Charles Petzold

Reading “Music for Silenced Voices” (and Listening to the Shostakovich String Quartets)

March 21, 2011
New York, N.Y.

At the end of Das Rheingold — the preliminary evening to Richard Wagner's Ring cycle — Donner, the god of thunder, creates a storm in an attempt to wash away the blood and domestic torment left on the stage. As the rain clears, a rainbow appears like a bridge stretching across the Rhine, and Wotan leads the rest of the gods across this rainbow bridge into their new home.

The music that accompanies the gods' crossing on the rainbow bridge is sometimes played as an isolated orchestral piece called "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla." The music is stirring and uplifting. It builds on a lilting march rhythm with a crescendo of majestic brass fanfares against a melodic undercurrent of stability and peace, bringing the opera and the plight of the gods to a triumphant conclusion.

But that interpretation is all wrong. In the actual context of the opera, Wotan has violated the treaties that give him authority, and thus taken the first steps that will lead to his downfall three evenings and 12 hours of music later. Before the gods enter Valhalla, the last voices we hear are those of the Rhinemaidens, whose realm has been desecrated with the theft of their gold, and who blame the gods: "Goodness and truth dwell but in the waters; false and base all those who dwell up above." (Andrew Porter translation)

With the benefit of this context, the ostensibly majestic music turns hollow. It does not praise Wotan, or share in his triumph, but instead mocks his hubris by mimicking his puffed-up grandiosity. After this music, we won't be surprised that the "Ring" cycle ends with "Gotterdammerung" — the twilight of the gods — and the ascendance of we humans with all our faults and foibles.

The music that concludes Das Rheingold is a prime example of musical irony. It ostensibly seems to say one thing, but it's actually saying something else entirely.

Now imagine if Wagner had not been able to plot the Ring cycle the way he wanted. Imagine that he had been pressured by political forces to change the plot so the gods actually survived the threat to their dominance and remained in power. Imagine that Wagner grudgingly complied with this agenda, but he secretly added another layer of irony to the music to sabotage that goal and make it clear to discerning listeners that the true outcome was different than what was being portrayed on the stage. How would the music differ? Would "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla" be more grandiose or less?

It's not necessary to believe in Stravinsky's dictum that "music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all" to acknowledge that music isolated from context doesn't always reveal itself honestly. With some music, background and context are essential to understanding the intent of the composer, and the meaning of the music that the composer had in mind. Consequently, although we're fairly comfortable with music that is soaked in irony, we start feeling nervous when confronted with music where the irony has been slathered on in layers.

Layers of irony, hidden agendas, secret meanings, subtle clues — these are what makes the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich so infuriating and, ultimately, so fascinating. This is a composer who found a voice in deliberately unmelodic, often grotesque forms, richly sardonic and not always what they appear. And then he was forced to make his music comply with political agendas, and reacted in ways that are still unclear and still controversial.

The outlines of Shostakovich's story are well known: Born in St. Petersburg in 1906, he was 11 years old when the Russian Revolution occured. His parents were intellectuals, sympathetic to the Revolution, and young Dmitri grew up comfortably within the new Russia. As a young composer, Shostakovich seemed most talented in opera. His first opera The Nose (1928), based on the Gogol short story and written when Shostakovich was just 22, is audaciously raucous and sonically inventive. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934) — based on a 1865 story by Nikolai Leskov about a desperate housewife who goes on a killing spree — is less flashy but quite daring in its raw portrayals of sex and violence, and exquisitely composed and structured.

Lady Macbeth was also quite successful, starting with two simultaneous rival productions in Leningrad and Moscow, and then productions around the world. But in January 1936, Joseph Stalin and an entourage finally caught up with the show and left before its conclusion.

Two days later an editorial appeared in Pravda, "Muddle Instead of Music," rumored to have been written by Stalin himself: "From the very first moment of the opera the listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of a musical phrases drown, struggle free and disappear again in the din, the grinding, the squealing.... The music quacks, hoots, pants, and gasps in order to express the love scenes as naturally as possible." (quoted by Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 84-5) All of this is true, by the way, and it's part of what makes Lady Macbeth so enthralling.

The editorial also critized the opera for "bourgeois formalism," which had a special meaning within Soviet art criticism, and generally referred to a musical language that was too sophisticated for the common person. Translated to contemporary Americanese, the term is roughly equivalent to "elitist."

For the 29-year old composer, the condemnation in Pravda was a shattering event. The most immediate outcome was the closing of Russian productions of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and the evaporation of new commissions. Over the next year Shostakovich saw his income drop precipitously. But the long-term effect went far beyond Shostakovich: Much to the detriment of Western culture, Shostakovich would never again write another opera. There is a big hole in 20th century music that should be filled by Shostakovich's opera The Black Monk, based on the Chekhov short story, and Resurrection from the Tolstoy novel.

It's easy from our armchair perspective to decide what Shostakovich should have done 75 years ago. Of course he should have courageously resisted these bureaucratic pressures to conform and continued composing the music truest to his heart. See how easy that is? But Shostakovich was simply not that kind of a person. Few of us are. He was a bit of a coward. He was lucky not to have been arrested or even executed. Many others were. Shostakovich was instead given the opportunity to continue composing music — just as long as that music was free of formalism, had enough tunefulness to appeal to the Russian people, upheld the ideals of the Soviet republic, and was uplifting and exalting. How hard can that be?

By the time of the "Muddle Instead of Music" editorial, Shostakovich's first three symphonies had already been premiered, and a 4th was on the horizon. Shostakovich came to realize that his very Mahlerian 4th Symphony was fraught with danger. As someone who had attended rehearsals noted, it was "a devilishly difficult symphony, jam-packed with formalism" (Fay, p 95). Shostakovich decided to suppress it, and the 4th Symphony was not premiered until 1961. For his first major musical statement after "Muddle Instead of Music," Shostakovich instead wrote a 5th Symphony, which premiered in 1937. Many people hoped this new work would demonstrate that Shostakovich had learned his lessons in the proper composition of music, and indeed he had. The 5th Symphony was a big hit with both the public and the government.

From that moment until Shostakovich's death in 1975, he occupied an extremely awkward role as a famous composer. Within the Soviet Union, Shostakovich was continually regarded with bureaucratic suspicion as someone who had to be regularly monitored lest he drift too far astray. In 1948, Andrey Zhdanov, a secretary of the Central Committee, determined that Soviet music was in a state of formalist crisis. The so-called Zhdanov Degree was the second big blow against Shostakovich's music, and led to the banning of several works, including three symphonies.

But outside of the Soviet Union — particularly during the Cold War and later years — Shostakovich was widely perceived as a subservient lackey, turning out Soviet-themed compositions on government demand, and if they were better than they had any right to be, it was only because true talent couldn't be suppressed entirely. Trying to detect in Shostakovich the slightest bit of resistance to the Soviet government was simply hopeless. For many, the final straw came in 1973 when Shostakovich was among the names appearing under a letter in Pravda condemning the dissident physicist Andrey Sakharov. Two years later, Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize and Shostakovich was dead of lung cancer.

And then something quite remarkable happened. Several years after his death, Shostakovich was subjected to yet another rehabilitation program of a different sort. A book was published entitled Testimony that purported to be a dictated memoir that revealed the composer's true thoughts about the Soviet regime, and how he used his symphonies as a form of protest. Most Shostakovich scholars treat Testimony with a great deal of skepticism. Nonetheless his post-1936 symphonies have been re-evaluated and interpreted to allow for the possibility that this music actually reveals Shostakovich's opposition and resistance to the authorities. (For a taste of this process, see the Testimony-inspired documentary Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies on DVD. Available free online is a Michael Tilson Thomas program Keeping Score: Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 which applies a similar analysis to just this one symphony.)

Once the concept of hidden meanings is introduced, evaluating the symphonies that Shostakovich composed after 1936 becomes not easier but extremely problematic. According to this — dare we call it revisionist? — approach, musical triumphs are now mockeries (just as in Das Rheingold) but silliness is also mockery. Banalities are now intentional banalities. Completely baffling choices are now brilliant choices.This is a game that is impossible to lose!

While these hidden meanings might make the symphonies more interesting, and give us something to talk about, it doesn't necessarily make for good music. The irony crosses the line into dishonesty, and dishonesty in the arts is never good. Even the most fanciful fictions need to tell basic truths.

Generally, a symphony consists of a first movement, a final movement, and one or more movements in between. Overall, the internal movements are less important than the outer movements, but the two outer movements must connect in some way, either to provide a type of circular structure, or a progressive structure, or even a regressive structure. If one of the outer movements is completely out of character with the rest of the symphony, the whole symphony becomes incoherent, regardless of any brilliant writing that may be found inside.

The 5th Symphony, for example, has a gorgeous and moving 3rd movement, but is followed by a final movement that degenerates into total nonsense. In the revisionist view, this overblown movement demonstrates how Shostakovich was forced to write an loud uplifting finale rather than the soft ending of his suppressed 4th Symphony. Similarly, the wandering, contemplative mood of the 1st movement of the 6th Symphony (1939) is balanced by a more upbeat 2nd movement, but then the final movement heads straight to the circus and never looks back.

The 7th "Leningrad" Symphony (1941) is exceptionally frustrating. There is no question that Shostakovich suffered with the rest of his country (and indeed the world) when Hitler violated the non-agression pact and invaded Russia in 1941, and to me that pain comes across vividly in the 3rd movement. But the famous Bolero-like theme and variations of the first movement is wildly out of place. Does it represent the German invasion? Really? In the way that the invasion started cheerfully but ended much louder? Or does it represent the Russian reaction to the invasion? But why even choose something repetitive to represent a time when everything changed so dramatically?

Mind you, I like the 1st movement of the 7th Symphony! It's a catchy tune. It sticks in the head. It develops nicely. The musical process is thrilling. It's better than Bolero. Arguably, it's the best set of variations on a dopey theme since Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. Just don't claim it has anything to do with the Nazi invasion of Russia. It throws the whole symphony out of whack.

Shostakovich's 8th Symphony (1943) is much more focused, I think. I love the blistering 3rd movement passacaglia, the ethereal 4th, and while I don't entirely understand the last movement, it seems to fit. Yet the 9th Symphony (1945) is just a mess. It was originally supposed to commemorate the defeat of the Nazis, but turned out to be an inconsequential trifle. Does that mean there's simply more irony in the 9th? Or is the 8th a failure in Shostakovich's scheme because it actually seems to be coherent without any hidden meanings?

The Shostakovich symphonies have many moments and entire movements of pure genius, and sometimes even entire symphonies qualify. But in many ways, starting with that overblown final movement of the 5th Symphony, they're a critical minefield. Even in the later years when Shostakovich was old enough to be untouchable, and the regime was placid enough to not mess with him, the symphonies are often inexplicable. Perhaps the only thing worse than a symphony that quotes the famous galop from the William Tell Overture is a symphony that quotes it for no apparent reason.

I've been speaking of the symphonies as if they were Shostakovich's central body of work. Certainly they play that role in the popular view and in Laurel Fay's biography, where the 15 symphonies correlate nearly (but not exactly) with the 15 chapters of her book.

But fortunately Shostakovich did not restrict himself to symphonies. Soon after he finished the 5th Symphony, he wrote a first work for a very traditional chamber music ensemble: the string quartet. Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1938. It is a gentle, child-like work, but eventually Shostakovich would compose 14 more string quartets — equalling the number of symphonies — of much more profound depth and impact.

Anyone who explores Shostakovich's music beyond the symphonies discovers these string quartets, and many of us have found in them perhaps Shostakovich's true musical legacy. These string quartets represent an exceptional body of work that alone justify identifying Shostakovich as one of the great composers of the 20th century.

Perhaps if the symphonies really do have hidden meanings, they translate as "Don't take me too seriously. I'm only here to distract the authorities. Listen to my more economically instrumented brethren instead."

These 15 string quartets are now the subject of a fascinating new book by Wendy Lesser, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets (Yale University Press, 2011). Whether you're an old fan of the Shostakovich String Quartets or still awaiting an introduction, this is a wonderful place to foster or strengthen a long-term relationship with this music. Wendy Lesser's book is written for the non-technical reader, and filled with insights and wisdom,

Lesser uses the string quartets as a framework to construct a narrative through Shostakovich's life. That this goal is intrinsically flawed she readily admits: "The quartets, after all, were a way for him to get away from storytelling program music and politically meaningful symphonies." (p. 37) But it's an illuminating process, along with playing recordings of the 15 quartets in sequence like some grand multi-movement 6-hour work. Lesser has some wonderful observations about the quartets, as well as coming up with some great quotes from others, for example, Paul Epstein's description of the opening theme of the 5th quartet that "seems to stroll out of the front door, walk twelve bars down the street and then get hit in the face with the full force of violent events." (p. 110-111)

The symphonies were very public works, and were expected to be major musical statements. The string quartets, however, often flew under the radar. Here is where Shostakovich was allowed to be more honest, more forthright, more personal. These quartets represent the private Shostakovich, perhaps even (don't stop me from saying it) the real Shostakovich.

Of course, we still recognize the same composer as the symphonist. The quartets contain everything we love in Shostakovich, or hate, or simply find annoying (and with Shostakovich, very often these qualities are indistinguishable). But they are much more satisfying musical experiences: "that, for Shostakovich, was the beauty of the string quartet medium. He could toy with cacophony, immerse himself in irony, indulge in all his darkest, least acceptable moods, and not be called unpatriotic, because nobody who cared about such labels was listening to these compositions." (p. 178)

None of the string quartets were given titles or programs, but very often they were dedicated to someone. Lesser notes that as early as the 2nd String Quartet, "The quartets have found their subject — let's call it death for shorthand, but we could just as easily call it mortal terror, or sorrow, or guilt-ridden survival, or any other attributes that surround someone who faces and contemplates death — and they will stick with this subject to the end." (p. 64) Hence the title of the book.

The tendency for the quartets to be sorrowful or mournful became much more pronounced as the years went on. Although the number of symphonies and string quartets eventually evened out at 15 each, the process was lop-sided: Shostakovich didn't write his first string quartet until after his 5th Symphony. By 1955, Shostakovich had composed 10 of his symphonies but only 5 of the string quartets. In the last decade of his life, Shostakovich composed his last 2 symphonies but his final 5 string quartets, It is the later string quartets that reveal the late Shostakovich style much more than the symphonies, in which he often seemed adrift.

Those quartets numbered 11 through 14 were each dedicated to a member of the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that premiered all but the first and last Shostakovich quartet. These are among my favorites, and they are all very different from each other. The seven short episodic movements of the String Quartet No. 11 (1966) are to Lesser "like the empty ruin of a once joyous house, a crumbling, disintegrating memorial to lost happiness." (p. 200) This is a not-going-gentle-into-that-good-night level of rage and despair, where the penultimate movement titled "Elegy" is actually the most lyrical, and the apparent sporadic cheerfulness of the "Finale" is authentic irony rather than the dishonest kind.

As Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Prague in August 1968 putting an end to the political liberalization of the Prague Spring, famous Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn considered asking well-known cultural figures to sign a letter of protest. But he realized he couldn't possibly persuade a major one. As Solzhenitsyn visualized, "The shackled genius Shostakovich would thrash about like a wounded thing, clasp himself with tightly folded arms so that his fingers could not hold a pen." (quoted by Lesser, p. 224)

A month later Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 12 (1968) premiered, with its own belated acknowledgement of major forces of musical change, for it began with a 12-tone row. The first of the two movements has a sort of searching quality, but the second plows through everything in its 20-minute path. It is a movement of many moods and many sounds, and even imposes different moods on different recapitulations of the first movement themes, including one of heart-breaking beauty. Wendy Lesser notes that this is the favorite Shostakovich quartet of many musicians, and then witily notes: "For once in Shostakovich, you can actually feel the end approaching: it announces itself, and then it announces itself again, and then it is there." (p. 219)

The single-movement String Quartet No. 13 (1970) begins with a sad chorale, but includes some jazzy sections, demented ballroom dances, prancing skeletons, and all sorts of weird escapades, including having the second violinist hit the body of the instrument with the wood part of the bow, which could actually damage the violin. Lesser quotes the violist of the Fitzwilliam Quartet: "The Thirteenth Quartet is indeed a harrowing experience for all involved.... many listeners have been truly frightened by it, and even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed by it." (p. 233) The high-pitched crescendo that ends the quartet is simple but unforgettable.

It is startling to find in the String Quartet No. 14 (1973) an almost conventional three movement fast-slow-fast structure, and far fewer hair-raising events. But as Lesser notes, "Lyricism is never a given in the Fourteenth Quartet. It has to be rediscovered, almost reinvented note by note, and the resulting tunefulness is cautious, guarded, liable to sudden disappearance, and only briefly ... sublimely beautiful." (p 249) I love the middle movement of this quartet, how it starts off calmly but can't seem to go anywhere without becoming very, very tense, and then it needs to back down for another try.

And then there's String Quartet No. 15 (1974), with its unprecedented six continuous adagio movements, the titles of which — Elegy, Serenade, Intermezzo, Nocturne, Funeral March, and Epilogue — Wendy Lesser uses as her chapter titles. This is no ordinary music. Shostakovich's advice to the Beethoven Quartet on the 12-minute Elegy was "Play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom." (p. 262) Yet it doesn't sound like a first movement — it has the feel of a last movement of a much longer piece, almost like one of Mahler's adagio finales, as if perhaps it only makes sense if you're familiar with the Shostkovich works that have come in the half-century before. The Elegy only reveals itself as an introduction with the crescendos of the Serenade.

The Nocturne is surprisingly sweet, but with some ominous undertones that lead into a Funeral March that keeps sounding as if it wants to be a conventional example, but can't even hold everything together for sufficient repetition. It is odd for a musical composition to have a movement titled Epilogue. This finale repeats some of the music of the earlier movements but in its frequent agitation, oddly seems like a first movement rather than a last one. Wendy Lesser notices this as well: "the quartet as a whole contains a strange reversal: at the beginning everything is all over, but by the end it is in a state of flux.... And this means that the music is once again set in opposition to a human life, which goes from tremulous to permanently fixed and over." (p. 267)

The 15th is one of the few Shostakovich quartets that has no dedicatee. Surely no one would dream of dedicating this work to a living person! Following it, Shostakovich wrote two song cycles and then his last work, a Sonata for Viola and Piano (1975), which Wendy Lesser also recommends as akin to the quartets.

For a composer who initially showed greatest promise as a writer of opera, but who is best known as a symphonist, and who took to writing string quartets relatively late in life, it seems odd to label the String Quartet No. 15 as Shostakovich's greatest work, yet I really have no choice.

Wendy Lesser will be discussing her book and signing copies on Wednesday, March 23rd, at the Juilliard Store on West 66th Street.