Music for Silenced Voices

"Shostakovich hated being asked questions about his music and whether this or that theme represented something or had any particular meaning," a friend of the great Soviet composer once said. "When asked, 'What did you want to say in this work?' he would answer, 'I've said what I've said.'" It is rather daring for Wendy Lesser to quote this austere refusal in Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets, her thoughtful and appealing new book. After all, Lesser's whole premise is that the music Dmitri Shostakovich wrote ought to heard as an expression of his life and times, and a commentary on them. In particular, his string quartets "offer unparalleled access to the composer's inner life," Lesser writes; and her critical method is to braid together episodes from Shostakovich's biography with the intuitions about his experience that she gains through her listening. "There is a desire to connect the human being who once lived to the still-living music, which seems to have a human voice behind it."


This kind of double deduction, from the man to the music and back again, is especially tempting in the case of Shostakovich, who spent his entire adult life under Soviet dictatorship, and was forced to make use of silence, irony, and indirection in order to survive. Lesser recounts the now-legendary stories of his persecution. In 1936, and again in 1948, Stalin's cultural commissars denounced Shostakovich's music for its "formalist distortions and anti-democratic tendencies," effectively prohibiting its performance. The price of continuing to live and work was ritual submission, and Shostakovich made statements supporting the Communist regime both in print and in his music. Eventually, humiliatingly, he joined the Party.


Yet it is also easy to hear how his music, with its nervous intensity and sardonic gloom, tells the bitter truth about his time and place. Lesser helps us hear that confession, thanks to her sympathetic, non-technical accounts of what it is like to listen to Shostakovich's quartets. Here is Lesser on the Fifth Quartet, written in 1952, the year before Stalin's death:

If the music of the Fifth Quartet is highly abstract, in the manner of a Bach fugue . . . the feelings it conveys are nonetheless intense. The repetitions are both obsessive and probing, not reassuring, as they are in Bach; and those nearly undetectable background chords create an eerie, almost frightening sensation of extreme depth beneath the etched surface . . . . That particular sense of dread—that waiting for the knock on the door in the middle of the night, or for the arbitrary committee decision that will bury a life's work, or for the next public demand that will require painful self-abasement and induce extreme self-disgust—is what . . . performers hear in the quartets, and perhaps especially in the Fifth Quartet.

This is not music criticism the way musicologists write it, obviously, and there are moments when Lesser's literary and metaphorical approach to Shostakovich seems to overreach. (For instance, she surmises that he turned to the string quartet form because it represented an "Athenian democracy" of equals, as opposed to the orchestra with its conductor, "a figure altogether too much in the Stalin mode.") But the kind of license Lesser takes with this music is the kind we all take with the music we love, out of which we create our own myths and meanings. Her commitment to Shostakovich is so intense that she achieves what every critic must hope for: Lesser sends us straight back to the quartets, to see if we can hear what she hears.




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