatever way they choose. The emotions Shostakovich expresses and the journeys he takes us on are not unique to the twentieth-century history of Russia. The music was inspired by its context, but its reach is far wider, and all the greater for that.

Do you think that there is renewed interest in Shostakovich as a composer? 
If yes, what are the major reasons for this interest?

Time has shown that Shostakovich’s music can be appreciated away from the specifics of his own time. This is because there will always be dictators and suffering, oppression and protest, isolation and hope, but also because a little distance on from Shostakovich’s life we see that his music does stand up on its own and can be analysed and enjoyed as pure music, as well as within personal and political frameworks.

Do you take a particular approach to conducting Shostakovich compared to other composers?
There is a level of extreme in Shostakovich that is greater than most other composers. The intensity has to be of the same unbelievable degree as the situations that inspired it. When you read about what was happening to Shostakovich and his contemporaries it beggars belief that such atrocities occurred within many of our lifetimes. The musical performances have to honour that horror, that absurdity. My job as a conductor is to try to persuade large numbers of musicians to match that height of emotion and of course one always fails because it can never be enough. Not really. No musical performance can be as terrible as the experiences of those it is describing. Even coming close to it is exhausting and draining. So as I get older, I am doing less and less of his music simply because it isn’t easy to keep trying to reach that pinnacle of emotion every time. Brahms is wonderful too! And if you cannot do justice to Shostakovich the man and times, I think it better not to try. He and his situation deserve the very best from us and the circumstances in which one can achieve that are not always in your control. “Going there” is an essential part of performing Shostakovich, but it does not come without cost.

Mark Wigglesworth will be conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on Friday 15 and Saturday 16 September: Event Details HERE.

This article originally appeared in the September issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine