Thursday, 24 June 2010


I love Shostakovich's music more than anything in this world. I grew up as a huge music fan and obsessive, but never had I experienced the kind of emotions that some of Shostakovich's works awaken in me. It's always difficult for me to really put into words what music means and what music does (this is the reason why I have a keen interest in philosophy that concerns the relationship between music and language), but maybe now is the time to try.

Just over two years ago I attempted to write an essay about whether Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity could be useful for our understand of music. I think I kind of failed proving the premise, but I did write some things that I still agree with; "The fictional world that is created in literature can only vaguely and in very abstract form be found in works of music. I can lose myself in both a book and a piece of music, but it is a different kind of loss of self. Whereas in works of literature one imagines oneself to be transposed into the world that is being described, musical experience involves a loss of self without a world that replaces the ‘real’ one. Schopenhauer described this experience when he wrote that through music we forget ourselves, and find ourselves without the principium individuationes. By listening to certain pieces of music we realise the will, we are no longer trapped in the world of representation. Although Schopenhauer’s theory of music is metaphysical, I still believe it to be a useful description of musical experience. There is an element of forgetting one’s identity, of being captivated by music. Do we not often lose ourselves in music, find ourselves unable to think, to talk about it? Does it not make us feel more complete and enlightened? This is the experience that Schopenhauer describes."

And this is exactly what I experience when listening to Shostakovich. But it is not all, I also feel that a lot of my emotions/thought/feelings can be described by his music just as well as by words, if not better. "
For example, I cannot describe despair as well as the song ‘Winter’ from his From Jewish Folk Songs. I cannot describe my enthusiasm or passion any better than the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. I cannot describe my fears and frustrations as well as the ‘Allegro molto’ from the Eighth String Quartet. I cannot describe the confusion and silliness of life as well as the ‘Scherzo’ from the First Violin Concerto. In order to (re)describe myself, I need not merely words but also music. Indeed, these concepts that I have used to describe certain works, “despair”, “passion”, “fears” etc., fall short of the actual experience of my life, the musical works are a much more satisfactory description. As Scruton writes, music “touches the heart, but numbs the tongue”."

On to the music. A while ago I made a mix on with a bunch of short Shostakovich pieces, you can listen to it here. But if you're lazy and don't want to click too much, here are bits of my four favourite Shostakovich pieces.

The Fourth Symphony. This was my first Shostakovich experience and I loved it SO MUCH. You need to turn the volume up though, it needs to be loud.

The Eleventh Symphony. This is the end of the last movement and it always KILLS me because it is so dark and brooding and beautiful. I cry pretty much every time I hear it, or at least get goosebumps.

"The Execution of Stepan Razin". This is a Cantata for Orchestra, Bass and Chorus that is 30 mins long. Obviously youtube doesn't like 30min-long videos, so this is the last bit of it, 9 minutes.

The Thirteenth Symphony. So dark and so beautiful, this first movement is set to the poem "Babi Yar" by Yevtushenko, definitely worth a read.


  1. Dit stuk is zo leuk! Ik vind je sowieso een held omdat je ik door jou steeds meer into klassieke muziek ben gaan raken, anders was ik vast ontzettend de weg kwijt... als je snapt wat ik bedoel! De elfde was m'n eerste Shostakovich en ik vind 'm ook zò mooi, wauw. Ik zal naar de filmpjes kijken wanneer ik m'n boxen weer heb!

    P.S. Je blog is fijn, nog veel succes!!!

  2. Enjoyed reading this entry. Shostakovich's fourth was my first concert experience. Immersed in the tonal intensity I discovered emotions of an indescribable complexity.

    A chapter of Byron (Manfred) comes to mind:

    "There is a calm upon me -.
    Inexplicable stillness! which till now
    Did not belong to what I knew of life.
    If that I did not know philosophy
    To be of all our vanities the motliest,
    The merest word that ever fool'd the ear
    From out the schoolman's jargon, I should deem
    The golden secret, the sought 'Kalon', found,
    And seated in my soul. It will not last,
    But it is well to have known it, though but once:
    It hath enlarged my thoughts with a new sense,
    And I within my tablets would note down
    That there is such a feeling."

    Anyhow: such a comment seemed preferrable to communicate my appreciation for your entry. If you are able to appreciate Byron and his sentiments.

  3. What a wonderful comment, Sophist. Thank you for that quote, it is beautiful and very appropriate!