Note: Robert Benchley died on November 21, 1945. Benchley was a staunch pacifist, having lost his beloved brother in the Spanish-American war and many friends and colleagues in the catastrophic First World War as well as the Second. I imagine he might have composed something like this one as his last piece.


Music For War

A Review of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony – November 20, 1945

Can military people simply lay down their arms and let the Shostakovichs of the world play out war-like fantasies through their music? Or, another way to look at this question is, Can music replace war entirely, given that war can’t be danced to?

That’s the question I continued to ask myself last night at the premiere of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony here in New York. If I heard it said once, I heard it a dozen times: Shostakovich is brilliant, but he may be suffering, like humanity itself, from a split personality, which asserts harmony of nations on the one hand and the need for aggression on the other. This may explain the complex power of his symphonies, and the fact that the right side of his moustache is shaved off.

Looking closely at the Ninth Symphony, we see how the gentle reeds are gradually replaced in the first half of the second movement by the tympani, portraying the enemy advancing on our artillery. Our artillery, played out sleepily by the wispy piccolos, are caught off-guard playing liar’s poker out in the ravine and become completely confused and surrounded. 

But the tide soon begins turning. That wily string legato emerging at the beginning of the third movement brings the news that one of our sentries sleepwalked into enemy lines and told them we wanted to hurt them if they didn’t go home. The enemy’s reaction is swift and demonstrative, expressed vividly by the French Horns declaring, “You can’t scare us, we don’t like you either.” The double bass too is in no mood for trifling. It thrums to life, demanding that the strings and the horns grow up. The bassoons can only laugh.

Thankfully though, the flutes arrive in bar 260/29:09 just in time to calm everybody down, and provide a humorous anecdote or two. Regrettably, it’s all short-lived, because the trumpets return, and through their fluid, persuasive beauty, signal the beginning of our carpet bombing, which sends the enemy into rapid retreat. The cellos ask the question, who has Alsace-Lorraine?

The fourth movement soon creeps in with the ominous edginess of military subplots, tempered by blaring tubas - not a bold blaring but a shaded blaring with subtle hints of berries. The forth movement then leaps into a new theme with the tympani suggesting that the strings may be conscientious objectors, and the strings in counterpoint stating categorically that the tympani don’t know what they’re talking about.

But finally at bar 370/16:04, the brass sound out a victory march, while the achingly emotive English horn solo evokes a lone bugler on the battlefield asking the question, “Where is Alsace-Lorraine anyway?”

This bravado premiere performance confirms in my mind that music as an instrument of change achieves just about as much as war does, so the next time I hear drummers talking about a drum battle or guitarists pitting themselves against one another, I’m going to send them off to the Pentagon as ambassadors of good sense.