Was It Good Party Music? | The Nation


Was It Good Party Music?

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Probably the most charitable response to Shostakovich's political cowardice is to turn again to his music. It is there that the composer showed a courage and a rebellion that, if necessarily ambiguous at points, was infused with moral imperative. In private comments, Shostakovich suggested that the powerful antifascist messages being read into works like the Fifth and Seventh symphonies were also intended as a stinging commentary on life under the Soviet regime. For example, as one acquaintance recalled the composer privately discussing his work:

About the Author

Jeremy Eichler
Jeremy Eichler writes frequently about music for Newsday and other publications.

Dmitriy Dmitriyevich said reflectively: "Fascism, of course. But music, real music, is never attached literally to a theme. Fascism isn't simply National Socialism. This music is about terror, slavery, bondage of the spirit." Later, when Dmitriy Dmitriyevich became used to me and began to trust me, he told me directly that the Seventh (and the Fifth as well) are not only about fascism but about our system, in general about any totalitarianism.

The anecdote suggests that at their core, the Fifth and the Seventh symphonies are about triumph but not the triumph that the party officials saw in them. Rather, they are about the victory of the human spirit, the triumph of the individual against the totalitarian state. On its deepest level, Shostakovich's work may be heard as a musical response to the argument famously advanced by Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism--that Communism and National Socialism did not lie at opposite ends of the political spectrum but were flip sides of the same coin. Both shared the imposing features of state instruments of control, and both would justify the mass destruction of lives in the name of a larger good. It is against this totalitarian framework that Shostakovich's music constitutes a passionate act of rebellion. And if listeners have heard antifascist or anti-Communist messages in it, both--one may argue--are correct.

Fay does not engage in such overt speculation about Shostakovich's politics, preferring instead to hew more closely to the facts of his life story. As mentioned, she also avoids an expanded discussion of his music, a deficit that unfortunately leaves readers with an incomplete picture. If Shostakovich remains one of the century's great artistic enigmas, it is precisely because for the entirety of his life, the remarkably private man resided in his own musical world. In his old age, even as his lifelong friends and colleagues passed away one by one, Shostakovich's will to live persisted so that he might continue to write. He never gave up on the hope of finding some miracle cure for an illness that would eventually be diagnosed as lung cancer. This was more than an elderly man clamoring for more time; this was an artist who had not yet written his final notes. He would comment that "the composition of music--an affliction in the nature of a disease--haunts me." His final work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, bespeaks a vaulted spaciousness tinged with disconsolation. Its closing adagio movement, penned only days before he died, captures a certain radiant interiority that suggests the composer had long since relinquished his battles with the world around him. It is perhaps appropriate that a man who survived--quite literally--on the ineffability of his music should be remembered best, if most elusively, through that very music.

Though more biographical details of the composer's life will surely be uncovered, Fay has provided a scholarly complement to Testimony that offers listeners all the facts they will need. One may now approach his oeuvre and see it for what it is: an embittered, poignant and ultimately compelling musical diary of our time. Listening to it, audiences cannot forget either the horrors of the period he lived through or his unfathomable ability to find beauty in those moments. One may recall the stunning passacaglia movement of the First Violin Concerto, where the repeating bass-line plods inexorably forward toward a dark fate, and yet above this, the violin transfixes with a spare, haunting melody that contains the strains of tremendous loss but also the seeds of a seemingly impossible hope. Ultimately, it is this moral urgency, this sense of struggle and this compulsion to bear witness that are the composer's true testimony.

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