Babi Yar: A Symphony for the 21st Century

In the decade after Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev instigated a period known as the “Khrushchev Thaw,” a rather short-lived break with socialist realism during which artists could flourish and more freely express themselves than under the previous regime. It was during this time that the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich produced one of the most powerful works of Russian literature and music ever known. Maestro Kent Nagano has chosen Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony to open his last season as Music Director of the OSM. This evocative and highly relevant work for our times will be performed next September 17 and 18 at the Maison symphonique. It teaches us, among other things, that we have failed to learn from the most murderous conflict in the history of humanity. The five movements of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 bear upon subjects that remain as timely as ever, nearly 60 years after the work’s premiere,

I. Never again?

The low range of the voices, the punctual sound of bells, the rhythm of the march setting in: great solemnity emanates from the first movement titled Babi Yar, which gives its name to Shostakovich’s symphony This movement is a mournful elegy for nearly 34,000 Jews massacred at the site of a ravine of the same name in the outskirts of Kiev. It is a condemnation of anti-Semitism and a summoning to remembrance and vigilance, for the risk of abuse hovers constantly over our heads like a sword of Damocles. The 20th century has seen numerous genocides, but we also need to remember the populations currently subjected to mass killings: the Tutsi in Burundi, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Yazidi in Iraq, the Banunu of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and several others in the midst of similar devastation.

II. Let us hasten to laugh at everything…

Here, there is a stark contrast with the previous movement. Drawing examples from the ancient Greek fabulist Aesop and the Turkish satirist Nasreddin, the second movement, Humour, reminds us of the disruptive and inalienable power of humour, which even the most indefeasible tyrants cannot subdue. Episodes with soloist and choruses become lighter and the music is tinged with a folk flavour. “Iron bars and stone walls/He would pass right through.” Humour introduces a gap between the actual state of things and its representation in a joke, letting us envision a renewed relationship with the world. Perhaps humour is, as the Italian philosopher Angelo Fortunato Formiggini maintained, the highest manifestation of philosophical thought.

III. In honour of women

“They have endured everything./They will endure everything.” The symphony’s third movement, In the Store, pays tribute to the courage and strength of Russian women who withstood the ordeals of war, who endured food rations and heavy labour in factories and in fields. The music suddenly becomes soft, steady, increasingly supple and inward. One can almost visualize the slow, arduous march of women as they proceed to their work or to collect their meagre rations. Such a tribute resonates with great impact today, as a new social arrangement in which women choose to be doctors or lawyers, orchestral conductors or senior executives, composers or astronauts is emerging. Their recognition as autonomous individuals must be credited to women who endured hardships in times of war, and the promise of a society that values mutual recognition, understanding and care is perhaps the most significant legacy of the past century’s troubled times.

IV. The fears that govern us

The fourth movement, Fears, addresses the fears that, “like shadows slithered everywhere/Infiltrated every floor.” This, the symphony’s darkest movement, instills profound unease with a protracted tuba, surges of muted brass, and a bass aria that has the quality of an apparition. While Shostakovich evokes in this movement the fear of being reported, arrested or deported, today the fear of a nuclear war, of an economic crisis or a terrorist attack also prevails. It remains, as it always has, the responsibility of each individual to become aware of their fears and keep them in check, a spiritually beneficial exercise that can serve to lift the veil of blinding fears.

V. “The accursed are remembered well”

The fifth and final movement of the symphony, Career, examines the soundness of certain actions over the course of a career. The poet Yevtushenko appeals to various free thinkers condemned for their ideas as models of integrity, implicitly denouncing those who betray their own ideals in the interest of their careers. Socrates, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, and philosopher and activist Simone Weil all paid the price for their ideas, but clearly this is not simply something historical: today, hundreds of environmental activists are killed every year in Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines, while the assassination of several writers and journalists continues unabated on every continent. The music leads us through a panoply of emotions: from the initial charming sweetness of the flutes to incursions from bassoon, trumpets and voices reminiscent of the earlier movement Humour, meandering through anxiety, solemnity and finally, peaceful repose.

Hope as we may that Shostakovich’s symphony will one day lose its relevance and speak to us of a bygone era, Babi Yar sadly remains more relevant than ever, and is even of central significance in our time. Through music and words, this symphony impresses upon us the duty of remembrance, of wakefulness to our world. It reminds us that at any moment the equilibrium of peace can be disrupted, spurring a descent into chaos. Kent Nagano opens this very special season with this cautionary, insightful work, which he will also conduct at Carnegie Hall in March 2020, as part of the Tour of the Americas.


© Benjamin Goron,

© Traduction anglaise par Le Trait juste