Friday, March 16, 2012

Kirov Opera: Shostakovich's 13th Symphony—'Babi Yar'

The Chorus and Orchestra of The Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov Opera), under the baton of Valery Gergiev perform Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, opus 113, 'Babi Yar' at the 2006 BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall in London, England, on August 19, 2006. The soloist is bass Mikhail Petrenko. The 2006 Proms marked the centenary of Shostakovich's birth [September 25, 1906].


The first thing that must be said is that Dmitri Shostakovich was not Jewish. Neither was the poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Some persons have speculated that one or both must have had some Jewish blood flowing in their veins to write about a Jewish subject.  Yevtushenko didn't, and neither did Shostakovich, but he undoubtedly had sympathies of the grand sort. This is Shostakovich most severe criticism of the Soviet regime and its policies of anti-Semitism.  

You see, anti-Semitsim (and its current incarnation, anti-Zionism) is a form of hatred that is demeaning to both the persecutor and the persecuted. Disagreement of a policy is always possible and acceptable, but when it crosses a "red line," when it turns nasty and brutish and becomes hatred of a people, it is against humanity. Such was the situation and inspiration when Yevtushenko wrote his poem and later on when Shostakovich used it, in part, for his musical masterpiece. People with vision always seek the air of clarity that only truth can provide.

This work, a choral symphony, includes settings of poems that Yevtushenko wrote in 1961 that touched upon the Second World War massacre of mainly Jews by Nazis and their collaborators at Babi Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, on September 29-30, 1941. This work was first performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and the basses of the Republican State and Gnessin Institute Choirs, under Kirill Kondrashin, in Moscow on December 18, 1962. (Yevgeny Mravinsky refused to conduct the work.) 

Despite being heavily censored, to remove the preeminence of the Jews and their unique suffering in the work, the audience was not fooled, and the opening was a rousing success. Understandably, the musical work became problematic for the Soviet regime, the Thaw ended, and it was performed only a few times before being banned in the entire Eastern bloc. In a letter to his pupil Boris Tishchenko dated October 26, 1965, in which he defended Yevtushenko, Shostakovich wrote:
As for what "moralizing" poetry is, I didn't understand. Why, as you maintain, it isn't "among the best." Morality is the twin sister of conscience. And because Yevtushenko writes about conscience, God grant him all the very best. Every morning, instead of morning prayers, I reread —well, recite from memory—two poems from Yevtushenko, "Boots" and "A Career." "Boots" is conscience. "A Career" is morality. One should not be deprived of conscience. To lose conscience is to lose everything.
Below are the original versions, now performed, and the heavily censored version, which was not enough to satisfy the Soviet leaders and calm their fears.

Original Version
I feel myself a Jew. 
Here I tread across old Egypt. 
Here I die, nailed to the cross. 
And even now I bear the scars of it. ... 
I become a gigantic scream 
Above the thousands buried here. 
I am every old man shot dead here. 
I am every child shot dead here.

Censored Version 
Here I stand at the fountainhead 
That gives me faith in brotherhood. 
Here Russians lie, and Ukrainians 
Together with Jews in the same ground. ... 
I think of Russia's heroic dead 
In blocking the way to Fascism. 
To the smallest dew-drop, 
she is close to me In her being and her fate.


  1. George JochnowitzMarch 16, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    Even the New York Times was too embarrassed by the ancestry of its owners to mention that the victims of Babi Yar were Jews.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    Yes, the NYT prides itself as being an objective and impartial newspaper, which is both a ridiculous and impossible idea to put into practice. The newspaper does a fairly accurate job of reportage, but I wouldn't look to the Times for a moral stance in its news stories. It's too fearful to offend.


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