Classic Cocktails and Classical Music: Shostakovich

ink drawing of composer, D. Shostakovich by David Borden, (c) 2015
Dimitri Shostakovich (c) 2015 by David Borden
Dimity Shostakovich just wanted to create music that meant something. He followed in the footsteps of the revered composer Sergei Prokofiev who is best known in the West for "Peter and the Wolf." Unfortunately for Shostakovitch, he (and Prokofiev) drew the ire of Pravda and Stalin the the 1930s when they produced music perceived as "bourgeois," degenerate, not Russian enough. He had to publicly apologize for veering away from what was "popular." It is amazing to think that there was a time when classical music was such integral part of the popular culture that it could be deemed dangerous to the state.

After his public shaming, Shostakovich composed "safe" music.

I've been listening to the 10th Symphony and an incredibly elegant LP of etudes based on Bach that the composer plays himself on solo piano. These works are tame compared to the opera of his earlier years, Lady MacBeth. which sports a sex scene that Stalin reportedly laughed at while an anxious Shostakovich looked on in terror. The official review called the production coarse and vulgar. And Shostakovich faced official sanction, and possible imprisonment or execution depending on the capricious whim of Stalin.

After his public scolding, he wrote the 5th Symphony, at which Russian audiences were brought to tears because it was about the mass executions that affected so many. The music has moments of clarity, moments of transcendence before it slips into cliche and jaunty Russian folk tunes designed to appease his masters. There is such tragedy in listening to the work of a great artist who has been brought to heel. So much anger and emotion must lie beneath the surface where the state can't comprehend. You can hear him seething, trying to break his bonds. I wonder what he would have accomplished if he had lived in the West, unfettered by an oppressive state? What if he had been able to write the 5th Symphony without the shackles of Stalin's opinion?

I think a White Russian is appropriate. It is a bittersweet drink, much like Shostakovich's musical career and his music.

Recipe for a White Russian:

2 oz. vodka
1 oz. coffee liquor (I like cinnamon flavor Kahlua)
milk to taste (I like Silk brand soy milk because I don't care for cow's milk)

Pour the vodka and coffee liquor into an old fashioned glass with plenty of ice. Stir. Top with milk. (variants on the recipe use goat's milk, soy milk, heavy cream, or Irish cream). You can also leave out the milk and have a Black Russian.

Cheers... and a salute to all the artists out there still composing, still writing, still drawing under the thumb of tyranny, risking life and well-being for their art. I wish you well.

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