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11 May 2011

Public and private

The secret meaning of Shostakovich's chamber works.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

Edward Rothstein has a very interesting review in the New York Times of Wendy Lesser’s book Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets. The review turns on the fraught and much-debated question of Dmitri Shostakovich‘s attitude towards the Soviet regime in the Stalin era and afterwards. Rothstein points out that Shostakovich had cause to fear for his life twice: “[T]he first time during the late 1930s, when Stalin was purging those who seemed to challenge the party line; the second, a dozen years later, when Shostakovich was again officially criticized (he then cravenly thanked the party for its enlightened insight).”

The political crimes of which Shostakovich was suspected, first in the late 1930s, then again in 1948, give us, among other things, an interesting picture of the changing face of official Soviet aesthetics. The first time he was denounced, writes Rothstein, he had to assure the functionaries of the CPSU that he “would not write music of excessive vulgarity and violence”. The second time, Shostakovich had to defend himself against the charge of “formalism” as summarised in the “Zhdanov doctrine“.

Wendy Lesser, it seems, cleaves fairly closely to the standard account of Shostakovich’s work, according to which “in his grand public music, [he] kept pretty close to the party line, creating, perhaps, a kind of musical Socialist Realism, cheering and mourning for appropriate state occasions”. His chamber works, by contrast, especially the string quartets, “are so private in character… that Shostakovich could express himself freely in them”.

Rothstein, however, isn’t convinced by this reading:

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This is, I think, too stark a contrast between the composer’s public party-line music and private confessional pieces; the symphonies, too, speak in many ­voices. And Lesser’s programmatic readings also overemphasize the metaphysical, introspective aspects of the quartets, making death their major theme. But I hear musical gestures that for all their melancholy are more aggressively provoking. Lesser, in connecting the life and the works, tends to make them too personal, too apolitical and too ahistorical for my taste.

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Then there’s the separate question of the status of Shostakovich’s memoir Testimony, published in English in 1979. There was a good deal of controversy at the time, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, about the book’s provenance, though Rothstein argues that questions about its veracity have long since been settled. And he charges Lesser with “seriously misjudg[ing] the book’s importance”, although “she too ends up showing that Shostakovich could be considered a kind of ‘secret dissident’ struggling in his music against the “enormous external forces that made him both a celebrated hero and a shivering wreck.”

It’s likely such issues will be on the minds of audiences at a series of three concerts curated by the chamber ensemble Endymion that starts at King’s Place in London tomorrow night and runs until Saturday 14 May. Goodbye Stalin: The secret sounds of Shostakovich and Schnittke features some of Shostakovich’s “most personal chamber works” (though none of the quartets), along with performances of chamber pieces by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.

Tickets are still available and can be booked here.