No 1: Pesnya Ofelii 'Ophelia's Song' Razluchayas s devoy miloy 'When you parted from your beloved'
No 2: Gamayun, ptitsa veshchaya 'Gamayun, the prophet bird' Na gladyakh beskonechnïkh vod 'Over smooth, boundless waters'
No 3: Mï bïli vmeste 'We were together'
No 4: Gorod spit 'The city sleeps'
No 5: Burya 'The Storm' O, kak bezumno za oknom 'O how wildly, outside the windows'
No 6: Tayniye znaki 'Mysterious signs' Razgorayutsa tayniye znaki 'Mysterious signs blaze out'
No 7: Muzïka V nochi, kogda usnet trevoga 'At night, when fears are dormant'
Shostakovich was sixty, and haunted by thoughts of mortality which were to crystallize in the Symphony No 14 two years later. That work, which was partly inspired by Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, consists of bleak settings of poems by various authors on war, destruction and tyranny, and Shostakovich declared: ‘Everything that I have written until now over these long years has merely served as a preparation for this work.’ Of all the preceding works, the settings of seven poems by Blok are most obviously linked to this train of thought.
Rather than writing a wordless vocalise, as Rostropovich had suggested, Shostakovich turned to the poetry of the great Russian symbolist Alexander Blok (1880–1921). Blok has often been compared to Pushkin, not just for his poetic gifts, but also for his compassion for human beings oppressed by war and tyranny. The texts that Shostakovich chose for this cycle are characteristically oblique and evocative, speaking of personal joys and suffering, but hinting at the wider fate of humanity at large. Shostakovich’s settings place the poems in a world between bleakness and serenity, an ambiguity that was to characterize his music in the remaining eight years of his life.
The seven songs bring the voice and instruments together in all possible combinations, with the complete trio playing only in the final song. ‘Ophelia’s Song’ is for voice and cello, the two interweaving in sad counterpoint as Ophelia mourns her loss of Hamlet and the distance, physical and emotional, that separates them. It is inspired by Ophelia’s mad scene, but poignantly shows her sane enough to experience the full force of her loss. ‘Gamayun, the prophet bird’ is for voice and piano, opening with a procession of stark octaves which becomes gradually more and more agitated. The poem was inspired by a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov (reproduced on the cover of this booklet), which shows the prophet bird with the head of a young woman perched in a tree, her black wings folded in front of her like a cloak, staring out over an empty, watery landscape in a haunting twilight. Blok’s prophet bird foresees the devastation of Russia by the Tartars in the thirteenth century. ‘We were together’ is scored for voice and violin. This is the gentlest and most contented of the songs, with the violin playing a melody almost like a folk song. But even here, the murmuring of the stream becomes a quietly agitated motif, and the song ends with a touch of uncertainty. ‘The city sleeps’ is set with cello and piano. Over deep octaves in the piano, the cello plays a chorale-like succession of two-part chords. The premonition of troubled times, seen in the glow of the dawn, is reflected in the strange twists of harmony that disturb the serenity of the chorale. This leads straight into ‘The Storm’, for voice, violin and piano. The glassy sound of rapid repeated notes on the bridge of the violin, and fierce dotted rhythms in the piano, build to the most tumultuous climax in the whole cycle. The song ends abruptly, leaving a sustained cello note leading into ‘Mysterious signs’, which has violin and cello without the piano. This is the most elusive of the poems, full of foreboding, and Shostakovich plants a ‘mysterious sign’ of his own at the beginning, as the cello plays a twelve-note row—a motif that recurs through the song, but is not used in any ‘serial’, Schoenberg-like way. Once more, sustained notes in cello and violin lead straight on to the final song, which brings together the four musicians for the first and only time. Shostakovich added the title ‘Music’ to the untitled poem. The song proceeds in the deepest calm, until it is interrupted by a moment of intense anguish as the poem comes to an end, after which the music settles again. But the deep calm of the opening is not quite restored, the serenity being punctuated by an ominous rhythm from the piano in the final bars.
In February 1967 Shostakovich played and sang the newly composed songs to his friend Isaak Glikman: ‘In the twilight of the dying day, he played me the songs, leaving me with an unforgettable impression. In them, it seems to me, Shostakovich had written his confession, maintaining hope and belief in the future despite his sufferings.’
from notes by Robert Philip © 2011