On the chill, wet afternoon of August 14, 1975, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was buried as a bad military band thumped its way through the Soviet national anthem. He had died a hero. According to his obituary in Pravda, Shostakovich was a "loyal son of the Communist Party" who "devoted his entire life to the development of Soviet music." The New York Times agreed: "[Shostakovich] considered his music an expression of the Russian people, in line with the doctrines espoused by the Central Committee of the U.S.S.R." Indeed, Shostakovich had received the highest artistic honors in the Soviet Union, including two Stalin Prizes and the International Peace Prize. In 1942 Time magazine stuck him on its cover as a symbol of Soviet resistance to German forces. The cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to venture into outer space, sang (with what now seems like Orwellian irony) Shostakovich's "The Motherland is Listening" on his historic voyage. The Soviets dedicated a commemorative stamp, an opera house, and a peninsula in Antarctica to him.
But following his death, something very strange happened: Dmitri Shostakovich became a dissident. Musicologists like Ian MacDonald, Allan Ho, and Dmitry Feofanov and writer Solomon Volkov began to uncover sly anti-Stalinist innuendo in every musical turn of phrase. Shostakovich got pegged as a "moral subversive," a "conscientious ironist," a Hamlet, a holy fool. In the quarter-century since his death, Shostakovich's music has not changed, but what we are told to believe about who he was and, consequently, the way we are asked to hear his music have shifted dramatically. With what now seems like eerie perspicacity, Shostakovich himself once reportedly said: History is a whore.
This has been a watershed year for believers in Shostakovich's postmortem perestroika. The New York Times devoted nearly 14,000 words to the man and his music in the month of February alone. The Emerson String Quartet followed up their January release of a five-CD set of Shostakovich's 15 string quartets with a series of sold-out concerts in New York City. And they keep spreading the good word; this fall an international tour will take them everywhere from Ashland, Oregon, to Singapore, from Wooster, Ohio, to Washington, D.C.
Violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet have positioned themselves as instruments of the rehabilitated Shostakovich. With six hours of music and a handful of liner notes by composer Paul Epstein, they have taken history to task. They play with the conviction that they are telling the story of a sympathetic soul, and Epstein's liner notes place him among a Who's Who of dissident artists, including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Joseph Brodsky. "I can't think of any one composer who represents not only the music of the century, but also what happened politically, historically, and on a humanitarian level," says Setzer. "You go on a journey with him, not just in terms of his music, but also in terms of his life."
The quartets, like the life, are filled with the usual stuff: love and hate and lust and grief and--some might argue--lies. The Sixth Quartet, for example, which Shostakovich wrote for his 50th birthday celebration, appears benign, even light-hearted. "Each movement ends with this very sappy cadence," says Setzer. "The first time you hear it, it's kind of sweet. The second time you think, Oh, that's cute. The third time you begin to think, hmmm, and by the end of the piece ... it takes on somehow a deeper, more philosophical meaning. I think it's just a twist of irony at the end of each movement. The twist gets a little tighter each time you hear it."
The Eighth Quartet has also been subject to interpretive squabbling. For many years, the quartet, composed in 1960 and dedicated to the "memory of victims of fascism and war," was portrayed as an elegy to a ruined city. Shostakovich, so the story goes, went to Dresden and, in a fit of horror at the epic aftermath of war, composed the piece in three days. Others, including Setzer, believe that the skittery violence and multiple sorrows of the music reflect more than the death of a city. The quartet, they argue, is an oblique suicide note from Shostakovich, who was wracked with self-loathing over his recent decision to join the Communist Party. (They note that the main musical theme is derived from the letters of Shostakovich's own name and that the quartet contains a retrospective of motifs from his earlier works.) Setzer points out a pattern to Shostakovich's tricky social commentary: "The piece begins very innocently, and then all hell breaks loose and the mask comes off, so to speak. Then, by the end of the piece, the dust settles and he sort of backs away and says, Who, me? I didn't do anything."
Ironically, in freighting the music with explicitly political baggage, the Emerson String Quartet is continuing a rather outdated tradition, which was strongly espoused by, among others, one Joseph Stalin. While Shostakovich managed to survive Stalin's purges in relative comfort, he did not do so unscathed. In 1936 Pravda attacked Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as "a deliberately disordered, muddled stream of noise." A week later, another Pravda editorial accused him of willfully disregarding traditional folk material in his composition of "The Limpid Stream." Within a month, Shostakovich had filled a 78-page scrapbook with negative--and in these years of terror, frightening--press clippings. One paper began announcing his upcoming concerts: "Today there is a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich." The premiere of his Fourth Symphony was canceled. But by the end of 1937, the winds were blowing in another direc-tion, and the premiere of the wildly popular Fifth Symphony solidified his "rehabilitation" in the eyes of the regime. Things went smoothly until 1948, when he, along with Prokofiev and others, was accused of harboring "formal-ist and decadent" tendencies and "unhealthy individualism." His music was banned; the fourth and fifth string quartets languished in his desk drawer until after Stalin's death in 1953. In both pieces, contrasting voices tumble into one another with surprising abandon. The last movement of the Fourth Quartet opens with the voice of a solitary violin, which abruptly gets strangled; the music immediately picks up, seemingly unperturbed. The Fifth Quartet reaches a violent climax about halfway through the last movement, which breaks into a ravenous, angry descent; Shostakovich then has the audacity to slip in a plucky little waltz. Taken together, all these tortuous crosscurrents--the shifts, irresolution, and fragmentation--seem to mirror the workings of an inconstant, deeply human mind. By the time of his death, his complex and "unhealthy" individualism had once again bought Shostakovich entry to the pantheon of Soviet citizen-heroes.
What had Shostakovich done to twice provoke such severe censure? He had not spoken out publicly against the regime. He had not marched, nor campaigned, nor plotted, nor conspired, nor, it must be said, hesitated to apologize, sign denunciations, compose propagandist music, or deliver prewritten State speeches. He had simply written music. The Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam, who ended his life freezing in a transit camp in eastern Siberia, saw the ironic significance of this. As he once said to his wife: "Only in our country is poetry truly respected: People are even killed because of it."
Yet the ongoing political exegesis that buzzes around the music radically alters what we hear. Is this music intensely personal or grandiose, heartfelt or mocking? What we ultimately hear and feel seems to be as much a product of our own inclinations as it is of Shostakovich's. In fact, his latest "rehabilitation" has coincided with a movement toward tonality in contemporary composition; as dissonance slips out of favor, Shostakovich's music is no longer dismissed as overly simplistic. There is also a certain comfort in the Emersonian version of events: By casting Shostakovich as a dissident, the Emerson String Quartet relieves us of the very confusing possibility that strong music might be made by a weak man.
Furthermore, the new-and-improved Shostakovich is a very '90s, very Western kind of figure. Before returning to his homeland in 1994, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described fighting his lifelong written war against "the dragon of Soviet power" to David Remnick in The New Yorker: "I fought it at the highest pitch of expression. The people in the West were not accustomed to this tone of voice. In the West, one must have a balanced, calm, soft voice; one ought to make sure to doubt oneself, to suggest that one may, of course, be completely wrong." Here in the West, we like our heroes to vacillate. We grant them fragmentation, unevenness, little white lies. The new Shostakovich fits our middling sort of role model: He is righteous enough, moral enough, tragic enough. Whether this millennial brand of heroism does justice to the music is an open question. If we focus too keenly on irony, we risk cheating ourselves out of the unironic release and grandeur that have brought audiences to their feet for nearly a century.
Shostakovich's music has spawned a cottage industry of noise; journalists, academics, and critics have provided listeners with a deafening rattle of interpretation and reinterpretation since Shostakovich's years as a boy genius at the Petrograd Conservatory. As we face his music amidst this din, we might well honor one of Shostakovich's smallest and most profound requests--for silence. Shostakovich, it is said, used to call the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and say, "Come quickly." The two would sit together in total silence, and after an hour, Rostropovich would take his leave with a quick, "Thank you. Goodbye." Gradually, too, Shostakovich's music began to lean toward silence. In his late works, there are pages of music with almost no notes written on them. By this point, Shostakovich could barely move his hand to write, and in his exhaustion he was content to say much less. He had no desire to explain and no strength left to set things in context. In the 15th Quartet, single notes get pulled out very slowly, almost painfully, through great gaping silences. Then suddenly, in the last movement, you are assaulted by a soaring, flitting, dying thing: a passage of 32nd notes that rises dramatically and quickly falls. With this near-final gesture, of both his music and his life (he wrote the quartet from his hospital bed the year before he died), Shostakovich leaves us, finally, with an unambiguous lesson. The more he leaves out, the more intense the effect of each stroke. By speaking less, he makes us listen much, much harder. ¤
Erika Kinetz is a Copeland fellow at Amherst College. She was formerly a reporter for New York magazine and is currently working on a collection of short stories.