Paolo Hooke talks with the eminent British conductor about Shostakovitch

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.

This is an excerpt from an article written for the 2MBS Fine Music Magazine – September Issue. You can read the full article on September 1st, 2023.