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Dmitri Shostakovich - a Composer for the 20th Century
by Mark Harrison

On the 1st January 2001, even the purists and pedants will accept that the 20th century is finally over. For the vast majority of us, it is the only century we have known and, because it is still so recent, it is difficult to evaluate it objectively, although future historians will no doubt do so. I suspect that two characteristics will stand out above all others - and they are not unconnected; the 20th century saw unparalleled advances in technology along with barbarism and brutality on a massive scale. It is sometimes tempting for those more ripe in years to take a Luddite approach to technological advance and to wish themselves back in time to a simpler age, although I wonder whether any of us would really have enjoyed Edwardian England, Renaissance Italy or Classical Greece or whenever quite as much as we imagine. Speaking personally, I have, over the past two years had three eye-operations, without which I would now be blind; I can hardly question the benefits of improved medical techniques, at least. The tragedy of the last century was not that technological advances took place but that they were not accompanied by moral development, and that they were put at the service of tyranny and blinkered ideology. The pursuit of communist, fascist and racist goals gave us the Holocaust, Stalin's gulags, Mao's 'cultural revolution', Pol Pot's genocide and the atrocities of Saddam Hussain and Milosevic and, indirectly, the slaughter of the two world wars. It is indeed a grim and tragic catalogue, the more so in that it is by no means complete.

And what of music in that troubled century so recently ended? There have been huge developments here too, again almost certainly outstripping those in any other. 'Classical' music has seen many remarkable composers and performers, but a number of dead ends too. Popular music has broken free entirely (incidentally making the epithet 'classical' a tiresome and misleading necessity) and spawned many forms; it possibly reached its zenith with the Beatles but has degenerated recently into a multitude of types: 'house', 'garage' &tc which I am 'hip' enough to name, but not to identify (although even I can usually recognise the inane and anodyne computer-generated 'techno'). Jazz, originally a form of popular music, has developed beyond all recognition and has become an increasingly esoteric pursuit and jazz clubs, like folk clubs and festivals, in this country at least, are populated mainly by the middle-aged. Some composers infallibly invoke certain times and places: Elgar - Edwardian England, Gershwin - 1920s New York, Weill - 1930s Germany; and for many of us, Lennon and McCartney were the soundtrack to the 60s. But what of the unparalleled anguish and misery that the 20th century visited on mankind? Did any composer put that into his music and speak up for the countless millions butchered, bereaved, maimed and exiled over the past 100 years? Yes, I think that there is one above all others; his name - Dmitri Dmitreievich Shostakovich.

I would not contend that Shostakovich was the greatest 20th century composer; indeed I do not think that such an accolade can be meaningfully or objectively awarded. Neither would he be regarded as one of the great 'movers and shakers' of the last century; most see Schönberg and Stravinsky in these terms - certainly most composers do, probably including Shostakovich who admired the music of both. (He is said to have regarded Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms as 'one of the greatest of all works' although he did not like or admire its creator personally.) Shostakovich's special distinction was to express the bleakness and suffering which was the lot of so many in the 20th century. His own background and experience equipped him to do this probably better than any other composer except perhaps Messiaen whose Quartet for the End of Time was famously written in a concentration camp. The Russian Revolution occurred in his childhood and although his family were middle class, times were very hard. With the death of his father, Shostakovich had to take up playing as a cinema pianist to enable the family to survive. During the thirties, one incautious move on the part of artists or musicians could be enough to incur the displeasure of Stalin with subsequent incarceration or worse. Shostakovich survived-just-partly through his growing reputation abroad, and also through the infamous and grovelling subtitle he gave to his Fifth Symphony: 'A Soviet artist's reply to just criticism'. If there is irony in this title - if what it really means is 'A symphony that even Stalin can understand' - this is irony that could be appreciated only retrospectively.

At this time, and throughout his career, Shostakovich played a very canny game with the Soviet authorities, rarely saying what he thought in public. Aware that, as an international figure he was to some extent protected, he did not push his luck and was never a dissident in the mould of Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov. A deeply patriotic man (in the best sense), it is now clear that he loathed the Soviet system, but saw compromise as the best way of ensuring that he could continue to work. He is said to have signed articles criticising dissidents or Western 'formalism' without reading them, presumably taking the plausible and defensible line that no one in the Soviet Union or elsewhere would take them seriously anyway. He also took refuge in irony; whilst we enjoy the rumbustious Scherzo and searching Largo of the above-mentioned Fifth Symphony, what are we to make of the swaggering Finale (which for me always brings Boris Yeltsin to mind) and its triumphant conclusion? Is this a celebration of the triumph of socialist realism or a an ironic commentary on the emptiness of the reality that communism presented?

Quite possibly it was both; it depended on who was listening. To some extent, therefore, his music needs to be decoded in that it can be understood on several levels. If he spoke up, through his music, for the oppressed, it was to some extent as one of their number - and he had to be careful. Possibly he realised that it was only in later years that his music would be more generally, if not fully, understood.

With some composers, the character of their music, along with their personality, is evident from their appearance. The frowning intensity of Beethoven's visage fits the vehemence and irrepressibility of his music just as the intimidating aspect of the older Sibelius suits much of his oeuvre, and we can read the anguished doubt of some of Mahler's music into many of the photographs of the composer. So it is with Shostakovich. Even in the few photographs which show him smiling there is a wariness about him; I suspect that (like me!) he did not greatly enjoy being photographed. There is a vulnerability in his aspect, certainly, but there is also strength - not the jaw-jutting vehemence of Beethoven, but a quality of dogged, enduring determination to survive. We may be right to read into the incessant hammering of his own DSCH motif in the finale of the Tenth Symphony a weary but exultant 'I have survived; I've been through it and I'm still here' (and if our reading of the second movement of the same work is correct we could add ' . . . and Joe Stalin isn't').

Even if we are right in these suppositions, we should not see Shostakovich as egotistical or self-obsessed; there is nothing of the Also Sprach Zarathustra about him. If he has survived it as a representative of common humanity, special only in his ability to convey the experience in musical terms.

Indeed his ability to feel the sufferings of others was one of his most noticeable and attractive traits. We can hear this clearly in the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony with its stark woodwind chorales and impassioned string writing; his identification with the anguish of his own people of Leningrad is total. He can feel the hopes and aspirations of others too; the reprise of the first subject in the first movement of the Seventh suggests a faith in the power of the human spirit to overcome all the hellish chaos of war. (This passage comes close to moving me to tears every time I hear it.) Similarly, the ending of the Eighth Symphony conveys at once peaceful resignation and the suggestion of hope for the distant future.

It is perhaps in the famous Eighth Quartet (surely one of the greatest to be written in the last century) where we are most aware of Shostakovich's ability to empathise with the sufferings of others. It was written in 1959 following his visit to Dresden where he was appalled by the destruction visited on the city, still evident fourteen years after the end of the war; the fact that those who had endured it were Germans was for him immaterial.  What are we to read into his use of the DSCH motif in this work? (The first movement is a profound and sombre fugue based on the four notes.) Not so much 'I was there' but more 'I went through it too'? Incidentally, Shostakovich, generous in his assessment of the music of others, was unstinting in his admiration for another war-inspired work, the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten.

Shostakovich was an early developer, producing his first symphony at the age of 19, and an excellent and remarkably mature work it is too. Even in this work we can hear, in the adagio, pre-echoes of the profound later work. He flirted with atonality (as did Prokoviev) notably in the Second symphony but abandoned it. However, throughout his career he could use harsh dissonance to good effect, although he remained essentially a tonal composer, able to ascribe keys to most of his fifteen symphonies and all of his fifteen string quartets. (It was his aim to write 24 quartets, one in each of the major and minor keys.) Some of his writing is simple and diatonic, yet even when he combines this with dissonant passages it sounds remarkably consistent; his music contains none of the antics of a Schnittke. He became a specialist in the symphonic adagio, rivalling Bruckner and Mahler in this sphere, although his work is darker than theirs and lacks the luminous expressions of faith found in the work of the two Austrian masters.  For the agnostic Shostakovich there was no comfort to be found in religion; his work deals with the harsh realities of 20th century experience from the purely human perspective; the only consolation is the indomitable human spirit itself. Perhaps his greatest symphonic construction is the first movement of the Tenth which, although moderato rather than adagio, fulfils the function of slow movement whilst being at the same time a vast and compelling sonata structure. This is music which draws in the listener and holds him.

Indeed the music of Shostakovich is approachable and comprehensible and, although often austere, it contains much humour. It is easy to understand why there is a resurgence in its popularity at present, particularly in view of the paucity of approachable contemporary music. His standing has not always been unchallenged. He suffered some neglect during the 1960s, the high noon of serialism. Boulez regarded him as a 'third-rate composer' (Shostakovich was not exactly flattering in his assessment of Boulez either). Robert Layton, writing in The Symphony in the late 60s, claimed that he had been unable to trace a performance of the Seventh Symphony since the war. Times have changed indeed and the standing of Shostakovich in the pantheon of great twentieth century composers is now assured.

One of the formal titles bestowed on Shostakovich when he came into favour with the Soviet authorities was 'People's Artist'. We can say with the benefit of hindsight that, without fully realising it, on this if on not much else, the Kremlin got it right.

This article first appeared in the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Journal

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