The wind and its instruments were my secret teachers.
In Podolskaya Street I played piano for my mother
—note for note without a music sheet—while the wind
in the draughty flat kept up: tapping its fattened hand
against the glass, moaning through the stove, banging
a door repeatedly out on the landing—
the ghost in the machine of Beethoven’s Two Preludes
Through All the Major Keys, that said they lied.
Later I stood in a wheat field and heard the wind make music
from everything it touched. The top notes were the husks:
fractious but nervous, giddy, little-voiced,
while underneath a strong strange melody pulsed
as though the grain were rigging, or a forest.
In all my praise and plainsong I wrote down
the sound of a man’s boots from behind the mountain.
Taken from Parallax (Carcanet, 2013).
This poem is taken from Sinéad Morrissey’s 2013 collection, Parallax. Written in the voice of the Shostakovich, it depicts a musical education of sorts. It is well known that Shostakovich displayed musical talent at a young age: he was taught piano by his mother and often relied on his ear and musical memory to play, rather than reading what was on the sheet in front of him.
Shostakovich famously had a difficult relationship with the Soviet authorities under which he wrote. During Stalin’s time, his music was twice formally denounced, and he was bitterly criticised by the Soviet press. The authorities – who wanted to promote traditional Russian music with no contemporary Western influences – took particular issue with his strange tonalities and avant-garde influences. After their second denunciation of him for ‘formalism and western influences’ in 1948, much of his music was banned. The risk posed to him was not only professional, of course. Several of his colleagues and friends were imprisoned and even executed for similar offences; and Shostakovich was summoned for interrogation in 1937, only escaping because the interrogator was himself arrested before the composer faced him. Despite these pressures, he managed to survive and weather a long and fruitful musical career. At times, he seemed able to achieve a perfect balance between gaining public and state approval on one hand, and expressing his own musical inclinations on the other. Yet he also expressed regret at the effect on his art of having to negotiate these state threats.
We could read Morrissey’s poem with the above context in mind. Shostakovich’s music ‘teacher’, the wind, is a ‘secret’: is this a political necessity? A few lines down, the wind seems to intrude as the young Shostakovich plays for his mother: ‘tapping its fattened hand / against the glass, moaning through the stove, banging / a door repeatedly out on the landing’: should we link this with an intrusion of state? The wind also appears as an ethereal consciousness in Beethoven’s Two Preludes Through All the Major Keys, ‘that said they lied.’ The subject of the ‘they’ Morrissey leaves ambiguous: who lied? And what did they lie about? Major chords are known for sounding positive, happy. Is Beethoven ‘lying’ by writing a piece entirely set in major keys? Historically, Shostakovich came under fire from Soviet authorities for his experimentation with new, strange harmonies. Is Morrissey’s Shostakovich, the speaker of the poem, making a claim to artistic ‘truth’ with his own divergence from conventional musical patterns?
Yet outside these questions, the poem seems keen to depict musical composition in naturalistic terms: look at the fixation with the wind which dominates the first two stanzas. The final image of the poem is so beautifully simple. To me there is a tension between that first clause and the second: ‘in all my praise and plainsong’ seems to speak of the technical aspects of composition, while ‘I wrote down / the sound of a man’s boots from behind the mountain’ might tap into a primal desire to capture, and share, a transient and somewhat inexplicable experience. Exactly the sort of thing the wind – impossible to grasp or hold down – would teach you.
All my love,