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When Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev declared a cultural ‘thaw’, he gave permission for artistic expression that had been suppressed during the Stalin years. In 1961, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote Babi Yar, which openly denounced Russian distortion of the facts surrounding the 1941 massacre of thousands of Ukrainian Jews as well as anti-Semitism still rampant in Russia at the time. The poem was published in a major newspaper, Literaturaya Gazeta, initiating a conversation throughout Russian society about what everyone knew but was too afraid to talk about. A year later, moved and inspired by the poem, Shostakovich set it and four others by Yevtushenko to music, calling the work his Symphony No 13 – Babi Yar.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who died earlier this year, reciting to a crowd of thousands in the USSR.
In the first movement, the poet likens himself to a Jew, hated, spat on, beaten, judged and oppressed. I am sure for Yevtushenko and Shostakovich this was a residual feeling left over from the Stalin regime. In Humour, the poet uses irony and sarcasm to show how emperors, kings, and tsars, even with all their power, their prisons and their violence, could never control humour, glorious and courageous. In the Store is a quiet but oppressive ode to the strength, resilience and courage of the women of Russia, lining up for hours for a loaf of bread.
Movement four, Fears, is a gripping poem that epitomises life at the time of the Soviet Communist regime. The poet talks about fear of those in authority or of getting a knock at the door. The final movement is Career, an ode to the great people of history who, during their lives, were ridiculed by those in power.
After the poem Babi Yar was published, Khrushchev targeted Yevtushenko, discrediting him and claiming he was more interested in supporting the suffering of the Jews than those of the Russians. Upon learning that Shostakovich had orchestrated the offending poem, Khrushchev threatened to cancel the premiere. Under pressure, both the soloist Boris Gmyrya and the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky withdrew. The choir were even going to walk out. Nevertheless, in spite of everything, the bass Vitaly Gromadsky gave the first performance under the direction of Kirill Kondrashin. No party officials attended and the usual television cameras were dismantled. Needless to say, the sell out crowd rapturously applauded the work and it has been a mainstay of the Russian repertoire ever since.
It was my friend and mentor, Daniel Sumegi, who recommended I listen to the work, saying, “If you want to sing Russian music then you have to sing this.” From the opening bars it got under my skin. By the end of the third movement I was in tears and by the end of the work I was catatonic. Never before had a work affected me so completely. I was wrung out. Changed forever.
The greatest challenge in mounting a performance is finding the number of musicians needed to do it justice. In Melbourne, we will have nearly 100 musicians in the orchestra and nearly 170 men in the chorus. Rehearsals will be weekly for two months and I have been studying this score now for nearly two years.
Although an oppressive and visceral work – it is in B Flat Minor after all – there are some wonderful moments of humour (especially in the second movement) and light. The third movement ends in the most glorious and unexpected plagal cadence, which feels like the light of God has shone down from heaven. And the fifth movement thankfully opens and closes in major keys giving us hope for humanity after all that struggle.
Today, 75 years after the Babi Yar massacres, people all around the world are still persecuted for who they are or what they believe, whether they be gay people in Chechnya, people seeking political freedom in China or North Korea, or Syrian and Afghani refugees fleeing war and persecution in their homeland. It seems that humankind has not learnt from the mistakes of previous generations. However, to quote Leonard Bernstein, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
Adrian Tamburini will be the soloist in Shostakovich’s Symphony No 13, Babi Yar, with the Zelman Symphony at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on September 17.