Music for Silenced Voices

By WENDY LESSER

“Shostakovich hated being asked questions about his music andwhether this or that theme represented something or had any particularmeaning,” a friend of the great Soviet composer once said. “Whenasked, ‘What did you want to say in this work?’ he would answer, ‘I’ve saidwhat I’ve said.'” It is rather daring for Wendy Lesser to quote thisaustere refusal in Music for SilencedVoices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets, herthoughtful and appealing new book. After all, Lesser’s whole premise is thatthe music Dmitri Shostakovich wrote ought to heard as an expression of his lifeand times, and a commentary on them. In particular, his string quartets”offer unparalleled access to the composer’s inner life,” Lesserwrites; and her critical method is to braid together episodes fromShostakovich’s biography with the intuitions about his experience that shegains through her listening. “There is a desire to connect the human beingwho once lived to the still-living music, which seems to have a human voicebehind it.”

This kind of double deduction, from the man tothe music and back again, is especially tempting in the case of Shostakovich,who spent his entire adult life under Soviet dictatorship, and was forced tomake use of silence, irony, and indirection in order to survive. Lesserrecounts the now-legendary stories of his persecution. In 1936, and again in1948, Stalin’s cultural commissars denounced Shostakovich’s music for its”formalist distortions and anti-democratic tendencies,” effectivelyprohibiting its performance. The price of continuing to live and work wasritual submission, and Shostakovich made statements supporting the Communistregime both in print and in his music. Eventually, humiliatingly, he joined theParty.

Yet it is also easy tohear how his music, with its nervous intensity and sardonic gloom, tells thebitter 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 listento Shostakovich’s quartets. Here is Lesser on the Fifth Quartet, written in1952, the year before Stalin’s death:

If the music of theFifth Quartet is highly abstract, in the manner of a Bach fugue . . . thefeelings it conveys are nonetheless intense. The repetitions are both obsessiveand probing, not reassuring, as they are in Bach; and those nearly undetectablebackground chords create an eerie, almost frightening sensation of extremedepth beneath the etched surface . . . . That particular sense of dread—thatwaiting for the knock on the door in the middle of the night, or for thearbitrary committee decision that will bury a life’s work, or for the nextpublic demand that will require painful self-abasement and induce extremeself-disgust—is what . . . performers hear in the quartets, and perhapsespecially in the Fifth Quartet.

This is not music criticism the way musicologistswrite it, obviously, and there are moments when Lesser’s literary andmetaphorical approach to Shostakovich seems to overreach. (For instance, shesurmises that he turned to the string quartet form because it represented an”Athenian democracy” of equals, as opposed to the orchestra with itsconductor, “a figure altogether too much in the Stalin mode.”) Butthe kind of license Lesser takes with this music is the kind we all take withthe music we love, out of which we create our own myths and meanings. Hercommitment to Shostakovich is so intense that she achieves what every criticmust hope for: Lesser sends us straight back to the quartets, to see if we canhear what she hears.


Footnotes:

Atlanta’s place in the Civil Rights Movement is inevitably connected with Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born there and served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. But as Tomiko Brown-Nagin shows in Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford), there is much more to the city’s story. Her book explores the whole range of lesser-known local figures, court cases, and protests that changed Atlanta’s racial culture from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a turtle? No one has come closer to finding out than Donald C. Jackson in Life in a Shell: A Physiologist’s View of a Turtle (Harvard), as he delves into the biology and behavior that has allowed the turtle to survive on Earth essentially unchanged for the last 220 million years.