The Truth, Mainly - 06/04/1990

And then the oboe smirked and said …
by Leon Satterfield

I've been pretty sensitive to the subtle messages of classical music ever since I heard the cannons go off in the "1812 Overture." But my wife, poor thing, just enjoys listening. She can't hear the story behind the music.

"I don't get it," she says.

We are at the Lied to listen to Shostakovitch' Ninth Symphony and she's reading the program notes again. Despite last time.

"What?" I ask. "What don't you get?"

"This. Here," she says, pointing. "They say that instead of celebrating the Red Army the way the government wanted him to, he's celebrating life and the human spirit."


"Well, how can they tell?" she says. "How can they tell a piece of music is celebrating life instead of the Red Army? And who decides?"

I could say something condescending and patronizing here, but I don't.

"Well, my dear," I say, "I don't want to sound condescending and patronizing here, but it's just a matter of being sensitive to the music's narrative. Some of us have an extra gene that lets us see Deeper Meaning, and we have an obligation to explain to others."

"Like here?" she asks, pointing to another line in the program. "Where it talks about the oboe's sarcasm? How can you tell when an oboe is putting you on?"

We hush then because the music begins, but after the concert I explain it to her as we walk to the car.

The symphony opens, I say in my professorial voice, at three minutes past noon on June 2, 1945, four blocks east and two south of the Kremlin where a Party worker is slurping his borscht and chewing on some black bread baked a week ago Wednesday. The bread has a weevil in it. All that is clearly conveyed by the trombone's opening adagio.

"Wait a minute," she says.

"Hold on," I say. "It's going to get better."

The piccolo trill lets us know his name is Vasili Ivanovich and the rumble from the tympani introduces us to his wife, Petra. The interplay between flute and viola is a clear account of the argument they have over how best to celebrate the Red Army's victory. She wants a Borscht-and-Cabbage Festival; he thinks a Weevil Purge would be nice.

"Good grief," my wife says. "Can you hear what you sound like? Have you no self- respect?"

"Hold on," I say. "We're about to the good part."

I explain how the trumpet section unmistakeably represents Stalin and the Politburo and how it ends the argument with an ironically muted fanfare that says there's a gulag in Siberia for the next noodnik who wants to honor the Red Army with a Borscht-and-Cabbage Festival or a Weevil Purge.

My wife sighs. I'm so engrossed by the story that I head for the wrong parking lot before she grabs my arm.

I tell her how a 14-year-old farmboy (the Turkey-in-the-Straw motif by the violins) sneaks in while the trumpet section is turning pages. He tells Vasili and Petra to hang on for 40 years and things will work out. The cello describes the portwine birthmark on his forehead, but Shostakovitch resists the temptation to let the clarinets give his name. Some things, I say, are best left to the listener's imagination.

"Oh sure," my wife says. "Maybe clarinets can't pronounce 'Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.' Have you thought of that?"

"Hold on," I say. "The sarcastic oboe is next."

The last three movements, I say, are all sham: Shostakovitch is pretending to celebrate the Red Army, but he's really celebrating the human spirit. The pretense is clear at the end when the oboe's sarcasm overwhelms the rest of the orchestra: even the trumpets catch the joke when they see the oboist smirk just before he flips them the bird.

We're at the car now, and when I ask my wife if she has any other questions she sticks her finger down her throat.

"You know what I think?" she says as we drive out of the parking lot. "I think you listen to 'Peter and the Wolf' too much. I think you're shellshocked from the '1812 Overture.' You're a pretty good husband, but I think your brains have dried up. Like Don Quixote's."

She likes literary allusions. The last time I gave her a symphony plot, she said I was a pretty good husband but it was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Good play, that Macbeth. They ought to make a symphony of it. The bassoon would make an awfully good Banquo's ghost.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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