A Human Requiem

We attended a another moving classical concert Sunday evening at Washington Cathedral in honor of the people of war-torn Ukraine. A friend had gotten the precious tickets for his wife and Andrea and me some weeks ago. Andrea drove us to pick up him and his wife outside of their apartment building in downtown Bethesda and then down Wisconsin Avenue through the heart of northwest DC to the cathedral site. It was impressive arriving at the immense church and grounds, including the lovely English garden. It was sunny and hot, but a steady breeze made it bearable.

The concert was given by the City Choir and Orchestra of Washington and was the last one to be conducted by the legendary choral director Robert Shafer. It included the world premiere of a new Shafer composition, “A Prayer for Ukraine”, as well as one of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (“Nimrod”). The main fare was the monumental “Human Requiem” of Brahms.

The Cathedral was a worthy place for the concert — the site of so many state funerals for fallen leaders. I recalled being there with Andrea 30 years earlier for a dramatic pageant of Native Americans commemorating Columbus Day from their perspective.

At the start, the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markorova, spoke her heartfelt appreciation for this supreme honoring of her countrymen and women, presenting sunflowers as a symbol of her country’s beauty, spirit, and gratitude.

Shafer’s “Prayer for Ukraine” was a marvelous little choral piece, reflecting the rich harmonics of Eastern European music. Elgar’s “Nimrod” is a well-known 20th century orchestral work that evokes deep feelings of solemn affirmation of boundless joy emanating from great suffering.

The Brahms Requiem is unique among pieces of this genre, most of which follow the liturgical structure of the Catholic Requiem Mass. Brahms’ follows its own organic structure, using assorted quotations from Martin Luther’s original German translation of the Bible. It has passages of deeply resonant feeling that I was able to tap into better after having done some preparatory listening beforehand.

The second of the piece’s seven sections is the most evocative for me, beautifully expressing a sense of purpose and joy emerging from long suffering. A translation of its text points to this liberating feeling:

“For all flesh is as grass
And all the glory of man
as the flower of grass.
The grass withers
and the flowers fall away.

“Be patient, therefore, brothers,
unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits
for the precious fruit of the earth,
and has long patience for it,
until he receive
the early and the later rain.

“But the word of the Lord endures forever.

“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with songs
and everlasting joy upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee.”

John Bayerl, 6/27/2022

Creativity Under Siege

Dmitri Shostakovich on civil defense duty

In its last concert program of the season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a rousing performance of the “Leningrad” Symphony (#7) by Dmitiri Shostakovich. The printed program notes for the concert included the following contextual background by A. Kori Hill:

“Millions of people, over millennia, have created during horrific circumstances.  Shostakovich was one of them, as guns and bombs destroyed his birthplace and the home he and his wife, Nina Varzar, had made for their children. On June 21, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  By July, the city of Leningrad was surrounded and under siege until 1944.  The destruction of the city, murder of over a million people through combat, and horrific living conditions caused by the siege, have led some historians to categorize this event as an act of genocide.

“Sometimes the only thing to do amid such horror is to create. Shostakovich started his seventh symphony in the early stages of the siege.  After he and his family were evacuated in the fall of 1941, Shostakovich completed his symphony for its premiere in March 1942. The composer had told a friend: ‘National Socialism is not the only form of fascism. This music is about all forms of terror, slavery, and bondage of the spirit.”  The radio broadcast of the symphony coincided with the Nazi’s planned celebration of the city’s capture. One of the musicians observed: “They never had their party. Instead, we played our symphony and Leningrad was saved.”

The BSO’s conductor for the evening, James Conlon, referred to these program notes in a brief, spoken introduction to the piece. He noted the irony of the piece’s timing – little did anyone know that in February of 2022 Russian itself would invade the Ukraine and lay violent siege to a number of its cities. He said that some people were calling for a boycott of all things Russian, including their music. He sharply disagreed, and went on to affirm Shostakovich’s intention to present a strong counterpoint to the barbarity of all acts of unprovoked military aggression.

The symphony opens with a simple, insistent march melody that grows in volume, complexity and ferocity which keeps repeating as the symphony unfolds. Some people interpret this march to represent the vast Nazi armies streaming in toward the Russian heartland. My own interpretation is that the growing unfoldment of the march is about the spirit of resistance with which the people of Leningrad met the onslaught. There are many fine recordings of the symphony and the first movement is imminently accessible even to those who aren’t fans of classical music. I heartily recommend it to you as an invitation to listen for the current spirit of indomitable resistance that the brave people of the Ukraine are manifesting on so many fronts.

Shostakovich was no fan of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Early in Shostakovich’s career, Stalin purportedly took offense at a performance of his opera based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Could it be that Stalin couldn’t stomach watching that awful tale of a bloodthirsty quest for power, and projected his discomfort onto Shostakovich? In any event, he had the composer blacklisted for many years. The patriotic fervor aroused by the Leningrad Symphony got Shostakovich back in Stalin’s good graces. But the composer’s comments about his work, quoted above, indicate that the fiery music was inspired by something greater than nationalistic devotion. It’s a strong affirmation of the indomitable human spirit in the face of the cruelest adversity.

John Bayerl