In 1961, the acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko stood in mourning on the grounds at Babi Yar, the site of one of the Nazi’s most ruthless and largest mass murders of the Holocaust. In two days, in September, 1941, on the eve of Yom Kippur, more than 33,000 Jews were shot and killed at a ravine outside of Kiev.
The then-young poet was angry at the absence of any memorial of the atrocity, with no historic marker. He was critical of the conscious decision by Soviet leaders, who downplayed the Jewish tragedy and insisted instead on promoting a nationalist narrative of the general loss of Soviet life.
Yevtushenko immediately penned Babi Yar, a poem “baldly and boldly calling out Russian antisemitism and criticizing the Soviet regime’s policy of forced amnesia,” according to Jeremy Eichler, the Boston Globe’s music critic. Eichler’s book, “Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance,” is due out this summer.
After Dmitri Shostakovich read the widely read, controversial poem, the celebrated Russian composer set it to music, along with four other Yevtushenko poems for his Thirteenth Symphony, known as Babi Yar, the first of its five movements. Remarkably, the solemnly haunting symphony premiered in Moscow in 1962.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra will perform the hour-long symphony on May 4, 5 and 6 under the baton of BSO music director Andris Nelsons with soloist Matthias Goerne, a Grammy nominated baritone. It’s the first BSO performance in more than 20 years of what many consider Shostakovich’s greatest works.
Tenors and basses of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, conducted by James Burton, and the New England Conservatory Symphonic Choir, led by Erica Washburn are also featured.
The opening line, sung by the chorus, echoes Yevtushenko’s lament: “Over Babi Yar there are no monuments/The steep precipice is like a crude gravestone/ I am terrified/I am as old today/As all Jewish people.”
“This is a poem by a Russian about the shame he feels at the history of antisemitism in our country and all over the world,” Yevtushenko, who is not Jewish, said in an interview with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Shostakovich’s musical settings enlarge [the poem’s] meaning “and confer on these texts an added measure of dignity and tragedy,” Eichler wrote.
It’s a powerful pairing, said Mark Ludwig, the founder and executive director of the Boston-based Terezin Music Foundation that preserves and performs music from composers imprisoned at the Nazi camp.
Like the poet, Shostakovich had no personal ties with the Babi Yar massacre.
Ludwig, a BSO violist emeritus, recalled being part of the orchestra when it last performed Babi Yar.
More recently, in 2011, he performed works by Terezin composers at the 70th anniversary of Babi Yar at its memorial site, that now commemorates the tragedy.
“To play right there, that was a profoundly emotional experience that I’ll never forget,” Ludwig said. Θ
For more information, visit bso.org.