Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Babi Yar

As my tribute to Genocide Day I listened to Shostakovich's magnificent Thirteenth Symphony, which commemorates the Nazi killings in the Valley of Babi Yar, in Ukraine, including the biggest single mass murder committed in one day. He sets poems by Yevtushenko to express the horror and sadness. It struck me that Shostakovich followed exactly the same sequence as Mahler in his symphonies, starting with instrumental works, then adding voices, going back to instrumental, then going vocal again (Mahler's Eighth and Das Lied von der Erde, Shostakovich's Thirteenth and Fourteenth), and ending with purely instrumental music again. Neither composer could make his mind up whether Beethoven was right to claim that the first three movements of his Ninth had taken instrumental music as far as it could go, so that the last movement must be choral. Most symphonists have disagreed with Beethoven, some after an early experiment with voices (Sibelius' Kullervo Symphony, Vaughan-Williams' Sea Symphony), and Shostakovich and Mahler seem to have turned away from the vocal element in the end. Wordless singing probably came long before language in human evolution, and I personally prefer vocal music when I don't understand the words, so perhaps the solution we evolved for is to introduce the human voice as a wordless instrument, as Nielsen did in the magical second movement of his Third Symphony. Anyway, please listen to the Babi Yar Symphony.

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