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September 25: Shostakovich and “Man’s Defenselessness”

September 25, 2014
“I could see anti-Semitism all around me. Jews became a symbol for me. All of man’s defenselessness was concentrated in them.” These are the words of Dmitry Shostakovich, the Russian gentile composer who was born on this date in 1906. Just as Joseph Stalin was again revving his anti-Semitic engines, following the establishment of Israel (with Soviet support) in 1948, Shostakovich composed “From Jewish Folk Poetry,” a song cycle that used texts from a 1938 collection of Jewish folk songs. The piece would not publicly premiere until 1955. Shostokovich, who constantly feared yet managed to evade arrest by the secret police, also showed solidarity with Jews with his 13th Symphony, based on Evgeny Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem, “Babi Yar.” “The words,” according to the Jerusalem Post, “include the strongest possible identification with Jewish suffering,” and “Soviet authorities disapproved of high art singling out the persecution of the Jews, as anti-Semitism was widespread in the country. Yet this is exactly the reason Shostakovich chose the poem, which includes references to Tsarist pogroms, the Dreyfus Affair, Anne Frank and the Russian Hundreds, as an all embracing unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism. When the composer first sang his setting to Yevtushenko himself, on reaching the words ‘It seems to me that I am Anne Frank,’ Shostakovich wept openly.” He was ultimately preserved by his fame: Shostakovich was awarded the Order of Stalin five times, even though Stalin himself had once described his work as “chaos instead of music.” “The frosts and winds have come again. I do not have the strength to bear it silently. Cry out, children! weep! For Winter has returned.” —“From Jewish Folk Poetry”