Last week I spent a week at the RNCM in Manchester working, amongst other things, on Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony. During the week I had many doubts about the piece – this is music where the message feels stronger than the content. A cry of resistance, of hope and of courage in the face of barbary, written in the middle of the fight against fascism. But maybe, I thought, it is one of Shostakovich’s works who’s historic significance outweighs the artistic values. It’s a difficult piece to shape and to make coherent. I thought, what’s the sense in playing this music? And what is it’s relevance to music students at the beginning of the 21st century?
When I returned home to Madrid, this week, I read a report about Carlos Valle Torralbo, the president of the Infante de Orleans Foundation, praising Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist spanish Falange. As strange as it seems, speaking up in favour of the fascists is not a crime in Spain, even though the country had a bloody civil war caused by the fascists and a subsequent 40 years of dictatorship. Primo de Rivera was against democracy and civil liberties and advocated the use of violence. He was part of a european generation of fascists that wanted to turn the clock back to the middle ages and brought death, destruction upon the continent. Spain paid a heavy price for this ideology. Impossible to understand why someone would still look back to this ideology – it’s an offence to all the people who died and suffered for a more open, human and democratic society.
This made me think how close the political and physical struggles for freedom, liberty still are to our contemporary lives. Many artists, like Garcia Lorca, lost their life and their freedom because of the civil war and the following years of dictatorship. And many took a stance, most famously Picasso with his “Guernica”.
Equally, as some people say “Leningrad” is not Shostakovich’s formally greatest symphony, “Guernica” is maybe not Picasso’s most refined work in a purely artistic sense. But it’s definitely the one with the most urgent message, the biggest scale and the biggest impact. Both works, the “Leningrad” symphony and “Guernica” are a call to arms against fascist oppression and violence in their own way. Judging them by their pure aesthetic values doesn’t do them justice, because there is more at stake than that: Freedom from oppression and violence, liberty and the indestructible human spirit.
As Lorca’s and Picasso’s works, the “Leningrad” symphony still rings strongly today, and we ought to listen to it. No pasaran.