Performing Pasts: Reading Collective Memory in Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony in B flat minor, Op. 113 ‘Babi Yar’
While the study of collective memory has dominated the humanities since the 1980s, it has only been acknowledged in studies of Western art music in the last decade. This essay considers commemorative art music from the early 1960s, when collective understandings of the Second World War were crystallizing. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 113 Babi Yar (1962) commemorates the massacre of approximately 33,000 Jews by Ukrainian forces in 1941, setting five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Though its performance and reception history reveals it as a mainstay of the Soviet Jewish collective memory, the Thirteenth has suffered from a lack of hermeneutic reflections that consider it beyond its basic political or technical content. In this essay, I examine how Shostakovich embodies both subjective and abstract elements of collective memory within the internal construction of the symphony’s score. This responds to developments in the interdisciplinary field of Memory Studies, which has increasingly analyzed mnemonic media in order to understand collective memory as linguistically performative. To do so, the essay draws upon Mikhail Bakhtin’s sociolinguistic concepts of dialogism, unfinalizability, and the carnivalesque as theoretical links between musico-literary hermeneutics and politico-cultural history. Arguments are derived from the analytical vantage points of motivic construction and existential irony. Firstly, I propose that Shostakovich creates an intersubjective dialogue through motivic design by utilizing both satirical and non-satirical irony. Secondly, I argue that, in tune with his political aim to promote awareness of Jewish persecution, Shostakovich presents a specifically Jewish worldview through the Thirteenth’s reliance on Jewish modes of existential irony. By applying sociological theory as a basis for a hermeneutic analysis, this essay aims to contribute to dialogue between the fields of Musicology and Memory Studies, which have until recent years remained largely segregated.