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In Which I am Baited by a Shostakovich Book Review

May 7, 2011

I’ve allowed this space to get cobwebby over the past couple of months, obviously, but it’s worth saying some words about Edward Rothstein’s review of Wendy Lesser’s Music for Silenced Voices in yesterday’s New York Times, which turns out to be more of an ambiguous endorsement of Solomon Volkov’s fraudulent Shostakovich memoir, Testimony.

I owe this blog some thoughts on Lesser’s book itself, which I read earlier this year, but it’s a fine, personal interpretation of the composer’s fifteen string quartets, much informed by the details of the composer’s life.  Her survey is admittedly idiosyncratic and as such it makes a far more mature companion to Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich of 1990, which traces an equally idiosyncratic, excessively political interpretation of the composer’s fifteen symphonies but ridiculously mistakes the author’s reader response for coded information inherent in the music.  Rothstein seems to fall between the two, and his criticism that Lesser’s extramusical connections are “too personal, too apolitical and too ahistorical for my taste” is fair enough, although I disagree.  If nothing else, all individual political experience ultimately reduces to personal experience, not the other way around, and I’d prefer to err on that side.

His complaint that Lesser paints the music as “almost tediously mannered in its self-involvement” misses a couple of points, too, not just that Shostakovich can fairly be seen as an unsympathetic character from some angles but that the seeming self-involvement in Shostakovich’s music — the mixed self-pity and self-loathing of the eighth quartet, the desperate hammering home of his signature theme at the end of the tenth symphony, the inward-looking setting of Yevtushenko’s “A Career” that closes the thirteenth symphony — is one of its most compelling aspects.  Paradoxically, self-involvement is a universal human experience, and in listening (most especially, listening when I was between the ages of 15 and 18) the unabashed first-person-ness of Shostakovich’s music melds into my own.

Where Rothstein becomes irritating is in offering a squishy apology for Volkov’s misrepresentation of Testimony as Shostakovich’s own, writing:  “In fact, if not an authentic memoir, ‘Testimony’ is still a work of considerable literary power, a suggestive account of the music and a convincing portrait of the man who composed it.”  The “convincing portrait” bit is maddeningly circular, in that the main mechanism by which the book convinced anyone in the first place was by falsely representing itself within what was then a void of non-Party line information about the composer.  I agree with Rothstein that Lesser fails to dismiss Testimony as thoroughly as she wants to, but I think what she wants to say by deeming its legacy “pointless” is that its halfway accuracy is no longer needed now that there are far more authentic versions of the composer’s words and private thoughts available.  And after reading Elizabeth Wilson’s excellent Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Isaak Glikman’s lovable collection of Shostakovich’s letters to him, Story of a Friendship, Volkov’s text fails to convince; the anecdotes and the general outline of disliking the Soviet state apparatus may be correct, but the bitterness of its voice is alien.

More generally, I’ve become less and less of a relativist about the notion of truth since my heyday in a sophomore-level literary theory class in college, and by now I’m convinced that any sentence beginning “In fact, if not an authentic memoir” has little business leading anywhere but “then it should not in fact be treated as authentic” without a really good justification.  I get that words can be partially true; I get what Maxim Shostakovich told Rothstein in the early 1980s that Volkov’s book, while a fake, was truer to his father than the other published words attributed to him at that time.  But it’s easy to overestimate that fractional truth value, and Rothstein too glibly brushes off the risk that accepting a simplified and ideologically motivated account will lead him toward a shallower understanding.  The attitude smacks of the idea that “you sometimes have to lie to tell the truth” embraced one way or another by any number of students in my creative writing classes when I was in school, myself included, but this too often turns into an excuse for cutting off tricky corners of experience instead of pushing toward an understanding that fits the difficult event or feeling — it’s no coincidence that the Shostakovich that emerges from Volkov’s work is considerably less nuanced and self-contradictory than the personality sussed out by Wilson or Lesser or even, through his correspondence, Shostakovich himself.  That personality’s motivations are harder to understand — more to the point, that vision of the composer is harder to lionize — but once you do that more difficult empathetic work you gain a richer, subtler, more real perspective on the emotional currents in the man’s music, or the peculiar terrors and frustrations of life in a totalitarian state, or the basic nature of fear and compromise.  More often, it turns out, you have to tell the truth to tell the truth.

“You inevitably realize that your best years have been stolen from you”

February 23, 2011

My task for this week is to reestablish my listening and blogging habit after a month of deeply uncooperative work schedules and general laxity.  But I recently finished reading Galina Vishnevskaya’s 1984 memoir in full and I want to share a passage, one of many in which she justifiably grinds an ax against the Soviet regime that had exiled her a decade previously:

In your youth, you can find the strength to laugh off the raps on the knuckles and the boxes on the ear.  But with time, as your inner vision becomes mercilessly sharp, life reveals itself to you in both its ugliness and its beauty.  And you inevitably realize that your best years have been stolen from you, that you haven’t done half of what you wanted to do and were capable of.  You become tortured with shame for permitting the criminal abasement of what was most precious to you: your art.  And it becomes impossible to remain a marionette eternally dancing at the will of a stupid puppeteer, to endure the endless interdictions and those degrading words “You can’t!”

Vishnevskaya is speaking directly about her own treatment and that of her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, due to their increasing political outspokenness and defense of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  But — to look past Shostakovich’s early works of the 1920s and ’30s, written up until his own first box on the ear — Vishnevskaya’s words also suggests better than most the bitterness at the core of the composer’s later works.  They point, too, toward what I hear as a rage against social and state persecution entwined with a deeper, more universal rage against illness and death, particularly in Shostakovich’s music from the mid-1960s onwards as his health seriously declined:  Mortality, too, wastes potential, steals time.

We Wish You a Merry Shostakovich Christmas

December 15, 2010

Christmastime is here, just about.  Shostakovich, however, didn’t write much seasonally appropriate music, being an atheist in an atheist state.  Yet connections between his work and the holiday can be found!  For one — a very tenuous one — the opening lick of the D-flat major prelude from his Preludes and Fugues, opus 87 bears an abstract sort of resemblance to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”:

That excerpt comes from an album of sharp opus-87 wind arrangements played by the Calefax Reed Quintet.

Closer still to a carol is a piece in Act I of The Limpid Stream, which, as noted previously, starts out sounding quite a bit like “O Come All Ye Faithful”.  As a sort of Christmas bonus the quasi-hymn is followed immediately by a few repetitions of the short-short-long “Jingle Bells” pattern, although it reads less as “cheerful holiday tidings” than as “lazy attempt at rhythmic propulsion”:

“Jingle Bells” brings us to the most direct instance of Christmas music that I’m aware of in Shostakovich’s output, possibly the only deliberate one and probably the weirdest:  In his music for Grigori Kozintsev’s 1941 production of King Lear, he sets some of the Fool’s songs to variations on “Jingle Bells”:

This recording is by David Wilson-Johnson and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mark Elder.  Gerard McBurney back-translates Samuil Marshak’s translation of Shakespeare:

He who decides to give away his country in pieces,
let him consort with fools –
he’ll replace me.

He and I will stand arm in arm, two fat fools,
one in a fool’s cap, the other without a cap.

A warning worth heeding, no doubt, during the holidays as in any other season.

This is going to conclude my Shostakovich blogging for the year, as I push to wrap up some work tasks and prepare to fly back East for the holidays.  In the first week of 2011 I’ll hit the ground running with Shostakovich’s towering, decidedly un-Christmassy fourth symphony.

This Week: Dereliction of Shostakoviction

December 1, 2010

As an end-of-year deadline looms at the office, my work life turns out to be more or less consuming this entire week, so, despite great interest in Shostakovich’s film score for Girlfriends and a desire to make it through to the fifth symphony before my Christmas break begins in mid-December, I’m going to put my listening on ice for the week and dig back in with opus 41a on the 6th or 7th.

Another not-hearing-Shostakovich note:  Yo-Yo Ma plays one concert this weekend with the Oregon Symphony, performing Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, but I will not be attending since the show was sold out more or less from the moment it was announced and Ma’s rock-star popularity puts scalped tickets, if any there be at this point, beyond my budget.  So an umimpressive critical-listening effort on my part, all in all.


November 22, 2010

I’m planning another short week of Shostakovich blogging with the Thanksgiving holiday coming up on Thursday.  Along with braving the pre-holiday grocery store crowds I hope to get through the composer’s first jazz suite and his music for the film Maxim’s Youth, which by my count will round out my survey of his works from 1934, another prolific year for the composer.

I’m happy that with the cello sonata I’ve reached the opus-forties, an auspicious if arbitrary group of eleven Shostakovich works (two film scores share op. 41).  Besides the sonata, of which I’m a newly minted fan, the pieces include the fourth and fifth symphonies and the first string quartet.  Those works, not coincidentally, correspond to a political low point in the mid- to late 1930s, for Shostakovich and for the USSR, but they mark his metamorphosis from a composer of operas and ballets into a composer of more abstract symphonies and chamber music.  His career as a film composer remained relatively constant through that time.  Doing some back-of-the-envelope scheduling, I hope to cover about that much musical ground before I take a longer break for Christmas next month.

Next Week in Shostakovich, Early Nights Edition

November 12, 2010

The first week of falling back to standard time from daylight savings always seems to plunge every day prematurely into inky blackness, especially under the stubbornly drizzly Portland cloud cover.  This is seasonally affective but not really pertinent to the present Shostakovich project, other than by contributing to an artificial feeling of shortness of the week.  More concretely, yesterday I found that sundry work and personal tasks slowed me down in the already surprisingly slower-than-expected process of watching all of Albert Gendelshtein’s film Love and Hatred in ten-minute YouTube chunks.

Excuses, excuses; yet I press on.  Next week, the movie, a ballet, music for cello and piano.  Probably some early Prokofiev too.

RIP Rudolf Barshai

November 4, 2010

The Russian violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai died on Tuesday at age 86.  Barshai’s career intersected quite a bit with Shostakovich’s work:  He arranged a number of the string quartets for chamber orchestras — most prominently, he reworked the eighth into the Chamber Symhony, op. 110a, which is popular in its own right — and conducted the premiere of Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony with his Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1969.  He was also a founding member of the Borodin Quartet, which would become closely associated with the composer’s chamber works, and, of course, an estimable musician well beyond his association with the subject of this blog.

Short Weeks in Shostakovich

October 25, 2010

Last week rather trailed off due to commitments of the “work / miscellaneous” kind, and this week threatens to do the same as I head to San Francisco for a long weekend.  Nonetheless!  I will pick up again later today with Shostakovich’s unfinished operetta, The Big Lightning, and proceed from there through a couple more works for stage and screen.  Too, I’m excited to hear the San Francisco Symphony in concert for the first time this Thursday afternoon, as Pablo Heras-Casado conducts, among other works, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12.  I’m very much looking forward to hearing that work in all its orchestral gigantitude live on stage for the first time, and even more to finally hearing the ensemble.  Good times ahead.

Working List of Works

October 8, 2010

Here, following some foot-dragging on the matter, is my working list of Shostakovich’s compositions, based mostly on Laurel Fay’s list in Shostakovich: A Life but with assists from Wikipedia (not reliable in itself), Derek Hulme’s catalog, album liner notes, and a couple of online discographies.  The list will change somewhat, no doubt, as I move through it.

The software-developer impulse in me, such as it is, suggests that I should put all this into a database, display it dynamically in order to minimize data entry and rework, automatically tie the list to the posts, run a custom WordPress installation if it comes to that, etc. etc.  But this project is an effort to make me think and write, not to program more computers, so plain text will do for now.  Perhaps down the line I can at least format it into a bullet list.

As it stands now, I’m at number 34 out of 199, putting me at about 17% of the way home.  Though of course not all of that will be bloggable; based on my searches so far the biggest soft spots will be in Shostakovich’s wartime choral music, with a couple of film scores hard to get at as well.

Coming up next will be Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, his operatic masterwork.  And beyond that … well, again, it’s all on the list.


October 4, 2010

October! Herald of the longed-for sun.
October! Will behind the rebellious years.
October! Work, joy and song.
October! Happiness in the fields and the hum of machines.

— Alexander Bezymensky, trans. Richard Bannerman

A happy Monday, and a happy first full week of October, to one and all. The revolutionary spirit of Bezymensky’s lines above (from the choral finale of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 2) is perhaps not an ideologically appropriate accompaniment to the advancing fall season in this our darkening northern hemisphere. Nonetheless I hope it reflects a certain optimism felt in each of us as the summer recedes into history.

This week in Shostakovich: I intend to break up my pattern so far for Shostakovich’s last completed opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Despite the absurdity of giving roughly as much mental space to a four-minute student work as to a two-plus-hour ballet score, I’ve been happy with writing one post per opus, both for my listening experience and for my efforts to get my thoughts, such as they are, onto the screen and move along. For just a couple of works, though, I can’t contemplate writing about them without thinking of several aspects of them that I’d like to try to cover, and I want to give myself time and room to try to do so. The opera is one; the Symphony No. 10, composed in a still distant 1953, is another. The Symphony No. 13 might be a third but it’s way off in the triple-digit opus-number range so I can work that out in a few months.

Lady Macbeth looms at opus 29, though, and I’m going to drag my heels on it and give it all of next week. For this week that leaves another ballet, The Bolt, op. 27, and the incidental music for Rule, Britannia!, op. 28. To fill that out, I’d like to pick an early work of Sergei Prokofiev’s and give it a similar treatment to the Shostakovich works: Early in planning this project I came across this article by Stephen Walsh about a recent retrospective of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music in Bregenz, which helps make a case that more Soviet music ought to see the light of day, rather than being written off as tedious, stylistically backwards, overly propagandistic music while Shostakovich is taken as the be-all-end-all of the USSR’s classical music culture.  In that spirit I want to touch on a few of Shostakovich’s contemporaries as I go.  Prokofiev feels a bit like an obvious and unnecessary choice — unlike Weinberg and some others I’d like to cover over time, he’s famous enough in the West already — but his early work is a clear influence on the young Shostakovich and, as a composer who left Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution and returned in time for the terror of the 1930s his career certainly plays into non-Shostakovich goings-on in Soviet music.

Beyond that I plan to take a day to get the working list of Shostakovich works onto the blog.