Like most educated Russians, Shostakovich was a regular reader of poetry. Throughout his life, he set many poems to music, not only Russian but also Japanese, Jewish, English, Italian, German and French. He covered some of the major Russian poets from Lermontov and Pushkin to Blok, Yevtushenko and Tsvetaeva. The very last of these Russian poets he worked on was Marina Tsvetaeva, whose poetry had become more accessible in the USSR since a major publication of her work in 1965. Shostakovich wrote the music for Six Verses of Marina Tsvetaeva in just one week in August 1973, when he was vacationing in Estonia. His health at this time was bad, and he already knew he had a terminal illness. His familiarity with Tsvetaeva’s work was increased in 1971 when he set to music Yevtushenko’s “Yelabuga Nail,” a poem about Tsvetaeva’s suicide. Soon after, he heard Tishenko’s “Three songs on Verses of Tsvetaeva” and subsequently ordered a copy (Fay 277)
Delius spent eight unrewarded years in Paris from 1888 to 1896. He arrived there at the age of 26, having just graduated in violin and composition from the Leipzig Konservatorium. His sponsors (father and uncle) were expecting him to confirm the talent that the famous composer Edvard Grieg had enthused about. Expectations were high. But although he showed consistent dedication to his craft, Delius’s compositions were not performed in the concert hall and his songs were rarely published.
English composer William Alwyn first published his 1955-6 journal in a little-known magazine, ADAM International Review (XXXII: 316-8, 1967). Although he did not admit so at the time, Alwyn made drastic cuts, many of which were made to avoid offending family, friends and acquaintances about whom he had written critically. Basically he transformed a private document into a public one. Forty years later, when almost everyone mentioned in the journal was dead—Alwyn himself died in 1985—it was decided to publish the full unedited journal. It appeared with its original title, “Ariel to Miranda,” in a 2009 compilation of Alwyn’s writings (Composing in Words). This book was edited by the eminent music critic Andrew Palmer.
At the beginning of the 1960s in the USSR, there was a brave challenge to the unofficial but strong anti-Semitism policy of the Soviet government. This challenge took the form of a symphony performed in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1962. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was the initiator with a poem written after a visit to Babi Yar, where thousands of Jews were massacred by the Nazis in 1941. This poem, entitled simply “Babi Yar,” was enthusiastically read by composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who quickly started writing orchestral music to accompany the words. (He ended up using five Yevtushenko poems, with “Babi Yar” occupying the first movement.) The public performance of this 13th Symphony under the repressive atmosphere in the USSR put both poet and composer in great danger. This danger was underlined when they had trouble finding a conductor and musicians to perform the work. Official permission to perform the work was not given until the actual day of the announced premiere. Nevertheless, the performance was a triumph.
Having wrestled several times with one of E. J. Moeran’s major works, the Symphony in G minor, I thought I understood why his work is generally neglected today. Despite some fine orchestration, the symphony comes across as unstructured to my ears. As well, I find some of the climactic passages overdone. But then I heard Lonely Waters and his cello and violin concertos. Delighted by these three works, I decided to look more deeply into Moeran’s orchestral music. A little biographical background first. Before he started serious composing, Moeran (1894-1950) served in the First World War, enlisting as a motorcycle dispatch rider in northern France. Wounded in the neck and head, he spent the rest of his life with a metal plate in his head. He was able to live a fairly normal life, although he became an alcoholic.
Dmitri Shostakovich can’t have been happy to find himself in Moldavia in 1956. Famously uncomfortable in formal situations, he had been sent there by the Soviet government to represent the USSR at the Russian Music Festival. But while he found such propaganda assignments tiresome, the fact that he was there showed that he was returning to some level of acceptance. Back in 1948 his music had been officially banned, and only after the death of Stalin in 1953 did he start to be “rehabilitated.” Still, the intense pressure from the authorities had not nearly abated, and Shostakovich, having witnessed many of his colleagues disappear, still lived an uncertain life.