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Shostakovich: A Coded Life in Music
by Brian Morton
publ. 2006 (revised and republished in paperback in 2021)
231 pp ISBN: 1913368432 Haus Publishing
Despite the dramatic reevaluation of Dmitri Shostakovich that has occurred since the beginning of this century, he has not been the subject of a sizable English language biography since Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life from 2000. Even it leaves something to be desired in terms of exhaustive detail and insight (at times seeming more like a highlight reel of Sofia Khentova’s various untranslated books on the composer, especially her landmark two-volume biography Shostakovich: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo). For Shostakovich there has yet to be anything in English comparable to what Stephen Walsh did for Igor Stravinsky or Henry-Louis de la Grange and Jens Malte Fischer did for Gustav Mahler. Brian Morton’s Shostakovich: A Coded Life in Music (newly republished and revised in paperback) is not that book, but it is an engaging (although intermittently fallible) introduction for new listeners interested in learning more about an artist whose complex relationship with the politics of his time resonates with the politically hyper-aware listeners of today.
At first glance, Morton would seem to tread similar ground as Pauline Fairclough’s Dmitry Shostakovich from 2019, another capsule biography, but their respective tones diverge sharply. Fairclough is a chatty and friendly enough guide, whose academic bona-fides are subtly evinced by the scholarly distance she keeps from the narrative she recounts, and her restraint from imposing personal comments upon it. Morton, on the other hand, slaps a hearty bear hug around the reader as he enthusiastically proselytizes on behalf of not only his subject, but also (as his book’s title intimates) the post-Testimony revisionist view of him. At times there is the feeling of a fan addressing fellow fans, with all the respective benefits and drawbacks of such an approach.
Sometimes this results in Morton indulging in the nerdish desire to embroider documentary lacunae with personal speculations aimed at tantalizing the Shostakovich “community.” His remarks about Nicolas Slonimsky, who “often didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” could very well be about himself.
Morton writes that the Fourth Symphony, for example, was retracted because of its lack of revolutionary fervor (in fact, the exact reasons and culprits for its canceled premiere in 1936 are unknown); he opines that as Sergei Prokofiev’s postwar music became more “public,” that of Shostakovich’s turned “private” (if anything, the elder composer’s terminal health problems and worsening political position resulted in his aesthetic withdrawal into the poignant boyhood reveries of his final works; meanwhile, most of Shostakovich’s work list during this same period consisted of works like the Song of the Forests, Poem of the Motherland, The Sun Shines on the Motherland, and various raucous film and vocal scores larded with appropriate political content—not exactly intimately confessional music); the writer’s block that Shostakovich experienced after the Tenth Symphony’s premiere is attributed to various personal and political reasons (at the very least, the composer may have recognized that the symphony was also a stylistic end point that required him to venture into new directions, something that the transitional quality of a number of his works from the mid-1950s and the early 1960s suggests).
More unfortunate are Morton’s occasional factual errors. He writes at one point that Shostakovich “cannibalized” his 1932 incidental music for Hamlet in his 1971 film score for King Lear. Rather, the King Lear score was newly composed save for the Fool’s songs, which were based on those he composed for a stage production of the same play in 1940 (and because of their presentation in the film—a capella, delivered in a rapid sprechstimme—were almost unrecognizable from the originals). Elsewhere he writes that the score of the epochal Fifth Symphony bears the subtitle “Practical Creative Reply of a Soviet Musician to Just Criticism.” The score actually bears no such title, but a similar phrase was used by Shostakovich in an article he wrote in 1938 about the symphony. Morton also mistakenly refers to the conductor Karl Eliasberg, who led the Leningrad premiere of the Seventh Symphony, as “Karl Elias.”
Morton makes up for these slips by dint of his insights, many of which, surprisingly at least to me, have often been overlooked in academic discourse about Shostakovich. While discussing the composer’s 1970 King Lear film score, he astutely observes:
“Shostakovich may have felt in a similar position to the aged English king. Perhaps it was time to hand over his position as the head of Russian music to younger and fitter composers, though he was aware—as Lear was not—that the aesthetic values he lived by might not be upheld by a younger generation.”
The myriad quotations which bury Shostakovich’s late music—piled atop the Fifteenth Symphony, Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarotti, and Viola Sonata like the rubble of his own life and that of Western musical history—speak as much of its author’s anguish over his own mortality, as they do of the vacuity of the Leonid Brezhnev regime, and the unprecedented break in the continuity of classical music tradition and its attendant reception. They draw the listener into its hall of mirrors, converging onto the endless horizon point of Western art music; a disorienting blur of musical iconography wherein image and reflection become enmeshed, difficult to distinguish from one another. Such insights and others that Morton imparts to his reader makes one regret that neither he nor anybody else has written a book-length analysis in English on Shostakovich’s late music similar to the one Maynard Solomon wrote for Ludwig van Beethoven’s corresponding stylistic period (the only one that exists in any language is Grégoire Tosser’s uneven Les dernières œuvres de Dimitri Chostakovitch: une esthétique musicale de la mort (1969–1975)). Which makes it all the more disappointing when Morton confesses, at least tacitly, to a lack of sympathy for the late music:
“The music of Shostakovich’s last decade has little of the power and vitality of the great works. It is less paradoxical [!], less obviously encrypted [!!], and to some degree more emotionally open.”
His narrative, instead, focuses on the Stalin years. Morton is an energetic enough raconteur here, but Ian MacDonald covers this period more extensively from the same angle and with more verve in his The New Shostakovich. Still, the kaleidoscopic retelling by Morton, not always following chronological order, but bouncing around from theme to theme as if riffing in freeform monolog, has its own charm.
Although not a heavyweight exemplar of research and insight (Simon Morrison’s forthcoming biography will, hopefully, prove to be just that), Morton’s overview of Shostakovich is a pleasant enough read to enjoy on a train ride, with diverting moments that arouse the reader to want to argue (amiably) with the author’s conclusions.
“History will not leave Shostakovich alone in death any more than life,” Morton writes near the end of his foreword; a testament, one hopes, to the enduring power of Shostakovich, as well as to the continued vitality of the art he loved.