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Shostakovich: His Choice of Tsvetaeva's Poems for Op. 143

by John Cobley

Friday Jul 31st, 2020


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) 


What is of special interest is his choice of the six Tsvetaeva poems. Of all the hundreds of poems she published, what were the reasons Shostakovich chose these six? 


I.          “To My Poems” (1913)

II.        “Where Does Such Tenderness Come From?” (1916)

III.       “Hamlet’s Dialogue with His Conscience” (1923)

IV.       “The Poet and the Tsar” (1931)

V.        “No, There Was Drumming” (1931)

VI.       “To Akhmatova” (1916)


These six poems were certainly not among Tsvetaeva’s best known; only two of them have been included in major anthologies in English (“Where Does Such Tenderness Come From?” and “To My Poems”). However, these six poems do relate in various ways to Shostakovich’s life and to his imminent death in 1975. So it’s fair to conclude that they were selected primarily on the basis of his own situation and attitudes, not for their suitability for musical treatment.


The first and last poems both concern artistic careers. The first anticipates success; the last praises success. Within this frame, are two poems about love and relationships (II and III) and two poems about the relationship between poet and state (IV and V). The relevance for Shostakovich is clear with the poems on artistic careers and the relationship between poet and state.  Not so clear is Shostakovich’s connection with the two love poems.


I.          To My Poems 


To my poems, written so early

That I didn’t know that I was a poet,

Like splashes from a fountain,

Like flashes from a rocket,


Bursting like little devils

Into a sanctuary of sleep and incense,

To my poems about youth and death,

--To unread poems!—


Scattered in the dust of bookstores

Where no one has bought or will buy them,

To my poems, like precious wine

Your turn will come.


Shostakovich, like Tsvetaeva, was a child prodigy. So he could easily identify with this poem about early creativity (“I didn’t know I was a poet”). He too had ideas “bursting like little devils” at a young age, when his work was yet to be performed and taken seriously. But what would surely have captured the composer’s attention the most was Tsvetaeva’s faith in her own early work (“Your time will come”). Tsvetaeva’s humility in this poem would also have appealed to the composer.


II.        Where Does Such Tenderness Come From? 


Where does such tenderness come from?

They’re not the first—these curls

That I’m smoothing out, and I’ve known

Lips that were darker than yours.


Stars have risen and faded.

Where does such tenderness come from?

Eyes have risen and faded

Before my own eyes.


Yet I’ve heard no such hymns

On a dark night,

Adorned—O tenderness!—

On the very breast of a singer.


Where does such tenderness come from?

And what to do with it, sly lad,

Strange singer, 

With eyelashes that couldn’t be longer?


The choice of this poem is somewhat surprising since Shostakovich was known more for irony and tragedy than for romantic expression. As well, this is a very feminine poem--it was written to fellow poet Osip Mandelstam--that talks of curls, long eyelashes and dark lips as well as of tenderness. Most importantly for Shostakovich, I suggest, the poem connects this tenderness with art. Tenderness asserts delicacy as well as affection, and Tsvetaeva sees this quality in Mandelstam, not only in his behaviour but also in his diction (“I have not heard such hymns”). She goes on to suggest this quality can be used to create poetry (“And what to do with it, sly lad”). This is the best poem of the six and clearly resonated with Shostakovich as a fine statement on creativity and its mysterious origins (“Where does such tenderness come from?”).


III.       Hamlet’s Dialogue with His Conscience 


She’s at the bottom, with the mud and 

Weeds… She went there to sleep in them, 

--But there’s no sleep down there!

--But I loved her,

Like 40,000 brothers

Could not love.


She’s at the bottom, where the mud is:

Mud!... And the last garland

Has surfaced on the river-logs…

  --But I loved her

Like 40,000…


Though, than a single lover.

 She’s at the bottom, where the mud is.

--But I—


                        loved her??


Shostakovich started writing music for Shakespeare’s Hamlet as early as 1932 (Suite from Hamlet for Small Orchestra). He rewrote this music twice in 1954 and 1963-4, the latter time for Kozintsev’s film. Tsvetaeva’s poem doesn’t touch on vocation like Pasternak’s famous Hamlet poem does; rather it dramatizes guilt--guilt over a lover’s suicide. Although there were a few strange issues in Shostakovich’s romantic life, the situation in this poem appears to have no direct relevance to his experiences, no indication that one of his lovers committed suicide. 

The most plausible explanation for choosing this poem has been suggested by more than one critic: survivor guilt. This condition is most commonly known in survivors of the Holocaust. But it has been suggested that Shostakovich might have felt this guilt too, in light of all the Russian artists who died under Soviet repression. Boris Pasternak certainly felt survivor guilt after the suicide of Tsvetaeva in 1941. However, it seems quite a stretch to see Shostakovich experiencing survivor guilt on reading this poem, especially with its repeated refrain (“But I loved her.”). I’m left wondering if there was some incident in Shostakovich’s past that attracted him to this poem.


IV.       The Poet and the Tsar 


In the otherworldly

Hall of the tsars.

--Is this marble one



So majestic 

In golden barma.

Pathetic gendarme

Of Pushkinian fame.


Harasser of the author,

Shredder of the manuscript,

Brutal butcher

Of the Polish land.


Be more vigilant !

And don’t forget

The poet-killer

Tsar Nicholas

The First.


Barma: A wide collar worn by tsars


This poem has clear associations for Shostakovich. For Tsar Nicholas I, read Stalin. Just as Nicholas I was “harasser of [Pushkin], and “censor of [his] manuscripts,” so was Stalin a harasser and censor of Shostakovich. Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich and Stalin covers this delicate relationship. Thus Tsvetaeva’s “pitiable gendarme” and “Brutal butcher of Poland” must have rung true for the composer—he, like Tsvetaeva had some Polish blood. Even more resonant would have been the line “Be more careful!” I’m sure Shostakovich was told this many times by both his friends and the authorities as he pushed the limits of Soviet toleration with his music. 

            Thus Tsvetaeva’s brief elliptical poem, which reads like brief notes to herself on seeing a statue of Nicholas I in a museum, would have immediately appealed to Shostakovich.


V.         It Wasn’t Drums…


It wasn’t drums beating when we buried our leader 

In front of the troubled regiment:

It was the teeth of the tsar leading 

The honorary drumming over the dead poet.


It was such a great honour that there was no room

For his closest friends. At the head, at the feet,

To the left, to the right—arms down the seams—

Were the chests and mugs of the police.


Isn’t it strange that in the quietest of beds 

The little boy is being supervised?

In this and that and in something like

This honour, honorably—yes, too much!


Look, the country says, despite rumours

The monarch takes care of the poet!

Honorably, honorably, honorably, super-

Honorably, honorably, to hell with it!


Who then is being carried away by thieves

Like a thief who’s been shot?                                     

A traitor? No. Through the courtyard gate

They are carrying the wisest man in Russia.


This continues the theme of Pushkin’s relationship with Nicholas I with a description of the poet’s funeral imagined by Tsvetaeva. Shostakovich would have been delighted in her use of irony here. I can imagine him laughing at the line “The monarch looks after the poet.” And he would have chuckled at the drum-like repetitions of “honour” (twice) and “honorably” (five consecutive times). 

The funeral description is full of marvelous detail. For example it’s the Tsar’s teeth that beat out the ceremonial drumming. Then there are the uniformed guards surrounding Pushkin’s corpse (“At the head, at the feet, to the left to the right, arms down the seams”). In excessive numbers, they personify rigidity, and they guard “in the quietest bed the little boy.”

Nearing the end of his life and expecting some kind of official funeral, Shostakovich chooses this poem to convey that if his funeral is full of civic pomp, it will be just as ludicrous.


VI.       To Akhmatova


Oh Muse of weeping, most beautiful of muses!

Oh you wild creature of white nights!            

You spread a black snowstorm over Russia.

And your cries pierce us like arrows.


We shy away, and a muffled “Oh.”—

A hundred thousand times--swears allegiance to you: 

Anna Akhmatova! That name is a great sigh

That falls into a nameless depth.


We are crowned only because we tread the earth

With you and because the sky above us is the same!

And he who is wounded by your mortal fate `

Departs already immortal on his deathbed.


In my melodious city the cupolas burn,

And the blind vagrant praises the blessed Saviour…

I give you my city of bells,

Akhmatova!—and my heart as well!


This paean by a young Tsvetaeva fits well with Shostakovich’s terminal condition and his thoughts of his own legacy. Her sentiment “We are crowned by this—that we tread the earth with you alone” is echoed, perhaps consciously by Akhmatova herself in a much later dedication to Shostakovich (“in whose epoch I live on earth”) in a copy of her poems that she presented to the composer.


Although they had many opportunities, Shostakovich and Akhmatova never became friends. But there was mutual appreciation from a distance. While Shostakovich never set any of her poetry to music, she did dedicate a poem to him (“Music”).


Still, I don’t think “To Akhmatova” was chosen by Shostakovich to commemorate her. Rather, Tsvetaeva’s poem appealed to Shostakovich because it was a fine tribute to a fellow artist and a fellow Muscovite. The heightened imagery and the musicality of Akhmatova’s poem are hard to miss.


Tsvetaeva’s poems translated by John Cobley


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