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How Shostakovich captures our European soul

The images coming towards us are terrible. Cities in ruins, people flee, and many perish. As in all wars, it is ordinary people who are victims. But we will survive, temporarily adapt and never lose hope for a future of peace. Like Shostakovich did.

Last week I watched a few very personal and honest documentaries made by residents of Mariupol; some images were already from 2017. Many explosions are in the background; the neighbors no longer dare to talk to each other because of different opinions. During the recordings, people have died as a victim of war aggression. The acts of war have been going on for longer and destroyed more lives than we know. These images and documentaries bring to my mind music by Shostakovich, namely his fifteenth symphony. I will explain.

Shostakovich is like Pulp Fiction

On my visit to Bucharest, I underwent my premiere of a composition by Shostakovich. Prompted by the concert, I described the music as beautiful and technically challenging, but I did not expect it to have a "Pulp Fiction" effect. At first, the irony, the magnification, and the more profound thought did not get through to me. But fortunately, that would happen later when I realized that his fifth symphony was like a warning for dark times, a crisis that would swarm worldwide with great fury. This came true sometime later; he composed this work shortly before the Second World War broke out.

How did Shostakovich survive?

Born in St. Petersburg in 1925 and a child prodigy, just four years after starting to play the piano, Shostakovich entered the conservatory at only 13 years old; at 19, he composed his first symphony while playing in vaudeville theatres to support his family. This opus was also his graduation project at the conservatory and received great acclaim.

Although he continued to live in the Soviet Union, he did not support the regime; they rejected his work, including harsh comments in the newspapers. His Fifth Symphony literally and figuratively saved his life, at this point, he would say that "it must be clear to everyone what is happening here." He also showed his quality as a survivor; he held his own despite the most challenging living conditions. Unfortunately, this also meant he reluctantly followed the regime's dictates. However, the relationship with those in power remained difficult, and it was only after Stalin's death that he could express his creativity again.

His fifth symphony is best known. Nevertheless, I am lucky to have an extraordinary recording of the Acousence Living Concert Series on vinyl of his fifteenth. This symphony is in one word: magnificent! It includes quotations from Rossini and Wagner and references to others such as Strauss and unintentionally provides an overview of Western compositions. It offers a melange of colors and scents belonging to the European palette. It presents well-known themes, takes you from anger to joy to other emotions, and sounds like an observation of the diversity that Europe may cherish as its strength. This Shostakovich is at his best, where tradition meets modernity.

The essence of Europe

In Greek mythology, Ovid describes the event when Zeus abducts the Phoenician princess, Europa, to Crete and rapes her under a tree, only to leave her behind - pregnant. Europa survived and lived a caring and healthy life despite the traumatic event. Depending on your point of view, it is permissible to interpret the name Europa as a reference to the part of the world. In any case, this princess demonstrates the determination that characterizes this continent.

Europe often receives scorn for not having a vision or voice and lacking a decisive leader. But, once again, Europe's strength will lie in its diversity, the freedom given to other opinions and the search for a compromise that embodies and empowers us. Funnily enough, it is Shostakovich - a distant observer - who perfectly captures the essence of Europe. I thank him and wish his work may survive just as well as the composer succeeded.

Enjoy the music! Roel

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