Congo Calling Shostakovich

shostakovich_tullypotterOn Music Through Muddle
(thank you, Pravda!)

In 1936 Dimitri Shostakovich first fell from favour with the Russian authorities. The Soviet newspaper Pravda described the music in his opera Lady Macbeth as “Muddle Instead of Music”.
Clearly this arrogant remark was aimed at destabilising and tarnishing Shostakivich’s image; it succeeded  entirely. He received an official ban which Shostakovich was persuaded to present as a voluntary withdrawal of his 4th Symphony. Whatever the case, it seems possible that this action saved the composer’s life: during this time Shostakovich feared for himself and his family. He  was forced to lay low and it wasn’t until the release of his 5th symphony that he regained favour.
“I’ll never believe that a man who understood nothing could feel the Fifth Symphony.” Was Shostakovich’s reaction to the enthusiastic reception Stalin gave the symphony.

Perseverance is the daily staple of the artist. For most, daily stretches to weekly, monthly and yearly.  A classical musician in a professional symphony orchestra will have done on average fifteen years of practise, up to eight hours a day (more if you’re a pianist) to reach the standard expected in the profession today.

Pravda’s “Muddle Instead of Music” is especially insulting as it suggests that no editing process has been applied to “Lady Macbeth”; as if the opera is just a rough first draft brainstorm and has been presented as such to the audience. This arrogant assumption is what hurts the artist most; not the criticism of his art, but the assumption that he hasn’t honed his work to the absolute best that he can deliver before launching it to the general public.

Shostakovich, like any other composer, will have grown his work through a painstaking, deliberate process. Pravda’s choice of words is interesting, but back to front; applied to the works of any creative artist “Music Through Muddle” would be a more appropriate description of the creative process.

Just like Audi’s slogan “Vorsprung Durch Technik” – Advantage Through Technology – “Music Through Muddle” suggests there is a  process through which a result is achieved. Or in Audi’s case, an advantage being achieved through a process.
Just like a crescendo to forte starts as a  piano and is a homogenous process unless marked otherwise, any work of art starts as a muddle. Be it a music composition, a sculpture or a block buster novel with international film rights: it’s started with some diffuse idea somewhere at the back of someone’s mind.

In 1994, ex-professional pilot Armand Diangienda had an idea.
(and now I hand over to my colleague Cheryl Law for this week’s guest post):

Mention of the Democratic Republic of the Congo may evoke thoughts of a nation struggling in the shadow of civil war and poverty, but over the last 20 years a remarkable musical feat has been achieved in the sprawling metropolis of Kinshasa, Africa’s third largest city and home to 9 million people.

It all started in 1994, when former professional pilot, Armand Diangienda, launched Central Africa’s only symphony orchestra in his home, with 12 wannabe musicians and not quite enough instruments.  Today L’Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste is a huge success story, with one international tour already under its belt, and its UK debut took place on 11th September 2014 in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, in a ground-breaking collaboration with the Hallé.

For the musicians of OSK, life is not always easy.  Brought together by the love of music-making, many of the orchestra’s members struggle to make ends meet.  Innovative improvisation is a part of everyday life and their gritty commitment to their art is frankly admirable.  There’s the viola-playing electrician and hairdresser, who is frequently called upon to fix the lights in rehearsals, and the cellist who gets up at 5 am to sell omelettes in the local market before walking for hours to rehearsals which can go on late into the evening. Some play on home-made instruments, and they ad lib when things go wrong; modelling violin strings from bike brake cables, and copying scores out by hand.

Diangienda’s dream to build a symphony orchestra has come a long way since he turned his home into a make-shift conservatoire, and last year he was awarded membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society, an honour previously bestowed on the likes of Brahms and Mendelssohn. It’s well deserved; injecting hope into the lives of people struggling with incessant daily challenges, Diangienda has, in one of the world’s poorest nations, created riches that money could never buy.

The BBC will show the documentary of the visit in a progamme airing on BBC 4 on Sunday 16th November 2014 – Congo Calling – An African Orchestra In Britain

The Hallé are performing Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony tonight and Sunday night 13th & 16& Nov 2014)  at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Thank you for reading!
Bea

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