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In 1975 when Shostakovich died I was in the fourth form at St Bedes College and already hooked on the music of the Russian genius. When the death notice appeared in the paper I solemnly set to work on an orchestral piece 'Dedication to Shostakovich', much to the amusement of my schoolmates. Now, 31 years later, and during the centenary celebrations of Shostakovich's birth, I have had the opportunity to write another dedication to the composer, courtesy of the Christchurch Symphony and Otago University (who funded the commission).
When the idea of writing a piece based on a Shostakovich theme was first suggested, I immediately thought of a 'Theme and Variations'. However, I found it too difficult to settle on a single theme - there were so many good ones to choose from! This gave me the idea of basing the piece around more than one quotation from the composer's oeuvre. Shostakovich himself was fond of quoting other composers' works (and his own works also), as in the Eighth String Quartet when the quotations form a string of coded messages. I decided to take this route, and ended up creating a piece that quotes Shostakovich 14 times. Some of these quotations are literal ones, while others are more disguised. Some are quite lengthy and form a structure to base the music around, while others are very short and fleeting.
The Shostakovich of this piece is not the Shostakovich of the epic symphonies (although they have their place here). Instead, I use lesser-known early works as my starting point: those youthful, zany, cutting edge works that express an almost manic character on occasions. So the work opens with menace from the Fourth Symphony, followed by cheekiness from the Aphorisms for piano, and satire from The Age of Gold ballet. In amongst these are references to numerous other pieces, and particularly a deathly string chord from the 15th String Quartet. They are brought together through free-association of ideas, and a few recurring motifs. The final section uses a theme from the Tenth Symphony, second movement, as the basis for a frenzied conclusion.
When I wrote this piece I had in my mind the image of the crazed composer writing a sort of jumbled diary that lurches from farce to despair in rapid succession. Shostakovich was very fond of the 19th century Russian author Gogol, basing his first opera The Nose on one of Gogol's short stories. Another of Gogol's stories is Diary of a Madman, which uses the formula of 'laughter through tears', a formula that is very often present in Shostakovich, too. Therefore, my piece Diary of a Madman: Dedication to Shostakovich is designed as a funny/sad commentary on a great composer who's music could induce both laughter and tears.
Commissioned by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, for inclusion in its Proms concert, September 2006. Funded by the University of Otago.