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Bringing Context into the Concert Hall

Musicians’ lives are not confined to the concert hall. The world in which they live shapes who they are and what they do. As a listener, how does knowing the details of a musician’s life and the context surrounding the creation of their works change your experience? Do you leave questions like these at the door when you enter the concert hall?

In 1949, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (at the time an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic), and other artists and intellectuals gathered at the Waldorf Astoria in New York to speak out against growing international tensions at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace. Bernstein’s participation in this event, and the ensuing social pressures of the Cold War, shaped much of his public life and music in the decades that followed. For Shostakovich, meanwhile, composing music within the strictures and mandates of the totalitarian Soviet regime presented its own challenges, which frequently could be literally life-threatening.


SHOSTAKOVICH  Symphony No. 4

In 1936, while completing his Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich found himself and his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk condemned by the Soviet newspaper Pravda. In an infamous article titled “Muddle Instead of Music,” the publication blackballed the opera for what it called abstract Western “formalism” that did not mesh with the Soviet-prescribed values of “socialist realism” (a government-sanctioned aesthetic philosophy that focused on communication, in contrast to formalism, which was supposedly preoccupied with musical structures without meaning). With his Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich thus faced the tenuous predicament of needing to make his personal expression and compositional style satisfy the requirements of an increasingly brutal government. Worse still, the official explanations of socialist realism were far from clear, making it hard to know how the symphony’s mixture of epic tragedy and biting, satirical irony would go over with officials. (Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, which he described as a “response to just criticism,” would feature a more extroverted and optimistic mood.) According to biographer Laurel E. Fay, several days before the premiere of the Symphony No. 4, Shostakovich had a private meeting with the secretary of the composer’s union, who convinced him to withdraw the piece entirely. It would not be premiered until 1961. Shostakovich also had to pay back his 300-ruble advance.

Listen to an excerpt from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4.

BERNSTEIN  Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”

Originally composed in 1949, and revised in 1965, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 drew inspiration from W. H. Auden’s book-length poem The Age of Anxiety, which examined the personal search for meaning in a world marked by the threat of war and constant disruptions of vapid commercialism. According to musicologist Philip Gentry, Bernstein’s symphony captured the domestic mood during the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaigns, offering a biting critique of the modern state of affairs by using a more avant-garde musical language. With this style—uncharacteristic for Bernstein—the Symphony No. 2 satisfied increasing pressure for serious, difficult music that would distinguish American art from the more accessible and popular styles required by the Soviet authorities. Bernstein completed the symphony on March 20, 1949—days before he served as a host at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace. Other artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals who participated included composer Aaron Copland, playwright Clifford Odets, and future Candide librettist Lillian Hellman. The conference even featured a (Soviet-approved) speech by Shostakovich. Following their participation in the conference, Bernstein, Copland, and Hellman all became the subjects of FBI and CIA investigations.

Listen to the Finale of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.”


Lillian Hellman’s libretto for Bernstein’s 1956 satirical operetta Candide made direct jabs at Senator Joseph McCarthy and the “red scare,” most notably in the work’s “Auto-da-Fé” scene, which directly satirized the House Un-American Activities Committee. But the larger arc of the operetta explores the idea of naïve optimism and the disillusionment of the title character—a potent topic since Hellman, Bernstein, and other participants at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace were referred to, in Life magazine, as “dupes” for (supposedly) supporting communism. While the characters in Candide have their eyes opened to the brutality of the world—like many Americans upon learning, for example, of the terrors of Stalin—the culminating number, “Make Our Garden Grow,” nonetheless offers closure and emotionally satisfying hope with an ensemble piece that, according to author Elizabeth C. Crist, “celebrate[d] a grand, utopian ideal—the politically outmoded, progressive vision of community as a diverse collective forged through common experience and shared labor.”

Listen to “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s Candide.

BERNSTEIN  Chichester Psalms

As fears of McCarthyism and the social pressures to write abstract music dissipated, Bernstein freely expressed his belief in peace and unity in the Chichester Psalms, which he composed in 1965 using an accessible musical language intended to bring people together. The work sets Psalm texts in Hebrew that are mainly in praise of God’s providence, and it ends with Psalm 133’s hopeful words: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” In the second movement, Bernstein—signaling the darker realities of the world around him—has the boy soloist sing Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want,” while being violently disrupted by a distraught chorus that asks, “Why do the nations rage? And the people imagine a vain thing?” The intentionally tonal style of the work, so opposed to the serialist atonal aesthetic that was in vogue at the time, was drawn from West Side Story—in fact, Bernstein reused material from a number he had cut from the legendary musical. But this choice was more than just an appeal to popularity, as Bernstein increasingly criticized the abstract, avant-garde music of the 1960s, even lampooning modern composers in a limerick he wrote for The New York Times.

Listen to an excerpt from Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

Photography: Bernstein courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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