Shostakovich op. 134 Program Notes/Poems

Maybe the most terrifying and similar aspect of war and nature is their indifference; the randomness of their affliction. Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata op. 134 written in 1968 is one of nine compositions where he uses a twelve-tone row, which begins the first movement. Something about the equanimity of serialism, the lack of meaning inherent in the equal representation enacts some of the horror of that indifference. When everything or everyone is equal, no one is special, and if no one is special, we are all expendable. I believe Shostakovich used serialism as well as a wide variety of techniques throughout the entire piece to portray the psychological aftereffects and wreckage of war. Theodor Adorno infamously wrote in 1949, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In a sense, Shostakovich heeds this advice. He writes against himself, mitigates his own beautiful melodies by chaining them to an open string so that they rub painfully in dissonance verticality as they reach horizontally for expansion, or he dictates one dynamic marking for clear phrases he has written so you have to go against your human instinct to phrase, to be polite and musically trained, you have to, in a sense, become indifferent and barbaric. This is what war does to people. There is no longer any poetry without it. He uses these techniques to express the inability to express. The first movement Andante is banal, spectral, and agitated in tone, with a “lighter” coy middle section which straddles cynicism and optimism so perfectly it is hard to distinguish which is which.  There are eerie whistling passages on the E-string with spidery arpeggios in the violin left hand which add an extra element of fear. The movement ends with hollow ponticello tremolo… reminiscent of reflexes, the way muscles can twitch and spasm after death. The second movement is brutal in it’s relentlessness. There is no rest in this movement for the performers or the listeners. With a constant barrage of shrieks, whinnies, and desperate pleas, this movement is an assault on the senses. The last movement, Largo, is a passacaglia- continuous variations on an eleven-bar theme which is first woodenly plucked in one dynamic by the violin before the piano joins, adding depth to the 2D melody. Later, the piano has this simple theme, followed by a violin pizzicato. This and other passages like it in the first movement show almost a literal haunting of one instrument by another. A residue from the war that can’t be washed off. The variations engorge and pare down at different points, but a passacaglia in a sense is just perpetuation. More of the same- a repackaged, refurbished soviet life ad nauseum. The movement reaches a breaking point with cadenzas first by the piano, and then by the violin. After these existential cadential outbursts make feeling more permissable, the theme returns, now more awakened, more expressed and expressable. The piece ends with the return of the eerie whistling passage, and the hollow ponticello death spasms. Which begs the question… having been through the cadenzas, are the spasms more redemptive at the end of this movement? Do we have some kind of closure having spent the entire last movement trying to achieve feeling and humanity? Or maybe that doesn’t count for anything. Death is the most indifferent and undiscerning of all.

(the following is a poem structured around a 12-word row to go with the serial aspects of the piece)

human machine feral hollow automated tender emptiness shudder despair please numb swollen

automated machine
steady release of effluvium
toxic residue clinging,
finding every fold
in freshly starched
clothing, sleepily burrowing
in the brain
muffling synapses
as we deaden,
mouths slacken
become bored

automated despair
an inner murmur
a shiver far down the spine
small choruses with
numbed tongues
sleepily mumbling
thomething ith wrong
buried agitation
so far recessed
just a vague anxiety
in the hollow cave
of the mind

automated human
it feels better when
the business of death
is neat, packaged
as virtue
the sounds, so punctual
so clean and compact
efficient in it’s consonance
helps us forget the
devastation of it’s
emotional resonance

tender machine
releasing comfort.
a spidery silk garment,
numbing paralysis
of indifference
weeping without
feeling, sobbing
pure bodily response
each tear perfectly timed
to follow the next

hollow despair
it doesn’t come
the heart slowly
turns to wood
knocking in the breastplate
left, right, left
mass puppetry
of military
rhythm a cage
against feeling
besides propriety
these hollow men
who would rather be right
than alive

feral human
they are blurting,
groping death
nonsensical, casual
waltzing in
dripping polka dots
on the plaster

please despair
limbs crack open
like pomegranate carcasses
cleanliness and
order crack open
separation of ethics
and bodies
it doesn’t come
to be unrelenting
unfeeling, no longer men
not even animal
neighing in their
consumptive terror

swollen emptiness
aborted feelings
the largest presence
is absence
fragments, shards
to pick up and examine
residue clinging
ebbing at the oaken
heart eroding

please numb
the waves of
digitized death
crashing against
knocking with a crooked finger
insistent small chorus
cicada voices humming
demanding audience
guilt and applause

human despair
blurting, groping
grasping meaning
accumulated heaviness
running crippled
wearing a shroud
weighted with guilt
unseeing eyes
scales ripped off
and unbalanced

tender human
a sorrow song
mumbled off-key
moments of light in
the regularly irregular
movements of dilapidated
life which still charges on

human emptiness
consumptive terror
aborted feelings
creaky half-wood heart
no longer men
blurting death
right, left, right
wearing that dew-jeweled
silk garment
of indifference, of
as the caged heart shudders
spasms in emotional
rigor mortis

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