A logical alliance exists between Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony (1936) and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977) by Tom Stoppard and André Previn. Perennially relevant, yet inextricable from the fabric of the totalitarian Soviet Union, the two works offer a thought-provoking evening of music and theater. For this performance, the Toledo Symphony has partnered with two other Toledo arts organizations, the Glacity Theatre Collective and the University of Toledo Department of Theater, Film, and Music. Given the extraordinary demand of an eighty-piece ensemble on stage with actors, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is rarely seen. Tonight’s performance is the New York City premiere of the work in its full orchestra version.
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 30
The connection between the two works was clear to Toledo Symphony principal conductor Stefan Sanderling who proposed the program to the Spring for Music festival almost two years ago. The journey for Sanderling started in 1986 when, as a young musicologist at the University of Halle, he offered program notes for a state-sponsored performance of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony.
History has come to regard Shostakovich as an undeniably complex figure. Many of his contemporaries, including Stravinsky, initially perceived him as a compliant member of the Communist party. In 1979, however, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov presented the composer as a closet dissident who wrote coded critiques of the Soviet state into his music. Around the same time, Shostakovich’s Russian obituaries hailed him as a hero of the State, describing him as a Soviet humanist. Stefan Sanderling’s notes would have been expected to promote this more heroic interpretation of Shostakovich. Instead, in what the conductor describes as a fit of youthful rebellion, he submitted a more controversial version that he never thought would be published.
As required East Germany at the time, Sanderling sent his original notes to the two academic censors assigned to his case, fully expecting a sandblasted version to emerge. Instead, in a bizarre twist, each censor assumed the other had finished the job. Sanderling’s original and ironically “subversive” notes were published, which he learned only when he arrived at the theater for the performance. As Sanderling describes it, “The first reading didn’t sink in. Only after a second reading, did the audience and the political officers fully understand what I was saying. My career as a musicologist was over. ”
Essentially, Sanderling contended that the symphony that many regarded as an officially sanctioned (if slightly disappointing) follow-up to the wildly popular Fifth was in fact an inherently challenging work of protest and subversion. Shostakovich chose a three-movement structure rather than a traditional four-movement one. By beginning the symphony with a somber elegy more akin to an inner movement, Shostakovich tramples expectations. In the Sixth, there is no place for a lively expression of ideas complete with discussion, elaboration and disagreement. Instead, we have a private meditation, both solemn and searing.
The second movement is a scherzo driven by woodwind virtuosity. Outbursts in the brass and strings are unexpectedly violent and seem to be evoking a terrible inside joke. As energy fades at the end of the movement, commentary in the winds becomes scarce and strikingly different from the opening mood.
The final movement of the symphony has an element of the absurd. Writing about the Sixth, Shostakovich mentioned themes of “spring, joy and youth,” yet pastoral elements are conspicuously absent. The finale is maniacally repetitive in nature, resembling the gallops in Shostakovich’s cinematic music. The movement chortles and laughs wildly to such an extent that listeners invariably question whether it is heartfelt or forced.
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
André Previn and Tom Stoppard
If Shostakovich writes a deeply personal and emotional “insider” response to totalitarianism through the Sixth Symphony, then Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (EGBDF) approaches the same situation from the outside, separated by distance and time. André Previn and Tom Stoppard fled Germany and Czechoslovakia respectively as children, their families seeking refuge from the Nazis. Clearly sensitive to the struggle for freedom and the autonomy of individuals in a totalitarian state, the two collaborated on the play in the late 1970s. The title of the work comes from a children’s mnemonic device introducing the lines of the musical staff.
Darkly comic, EGBDF has two central conceits. First, that there are two prisoners in a mental hospital who share a name, Ivanov, although each is there for seemingly different reasons: Alexander Ivanov, who is a political dissident and “must be crazy” for having spoken against the state, and the mental patient “Ivanov,” who may be schizophrenic, as he believes that he conducts an orchestra in his cell. The second conceit is that the orchestra is a character in the play. Interestingly, it is this element of the play that initiated the relationship between Stoppard and Previn, not the heady themes that emerged.
Cornel Gabara, from the Glacity Theatre Collective and University of Toledo, directs tonight’s production. Gabara, who was an émigré from Ceausescu-era Romania, also lends some insider knowledge to the program. Central to his production is the idea that there are actually three Ivanovs—including the child, Sacha Ivanov. Gabara sees the orchestra as an omnipresent, oppressive structure, limiting the freedom of movement of the actors. The orchestra, a concrete realization of Ivanov’s supposed hallucination, blurs the boundaries between insanity and reality.