An Irishman's Diary
In need of some budget escapism on Wednesday evening, I found myself with a dilemma. On the one hand, I had an invitation to the Trinity Orchestra’s annual Michaelmas concert at Christchurch, which sounded like a pleasant alternative to Michael Noonan. On the other, it was also a big night of European football, most notably involving Celtic’s attempt to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League.
After a brief struggle, the lure of hearing Ireland’s “only entirely student-run orchestra”, in the setting of a medieval cathedral, narrowly prevailed. And, once ensconced in Christchurch, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert’s opening half, partly because it was structured in such a way that you could check the football scores on your phone regularly without being rude.
The evening began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, a short and sweet piece that was followed by an interval long enough for me to find out that Celtic had gone a goal up. Then came Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. Which is in two movements, as, clearly, was the first half in Glasgow. By the time Copland’s piece finished, Spartak Moscow had made it 1-1.
It was now the intermission in both Christchurch and Parkhead, and my dilemma returned. The second half was sure to be dramatic, at either venue. Indeed, there were complementary Russian themes. Celtic would be throwing the kitchen sink at the Muscovites, while the orchestra would be doing the same to Shostakovich (Suite for Variety Orchestra). So another struggle ensued and, this time, the football won.
In my defence, I think Shostakovich himself would have understood. He was a football fanatic, after all: a life-long fan of Zenit Leningrad (now Zenit St Petersburg), who attended all their home matches where possible and was noted for his lack of restraint in shouting them on.
He once called football “ballet for the masses”. And he even composed a ballet on the subject: The Golden Age, which concerns a Soviet football team visiting a foreign city during the 1920s, and there falling foul of match-rigging, police harassment, and other machinations of western capitalism, until they inspire a proletarian uprising and triumph.
As I sneaked out of Christchurch and into a nearby pub, I further comforted myself with the thought that, being a Zenit fan, Shostakovich would have been duty-bound to despise all the Moscow clubs, including Spartak, and so might even have joined me in wanting to see Celtic win.
Admittedly, he may have had mixed feelings about Scotland, which played an indirect role in one of the pivotal events of his life. This was in 1936 when, after his early accommodation with communism, he officially fell from grace thanks to an opera called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
Terrifyingly, his change of fortune was signaled by the attendance at a Moscow performance of Stalin himself, who noticeably shuddered at the loudness of the brass and drum arrangements and – worse – laughed at a love-making scene. Shortly afterwards, the state newspaper Pravda denounced the opera as “vulgar”.
Unlike many others who incurred Stalin’s disapproval, Shostakovich somehow survived. In the 1960s, with Uncle Joe safely dead, he even joined the Communist Party. And he may have been grateful for its influence in 1967, when the fortunes of his beloved football team and those of Celtic contrasted sharply.
That was the year the Glaswegians became the first British team to win the European Cup. Meanwhile, Zenit – a club named after the highest point in the heavens – hit nadir, finishing bottom of the Soviet league, but avoiding relegation because it was the 50th anniversary of the revolution, and demoting the city where it started would have been unseemly.
In any case, I like to think Shostakovich would have excused me missing his part of the show on Wednesday. And he would surely have enjoyed the way his football-ballet analogy was illustrated by a second-half incident in Parkhead.
This involved Georgios Samaras, that most balletic of Celtic players, who with time running out, glided elegantly into the Spartak penalty area and, after a tender pas de deux with a defender, performed the death scene from Swan Lake. The referee must have been a ballet fan too. He awarded a penalty and Celtic won.
I got back to Christchurch just in time for the orchestra’s finale, which was followed by a rousing – and deserved – ovation. Standing at the back, I joined the applause. And I felt just a little bit hypocritical at first. But then I noticed the ghost of Shostakovich clapping alongside me, and winking conspiratorially, having just sneaked back in himself.