The Shostakovich Question

David Fanning
Thursday, September 24, 2015

An isolated figure, working under one of the 20th century's most terrifying dictatorships, his music is emotional, controversial, misunderstood – and a guaranteed hall-filler. David Fanning asks: why are we obsessed with Shostakovich?

There are some questions about Shostakovich that I dread being asked. It’s not so much that they’re difficult; more that the answers should ideally vary depending on where the questioner is coming from. What do I think about this or that work? What is its message? Is it any good? I want to say: tell me first what you think, give me something to react to. And so far as the really big imponderables are concerned – what was Shostakovich’s attitude to this or that, and how does that affect his music? – well, the more you find out about him, the harder it becomes to give, or to tolerate, simple answers. In any case, isn’t one of the most striking things about his music its mixture of overwhelming (some would say overbearing) directness and unfathomable (some would say pointless and frustrating) elusiveness? That, plus the fact that so many of his works end with a question mark and/or three dots…?

Yet the tricky questions aren’t going to go away. So, enough apologies. Here’s an attempt to respond to – if not exactly answer – some of them, bouncing off a Cambridge University questionnaire that was recently lobbed in my direction.

What it is about his music that makes it so popular with concert-goers today?

In a word, excess. In three words, artistically controlled excess. By which I don’t mean self-indulgence or luxuriance; more a sense of danger courted but surmounted – the musical equivalent of extreme sports. And that breaks down into at least three sub-categories.

First, it’s the sheer excitement generated by pushing emotions beyond their normal bounds – especially emotions that manifest themselves most physically, such as aggression, suffering, elation, lamentation. For the highest dosage of all of those, try the wartime Eighth Symphony; or hear any of the string concertos and imagine yourself in the role of the soloist. How did Shostakovich develop that faculty? In general by transference from his vast experience in formative years with theatre and film; in music in particular, by a profound understanding of Beethoven, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. The result was that he was almost uniquely equipped among composers when the challenge came in the 1930s and ’40s to deal artistically with the worst that those decades had to throw at humanity.

Then there’s excess at the introverted extreme. It’s the courage to dig down past passive submission, past the meditative gloom of Celtic or Slavonic twilight, past the temptations of religious or social creeds, all the way to the terrifying – but genuine – void that is the only place where vast negativities of the human condition can be confronted. Most of the music Shostakovich composed in the illness-dominated last decade of his life, pre-eminently his song-cycles, majors in that quality. But in fact it’s there to varying degrees almost from the beginning. As much nature as nurture, then. Credit some of the musical means for it to Wagner and Mussorgsky, but also to Bach.

In between there are Shostakovich’s irreverence and quick-wittedness, his sheer rudeness. Those qualities chime with racy humour of all generations, from the Keystone Kops, through Tom and Jerry to Men Behaving Badly. They come out of a natural affinity with the subversiveness of 1920s Russian circus and theatre, and from close contact with the various directors for stage and screen who shared that affinity. As good a place as any to encounter them is in Shostakovich’s First Symphony – his breakthrough piece, premiered when he was just 19. Musically the main godfather figure is Stravinsky – especially the mischievous side of Petrushka and the various miniatures from the 1910s – and after him a whole host of operetta and music-hall composers.

For each of those three big categories in isolation one could nominate contemporary rivals: Bartók for physical extremes, Myaskovsky for introversion, Poulenc for impudence. But with Shostakovich the additional, and unique, fascination is the fragility and permeability of his soul-states. If a positive frame of mind is gentle, then it’s susceptible to painful memory (as in the First, Sixth and Fourteenth Quartets, the Second Cello Concerto); if energetic, then it’s liable to tip over into mania (both piano concertos); if triumphalist or consolatory, then it’s often shaded in such a way as to suggest the emotional cost involved (see the conclusions of almost every Symphony from No 4 on). With those instincts, Shostakovich is already halfway to solving the notorious finale problem. More powerfully than any of his peers, he knew how to invoke the trappings of resolution and simultaneously to critique them. To anyone on the same wavelength, Shostakovich’s trademark ambivalence and elusiveness have a more intensely and durably modern feel than any kind of upfront modernism.

None of which would be all that significant without the Midas touch that turns thematic ideas into gold; or without the phenomenal musical ear that enables instruments to speak without hindrance; or without the equally phenomenal craftmanship that fuses short-term surprises to mid-term pacing (the sense of when to move on to something new) and to long-term checks, balances and drama. No better work to illustrate all of that than the Tenth Symphony.

For audiences, then, Shostakovich has that rarest of abilities to connect up what is reassuringly familiar to experiences way beyond the usual comfort zone. To what precise end is one of the great imponderables. But even viewed as an end in itself, that gives him an extraordinary breadth of appeal, both to classically attuned audiences who sense the meaning-of-life agenda behind the surface complexity and negativity, and to those from other backgrounds such as contemporary theatre, ballet, film and visual art, who look for a comparable immediacy and depth from music but find it only sporadically in the 20th century.

Admittedly almost every one of those ‘reasons’ for Shostakovich’s enduring popularity can be seen as a potential turn-off. Anyone allergic to obsessiveness, impudence, painful emotional states, stylistic heterogeneity, high decibel levels, or excess of any kind, is going to have a problem with Shostakovich. Which leads to the next question.

‘Empty bombast’ or ‘ironic genius’: why does his music provoke such different responses?

Partly for the reason just outlined. But also, surely, because performances vary so much. The classic case is the finale coda in the Fifth Symphony. Should it be elatedly and affirmatively fast, or grindingly and subversively slow? Shostakovich himself seems to have sanctioned both options. And behind this lies the fact that performers and listeners vary in their attitude to context. Some like to have visual or narrative images in their heads, connected to knowledge of what was going on in the world or in the composer’s personal or mental life at the time of composition. Others prefer to make contact at a more abstract level, where music leaves behind the everyday and symbolises the inner human drives for which we have only inadequate names.

And there’s the context within the work. Taken out of structural context his massive blatant perorations may appear to be no more than that. Heard as part of a larger drama, they often say far more than they appear to. What exactly they say is another matter, however. In the high-Stalinist era it would have been suicidal for any Soviet artist to make his ironies transparent, or to record such hidden meaning in the sources a scholar would normally turn to (diaries, letters, even conversations). So irony of the Shostakovichian kind is even more than usually a matter of ‘reading’, not of discovering a verifiable ‘intention’. Comparison with more simple-minded works, however, should at least confirm that something is going on beneath the surface (compare the finale of the Tenth Symphony with the Festival Overture composed shortly after it).

The next problem is that ears and minds can hardly hope to be free from predisposition, both as to what kind of hidden message is discerned and whether such messages are there at all. Take the notorious opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the work that precipitated Shostakovich’s public disgrace in 1936 and forced upon him a drastic personal perestroika. On the surface its satire is directed against the wickedness of the pre-Soviet mercantile class. But that satire has been ‘read’ allegorically, as implying either a more or less direct sanctioning of the vengeful, power-hungry wickedness of early Stalinism, or as the precise opposite – as a condemnation of the same. Equally, it can be read as a condemnation of all such wickedness: past, present, future, internationally. Those positions have all been argued out with passionate eloquence. But it also has to be recognised that the very object itself – the opera up for debate – is coloured by the predispositions of the directors, conductors and singers through whom our experience of it has been mediated. No wonder opinions vary so drastically.

Before leaving the question of bombast, it’s worth saying that there is probably no music so empty-headed or so incompetent that it could not in principle be interpreted ironically. Even when irony is ruled out, there is no easily discernable dividing-line between bombast and artistically justified euphoria (after all, even Beethoven’s codas are too much for some sensibilities). So it’s legitimate for Shostakovich’s detractors to complain that to play the irony card may be merely to sanction an abandonment of artistic standards. To which I would only rejoin that in Shostakovich’s case the boundaries between works that are predominantly serious or entertaining, or between concert and applied music, are not always clear. No one expects a film score to stand up to scrutiny without the images it’s meant to accompany. But what about a commemorative piece such as Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony (The Year 1917)? Why should it operate by the same standards as the Tenth? Can it not be regarded as good poster-art, rather than as inadvertently bombastic or deliberately ironic high art? As Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory and Berlioz’s Symphonie funèbre et triomphale indicate, there is a time and place for bombast. Of course, it would be nice to think that Shostakovich had it in for Lenin and Communism in general, and therefore wrote a ‘bad’ piece as his sole available means for expressing that thought. I’d like to think so myself. I just can’t find any evidence to support the belief.

To what extent was his musical style shaped by the Communist regime?

Massively, and on many levels, but in general by giving him something to write against, or to write for but with a twist. Shostakovich hardly ever had to worry, as Stravinsky did, about the ‘abyss of freedom’, where everything was allowed and nothing punishable, so that dramatic force had to be manufactured from nothing, rather than being virtually a pre-condition of the act of composing. After all, what can Western composers write against these days, when everything is aesthetically and technologically possible and nothing has social resonance? How can they possibly get in trouble to the extent of having works vilified and banned (other than for poor quality)? Whereas if you know that you can’t write a twelve-note piece (such as the Twelfth Quartet), or one with a text about anti-Semitism (such as the Thirteenth Symphony), or sometimes even a string quartet or a fugue of any kind (Quartets 4 and 5, the 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano, all in the aftermath of the 1948 ‘anti-formalism’ campaign) without having a lot of explaining to do, then suddenly all those things become enticingly transgressive, and the transgression itself takes on a symbolic, moral force for composer and audience alike. To break the taboo, even just to flirt with it, sharpens the composer’s mind and cranks up audience reaction. So the political negative proved to be an artistic positive for Shostakovich, since the taboos of the high-Stalinist age gave him an envelope to push.

And there was another aspect to the effect of the Communist regime that was hugely positive and is often forgotten. It began in the early Bolshevik era with the encouragement, or least tolerance, of modernist experimentation, so long as it was in accord with the direction of the new society; so a flood of new music hit Shostakovich in his impressionable student years. And without wishing to romanticise the role of the Composers’ Union (established in 1932) – since Shostakovich would suffer more than his fair share from its inquisitorial aspect – the support structures it sponsored can hardly be entered on the negative side of the balance-sheet.

The Solomon Volkov book?

Aargh! So long as we keep calling Testimony ‘the Solomon Volkov book’, I don’t have a problem. The problem comes with quoting from it as though it actually contains Shostakovich’s memoirs. Large parts most likely are that. But Volkov has never satisfactorily explained the existence of those pages – the only ones authenticated by the composer’s signature – that are more or less word-for-word reproductions of articles previously published under Shostakovich’s name over a large number of years. Since those pages can hardly be ‘The memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov’, the authenticity of the rest is cast in doubt. The problem could probably yet be resolved by authentication of the shorthand notes from which Volkov says he made the typescript. But his claimed inability to produce them leaves little hope of that.

The urge to believe in the authenticity of Testimony, against all the evidence, is not hard to understand. Once the avant-garde bubble burst in the 1970s, and once a sufficient proportion of the Western intelligentsia finally woke up to the bitter realities of life under Communism, the door was open to new kinds of artistic and intellectual self-delusion. Who more ripe for enthronement as a new hero than a double victim: of Eastern totalitarianism and of Western aesthetic-radical chic? Any evidence that Shostakovich might actually have harboured Communist sympathies could now easily be brushed aside (since ‘any oaf’ should be able to see that it was a sham) and any evidence for his victimhood could be seized upon and magnified.

Seized upon? Well, take the story that he was planning to commit suicide after the Eighth String Quartet, in shame at having bowed to pressure to join the Communist Party. According to his then friend Lev Lebedinsky (and no one else), it was Lebedinsky himself who took away the sleeping pills with which Shostakovich was going to accomplish the deed, giving them to the composer’s son for safe keeping. A quick telephone call to Maxim was enough to scotch that one (there were sleeping pills, it transpires, but only for jet-lag). But the story still speaks to the romantic imagination, and in England five years’ worth of A-level students have been fed it as a fact, via the guidance notes sent to their teachers.

Even worse, while the history books have started to give Shostakovich his due in terms of space, they have only admitted him by the tradesmen’s entrance of ‘music and politics’. Whereas he himself spent most of his career opposing the vulgar politicisation of his art. Better to put him in a chapter on his own, headed ‘music against politics’. So the ultimate paradox is that just as musicologists have been discovering the excitement of de-aestheticising the most apparently abstract music – from before Bach to Webern and beyond – so they may now have to discover the importance of re-aestheticising the composer who at first glance seems to be the most anti-aesthetic of the lot. Admittedly, that itself may be an act of appropriation, as ideological as those wrought upon Shostakovich by generations of pro-Communists, then posthumously by anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists. But one takes such positions in the spirit of correcting something that appears seriously skewed in current discourse. And in that sense I ally myself with Valery Gergiev’s bon mot, apropos the Fifth Symphony: ‘It is time to find more music in this music.’

And what would Shostakovich have to say about these questions? (Sorry, I made that one up.)

His first instinct may be to quote the statue of ‘Night’ from his Michelangelo Suite: ‘Better to be of stone…’

Or maybe he would tailor his answer according to who was asking. That increasingly became a habit of his, accounting for many of the seeming contradictions in people’s reminiscences. He didn’t like unpleasantness between friends, and had to watch what he said to others even more carefully. Sviatoslav Richter cites a classic example. ‘[Heinrich] Neuhaus was sitting next to him at a performance…that was being badly conducted by Alexander Gauk. Neuhaus leaned over to whisper in Shostakovich’s ear: “Dmitry Dmitrievich, this is awful.” Whereupon Shostakovich turned to Neuhaus: “You’re right, Heinrich Gustavovich! It’s splendid! Quite remarkable!” Realising that he’d been misunderstood, Neuhaus repeated his earlier remark: “Yes,” muttered Shostakovich, “it’s awful, quite awful.”’

But I prefer to think that from a more Olympian height Shostakovich might echo – no doubt with some ironic twists – one of Goethe’s 1826 conversations with Eckermann:

‘I had the great advantage…of being born at a time when the greatest events which agitated the world occurred, and such have continued to occur during my long life…Thus I have attained results and insight impossible to those who are born now and must learn these things from books that they will not understand.’

I can also imagine him endorsing Goethe’s corollary and feeling that his own music had given it some kind of adequate expression:

‘What the next years will bring I cannot predict; but I fear we shall not soon have repose. It is not given to the world to be contented; the great are not such that there will be no abuse of power; the masses not such that, in hope of gradual improvement, they will be content with a moderate condition.’

This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Gramophone. Subscribe to Gramophone

The life and times of Shostakovich

  • 1906

    Born in St Petersburg on September 25

  • 1925

    Writes First Symphony as a graduation piece from Petrograd Conservatory

  • 1932

    Satirical opera The Nose opens to generally poor reviews

  • 1934

    Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District first performed with immediate success

  • 1936

    Stalin condemns Lady Macbeth as ‘formalist’

  • 1937

    More conservative Fifth Symphony is a success

  • 1941

    War between Russia and Germany – evacuated to Kuybishev where completes Seventh Symphony

  • 1948

    Denounced again for formalism under the Zhdanov decree. Most works banned and privileges withdrawn.

  • 1949

    Writes Song of the Forest in praise of Stalin.

  • 1951

    Made deputy of the Supreme Soviet

  • 1953

    Stalin dies and popular Tenth Symphony composed

  • 1960

    Joins Communist Party

  • 1962

    Symphony No 13, Babi Yar – his most outspoken work

  • 1971

    His final Symphony, No 15

  • 1975

    Dies of lung cancer on August 9 in Moscow

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