Despite the insistence of formalists that music is about nothing but itself, the supreme composers take in and give out as much life as the supreme novelists do. That is as true of the modernists as it is of their generally more revered predecessors—though when it is modern life that the composer expresses, the sound world tends to get hectic, emotionally contorted, and downright strange, befitting the times.

The serious music audience has come to accept as pretty much normal certain peculiarities that flummoxed or outraged their original listeners. The unspeakable avant-garde has always had a way of catching on with the public eventually, and the 21st century is coming to terms with modernist music. Some modern music is not merely accepted but beloved. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) sound almost as respectable to today’s concertgoers as Beethoven or Brahms, and a rip-roaring performance of one of their symphonies can induce mass delirium. Indeed, that was known to happen even in their own day: While Mahler and Shostakovich encountered fierce contempt for and resistance to their innovative artistry—and nobody’s contempt and resistance were as terrible as Stalin’s, which nearly meant the death of Shostakovich—they did enjoy adulation in their lifetimes. They were (and are) probably the most popular of 20th-century classical composers. They are also likely the most characteristic and the greatest.

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth, and this year brings the centenary of his death. As the memorialists say, a terribly brief life, and a heroically full one. He was a Bohemian Jew from a dead end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father owned a tavern and a small distillery, and Mahler’s upbringing was ugly, disorderly, and sad, except for music. Brothers and sisters died off left and right. Father and mother ripped into each other on a regular basis. When Mahler met with Sigmund Freud in 1910 he related a childhood memory of running out of the house to escape a parental brawl and hearing an organ grinder in the street play Ach, du lieber Augustin.

Mahler and Freud concurred: This conjunction of sadness, even tragic sorrow, and hurdy-gurdy banality gave his music its unique flavor: lyric grace and emphatic gracelessness, the utmost seriousness and the grossest vulgarity, were the artistic residue of this psychic trauma.

Whether or not this particular incident explains Mahler’s distinctive sensibility, it was just that sensibility that made him a founding father of modernist music. Mahler was not only the greatest composer of his time but also the greatest operatic conductor, though he did not write operas. A steady climb up the ladder of provincial opera houses got him to the topmost rung in 1897: the Vienna Court Opera, where he would conduct the most remarkable renditions of Le nozze di Figaro and Tristan und Isolde that anyone had heard. The post was bestowed by the emperor’s appointment, and such distinctions did not go to Jews, so Mahler converted to Roman Catholicism in anticipation of his main chance. The conversion was strictly a career move, and he never practiced his new faith.

Writing the sort of music he did was not a particularly shrewd career move for a conductor; many of his own musicians despised his compositions. He wrote during the summer breaks from the operatic season, and produced nine symphonies (a tenth was left unfinished, and various versions completed by others have entered the repertoire) and the song cycles Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer, 1885), Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children, 1904), Rückert-Lieder (1905), and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth, 1908)—the last being a masterly quasi-symphonic piece for tenor, contralto, and orchestra, setting German translations of Chinese poems to music of exquisite plangency that mourns and celebrates the queer fate of being born and facing death as a human being.

There was much to celebrate and much to mourn in Mahler’s life. Genius like his is a rare privilege, and it has its perquisites. Thomas Mann, who was not inclined to acknowledge superiors, found himself tongue-tied in Mahler’s presence, and inscribed a gift copy of a novel of his to “a man who seems to me to embody the most serious and sacred artistic purpose of our time.” Mahler was not only one of the most celebrated but also one of the best-paid musicians of his day: At 41 he married the 22-year-old Alma Schindler, a famous beauty said to work erotic sorcery. But five years later he would resign from the Vienna Opera under duress, lose a cherished daughter to diphtheria, and receive the diagnosis of a potentially fatal heart condition. In the last year of his life, Alma took up with the handsome young architect Walter Gropius.

“There is not one spot on your body that I would not like to caress with my tongue,” she wrote to Gropius. One can be quite sure that not one spot went uncaressed. When Mahler discovered the affair, he was devastated. But the pains of love did not last long. He contracted subacute bacterial endocarditis in 1910 and died a few months later.

There are two ways of understanding Mahler’s music. One of them is a common misunderstanding. In Why Mahler? Norman Lebrecht, a critic who has lived with Mahler about as long and as intimately as anyone going, discerns his hero’s signal innovation as “the application of irony in a musical score.” Lebrecht cites Samuel Johnson’s definition of irony: “a mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words.” In more up-to-date parlance, what is said is different from what is meant. Composers before Mahler, Lebrecht says, kept the emotions they described or evoked clear and simple and discrete: Joy was unambiguously radiant, sorrow was draped in mourning, and there could be no confounding beauty with ugliness. Mahler changed all that, Lebrecht rightly states, but he did not change it in quite the way Le-brecht would have it.

Mahler’s First Symphony opens with the softest sounds of pastoral, even Edenic, gentleness, as though a warmhearted Creator were fashioning a world from His boundless love. Yet one hears presently some of the agony in beauty, the inescapable pain in being alive. Pain of this order is an essential Mahlerian feature. So is the thunderous grandeur that ends the first movement. The second movement is a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance in which bubbling woodwinds make merry, though a gay Viennese urbanity seems more prominent than peasant jollity. So far, the shifts in mood and blends of style indicate a certain aesthetic novelty, but it is with the third movement that things get harum-scarum. A funeral march to the folk tune Bruder Martin (or Frère Jacques) in the minor mode, with a reiterated marcato fillip that rings like a comic slap to the head, had some first-night concertgoers and critics howling abomination.

Not a few listeners, Vienna being what it was, howled Jewish abomination: There were, after all, echoes of klezmer music, played by small bands and popular at Jewish weddings, and some found such stuff low-rent and degrading. Mahler certainly gave the audience cause for bafflement. Welcome to modern music, he announced, where antic grotesquerie has its rightful place alongside the tragic or the sublime. With the first notes of the fourth movement, the sublime enjoys a resurgence, as tempest bursts out of nowhere. We are back in the world of Berlioz and Liszt and Alfred de Vigny and Caspar David Friedrich. The grimacing modernist in Mahler’s nature cannot suppress his impulse to Romantic magnificence. No other composer, except perhaps Tchaikovsky, dares incite the strings to so melting a rapture as the one that follows the storm. But Tchaikovsky, of course, never caroms from overrich heart-wrung sentiment into sardonic mockery.

That is Mahler’s innovation, but it cannot correctly be called ironic music. With “irony” the true meaning is not found on the surface; it broods or rages or smirks underneath, and the aesthetic and moral responsibility of the adept audience is to ferret it out. In the case of Mahler, his meaning lies precisely on the surface; Mahler always means what he says; it’s just that what he says out of one side of his mouth jars so violently with what he says out of the other.

The horrible ludicrousness of life and death, so intensely felt in his music, is not the true meaning that disproves his professions of life’s tragedy, heroism, or sublimity; passages of rampaging ugliness do not annihilate the patent beauty for which Mahler is so renowned. The Scherzo of the Seventh Symphony, with its skittering woodwinds, oompah brass, belches from tubas pitched about as low as they can go, is perhaps the most extravagantly jeering movement he wrote. But immediately afterward comes the Andante amoroso, an engraved invitation to the bower of bliss. One emotion does not deny or undermine the truth of the other. Mahler makes room for all manner of feeling. He invokes in his music a host of previous solemn grandmasters. There are passages that sound like Beethoven or Wagner or Brahms. And then Mahler has lighter moments from which subsequent boulevardiers picked up a trick or two; there are monkeyshines that make one think of Erik Satie. But nobody else combines as he does august splendor with the comic pratfall face-first into the mud. For Mahler, the tragic and the heroic and the sublime coexist with the ludicrous. No small part of what makes life tragic is how laughable pain can be, while heroism and sublimity consist largely in overcoming the preposterous—the cowardly, the drunken, the lustful, the ungainly, the stupid—in human nature.

Mahler’s music is fragmented and contradictory—reverent and impious, courageous and fearful, steadfast and lurching, severe and ribald, delicate and brazen—and he made modern listeners realize that they are, too. Meeting in 1907 with Jean Sibelius, who argued for formal elegance and “profound logic” in symphonic music, Mahler snapped back, “No! The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.” Perhaps to be a modern master, after Mahler’s fashion, is to take in everything but be able to give it back only scattershot. Mahler popped the joints and expanded the expressive range of symphonic music. Austere perfection did not suit him. And if current popularity is a just indication of success, his way of working has outshone that of formally punctilious virtuosi such as Sibelius, Stravinsky, Debussy. As genius is supposed to do, Mahler created the taste by which he is appreciated.

By the 1920s, that taste for Mahler was becoming established in the Soviet Union, and among the most headlong enthusiasts was the young Dmitri Shostakovich. That Shostakovich owes an immense debt to Mahler is now a critical commonplace. Books and articles and CD notes point out that a certain Shostakovich symphony echoes a certain Mahler symphony here or there. Alex Ross, one of the most astute critics writing today, has said that Shostakovich deeply felt Mahler’s influence in the “conception of the symphony as a form of untrammeled psychological theater.”

Yet Shostakovich was writing in a savage land where thought and feeling were trammeled, smothered, extinguished, as almost nowhere else. Untrammeled psychological theater got you 25 years in Kolyma or a bullet in the back of the skull. Artists who displayed themselves too boldly did not last: Maxim Gorky, Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam, Vsevolod Meyerhold met Stalin’s executioners; Vladimir Mayakovsky and Marina Tsvetaeva were driven to suicide. In the Soviet Union, during Stalin’s reign and after, irony was an essential tool of survival. Sometimes one could not muster the courage even for irony, and discreet capitulation was the best one could manage. But if one succeeded in keeping hold of some part of one’s soul, despite such perils, one survived not only for his own sake but for that of his countrymen.

Shostakovich did adopt Mahlerian musical qualities, but he employed them for very different purposes. Where Mahler wrote music under the aspect of eternity, Shostakovich wrote music of and for a particular place and time. Mahler composed in metaphysical confusion, and squared off against God—or in certain moods bowed before Him—though he could not be sure he believed in His existence, while Shostakovich composed with his earthly masters and his Russian fellow sufferers in mind.

His First Symphony, written when he was a 19-year-old conservatory student, was the kind of music that pleased the powers, and it made Shostakovich a name in the Soviet Union and abroad. However, a name was a dangerous thing to have in Stalin’s regime: Subsequent works received more attention than Shostakovich cared to get. His 1928 opera The Nose, based on the 1836 short story by Nikolai Gogol about a minor bureaucrat who one morning finds his nose missing and subsequently discovers that the nose has assumed the identity of a higher-ranking bureaucrat, nettled politically orthodox critics. They condemned it for modernist unintelligibility and failure to advance the proletarian cause.

In fact, The Nose was perhaps too intelligible: full of the sounds of official stupidity that could not be pinned solely on the czarist regime Shostakovich declared he was satirizing. He assaults the prevailing chuckleheadedness with flatulent brass glissandos, airheaded flutes, and the impossible tenor tessitura for the District Commissioner, which is designed to render the screeching of authoritarian lunatic rage. The masses love to dish out wild cacophonous beatings, while the police, in Mayor Daley’s famous formulation, are not there to create disorder but to preserve disorder. Hannah Arendt’s doctrine about the banality of evil, wrongheaded though it may be as a description of the Holocaust, fits this opera perfectly. And such impudence on the composer’s part does not win friends in high places.

Shostakovich’s next opera, and his next major work, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934), based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 tale of provincial adultery and murder, produced an impressive popular splash, but made Shostakovich an enemy in the very highest of places. In 1936 Stalin and his posse attended a performance of the opera at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and walked out before the end. Two days later an unsigned editorial appeared in Pravda which changed Shostakovich’s life. “Muddle Instead of Music” shredded his opera for violating the canons of socialist realism and the standards of Soviet sexual virtue. Although the editorial was toxic, stifling, and barbaric, it nailed Shostakovich dead-center: He fully intended the violations he was charged with. The blaring barnyard noise that accompanies the adulterous coupling is indeed as discordant and down-and-dirty as operatic music gets. Stalin hated it.

Lady Macbeth is a work of modernist genius, psychologically penetrating in its portrayal of rankest sensuality, lethal greed, longing for marvels, and genuine tenderness in what passes for love. Genius of this unsettling order, however, was not what historical necessity called for. Shostakovich was born to write operas, but he never completed another one. Shostakovich was in disgrace, and in mortal danger.

Of his 15 symphonies, the Fourth is his most extraordinary; he completed it in 1936, after his operatic debacle, but withdrew it just before its scheduled premiere, under pressure from above, and its first performance did not come until 1961. The listener cannot but detect a political program here. One hears the frightfulness of Stalinism undisguised; it is music of, for, and to the Lubyanka. In parts of the final movement, though, Shostakovich sounds uncannily like Mahler in his dulcet rhapsodizing. Yet Shostakovich uses the unbearably lovely by way of contrast not with the crass and banal (as Mahler often does) but with the sinister and baneful. In the final passage the loudest advancing drumbeat you’ll ever hear announces the onslaught of the barbarian horde, and the souls that survive the initial outrage expire slowly and in pain.

In 1937, as the Great Terror took distinguished heads on every side, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony helped restore him to favor, or at least removed him from the death watch. Shostakovich publicly endorsed an admiring critic’s description of the symphony as “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” Neat martial stepping marks the indomitable Soviet people’s advance. Bombast is laced with insufferable Tinkerbell prettiness. In the final movement the Red Army comes barreling through at full throttle—never mind that it must be missing its foremost generals, who have recently been shot. The finish is a bang-up affair, in clear-cut opposition to the Fourth, as the trumpets blast and the bass drum resounds heroically. Is this irony, or truckling to save one’s skin, or the soul’s true expression? The latter seems extremely unlikely. Either of the former two is possible.

Henceforth, Shostakovich would write both cautiously subservient music, some of which was surely ironic, and startlingly defiant music, such as songs set to Jewish folk poetry, Alexander Pushkin, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66. This last is a frontal assault on tyranny, which despoils faith, honor, virtue, perfection, and strength, and in the music, sickened contempt mounts in pitch and dynamic to the boldest rage, before the descending scale and decrescendo sink one into hopelessness.

This song, written in 1942, sneers in Stalin’s face. It might have posed as a patriotic demolition of Hitler, but there can be no doubt that Shostakovich had in mind a monster closer to home. In 1942 he was a national hero and a world-famous figure as composer of the Seventh Symphony, known as the Leningrad, celebrating the ultimate in Soviet bravery. Perhaps he could afford to be audacious. But in 1948, when the regime cracked down on unsuitable music, and Shostakovich found himself in disgrace again, such audacity was far from his mind—if by audacity one means going public with his defiance. He wrote his superb Violin Concerto Number One then but put it in a drawer until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death.

In the opening movement, as the massed strings impel the solo instrument to a near frenzy of pain, one understands that compassion can be so intense it approaches insanity. When the individual feels everyone else’s suffering as though it were his own, you have a hard time telling where he ends and they begin. True Soviet collectivism is to be found in mass grief and in mass dissent—even if that is only giving the boss the finger in your pocket, as the Russian saying goes. The second movement is a Scherzo, and the word means joke. As the joke is passed around the players, it grows in explosiveness until it erupts in a subversive carnival, madcap and dangerous. The final movement, marked Burlesque: Allegro con brio—Presto, intimates that triumph of a sort may be possible, even though it is only a moral triumph, and even though it may not last, for all but broken people who can still laugh at their oppressors.

Music for Silenced Voices is the title of Wendy Lesser’s book, in which she contends that “Shostakovich’s own voice is most clearly audible in his 15 string quartets.” The large-scale works show signs of self-censorship, Lesser argues, as Shostakovich departs from the truth in order to fulfill his public duty—perhaps to certify his public persona, which keeps his head on his neck. The authorities paid little mind to his chamber music, however, and there he was free to be himself. The quartets speak mostly of death: the death of friends, colleagues, his first wife, and himself. Contrary to the Soviet principle that only the public life is real, Lesser sets out to demonstrate that the concerns of the quartets are private.

This is a brilliant and fascinating book, but Lesser misses the very heart of Shostakovich’s art: It registers an entire nation’s agony, and even his chamber works constitute a public—indeed, a political—music. Perhaps the Quartet Number 14 (1972-73) best illustrates how Shostakovich’s suffering in art is not essentially private. The first movement parodies the Pavlovian stimulus-response mechanism that was one of the proudest discoveries of Stalin-era science: Over and over a three-note figure screeches unmusically and provokes a screech in return. The music bespeaks a social order where even pain is not one’s own but the mass product of socially engineered misery, and the artist who expresses his suffering necessarily takes in that of everyone else. Above all, the middle and late quartets depict the struggle to wrest vitality back from such despair.

For Mahler, sorrow and exultation, surrender and energy exist in equilibrium, while for Shostakovich there is a continual fight between them—a fight to the death. Every Soviet citizen knew the feeling. His countrymen revered Shostakovich because he was the Russian sufferer par excellence, in his despondency, his fearfulness, his circumspection, his irony, his endurance, and his courage.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.

Next Page