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.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.
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.
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: