A YEAR ago, I was at the Barbican for an emotive performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony.
The programme notes said: ‘Brutal and deadly, Russia’s 1905 revolution set in motion a chain of events that would change the country for ever. Shostakovich weaves fragments of old revolutionary songs into . . . a startling critique of political oppression.’
The NYO players wove the hymns themselves between movements: a chillingly real expression of humanity added to what Shostakovich so often touches amidst the darkness he conveys. Sung with a sonorous reality, the 180 members sat down after each vocal interlude to continue the giant orchestral piece as skilled young musicians.
I’d seen the same work just weeks before at the South Bank with one of London’s ‘grown-up’ orchestras. It was the day before the decisive December election. The dramatic piece resonated that sense of anger many had for ‘the dead parliament’, as Geoffrey Cox brilliantly described it, that attempted to impose its will over ‘the people’ with mendacious games.
Great music expresses what words cannot say. The power of the 11th gave me access to a sense of a true bloody oppression in history beyond that now-seemingly petty era of our own. My gripes over our 2019 Parliament’s juvenile games pale into insignificance against the sufferings of Russians forced to boil leather and scrape glue from wallpaper to survive starvation in Stalin’s utopia.
The hope for the new Parliament, lent to Johnson, was to deliver a new era of freedom and democracy for Britain. How extraordinary that 13 months into his regime the police have the power to stop us on the streets to check our business. Laws prevent us from seeing our families. The state has legal authority over our bodies – and sex lives. Lockdown policy is evil.
The unchallenged oppression we are now under has no standing in the heart of decent people who understand its consequence. We are told to worship the Rainbow and ‘Save the NHS’. But I won’t be told what to think. I think most decent people cannot stomach the reality of torture that many have and are enduring through the diktat. Clap onwards, people.
Shostakovich grasps the terror of state oppression. The 11th tells the story of a peasant’s protest. A peaceful crowd of 10,000 poor, marching on the Winter Palace in St Petersburg’s Palace Square to petition the Tsar for better conditions. In the second movement the timpani and bass open fire on the audience just as the troops did on the peasants. Anyone familiar with the power of the lost art of live concert music may just grasp the immense sound evoked.
The massacre of the gunfire drills into the bones and walls of the concert hall with pounding waves, which suddenly and expectedly halt to a terrifying, quivering silence of bodies lying in red snow. The piece breaks to the slow movement, called the Eternal Memory – a lament to all in time who have fallen.
Though framed on the 1905 peasants’ protest against the Tsar, the 1957 piece was likely an expression of the composer’s painful disbelief at the Soviets crushing of the Hungarian people’s uprising in 1956.
I have sometimes reflected about the kids who played the piece that Sunday in early January 2020. Aspiring careers as professional live musicians on hold. GCSE exams suspended? A-Level results estimated? Uni by Zoom?
In recent years it became fashionable for some sections of British society to wish the ‘elderly dead’ and the worst for ‘the idiots who still couldn’t give one tangible benefit’ for leaving the European Union. Today these sneering voices have found a new target to taunt: the ‘conspiracy theorists and nutjobs’ with ‘blood on their hands’. Does it occur to these callous narcissists that the ‘Covidiots’ have their own opinions and experiences?
Maybe you’re someone who believes in the autonomy of your own body and questions this hastily developed vaccine? You’re an ‘anti-vaxxer’ and Starmer wants you criminalised.
Or perhaps you are a concerned medical professional with a legitimate second opinion from official state policy? You must be shamed into silence for your dangerous opinions.
If you protest you will be met with state crackdown.
I can’t imagine the eternal pain felt by someone unable to hold a dying relative left alone on a ‘Covid secure ward’.
I can’t bear the degradation of the daughter seeing her mother struggling for breath through a care home window, and told off by care staff for making a fuss (calling a doctor).
Does anyone consider the fear of a young person trapped in a mental hospital – isolated over Christmas in the midst of a first psychosis, separated from loved ones unable to visit and fearing for their child in need of sanity?
What can you say to a father whose business is about to collapse whilst the bills keep demanding an income and his mind calls for suicide?
Send not to know for whom the bell tolls.
The cruel and sanctimonious taunts of the Covzealots are riding on the back of the power of the state’s virtuous medical tyranny that remains oblivious to widespread suffering amidst personal, family, social and economic tragedy.
The ‘Conservatives’ blindly think they are saving us from the pandemic by condemning us to further state control whilst initiating a wave of ‘creative destruction’: The economy as we knew it surely cannot survive.
Shostakovich’s music brings us within reach of the anger and despair of the truly oppressed. I hear the desperation of hope pressed downwards by fear. His work stands as a landmark from within the horrors of a Communist tyranny. In the final movement of the 11th Symphony a tyrannical mass of orchestra builds to the oppressive finale and the ‘Tocsin’, the heroic alarm bell, rings against the massing crescendo.
Shostakovich described his piece as dedicated to ‘the people who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over’. Facing the force of the state and its apologists, the warning to all of us is clear.