Although the Soviets clearly were most perturbed by the Babi Yar movement, which so boldly confronted officially sanctioned anti-Semitism, they could not have been pleased with the other texts that similarly cast Russian life in unflattering terms. The attempts to squelch the symphony are legendary.
Rather than threaten the composer, whose international stature gave the Soviet Union one of its few credits, the performers scheduled for the premiere in Moscow became targets. Conductor Kiril Kondrashin received a call from government goons inquiring pointedly into the state of his health; he didn't flinch. But the singer scheduled to give the first performance suddenly changed his mind and withdrew. Then his replacement failed to show up for the dress rehearsal.
Luckily, another bass, already set to sing in subsequent performances, was rushed in to save the premiere, which was demonstratively embraced by the public. The authorities were not pleased. An ultimatum was delivered: Without changes to the text, further performances would be banned. Yevtushenko provided eight substitute lines, including these: "Here lie Russian and Ukrainians, with Jews they lie in the same earth," and "I think about Russia's heroic feats in blocking fascism's path."
Shostakovich reluctantly accepted the new words, but the cloud over the symphony was not easily lifted. Performances were few.
Several years after the premiere, Temirkanov decided to program "Babi Yar" with the Leningrad Symphony. Although the copy of the score Temirkanov received from Kondrashin contained the revised lines written in over the first ones, he could still read the original. He decided to ignore the changes. (Among the conductor's prized possessions is a tape recording he made of Shostakovich playing the first movement of the symphony for him on the piano -- and singing the bass part. The composer's thin, barely audible voice intoning "Over Babi Yar there is no monument" is an extraordinarily haunting sound.)
No sooner was the concert announced than Temirkanov was summoned before the Regional Committee of the Communist Party.
"They asked me, 'Why this symphony? Shostakovich has many others,' " the conductor recalls. "I told them, 'Are you forbidding me to do the symphony? If so, I will tell Shostakovich that you said I mustn't do it.' They said, 'Oh no, we are just advising you.' I asked them, 'What are you afraid of? This symphony has already been done several times in Moscow.' 'Oh really?' That seemed to change their mind. I don't think they understood that the original text was the problem."
So Yevtushenko's poem about the legacy of Babi Yar, that place where "everything screams silently," was sung as intended. The government apparently never noticed.
Issues still fresh
Today, the issues raised by Shostakovich's 13th Symphony have hardly dissipated.
"Anti-Semitism existed in Russia before the Revolution," Temirkanov says, "and it remains now. Before, it was more on the government level; now it is more on the personal level. But anti-Semitism exists everywhere else in the world, too."
The specters raised by the "Fears" movement likewise retain their relevance.
"Maybe the reasons for feeling fear are different now," the conductor says, "but the feeling of fear still exists. And [the symphony] is a very good testimony for our children and grandchildren of what we lived through with the KGB. For me, 'Babi Yar' is the most challenging of Shostakovich's symphonies. It affects me personally, emotionally."
That's true for many other listeners, Russians and non-Russians, Jews and gentiles. Something in Yevtushenko's poems still provokes us, makes us uncomfortable, makes us question ourselves; something in Shostakovich's music still touches us deeply. The ominous bell in the first and last movements seems to toll for the living as much as for the dead, calling both to judgment.
'Babi Yar' at the BSO
What: Symphony No. 13 by Shostakovich
When: 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday
Where: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
Tickets: $22 to $57