Shostakovitch and his violin Concerto. The themes are universal, timeless: the individual against the steam roller of a totalitarian state, man versus the system, the community.***
Alexis Ragougneau delivers us a nuanced study of Opus 77 and the unrelenting world of the professional musician through the story of the Claessens family, of the father Claessens, one time pianist and then conductor of the Swiss-Romande Orchestra and his two children David and Ariane. As the book opens Claessens is dead, David doesn’t show up and Ariane, a now accomplished Pianist, rather than playing a Requiem, launches into a piano version of Shostakovitch’s Opus 77 described in a few words in the opening quote.
The book, narrated by Ariane then investigates these two enigmas, of the terrible pressure brought on David by his exacting father whose only words to his son seem to have been “again”. how much pressure can a child take? Eventually David leaves home near broken to then be slowly coached back to high level by an old Russian Violinist who seems not to be well known but who has lived through some of the times of Soviet Russia that Shostakovitch himself had lived through, Stalin playing with Shostakovitch’s life as a cat would play with a mouse.
David is then ready, if still fragile to face the competitions that will decide who will have an international career and who will be also-rans. We soon understand that his violin teacher may not be well known today in Belgium or Switzerland but is highly respected by the Russian musicians. As David reaches the finals, there is a draw to match the competitors with the conductors and of course David and Claessens are drawn together, with David performing the Opus 77:
The atmosphere is dusk. That’s exactly what Shostakovitch wanted in his first movement, Nocturne; and how they succeed, father and son, how they manage to render the darkness of night, the movement of shadows, the truths never uttered. A life of rivalry and misunderstanding spread out on the stage, before the television cameras and the two thousand spectators at the “palais des Beaux-Arts”.***
How does the competition end? Well you’ll need to read the book!
In parallel Ariane lives the life of a world famous artist with manager, pressure to perform at the highest level giving her insights into this world.
This really is a very good book.
First Published in French as “Opus 77″ by Viviane Hamy in 2019
*** my translation
The quotes as read in French before translation
Chostakovitch et son concerto pour violon. Les thèmes sont universels et intemporels: l’individu face au rouleau-compresseur totalitaire, l’homme face au système et à la collectivité.
Ambiance crépusculaire. C’est bien Chostakovitch qui l’a voulu ainsi dans son premier mouvement, Nocturne; et comme ils y réussissent, le père et le fils, comme ils parviennent à restituer la noirceur de la nuit, les jeux d’ombres, les non dits. Toute une vie de rivalité et d’incompréhension étalée là sur scène, devant les caméras de télévision et des deux mille spectateurs du palais des Beaux-Arts.