War does funny things to artists.
For the German expressionists, the onset of World War I turned joyously incomprehensible art into examples of sinuous, yet incomprehensible agony.
For Francis Scott Key, the siege and subsequent American victory at Fort McHenry led to his penning of the now-famous poem, “The Star- Spangled Banner.”
And for composers of classical music, war has become the starting block for some of the masters’ greatest works – pieces often seen as nationalist and patriotic anthems.
The European continent, with all its internecine conflict, is the perfect example.
Jean Sibelius wrote Finlandia, which became the de facto anthem for the Finnish revolution. Later, the piece, so ingrained in the nationalist mindset, became Finland’s actual anthem.
Russia, with its strong musical tradition and constant susceptibility to attack, has generated a handful of monster wartime works.
Celebrating Napoleon’s defeat, Tchaikovsky penned the 1812 Overture. Most recently, and oppressively, heard in James McTeigue’s “V for Vendetta,” the overture serves as an aural release from a totalitarian regime – the Russians from Napoleon, and V, Evey and all the little Brits from the Hitler-like British chancellor.
Classical music, then, has a history of didactic art and political change more pervasive than almost anything else in European art. It’s communal, proud and oftentimes designed to rouse and shock its audience into pride, rebellion and self-awareness.
Fast-forward to World War II. Russia’s new classical star is Dmitri Shostakovich. Deemed a national treasure and consequently barred from going to war against the Germans, Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 7 in 1941.
The composer wrote the majority of his 30-minute first movement rapped in Leningrad at the onset of the 900-day siege. Not surprisingly, the symphony has withstood the test of time, and in celebration of Shostakovich’s 100th birthday, Russia’s Kirov Orchestra came to Hill Auditorium this weekend to play the piece.
Mind-blowing, to say the least, but its power – and the program notes – highlights why America, the great supercountry with all its war, conflict and military prowess, has little to show for in terms of great wartime compositions.
Why? For one, there has never been a great instrumental classical tradition in America. The few exceptions – Copland, Gershwin, Joplin – have succeeded in capturing, however clich