The Magazine

The Modern Sound

Two prophets, in music, of suffering and redemption.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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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.