Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Approaching Shostakovich

In the last few days I have put up five posts on the Shostakovich string quartets. This was an experiment and I think it turned out well. My conclusion is that I want to delve more into this music, because it is some of the most important music I know. What do I mean by 'important'? Let me get at that obliquely. I was in a shopping mall yesterday and heard the sort of music one hears in those places: generic pop music. And it dawned on me that one of the things wrong with this music is that no-one means anything by it. The singer doesn't really mean anything by singing it, the arranger didn't mean much, and similarly with the other musicians. They went into the studio and did their jobs. Part of the job is to sound like you mean something. The singer, especially, has to emote and ululate appropriately. But, since it is all generic, consisting of predictable and cliched gestures, it really doesn't mean anything to him or anyone else. Often, in fact, the more fuss that is made, the less genuine meaning underlies it.

The absolute polar opposite of this are the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. Politically, they were mostly off the radar of the authorities, so there was a freedom to their composition that was not present for the symphonies. But also, the very tradition that they follow, that of the profound quartets of Beethoven, impels a composer to the highest standards. There is also a kind of intimacy to the relationship between composer and string quartet that leads to authenticity. So, yes, in his string quartets, Shostakovich meant something. But there is no way of talking about it in non-musical terms.

Here is a new book, just published, on the fifteen quartets of Shostakovich. I will probably purchase it, but I am already deeply dissatisfied with it! This review explains why:
The author clearly loves the string quartets of the great Dmitri Shostakovich and she has tried to pay hommage to the legacy that he has left us. She has also skillfully intermingled the composition and content of the quartets with what is known about DSCH's life, from existing sources as well as her interviews with people who knew him and loved him, not least several members of string quartets that pioneered his works. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult for a non-musicologist to write intelligently and informatively about music without resorting to cliches and platitudes, something that this author does quite a lot of. I think that the entire discourse of 'silent voices' is such a tired one and one that does not begin to capture the complexities of life for a creative genius in a tyranny. Many of the great Soviet artists, including composers like Shostakovich, performers like Richter and Oistrakh, dancers etc. enjoyed a relatively great lifestyle compared with many of their compatriots, provided that they adhered to certain routines and standards. Of course, many of them found them intolerable, though undoubtedly the unfreedom and oppression stimulated their creative imagination and disciplined delivery in remarkable ways (probably helping them rise to greater levels than their Western counterparts). But what price did they have to pay? The author does not really begin to cast any light into the psychological complexities of someone like Shostakivich beyond what is already known.

I am very reluctant to criticize a very honest effort, but as a psychologist, I find the author's venture into Shostakovich psyche simplistic and unenlightening. Her ability to articulate what she herself finds in the quartets and why, at times, they engulf her entire being is also very limited, frquently lapsing into tired and well-rehearsed generalizations. There are very few non-musicologists who can write intelligently about music and reveal some of the reasons why it has a particular effect on the listener. I am thinking of Thomas Mann towards the end of Magic Mountain and a few others. Wendy Lesser does not belong to those gifted few. 
This, like so many other books written recently about classical music, is written by someone who, fundamentally, does not know anything about classical music. This is like reading a book on jogging by someone who does not jog, or a book of recipes by someone who does not cook. Actually, an exact comparison would be an audio 'book' on Shakespeare put together by an illiterate. It is not only "incredibly difficult" for a non-musicologist to write intelligently about music, it is simply impossible.

How did this odd situation come to be? Well, musicologists should accept at least half the blame. The general trend in academia for the last several decades has been toward more and more specialization and with that comes a more and more complex technical vocabulary so we have arrived at the absurd situation that the only people that can read and understand books by musicologists are other musicologists!

That is not quite true: three very fine writers on music are both readable and knowledgeable. You cannot go wrong by reading anything written on music by Richard Taruskin, Joseph Kerman and Charles Rosen. I have mentioned them before.

But back to Shostakovich. I see that the scores to all the quartets are now available at a reasonable price so before I blog anything more about them I will obtain and study them. My five posts on the quartets have convinced me that they deserve the closest consideration. When I come back to writing on them, I will try to demonstrate that you do need to know about music, i.e. be a musicologist, but also that a musicologist can write in an easily comprehensible way about music.

In the meantime, enjoy this:


Gavin said...

I've just finished re-reading Rosen's great Classical Style and The Romantic Generation back to back. Wonderful books.

But, though they can be read by non-musicologists (such as myself), you need a serious chunk of musical training to get anywhere with them. My wife has been singing classical music her whole life, and for her the books might as well be in Chinese. It's a hard problem -- music is so abstract that you just can't write well about it without some amount of technical language.

Robert Greenberg did some courses for the Teaching Company that are quite good. They just scratch the surface in so many ways, but they're sort of a mid-point between stuff that's accessible but useless and the deeper writing that's hard to read.

I also like Tovey's writing a lot. Very clear, and I'd have no problem recommending him to a serious amateur.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, great books!! And there is another he wrote as a kind of follow-up to the Classical Style titled "Sonata Forms" that is also very good. Ideally, you need to read these books at the piano, playing through the musical examples.

There is a wonderful book by Joseph Kerman titled "The Art of Fugue" that talks about the keyboard fugues by Bach in great detail. He solves the problem by including a CD with the book that has the scores to all the pieces in pdf format, plus recordings of them! Alas, it may be out of print even though it is a fairly recent book.

But you are very correct: in writing about music, if you want your work to be read widely you have to somehow steer a course between being too technical and abstract and being too chatty and vague, relying on metaphor, which is usually pretty misleading.