Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets 
by Wendy Lesser.
Yale, 350 pp., £18.99, April 2011, 978 0 300 16933 1
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Shostakovich in Dialogue: Form, Imagery and Ideas in Quartets 1-7 
by Judith Kuhn.
Ashgate, 296 pp., £65, February 2010, 978 0 7546 6406 2
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Dmitry Shostakovich was once seen in the West as the quintessential Soviet loyalist. Avant-garde composers despised him and official descriptions of him as a ‘fighter for peace’, ‘progress’ and ‘humanism’ didn’t help his reputation in the world outside. Things he himself said over the years appeared to confirm the Soviet image: his Third Symphony (1930) was entitled First of May and a Soviet music journal reported him as saying in 1940 that ‘to write a symphony immortalising Lenin’s name’ had always been his ‘cherished dream’ (though he never did write one). His enormously successful Seventh (‘Leningrad’) Symphony was, he said in 1941, the year of its premiere, ‘about … our sacred war and our victory’.

Everything miraculously changed in 1979, when a recent émigré, Solomon Volkov, smuggled out of the USSR the manuscript of a book that he described as Shostakovich’s memoirs. He called it Testimony, and represented its apparent author as a bitter anti-Stalinist, and a victim of the regime. Maxim Shostakovich, Dmitry’s conductor son, arriving in the West that same year, noted cautiously that Testimony (whose authenticity many questioned) was a book about his father rather than by him. Nevertheless, Maxim basically accepted the ‘victim of Stalin’ label, and who can blame him, given the enormous boost it gave his father’s (and his own) reputation, particularly in Cold War America? The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, an even more high-profile defector of the same period, promoted his old friend’s music along similar lines. It was the beginning of a new era in Shostakovich’s Western reception.

Word went round that his pro-Soviet statements were not his at all but written by others and published under his signature. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a small flood of memoirs – of which Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994) was the most notable – and published correspondence and interviews with his friends showed him full of acid-tongued contempt for the stupidities of Soviet bureaucracy. Even the famously patriotic ‘Leningrad’ symphony turned out to have a secret anti-Soviet programme: Flora Litvinova, who had met Shostakovich when they were both evacuated to Kuibyshev during the war, said he had told her ‘straight out that the Seventh Symphony, and for that matter the Fifth as well, were not just about Fascism but about our system, or any form of totalitarian regime’.

The facts of his life can be read either way. The Shostakovich family, like most Petersburg intellectuals, held mildly radical views in 1917; there was even a Bolshevik uncle on his mother’s side. Mitya, who was 11 in 1917, was a child prodigy, and despite the unpropitious times achieved spectacular early success as a pianist and a composer. Like most of his contemporaries, he saw himself as a revolutionary musician; the political revolution had paved the way for his challenge to tradition. By the mid-1920s, he was on familiar terms with such avant-garde celebrities as the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and had acquired highly placed political friends and protectors – Marshal Tukhachevsky was one. His star continued to rise in the 1930s, and the Maly Theatre’s premiere of his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was the event of the 1934 Moscow season; Stalin, Molotov and other leaders came to a later performance to see what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, they didn’t like what they heard and saw – not tuneful enough, too ‘formalist’ (modernist, Western) in idiom, too much sex – and the work was roundly condemned in Pravda. It was a substantial blow, but even as his colleagues dutifully criticised the opera in public, the Soviet arts boss Platon Kerzhentsev was responding warmly to his pleas for help in regaining official favour (while at the same time assuring the Politburo that Shostakovich had learned his lesson). By the end of the 1930s he was already back in favour, and he then scored an enormous domestic and international hit with his wartime Seventh Symphony.

Another setback came in 1948, when he was again publicly criticised, this time along with Prokofiev and Khachaturian, for his old sin of formalism, which meant writing music that wasn’t easily accessible to popular audiences. This time, it may have hurt him psychologically but it didn’t damage his career. Stalin had already shown a benevolent interest in him – or at least recognised that he was an asset worth protecting – in 1946, when his request for a better apartment (initially addressed to Beria, whom he presumably considered a patron) was not only granted but improved on, at Stalin’s suggestion, to include a car and a dacha. A few years later, he received one of Stalin’s famous phone calls out of the blue offering general reassurance and material help (this time, access to medical care at the Kremlin hospital for his whole family). He never felt obliged to join the Party in Stalin’s time, though he served conscientiously for many years as an elected deputy to the Supreme Soviet and was a powerful member of the Composers’ Union executive and an active committee man. In 1960, however, he surprised everyone by joining the Party, telling sceptical friends shamefacedly that he was being forced to do so.

His friends criticised him for signing open letters condemning dissidents and disapproved of the young Komsomol activist who briefly became his second wife after the death of the first. Younger composers like Edison Denisov, now back in contact with Western contemporary music after the quarter-century break of the Stalin era, were inclined to see him as behind the times, though still a towering figure. But for the Soviet public the 1960s was the decade in which he achieved iconic status as a ‘truth-teller’ in the spirit of Khrushchev’s Thaw. His Thirteenth (Babi Yar) Symphony (1962), setting a text by the charismatic young poet Evgeny Evtushenko, honoured the memory of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War (and thus implicitly raised the issue of Soviet anti-semitism); his Fourteenth Symphony (1969), setting a variety of texts on the un-Soviet topic of death, seemed equally daring as a challenge to the optimistic tenets of socialist realism. The premieres of these works drew such hysterical applause that they amounted almost to political demonstrations. Even the older works now acquired resonance of a quasi-oppositional kind. Attending a performance of the Leningrad Symphony in the early 1970s, the musicologist Richard Taruskin, then an exchange student at the Moscow Conservatory, was shocked to find that the Soviet audience ‘valued this music, which I had been taught to despise, more highly than I valued any music, and that Shostakovich meant more to his (and their) society than any composer meant to mine’.

Russians often say they hear ‘the truth’ in these works of the mature Shostakovich, and the notion of a shining single truth capable of being expressed by anyone brave enough to challenge the official ‘lies’ was particularly popular during the Thaw. Just how one might do this in music is a mystery, but it’s easier to understand when one remembers the standard romantic programme with its lone heroes striving to maintain their integrity against the onslaughts of a soulless world. That’s the programme Russian audiences know and love from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov; and it works for Shostakovich, too, if you put ‘the Soviet system’ in the place of ‘the world’.

At the same time, nobody could mistake Shostakovich for a late-romantic Eastern European telling heartfelt personal stories in the manner of Smetana’s ‘From My Life’ or Janácek’s ‘Intimate Letters’. Shostakovich’s musical idiom, which originally derived from the post-romantic modernism of the 1920s, is often explicitly anti-romantic: he is a mocker and self-parodist, a tease, someone whose music – especially the chamber music – is filled with ‘wrong notes’ and intentional violations of a listener’s expectations. One of his most moving works, the Eighth Quartet, written on a visit to Dresden in 1960 and dedicated to the victims of war and Fascism, was made intensely personal by its obsessive repetition of the DSCH (or D, E flat, C, B natural) motif, derived from his own initials. The dedication and motif are themselves a jarring contradiction, compounded when we find Shostakovich describing the new quartet to his friend Isaak Glikman as a ‘pseudo-tragic quartet, so much so that while I was composing it I shed the same amount of tears as I would have to pee after drinking half a dozen beers’. For musicologists, always wary of the notion that music contains ‘ideas’, all this is a problem.

Shostakovich studies have been riven by controversy since the publication of Volkov’s book, some still seeing him as Stalin’s victim and interpreting the music accordingly, others – including the big guns of Western studies of Soviet music, Taruskin, Simon Morrison and Laurel Fay – trying to clear away the emotional-political undergrowth. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the autobiographical subtext is often so vivid for performers as well as listeners. The Emerson String Quartet found the quartets so clearly autobiographical that they commissioned a theatre piece, The Noise of Time, in which the story of the composer’s life was narrated as a counterpoint to the performance of the Fifteenth (and last) Quartet. ‘I started to see the quartets as little plays, as little dramas, basically, with four characters,’ the violinist Philip Setzer told Wendy Lesser. ‘In the Eighth, for instance, three people are holding sustained notes and one is “crying”.’

Lesser interviewed members of six quartets which regularly perform Shostakovich’s music, including the Fitzwilliam and the Borodin. Neither a musicologist nor a musician, and inclined to sidestep the musicological debate, Lesser takes the quartets to be a ‘diary’ that records the ‘story of his soul’ over the 36 years of their composition, from 1938, when he was 31, to 1974, the year before his death. She justifies this by telling us that only after learning about Shostakovich’s life was she ‘able to hear what was there all along in the quartets’. At the same time she knows that Shostakovich is quite capable of inserting false clues in his work, and that ‘it is easy to confuse the autobiography of reception with the autobiography of creation, to imagine that the composer (or writer, or painter) simply put in the same feelings that we later took out.’ She is aware that musicologists like Taruskin (thanked in her acknowledgments) are wary of biographical readings and concedes the point gracefully before nevertheless going ahead with her biographical reading. She can ‘feel a voice speaking’ to her through the quartets, and so can Russian audiences and many of the professional musicians she interviews. What else to conclude but that the composer ‘has actually planted that thread or storyline in the cycle of quartets’?

So what’s the story? Despair, terror, sorrow and guilt about survival are possibilities, but Lesser settles for death and its contemplation. The Second Quartet (1944) is ‘about’ the wartime death of Shostakovich’s great friend Ivan Sollertinsky; the last movement of the Third Quartet (1946) is telling us that ‘we think we are alive, but we are actually already dead.’ The endings of many of the movements in the quartets are marked to be played morendo, or dying away.

There is ‘a powerful sense of truth’ in the string quartets, Lesser feels, though whether that just means that the music ‘accurately represents the man himself, or perhaps the man and his circumstances’, or constitutes a larger claim for the truth of his music as a statement about human existence as a whole, remains uncertain. Lesser would like to make the larger claim but is ‘hard-pressed to demonstrate how it works’. Her Shostakovich is a slippery character, ‘a man in hiding, a secret self behind a public face’, someone whose public statements are often evasive or outright misleading, a man who makes compromises and regrets them, who is peculiarly prone to a sense of shame.

Part of the slipperiness has to do with his obsessive habit of quoting (his own music and other composers’) in his works. He rivals Eliot as a gatherer of fragments ‘shored against my ruin’, though whether this is in fact their function in Shostakovich is unclear: he told Glikman (apropos of the Fifteenth Symphony) that although it was something he had to do, he had no idea why. All this quoting is great for musicologists, but, like Nabokov experts, they don’t like feeling that they are being teased. When Shostakovich repeatedly quotes Rossini’s William Tell Overture in the first movement of the Fifteenth Symphony, is this to be understood as a motif for freedom, as some commentators have speculated? A hint that Shostakovich, like Rossini, had ‘lived slightly too long’, as he suggested in a letter to a friend? Or just a tune that was part of the musical baggage carried in his head and put in for no particular reason?

For such a man, Lesser concludes, ‘silence was at the heart of his enterprise’, in music as in life. Given the nature of the Soviet regime, it was a choice between ‘silence or capitulation’; ‘to speak … was to betray’ oneself and others. Lesser’s emphasis on the Stalinist context of the quartets, though common among musicologists, is odd when one considers that only five of the 15 were written in Stalin’s lifetime. Odd, too, is the characterisation of a composer who produced 15 quartets, 15 symphonies and a wealth of other music as a ‘silenced voice’, a term familiar from Cold War rhetoric on the state of the arts in the Soviet Union. Lesser claims not to want to revert to this rhetoric, and her concluding statement on Shostakovich’s silences implies a multitude of different meanings: silences in the musical sense of rests, when particular players sit out for extended periods; silence as ‘the white part of the canvas’; the companionable silence that Shostakovich enjoyed with friends; politically enforced silence; silence as failure to speak out against injustice; and finally the silence of audiences, bowled over by the impact of his emotional message, ‘that brief moment between the music’s end and the start of the clapping’. In the end, the metaphor turns out to be so all-encompassing that it doesn’t seem very useful.

Judith Kuhn is both a musicologist and an amateur cellist, who knows the quartets from playing as well as studying them; and her book offers musical analyses of the first seven, each introduced with a sensible contextual essay. Like Lesser, Kuhn is interested in the issue of communication, taking off from Bakhtin; all utterances are ‘filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances’. One’s eyes can glaze over at any invoking of Bakhtin, whose ‘dialogic imagination’ has gained cult status in the literary field, but in this case it is genuinely illuminating. Kuhn says she intends to focus on two ‘overlapping dialogues’: Shostakovich’s dialogue with his critics, and his ongoing dialogue with ‘conventional genre and form’. That’s a fairly narrow description of what she actually does, which includes showing how Shostakovich was in constant dialogue with his musical predecessors (all those quotations), as well as with Soviet audiences and musicologists, whose engagement with his music she considers less political and more benign than is usually thought.

It’s very hard for a musicologist to present a technical argument that is both comprehensible and convincing to lay readers, but Kuhn has done a first-rate job. You don’t even have to be able to read a score, though it helps (she gives musical examples); and she tells you what you need to know about sonata form. Classical sonata form (as in Mozart and Haydn) typically requires an initial statement of two themes in different keys, followed by a development section and finally a recapitulation, in which the second theme returns in the same key as the first, thus ‘resolving’ the original tension between them. Shostakovich’s quartets, as Kuhn shows, contain many sonata-form movements, and every one of the first six quartets fails to resolve according to the rules, leaving the listener with a sense both of a classically ordered structure and then of its violation. Disappointment of expectations is a habitual trope in Shostakovich that most listeners will recognise, but Kuhn’s idea of a ‘failed’ sonata form takes us further than the more familiar ‘wrong note’. According to Adorno, the message of the ‘failed’ sonata form in a 20th-century context is that ‘the system and its seamless unity, its appearance of reconciliation, is dishonest’, so perhaps the Russians are on to something with their idea of ‘truth-telling’ in Shostakovich’s music. At the very least it helps us to understand how Shostakovich could both have his socialist-realist cake and eat it.

Kuhn’s Shostakovich is above all a professional musician, highly educated and knowledgeable, for whom music is simply more interesting than anything else. That doesn’t mean that other things didn’t impinge: her Shostakovich is in dialogue both with the regime, and with the intelligentsia, which in the post-Stalin period came to read a quite different meaning into his works. Shostakovich obviously knew this, just as he had earlier known more or less what the Stalinists wanted from him; the difficulty lies in deciding how far this knowledge affected what he wrote.

The Jewish issue is particularly interesting in this connection. From the early 1940s, Shostakovich started to make extensive use of Jewish themes (mainly musical, but sometimes textual) in his quartets and other works. It’s possible to read this as a political statement, as a criticism of Soviet anti-semitism, particularly the quasi-official anti-semitism that came to the surface in the late Stalin period. This reading is persuasive for late works like the Babi Yar Symphony but it works less well as an explanation of the Jewish motifs in the wartime chamber music, written at a time when the regime maintained its traditional opposition to foreign and domestic anti-semitism. Clearly Shostakovich found the ‘laughter through tears’ quality of Jewish folk music, expressed in such devices as major-minor alternation, musically congenial. In the early 1940s, as Kuhn points out, particular circumstances brought Jewish music to his attention: his friendship with the Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a newly arrived refugee from Poland; the task he assumed of completing the Jewish-inflected opera Rothschild’s Violin, written by his student Veniamin Fleischmann, who had died at the front; and the fact that another friend, Moisei Beregovsky, was writing a dissertation, defended at the Moscow Conservatory in 1944, on Jewish instrumental folk music.

At the same time, it’s clear that from the standpoint of the Russian public, and from Shostakovich’s standpoint too, that Jewish themes acquired a new resonance with the murder in 1948 of the Jewish theatre director Solomon Mikhoels, Weinberg’s father-in-law – Weinberg himself was briefly arrested in connection with the Doctors’ Plot in 1953. At this point, any use of Jewish themes had ceased to be a purely musical matter – particularly for a man like Shostakovich, who had not only taken the risk of interceding with Beria on Weinberg’s behalf but had also assumed legal guardianship of Weinberg’s daughter at the time of his arrest. A decade later, Babi Yar firmly (and surely intentionally) asserted Shostakovich’s sympathy for Jews suffering persecution, to the point that in Russian folk memory he is still often identified as having been himself a Jew.

Shostakovich would surely have appreciated the many ironies of his life and his posthumous reputation. There’s the fact for a start that, as Setzer remarked to Lesser, ‘he was forced to write for the masses and he did … Audiences really love even his difficult pieces.’ In other words, the regime’s demand that his music be accessible paid off. But the irony is compounded because first Soviet and then Western audiences came to love his music for what in Soviet terms were the wrong reasons. Western audiences started to fall in love with it in the 1970s because they saw him as a victim of an oppressive regime. In the same period, the Soviet intelligentsia was thrilled by what it heard as the voice of a truth-teller, bearing witness to individual and collective suffering. Shostakovich, so irreverent and iconoclastic in youth, was being canonised posthumously as a romantic – a rare modern composer whose music comes from and speaks to the heart. To some young Russians, however, what matters is that if you compare their photographs, Shostakovich and Harry Potter are practically the same person. ‘It’s not Harry Potter, it’s the composer Dmitry Dmitrievich Shostakovich,’ a Russian website proclaims, featuring a photograph of the young Shostakovich with round schoolboy glasses, boyish face, high forehead with dark hair flopping over one side, rosebud mouth.

The discussion eventually gets derailed onto the ever popular question of whether Shostakovich (and perhaps Harry Potter too?) was a Jew. Whichever way, it’s clear that Shostakovich was in there with Harry fighting the Prince of Darkness. As any fan knows, by the last of the series, TheDeathly Hallows, Hogwarts has become a totalitarian institution, with Voldemort as its dictator. Voldemort or Stalin – what’s the difference? The Harry and Mitya team, with their round glasses and remarkable musical/magical skills, will rout him in the end.

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