Warming Up There is an unusual excited tension in the air, even though the tuba player is cracking jokes with the tenors and me, as if this was just any afternoon concert. Yet behind the laughter, a cool professionalism mans our psyches as we focus for the task at hand — to do justice to the survivor of the great purge, Shostakovich and his Fifth Symphony. The door to the green room opens, and we, like tuxedoed black ants, file out to our seats. The audience in the concert hall reacts to the tension with acute anticipation. We tune and wait, eyes on the baton as it rises. It is time. First Movement — Moderato Life vacillating between string-sweet calmness pregnant with the threat from the sudden synchronized ponderous power of tuba and bass trombone. I wonder if symphonies can be autobiographical. Still periods of harmony are interrupted by chaos, the threat of censor, and the purge that destroyed or banished thousands. Discord and respite alternate as in Shostakovich’s life. Must I revel playing bass trombone as the party’s sword? Second Movement — Allegretto Concessions to conform are a constant in life. Why would Shostakovich be any different? Or is this ironic patriotic whimsy? The hero and the symphony parade unashamedly dressed in socialistic uniforms seeking approval from Stalin. How can we portray the tightrope the symphony dances upon? How should I nuance the timbre vibrating from my soul and horn? I feel that bass trombone is Dmitri’s ironic voice. Third Movement — Largo Children of the cold war had restless nights and dreamed apocalyptic dreams. Those dread-filled nightmares were my chance to empathize with those in the Great Purge. The heavy fustiness clinging, like rain droplets on a petal, to the atmosphere of his time percolated a bitter brew. Conform to the majority risk compunction and contrition. Explore the unknown of genius risk denouncement, detainment, death. Tacet trombones regard greatness achieved by mixing both. Fourth Movement — Allegro non troppo The hero has returned. Cacophonous fanfare implies internal strife. The true antagonist for a great composer — desire for acceptance. Thundering triumphs are replaced with solemn, string-lead melodies that reflect a tense harmonic requiring resolution. Neither defeat nor victory emerge from the chord progressions. Instead the hero has claimed both, a disentangled dissonance. The struggle does not end but lives on to be played again. Applause Like a heavy late August rain, plump particles of applause and cheers descend and splash upon us. As if sensing the simile, large beads of sweat drip down my forehead. Their saltiness burns my eyes, while I stand proudly holding my bass trombone at attention in front of me, looking out into the sea of faces. Both audience and the performers celebrate a masterwork written as a reaction to Stalin’s disapproval of earlier works, yet neither can comprehend such greatness, such genius. We can only try to fulfill the artist’s response to “just” criticism.
Playing Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a Bass Trombonist’s Perspective
TS S. Fulk
3 Questions for the author
What was your process for creating this work?
For “Playing Shostakovich …” it was an ekphrastic process. First I researched Shostakovich and his artistic struggles with the communist regime. Then I played the symphony movement by movement over and over. First to get some inspiration and later to write the sonnet for each movement. I tried to tie the emotions and visualizations conjured by the movement with bits of historical research — all seen through the perspective of a bass trombonist. Later I added the free-verse sections “Warming up” and “Applause” including bits from my actual experience of playing the piece several years ago (which I consider one the highlights of my amateur orchestral career). In the end, it became four sonnets sandwiched between two free-verse sections.
“Two Sonnets Smothered with Marmalade” was a more straight forward, linear “write the poem as it comes” process. Both required extensive rewriting until I felt satisfied.
What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?
My sonnets are also a hybrid of western sonnets and haiku-like forms. They contain an octave, a sestet (in either order) and a volta couplet. I usually pair the octave with 8-syllable lines and the sestet with six-syllable lines (sometimes I mix that) and the couplet always has one 8-syllable line and one 6-syllable line usually in the same order as the stanzas. This gives me more freedom to have the rhythm I want while still having some constraints on word choice.
For “Playing Shostakovich …” I wanted to have a form that would match the grandness of the symphonic form. So I decided to have one sonnet for each movement. Having the free-verse sections before and after allowed me to introduce and contemplate the symphony as a whole, not just as individual movements.
When I wrote “Two Sonnets Smothered with Marmalade,” I was just starting to experiment with mixing formal poetry with free verse.
What is the significance of this work to you?
“Playing Shostakovich …”: I wanted to write a poem to honor a composer whose works mean a great deal to me, and I’ve always been intrigued by his struggles as an artist in a country that repressed artistic freedom.
“Two Sonnets Smothered in Marmalade”: I wanted to explore my own thoughts and emotions of a line from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives” — “We're each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?” So the poem contemplates the fear of reaching out into the dark despite our inherent loneliness.
TS S. Fulk lives with his family in Örebro, Sweden as an English teacher and textbook author. After getting an M.A. in English literature from the University of Toronto, he taught English in Prague, CZ before settling down in Sweden. Besides teaching and writing, TS S. Fulk is an active musician playing bass trombone, the Appalachian mountain dulcimer and the Swedish bumblebee dulcimer (hummel). His poetry has been (or will be) published by numerous presses including The Ekphrastic Review, The Button Eye Review, Red Ogre Review, Perennial Press, Lovecraftiana and Between These Shores.