At ChamberStudio yesterday we were working on a piece by Prokofiev. We were discussing the kind of piano writing that’s often found in works by Russian composers of the Soviet era. As the writing is typically rather spare and empty-looking on the page, with a deliberate avoidance of opulence, it’s very difficult to intuit the right atmosphere if you don’t know something of its historical background.
The bleakness, the sarcasm, the coldness, the mechanical repetition, the anger are all qualities you can understand in the music as soon as you’re aware of the circumstances in which its composers lived. But if you don’t know?
In recent years I’ve once or twice heard works of Shostakovich performed by young musicians who clearly didn’t know anything about life in Soviet Russia. They took the sparse writing at face value and made nothing of it. Listening to them, I suddenly realised how vital it is to know the historical context of this kind of music so that you can read between the lines.