Babi Yar: voices that cannot be stilled

Temirkanov and the BSO honor Yevtushenko's poem, Shostakovich's music.

Classical Music

June 18, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

There is a ravine outside the Ukrainian city of Kiev, a ravine called Babi Yar, that holds within its soil the traces of a hideous crime. The place also stands as a weighty indictment against hate. No wonder so many people have wanted to make Babi Yar disappear.

The first attempt came in 1943, when the retreating Germans tried to destroy all traces of nearly 34,000 Jews murdered there in the course of two September days in 1941.

In the late 1950s, Soviet authorities, annoyed with calls for a memorial to Babi Yar's victims and with the implication that the Germans had plenty of Russian helpers in their effort to exterminate Jews, ordered the ravine turned into a lake. But the dam that was built gave way in 1961, sending a wall of rushing mud that swallowed hundreds.

Undeterred, the Soviets tried again in 1962. This time, the ravine was filled with soil and a road built over it. On the nearby spot where a concentration camp had once been located, a camp that had produced many more victims, Jew and non-Jew alike, for the ravine, apartments were constructed.

But that same year, Babi Yar still managed to rise again into view, this time through the shattering imagery of an eponymous poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and its use in a symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. Naturally, the authorities tried hard to suppress this latest evidence of the truth about Babi Yar, too, but art isn't as easily obliterated as bones and ashes.

This week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will give its first-ever performances of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, subtitled "Babi Yar." Before the concerts, Yevtushenko will recite his famous poem, as he did at a theater in Kiev in August 1961, creating a sensation. Conducting the orchestra will be its new music director, Yuri Temirkanov, who played his own role in honoring the original poem and the symphony it inspired.

A 'political' composer?

Much of Shostakovich's output is widely viewed as political. The Symphony No. 5, for example, supposedly his "answer to just criticism" from the Soviet government, is considered by some to be subtly subversive, its apparently triumphant conclusion really evoking the cries of victims of the state. Protests against authoritarian rule have been detected in other of his wordless symphonies, as well as chamber works.

Whether such condemnations are truly embedded in the scores of this composer, who became a Communist Party member late in life, will long be debated.

"I think it's wrong to read Shostakovich in such a primitive way," says Temirkanov, "to lower him by viewing him only narrowly in the framework of Russia: 'Here he is talking about communism' and 'Here he is talking about other ills of society.' Maybe he would have written music like this even if he hadn't lived through the horrors of communism.

"In Russia, it has always been the case that if you are a member of the intelligentsia you are always against the establishment, the government. It was that way before the Revolution, too. Of course, it would have been better for Shostakovich to live now. But to say he would be embracing and kissing the members of the current government would be foolish."

Still, there can be little doubt that Shostakovich had a specific, Soviet target in mind in the case of the "Babi Yar" Symphony. It doesn't disguise anything, doesn't soften any blow.

Parts of the symphony

The first lines of the bass soloist, intoning Yevtushenko's words, could not be more forthright:

"Over Babi Yar there are no monuments ... I am terrified ... I imagine that I'm a Jew ... I am behind bars, I am surrounded. Persecuted, spat on, slandered ... Without a quiver of a vein the anti-Semites proclaimed themselves 'The Union of the Russian People!' ... I myself am one long soundless cry above the thousand thousands buried here. I am every old man here shot dead. I am every child here shot dead ... There is no Jewish blood in mine, but I am adamantly hated by all anti-Semites as if I were a Jew. That is why I am a true Russian!"

The second movement, a sardonic scherzo, celebrates "Humor," which cannot be silenced by imprisonment or execution. The third, "In the Store," is a slow lament for the women of Russia who "have endured everything," who must stand in long lines for scant provisions. Another slow movement follows, this one about "Fears" that all Russians have experienced -- "the secret fear of someone informing, the secret fear of a knock at the door."

The finale returns to the sardonic mood in "Career." The story of Galileo's persecution is retold, along with other trailblazers who were degraded by contemporaries more interested in preserving the lucrative status quo. "Those who cursed them are forgotten, but the accursed are remembered well."

"In the Thirteenth Symphony," Shostakovich said, "I dealt with the problem of civic, precisely 'civic,' morality." He faced the problem of authoritarian immorality before the ink was barely dry on the score.

Babi Yar movement

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