Babi Yar Massacre – Shostakovich & Yevtushenko & Proust

On September 29th and 30th, 1941, over 33,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis at the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev.

Babi Yar, Kiev, September 1941

Babi Yar, Kiev, September 1941

Twenty-one years later, Shostakovich and Yevtushenko collaborated, within a Stalinist regime of repression, to bring to the public Shostakovich’s 13th symphony.

In addition to the 1941 killing ground of Babi Yar, the first movement of Shostakovich’s 13th symphony also deals, secondly, with the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906), thirdly with the 1906 Białystok pogrom, and fourthly with the 1944 betrayal of Anne Frank, with which, after having returned to the subject of Babi Yar, the composer closes the movement, with crushing emphasis and force.

The Dreyfus motif is:

Dreyfus Theme

Dreyfus motif, Shostakovich, Symphony 13 (1962), bars 69-73.

It is a musical evocation of Yevtushenko’s text, I am behind bars …. and fancy ladies, dressed in Brussels lace, squealing, jab me in the face with their parasols.

The Dreyfus affair is the representation of a theme that runs throughout Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. In the first chapter of the second part of the fourth novel, Sodome et Gomorrhe, Proust, in the context of the progression of the Dreyfus affair, and in the additional context of a superb application of form to the apparent vagaries of, and contradictions within, an aristocratic reception at the Princesse de Guermantes, gives this observation:

In reality we always discover afterwards that our adversaries had a reason for being on the side they espoused, which has nothing to do with any element of right that there may be on that side, and that those who think as we do do so because their intelligence, if their moral nature is too base to be invoked, or their uprightness, if their perception is weak, has compelled them too.

After which, after several interlocutory pages, this conclusion is given: … the most dangerous of all forms of concealment is that of the crime itself in the mind of the guilty party.

Dmitri Shostakovich, facsimile of opening page of score of Symphony 13. (Courtesy: "DSCH" Publishers, Moscow, 2006)

Dmitri Shostakovich, facsimile of opening page of score of Symphony 13. (Courtesy: “DSCH” Publishers, Moscow, 2006)

I suppose it should be too obvious to say that great art is entirely able to elucidate and interpret recent history and contemporary event, and that great art is fundamental to, and essential to, the expression of human freedom.


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