Sunday, March 12, 2017

Shostakovich the Secret Dissident?

The problem of the position and function of composers under the regime of Joseph Stalin is both complex and often misunderstood and never more than in the case of Dmitri Shostakovich. Sadly, even after a lot of scholarship on the part of musicologists to sort things out, writers in the mainstream media are still retailing the confusion and errors. Case in point, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Stuart Isacoff titled A Subversive, Symphonic Response to Stalin:
Alexander Fadeyev, head of the Soviet Writers’ Union, found in the music’s assertively luminous conclusion not a sense of resolution, but “a punishment or vengeance on someone.” In “Testimony,” the composer’s memoir, Shostakovich decried the effect: “It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’”
The phrase "In "Testimony," the composer's memoir..." gives us a clue as to where the writer went astray. The book Testimony, though attributed to both Dmitri Shostakovich and Solomon Volkov likely owes very little to the composer but is rather a concoction of Volkov's. Arguments about this have been heated since the book came out and entire volumes have been devoted to evaluating and eventually dismissing most of Volkov's claims to authenticity. Perhaps the most cogent discussion of the issues surrounding the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich is in Richard Taruskin's "Public lies and unspeakable truth: interpreting Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony" (reprinted in Shostakovich Studies, Cambridge University Press). Regarding that controversial finale he writes:
...if we claim to find defiant ridicule in the Fifth Symphony, we necessarily adjudge its composer, at this point in his career, to have been a 'dissident'. That characterisation, popular as it has become, and attractive as it will always be to many, has got to be rejected as a self-gratifying anachronism ... There were no dissidents in Stalin's Russia. There were old opponents to be sure, but by late 1937 they were all dead or behind bars. There were the forlorn and the malcontented, but they were silent.
If Shostakovich had indeed written a subversive, symphonic response to Stalin, then he would have suffered the immediate consequences, which he did not. Instead, he was showered with prizes and acclaim by the Soviet apparatus.

Towards the end of Taruskin's essay he offers this conclusion:
We can learn a great deal from the cultural artefacts of the Stalinist period, but only if we are prepared to receive them in their full spectrum of greys.
Alongside the example of Shostakovich, we could set that of Prokofiev, who returned to Soviet Russia after being disappointed with his career in the West. He tried, in all sincerity, to write music that would appeal to the people in a heroic way, the basic requirement of "socialist realism." But the "meaning" of music is ambiguous and complex, or can be. So we can discern many strands in a work like the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich and they can include irony, despair, beauty and a thousand other things. Just not, you know, subversive ridicule of Stalin.


Will Wilkin said...

No doubt the personal and social and cultural contexts are all shaping factors in the output of an artist, who, after all, is a sentient being expressing experience. But personally I never like knowing too much about the artist as a person or "social product," because I think for art to endure it must transcend its circumstances and touch we who are in a very different time and place. I hear the beauty, tragedy, comedy, despair, sarcasm and optimism in Shostakovich, and it touches me deeply here in the USA in 2017, far from the Soviet experience during WW2.

leaving Shostakovich aside, I recall an interesting conversation with a man named David, who loved the art of Jackson Pollack. He proceeded to tell me what an asshole Mr. Pollack supposedly was in real life. I have never appreciated his paint splatters, but if I did, knowing the artist's supposed personal flaws would not lessen my appreciation, nor would any personal virtues increase my appreciation. For me, focusing on the artist muddies the water, so to speak, diverting attention from his (or her) work, which is all I really care about.

All that said, I can tell I'm approaching a point where, ironically, I am becoming curious about a few of my favorite artists. I'm enjoying a description of the career of JS Bach in the book Evening in the Palace of Reason, and there may come a day when I seek out a biography of Gustav Mahler because his music has so touched my soul for decades. But the work comes very very far ahead of any biographical interest. After all, approached properly, any person's life and psychology could become interesting as a study in the range of what it means to be human. In that sense, artists are no different than electricians or butchers.

Christopher Culver said...

Hearing the voice of a dissident in the Fifth has always been a stretch, but there is no doubt that Shostakovich was opposed to Stalin and not afraid to let at least a few people know it through music. Can one seriously argue that Rayok is not a rebellious statement against arts policy under Stalin?

There are certainly some shades of grey that many Westerns fans of the composer were unwilling to face during the Cold War era: according to Shostakovich himself and posthumous statements by members of his family, he was a believer in Marxist-Leninism, only feeling that things had gone astray when Stalin came to power. Westerners tended to believe that any dissident against Stalin would naturally be opposed to the entire edifice of the Soviet Union and international Communism. In fact, within the USSR there were plenty of artists who believed that while this or that decision-maker was a bad man, the USSR was still their country and they didn’t want it to change back into a capitalist state.

Will Wilkin said...

One other interesting aspect of your thoughtful article Bryan is the source, Stuart Isacoff. Later today I will finish reading his book "Temperament," which gives colorful, gossipy and sweeping (very) non-technical introduction to the history of musical scales and temperaments. You made a technical criticism of his inaccurate characterization of "Testimony," and I have some less technical dissatisfactions with his "Temperament," but nobody knows everything or is right all the time, and I find myself with a great respect for Mr. Isacoff just for his presenting to me so many detailed ideas about music and its historical context. We readers bear the responsibility of sorting through the ideas presented by many authors and assembling for ourselves into our own best "accurate" and "sensible" constructs of our world. And I hope I can say that without appearing to endorse an overly "relativist" or post-modern disbelief in the existence of an objective world --which hurts and amazes me all the time so I know its out there!

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, this post has sparked some very thoughtful comments.

@Will: I have often argued here that a piece of art is not a piece of autobiography. But, just as you say, one can become quite curious as to what sort of life an artist might have led. Sometimes it is relevant, though perhaps not in a direct way. What we want to avoid is a kind of psychological determinism, I think.

@Christopher: You make some good points. Rayok, along with some other works, were "drawer" music, i.e. put in a drawer until after Stalin died in 1953. But yes, they did satirize Marxist-Leninism. Even when he was in school, he got into trouble for mocking a course in communism they had to take. But he also strove to fulfill the needs of the state and the number of prizes he received indicates that he did so successfully.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm afraid I don't know Mr. Isacoff's other writings, so thanks for informing me. Historical tunings and temperaments are fascinating indeed.

Patrick said...

Relative to the finale of the Shosti 5th, the director of the Ukraine State Symphony related that the problem of tempo arose due to a poor copy of the score used by L. Bernstein in his 1959 recording. The metronome rate indicated in the original copy was for the eighth note. But it looked like a quarter note (flag was not legible) in the copy, which is what Bernstein used, causing the tempo to be double what the composer intended. But apparently DS did not get too upset, and had favorable words about the recording.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, never heard that story before. And I have not heard that early Bernstein recording. Have to see if it is on YouTube. This is one of those instances when it would be better not to have a metronome mark!