Music: Beyond Bombast—The Other Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was widely touted as a “Soviet” artist because he was the first significant Russian composer to have been completely educated under the new communist regime. In some sense, Shostakovich may have agreed with this description. Nevertheless, he was in a state of constant tension with the Soviet Union, which alternately celebrated and suppressed his music, depending on how Josef Stalin was feeling. Stalin first censured Shostakovich’s music in 1936, calling the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk “muddle instead of music.” Shostakovich packed a small bag in readiness for the late-night knock at the door that he expected would end in a firing squad or internment in the Gulag. He also abjectly recanted: “I began to speak a language incomprehensible to the people. . . . I know that the party is right. . . I am deeply grateful for the criticism.” To save himself, Shostakovich suppressed his more raucous works, such as the Fourth Symphony, and penned the Fifth Symphony as “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.” The symphony was received as an heroic affirmation of the spirit of the Soviet people and soon afterward Shostakovich was fully rehabilitated with a Stalin Prize for his Piano Quintet. All was well until the next denunciation in 1948. For the rest of his life, Shostakovich never unpacked the small bag. He was always waiting for the sound of the mailed fist on his apartment door.

To all appearances, Shostakovich conformed and became a good Soviet cultural apparatchik, which included being sent abroad as a musical emissary. The symphonies and choral works dedicated to Lenin and the Revolution dutifully poured forth from his pen, as did articles praising the Great Leader (signed but not read by Shostakovich).

Yet, all was not as it seemed. Even at their best, the symphonies can be enigmatic; at their worst, they inexplicably degenerate into bombast. Some of the heroic symphonies make less than convincing wholes. Their caustic grotesqueries and deliberate banalities, juxtaposed with passages of searing intensity and unrelenting power, can leave the listener reeling and confused. Are the incongruities lapses of judgment or failures of talent? Why does the meaning of Shostakovich’s symphonic music seem so elusive?

The answer is that Shostakovich was engaged in secret writing. To the consternation of many who have interpreted Shostakovich’s symphonies programmatically, according to various Communist or “Great Patriotic War” themes, Shostakovich revealed in Testimony, his controversial memoirs “as told to Solomon Volkov,” that he had been speaking in musical code. For instance, Shostakovich said that the end of the Fifth Symphony is a false apotheosis: “the rejoicing is forced, created under threat. . . . You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.” The Seventh Symphony, subtitled Leningrad, was blatantly used for propaganda purposes against the Nazis during the Second World War. Shostakovich revealed that the Seventh was planned before the war and “consequently cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ‘invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme. . . . It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.” Of the Tenth Symphony he said, “No one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin.” Likewise, the Eleventh Symphony is not about the revolution in 1905: “It deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called ‘1905.’ It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.” In the 14th Symphony, Shostakovich said, “I don’t protest against death in it, I protest against those butchers who execute people.” As for the previous “Soviet” explanations he had given for his works, Shostakovich said, “I answer different people differently, because different people deserve different answers.”

Shostakovich’s remarks in Testimony have the ring of truth: “The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. . . . I’m willing to write a composition for each of the victims, but that’s impossible, and that’s why I dedicate my music to them all.” Here is the real substance of Shostakovich’s symphonic message. Yet visits to the graveyard are always difficult and so is listening to many of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies.

Far more accessible are Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, a large body of fully mature works that were begun after the Fifth Symphony. The quartets are more homogeneous and more easily grasped than the symphonies, perhaps because of the inherently intimate nature of their forms, which also precludes their use, or abuse, as de rigueur hymns to the Russian Revolution. (One hapless Soviet minister of culture tried and failed miserably when he once gave orders to organize “a quartet of ten men.”) Quartets are protected by their privacy. Also, their messages do not have to be decoded. If Shostakovich’s symphonies are tombstones, the quartets are the flowers he lays on the graves.

No matter how bizarre some of his chamber music can seem, it never loses its reference points in song and dance. This is because Shostakovich’s interest is not in abstraction but in expression. The weirdness is not in his means of expression, which are really quite conventional, despite the occasional massive doses of dissonance, but in what is expressed—which is hardly strange considering what the man and his country endured. The ghostly dances and songs that pass through Shostakovich’s quartets are from a world that Lenin and Stalin attempted to destroy—the world of the human soul, from which emanate the most basic impulses to sing praise and dance in delight.

The stylistic touchstones for the quartets are not, curiously enough, Bartok, Schoenberg, or Hindemith, the three most influential European composers in the genre at the time. Neither do the principal influences on Shostakovich’s symphonies, Mahler and Prokofiev, make their presences felt. The quartets independently establish their own Classical lineage directly back to Haydn and Beethoven without any intermediaries. This does not mean that they do not contain surprises. Elements of Russian and Jewish folk song give them a gypsy-like wildness akin to Leos Janacek’s two great quartets.

Here, only brief comments can convey the character of a few of these extraordinary works. Quartet No. 1 is full of Haydnesque sweetness and light, with liltingly lovely melodies. The Second Quartet is a world apart in its additional depth and gravity. The Fourth Quartet’s opening movement has both a touching lyricism and wild intensity, followed by a plaintive Andantino. The Seventh Quartet is a brief, gemlike work dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich’s first wife. The poignant grief lyrically expressed in the first two movements gives way to energetic protests and angry desperation in the extraordinary fugal pages of the third. The piece’s concluding movement, an extended assimilation of all the preceding elements, ends with a sense of peaceful resignation, almost a sigh.

The Eighth Quartet, also a mournful work, was supposedly written as a protest against fascism engendered by Shostakovich’s memory of war-damaged Dresden. This view, supported by Shostakovich’s dedication of the quartet to “the victims of Fascism and War,” has led to ridiculous descriptions of the music as depicting the evil drone of hostile bombers and the crackling of gunfire (where the waltz music of the third movement fits into this scenario is anyone’s guess). In Testimony, Shostakovich explicitly rejected this program: “The Eighth is an autobiographical work” that has nothing to do with “exposing fascism.” The piece quotes themes from several of Shostakovich’s works and makes use of a musical motto derived from his initials: D-S-C-H. The work is weighted at both ends by gentle largos that convey a feeling of deep sorrow. They frame a ferocious allegro molto that alternates between stabbing chords and wild gypsy-like material, and an allegretto based on a weird little waltz. It is extraordinary music, in which Shostakovich takes on the aspect of a Russian Janacek.

The Third Quartet is the second longest of the fifteen. It was completed in 1946, after the Ninth Symphony, and is every bit as powerful a composition as the Eighth Quartet. Its opening allegro has the same kind of wild, violent swagger and hammered chords as the allegro from the Eighth, while the ensuing adagio is beautifully poignant and haunting, surely one of Shostakovich’s finest inspirations. The final movement closes with a quiet lament that must be one of the most touching farewells in chamber music.

There are two great budget-priced, complete six-CD sets of the quartets: the Fitzwilliam Quartet on London and the Borodin Quartet on Melyodia/BMG. Telegraphic clarity, surgical concision, unremitting rhythmic drive, and intense concentration characterize the famous Fitzwilliam versions. An almost forbidding perfection pervades these performances, which makes the music even more eerie. Though the Fitzwilliam lacks perhaps a touch of Slavic wildness, one gets the impression of extraordinary music played by superb musicians. In the Borodin traversal, it is more as if someone is trying to talk to you. With the Borodin players, one never forgets that there is warm blood running through the veins of this music. Their greater expressive liberties, both within the ensemble and with rhythms, and their tremendous range of nuance, bring the music closer to speech. The Borodin set also contains the Piano Quintet in G minor, one of the finest chamber works of the 20th Century, in an electrifying performance by Sviatoslav Richter. There is also a budget series from Naxos under way with the excellent Eder Quartet. Their superb renditions are closer in spirit to the Borodin and are available on separate CDs for those who wish to sample before buying a complete set.

Shostakovich was a nonbeliever. One can only wonder why, in his last quartet, he chose to write six uninterrupted adagios. No one had attempted a string quartet like that since Haydn, in his exquisite masterpiece, The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. It is a parallel Shostakovich must have wished to invite. What can we conclude from the desolation he lays before us? Is this the cross without Christ, or Good Friday without the Resurrection? It might fit things neatly to say so, but the deep mourning that pervades the work is not despair. In this, his last utterance, finished only months before his death, the spirit of song and dance, however muted, still slowly moves.

I disagree with those, like music writer Alan George, who claim that the Fifteenth Quartet trails off “into nothingness.” Shostakovich was not a nihilist. Nihilists do not make tombstones and place bouquets on graves. Neither do they thirst for justice. Shostakovich said, “The people who were responsible for these evil deeds will have to answer for them, if only before their descendants. If I didn’t believe in that completely, life wouldn’t be worth living.” Yet, despite all the horrors of the time, it was. His music says so.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...