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Articles from Sequence II:

BRITTEN War Requiem

BRAHMS German Requiem

CORIGLIANO Of Rage and Remembrance: Symphony No.1

ELIAS The Prayer Cycle

"Images of Christ"

MAHLER Symphony No.9

MARTINÙ Memorial to Lidice. NONO Canti di vita e d'amore. SCHÖNBERG A Survivor from Warsaw. HARTMANN Symphony No.1 "Versuch eines Requiem"

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No.13 "Babi Yar"

More Requiem Articles


An Inktroduction by Benjamin Chee

In the dark years of the Second World War when the German juggernaut swept across the Europe in the west and east, it was driven by an agenda more sinister than simple territorial conquest. For, following in the wake of the German forces were elite teams of Einsatzgruppen ("Task Force") whose mission was to infiltrate captured villages and towns, identify, segregate and ultimately exterminate the entire race of European Jewry. These death squads went into each population and efficiently dispatched all who were racially undesirable - which included not only Jews, but also gypsies, Communists, prisoners-of-war and dissidents.

This was the beginning of what we know today as the Holocaust. By the end of the war, close to six million victims would be claimed in this insane act of genocide which lasted only just under four years. The numbers are staggering, the atrocity is unimaginable. It was a calculated act of hate unmatched in any instance in history before or since, and names indelibly associated. One of the foremost that comes to mind is Babi Yar.

Babi Yar is located in the northwest suburbs of the city of Kiev; a large, unremarkable dirt-sided ravine in its own right. The immediate geography of rolling hills, dotted with weather-beaten clumps of bracken, and rocky, infertile land is only slightly less forboding than the gray, industrial anvil-headed clouds over Kiev. The Lubiankov cemetery - ironically a former Jewish burial ground - stands at one end of the ravine, marking the end of Melnik Street. Today, a 50-foot-high bronze sculpture stands about a mile from this place, erected by the Brezhnev government in 1974 in mute testimony to the massacre.

On September 27th and 28th, 1941, posters throughout Kiev ordered the assembly of Jews for "resettlement". The crowds were then led out of the city towards the place of death. The watchman at the old Jewish Lubiankov cemetery near Babi Yar describes how

...(they) formed a corridor and drove the panic-stricken people towards the huge glade, where sticks, swearings and dogs who were tearing people's bodies, forced them to undress, form into two columns going towards the mouth of the ravine ... they found themselves on the narrow ledge above the precipice, twenty to twenty-five metres high, and on the opposite side were the Germans' machine guns. The killed, wounded and half-dead fell down and were smashed there. The next hundred were brought and everything repeated again. Children were taken by the legs and thrown alive into the Yar.
In the space of 36 hours, the Einsatzkommando unit reported the murder of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar, one of the first and worst atrocities of the Holocaust. And it did not end there: over the next two years, the site would claim over 100,000 victims. An inscription at the base of the commemorative monument states, "Here, in 1941-43, the German Fascist invaders executed over 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war." It does not, however, say why they were killed.

When Shostakovich, in 1962, set the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko to symphonic music for bass soloist, male chorus and large orchestra, he was actually addressing subjects with which he had always been grappling with in his artistic manifesto: the ideological themes of war and revolution, prejudice and racism, as well as more ecumenical issues like the roles and symbiosis between society and the artist.

There is also, understandably, a certain element of socialist doctrinal content in Shostakovich's music, working behind the Iron Curtain in the post-war years, as it were. One must also recall Stalin's infamous decree of 10 February 1948, after a three-day conference of the Communist Party Central Committee, which accused a number of composers, including Shostakovich, Khachaturian (never mind he wasn't acutally Greater Russian but Georgian) and Prokofiev, of "representing formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet people" and "infatuation with confused, neurotic combinations which turns music into cacophony". Israel Nestyev, Prokofiev's biographer, added, "It was necessary to help the talented artists overcome their delusions and to bring their creations into accord with the demands of the people."

In the wake of this nonsensical lambast, coming as it did from Stalin, said composers were forced to recant their artistic credo and toe the party line, as it were, in their subsequent output. Not until several years later, in 1953 when Stalin died, did the inclement musical climate in Russia begin to thaw, and works which were hitherto unpublished or unperformed finally appeared. And the authorities, as authorities go, never really did grasp the underlying subversiveness behind Shostakovich's music - the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, for example, were his self-confessed requiem not just for countrymen who perished in the Great Motherland War, but also those killed on Stalin's orders before the war.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Shostakovich would return to a familiar theme as a setting for his Thirteenth Symphony. Technically, the work is fairly straightforward - the words are set syllabically, following the contours of the musical language in simple harmonic style and accented beats. (Prokofiev, it should be mentioned here, also adopts a similar style in his vocal settings of text). There are five movements, each movement set to a different poem. The poetry is mainly in prose form.

To perform the work, Shostakovich explicitly specifies a male bass chorus to the size of forty-to-hundred strong, with a bass soloist. This chorus sings in unison throughout, save for a short cadence in the third movement. The orchestra is - as already stated - augmented: triple woodwinds, a kitchenful of percussion (including tambourine, triangle, wood blocks, castanets, chimes and piano), two obbligato harps (although four are preferred), plus a minimum of sixty-four strings. Ironically, despite the massive forces deployed here, the full ensemble only appears sparingly. This is, of course, to accentuate the effect on such an occasion.

This work also tips its hat in the direction of Mussorgsky (for whom Shostakovich had just orchestrated Songs and Dances of Death before starting on this symphony) and Mahler, with whom Shostakovich's music shares a very articulated affinity of mood and awareness of human mortality. They also share a common denominator in the way of requiring large orchestral forces - not merely an act of extravagance or megalomania, as ignorant critics might accuse, but the fulfillment of a grand conception on the part of the composer to bring the message of the work across.

The tonality of this symphony lies in B-flat minor, a fairly rare key which does not immediately bring to mind another symphony in a similar key. It is in this key which the first movement, the poetical setting of "Babi Yar" (from which the symphony derives its name) begins, alternating with the secondary key of G minor.

The Soviet authorities had the most problems with the potentially subversive setting of this poem - so much so that at the premiere, the Moscow Conservatory was cordoned off for security and the text omitted from the programme book - and changes were demanded, even though the poem had been published and in circulation for some years already. A source of this problem might have been, from the tone of the poem, the implicit reference to anti-Semitic atrocities - and thus, it had to be clarified that it was not only the majority of Jews who were murdered at Babi Yar, but also Russians and Ukranians. Nonetheless, "Babi Yar" still ends on a note of defiance (Shostakovich here marking a quadruple sforzando - sffff ):

I am each old man who was shot here,
I am each child who was shot here,
No part of me can ever forget this.
Let the "Internationale" thunder out
when the last anti-Semite on the earth
has been finally buried.

"Humour", the second movement, turns away from the solemnity and brooding of the massacre, and rejoices instead in the vitality of the human spirit. "Humour" himself is personified as a Till Eulenspiegelian prankster, a cheeky and irreverent character who eludes tyrants, insults authority and throws defiance in the face of authority. To quote the motto of a 17th century French harlequin, castigat ridendo mores - "it corrects morals by laughter". Quite appropriately, this setting is in the sunny key of C major.

The next movement, "In the Store", pays tribute to the women of Russia: the guardian angels and breadwinners of their families, fighting a different kind of war from their men away at the front line and enduring hardships with a steely strength. The movement is predominantly in the slightly raised key of E minor, which continues without a pause, via the major third of E, G sharp (i.e. A flat), to the fourth movement, "Fears".

Unlike any of the other movements, "Fears" is not cast in any particular key, as the text reminisces about the paranoia in the older Russia of bygone years and with a wry twist of irony, states that there are new fears dawning - the ambivalent atmosphere created with sustained notes (accidental G sharp) drawn by the cellos and doublebasses. This movement also carries on without a pause into the next, thematically and structurally linking the last three movements.

The final movement, "A career", is equally full of droll irony about the pursuit of one's vocation in the face of political and bureaucratic opposition - comedy here used as a device for pointing out unpleasant truths in subtle ways - using no less an example than that of Galileo against the church, and pointing out that

Talent is talent, whatever name you give it.
They're forgotten,
those who hurled curses,
but we remember
the ones who were cursed.

The poem concludes much as an exhortation to follow the examples of those who bravely followed their careers in the face of hostility and opposition, and the music also returns full circle: ending on a B-flat major triad with an A-flat over, concluding the symphony with wistful beauty that postulates an acceptance of the difficulties of social existence (as much in Russia as anywhere else) and the horrors that are visited upon it.

The entire paean itself thus assumes the form of a requiem, to Russians (and humanity at large) in the wake of the Great Motherland War. It is Shostakovich's cry from the heart that speaks directly to present-day society; it is also a memorial for the dead of the Holocaust, and a comfort for the living mourning.

Benjamin Chee visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in late 1997, and has not forgotten.

Return to the Requiem Cycle Index... or read other reviews from archives of the Inkvault.

556: 3.8.1999 ©Benjamin Chee

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Readers' Comments


From: Piotr D. Musial (peter_m_@hotmail.com / Tuesday, December 18, 2001 at 11:03:03)

Regarding: http://inkpot.com/classical/shostasym13.html "It was a calculated act of hate unmatched in any instance in history before or since" This is just plain not true. Take for example the almost total extermination of the American Indians during the 19th century. That genocide numbered roughly 15000000 and entire nations were wiped out because of it. There are also other examples in history of genocides bigger than the Jewish Holocaust. Since the article is about Ukraine, we can mention the artificial famines that killed some 8 million people. See http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html under the Ukrainian article. To Benjamin Chee: I have visited Auschwitz too, see my pictures of it at http://www.geocities.com/picturesfrompoland2000iii/Auschwitz.html I also have a relative who died at Auschwitz. No, he was not a Jew. He was one of thousands of Poles (gentiles) who were murdered there. In fact, some 2-3 million Polish non-Jews were murdered by Germans during W.W.II. The Germans killed even more civilians in Ukraine. Shostakovich is my favorite composer and I do not seek to disrespect the memory of the Jewish Holocaust, however I find the statement that you have made on your page insulting and arrogant.

From: Bill (adman215@yahoo.com / Thursday, March 13, 2003 at 00:18:55)

Eat poop!!!

From: Andrew Lund (andrewlund73@hotmail.com / Monday, February 23, 2004 at 02:22:29)

Who would take seriously an article written by or enorsed by the CIA? Are you not aware of the practice of didinformation by intellegence agencies?

From: Josh (josh-garlick@hotmail.com / Friday, April 22, 2005 at 00:48:06)

I think that the end result is terrible and I am glad that this site is here to inform the people. No one knows the truth of what happened.

From: Josh (josh-garlick@hotmail.com / Friday, April 22, 2005 at 00:49:06)

I think you all suck monkey nuts.

From: Josh (josh-garlick@hotmail.com / Friday, April 22, 2005 at 00:50:52)

In the dark years of the Second World War when the German juggernaut swept across the Europe in the west and east, it was driven by an agenda more sinister than simple territorial conquest. For, following in the wake of the German forces were elite teams of Einsatzgruppen ("Task Force") whose mission was to infiltrate captured villages and towns, identify, segregate and ultimately exterminate the entire race of European Jewry. These death squads went into each population and efficiently dispatched all who were racially undesirable - which included not only Jews, but also gypsies, Communists, prisoners-of-war and dissidents. This was the beginning of what we know today as the Holocaust. By the end of the war, close to six million victims would be claimed in this insane act of genocide which lasted only just under four years. The numbers are staggering, the atrocity is unimaginable. It was a calculated act of hate unmatched in any instance in history before or since, and names indelibly associated. One of the foremost that comes to mind is Babi Yar. Babi Yar is located in the northwest suburbs of the city of Kiev; a large, unremarkable dirt-sided ravine in its own right. The immediate geography of rolling hills, dotted with weather-beaten clumps of bracken, and rocky, infertile land is only slightly less forboding than the gray, industrial anvil-headed clouds over Kiev. The Lubiankov cemetery - ironically a former Jewish burial ground - stands at one end of the ravine, marking the end of Melnik Street. Today, a 50-foot-high bronze sculpture stands about a mile from this place, erected by the Brezhnev government in 1974 in mute testimony to the massacre. On September 27th and 28th, 1941, posters throughout Kiev ordered the assembly of Jews for "resettlement". The crowds were then led out of the city towards the place of death. The watchman at the old Jewish Lubiankov cemetery near Babi Yar describes how ...(they) formed a corridor and drove the panic-stricken people towards the huge glade, where sticks, swearings and dogs who were tearing people's bodies, forced them to undress, form into two columns going towards the mouth of the ravine ... they found themselves on the narrow ledge above the precipice, twenty to twenty-five metres high, and on the opposite side were the Germans' machine guns. The killed, wounded and half-dead fell down and were smashed there. The next hundred were brought and everything repeated again. Children were taken by the legs and thrown alive into the Yar. In the space of 36 hours, the Einsatzkommando unit reported the murder of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar, one of the first and worst atrocities of the Holocaust. And it did not end there: over the next two years, the site would claim over 100,000 victims. An inscription at the base of the commemorative monument states, "Here, in 1941-43, the German Fascist invaders executed over 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war." It does not, however, say why they were killed. When Shostakovich, in 1962, set the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko to symphonic music for bass soloist, male chorus and large orchestra, he was actually addressing subjects with which he had always been grappling with in his artistic manifesto: the ideological themes of war and revolution, prejudice and racism, as well as more ecumenical issues like the roles and symbiosis between society and the artist. There is also, understandably, a certain element of socialist doctrinal content in Shostakovich's music, working behind the Iron Curtain in the post-war years, as it were. One must also recall Stalin's infamous decree of 10 February 1948, after a three-day conference of the Communist Party Central Committee, which accused a number of composers, including Shostakovich, Khachaturian (never mind he wasn't acutally Greater Russian but Georgian) and Prokofiev, of "representing formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet people" and "infatuation with confused, neurotic combinations which turns music into cacophony". Israel Nestyev, Prokofiev's biographer, added, "It was necessary to help the talented artists overcome their delusions and to bring their creations into accord with the demands of the people." In the wake of this nonsensical lambast, coming as it did from Stalin, said composers were forced to recant their artistic credo and toe the party line, as it were, in their subsequent output. Not until several years later, in 1953 when Stalin died, did the inclement musical climate in Russia begin to thaw, and works which were hitherto unpublished or unperformed finally appeared. And the authorities, as authorities go, never really did grasp the underlying subversiveness behind Shostakovich's music - the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, for example, were his self-confessed requiem not just for countrymen who perished in the Great Motherland War, but also those killed on Stalin's orders before the war. It therefore comes as no surprise that Shostakovich would return to a familiar theme as a setting for his Thirteenth Symphony. Technically, the work is fairly straightforward - the words are set syllabically, following the contours of the musical language in simple harmonic style and accented beats. (Prokofiev, it should be mentioned here, also adopts a similar style in his vocal settings of text). There are five movements, each movement set to a different poem. The poetry is mainly in prose form. To perform the work, Shostakovich explicitly specifies a male bass chorus to the size of forty-to-hundred strong, with a bass soloist. This chorus sings in unison throughout, save for a short cadence in the third movement. The orchestra is - as already stated - augmented: triple woodwinds, a kitchenful of percussion (including tambourine, triangle, wood blocks, castanets, chimes and piano), two obbligato harps (although four are preferred), plus a minimum of sixty-four strings. Ironically, despite the massive forces deployed here, the full ensemble only appears sparingly. This is, of course, to accentuate the effect on such an occasion. This work also tips its hat in the direction of Mussorgsky (for whom Shostakovich had just orchestrated Songs and Dances of Death before starting on this symphony) and Mahler, with whom Shostakovich's music shares a very articulated affinity of mood and awareness of human mortality. They also share a common denominator in the way of requiring large orchestral forces - not merely an act of extravagance or megalomania, as ignorant critics might accuse, but the fulfillment of a grand conception on the part of the composer to bring the message of the work across. The tonality of this symphony lies in B-flat minor, a fairly rare key which does not immediately bring to mind another symphony in a similar key. It is in this key which the first movement, the poetical setting of "Babi Yar" (from which the symphony derives its name) begins, alternating with the secondary key of G minor. The Soviet authorities had the most problems with the potentially subversive setting of this poem - so much so that at the premiere, the Moscow Conservatory was cordoned off for security and the text omitted from the programme book - and changes were demanded, even though the poem had been published and in circulation for some years already. A source of this problem might have been, from the tone of the poem, the implicit reference to anti-Semitic atrocities - and thus, it had to be clarified that it was not only the majority of Jews who were murdered at Babi Yar, but also Russians and Ukranians. Nonetheless, "Babi Yar" still ends on a note of defiance (Shostakovich here marking a quadruple sforzando - sffff ): I am each old man who was shot here, I am each child who was shot here, No part of me can ever forget this. Let the "Internationale" thunder out when the last anti-Semite on the earth has been finally buried. "Humour", the second movement, turns away from the solemnity and brooding of the massacre, and rejoices instead in the vitality of the human spirit. "Humour" himself is personified as a Till Eulenspiegelian prankster, a cheeky and irreverent character who eludes tyrants, insults authority and throws defiance in the face of authority. To quote the motto of a 17th century French harlequin, castigat ridendo mores - "it corrects morals by laughter". Quite appropriately, this setting is in the sunny key of C major. The next movement, "In the Store", pays tribute to the women of Russia: the guardian angels and breadwinners of their families, fighting a different kind of war from their men away at the front line and enduring hardships with a steely strength. The movement is predominantly in the slightly raised key of E minor, which continues without a pause, via the major third of E, G sharp (i.e. A flat), to the fourth movement, "Fears". Unlike any of the other movements, "Fears" is not cast in any particular key, as the text reminisces about the paranoia in the older Russia of bygone years and with a wry twist of irony, states that there are new fears dawning - the ambivalent atmosphere created with sustained notes (accidental G sharp) drawn by the cellos and doublebasses. This movement also carries on without a pause into the next, thematically and structurally linking the last three movements. The final movement, "A career", is equally full of droll irony about the pursuit of one's vocation in the face of political and bureaucratic opposition - comedy here used as a device for pointing out unpleasant truths in subtle ways - using no less an example than that of Galileo against the church, and pointing out that Talent is talent, whatever name you give it. They're forgotten, those who hurled curses, but we remember the ones who were cursed. The poem concludes much as an exhortation to follow the examples of those who bravely followed their careers in the face of hostility and opposition, and the music also returns full circle: ending on a B-flat major triad with an A-flat over, concluding the symphony with wistful beauty that postulates an acceptance of the difficulties of social existence (as much in Russia as anywhere else) and the horrors that are visited upon it. The entire paean itself thus assumes the form of a requiem, to Russians (and humanity at large) in the wake of the Great Motherland War. It is Shostakovich's cry from the heart that speaks directly to present-day society; it is also a memorial for the dead of the Holocaust, and a comfort for the living mourning.

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