Not just 'To whom does Shostakovich belong?' but 'Who is Shostakovich?'

Gerard McBurney
BBC Proms Lecture, Victoria and Albert Museum, 30 July 2000

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My title… 'Whose Shostakovich?'… suggests a small and rather obvious pun. Not just 'Whose?', but 'Who's?'. Not just 'To whom does Shostakovich belong?' but 'Who is Shostakovich?'

The thought of this gentle word-play is prompted by what some have come to call in recent years 'The Shostakovich Wars'. These wars - fought by all kinds of people from musicians and music-lovers to historians and musicologists - have largely been about the significance of Shostakovich's music. Is it any good or not? Is it of visionary power and originality, as some maintain; or, as others think, derivative, trashy, empty and second-hand? And if it is worth listening to, how should we listen to it? How should it be read? What does it mean, if anything?

And, then, spreading out from, but still dependent on these more-or-less musical questions, a whole series of beyond-musical ones. What side was he on? Theirs or ours? Was he a communist or a communist-hater? A modernist or a reactionary? On the side of history or against it? In short, not only, was he a good composer or a bad composer, but was he a good man or a bad man?

And somewhere behind that last pair of questions… 'Good composer/bad composer, good man/bad man'… there lurks an old and odd anxiety about the uncertain moral connection between a work of art and the person who made it. And in Shostakovich's case, this anxiety is provoked not only by the rich undergrowth of anecdotes about his life, but by his music. And the musical issue is two-sided. What is at stake is both the music's meaning… and its value. And the anxiety is that its value might depend upon its meaning.

This special anxiety about Shostakovich marks him out. For with most composers, the often unobtainable answer to the question 'What is the meaning behind their music?' would not usually be what determined whether we thought the music any good or not. And their private behaviour and opinions would also not weigh so heavily in the balance.

Accusations of being a bad man, of thinking or meaning bad things, have been levelled at many composers… at Wagner, in the first place, but at 20th century composers too: Debussy, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Puccini, Richard Strauss, and even Britten. But while these men's alleged or proven moral failings have provoked sometimes interesting commentaries on particular pieces in their output, except in the case of Wagner it seems we do not usually worry whether the significance of their work as a whole has been called into question. Whether they were anti-semites, fascist sympathisers, sexual betrayers or downright liars, the bad sides of their character do not make us fear for their artistic achievement. Not even in the case of Prokofiev, someone whose biographical and even musical details might seem at times quite close to those of Shostakovich.

And were any of these gentlemen suddenly revealed to have been, on the contrary, spotless saints or heroes, that also would not necessarily make us think more highly of their music. With Shostakovich this is not the case. Over and over his music has been praised or damned as a direct response to how its meaning has been taken to reflect the role he played in life. He has been described as a cowardly collaborator and, in the New York Times recently, as a 'moral beacon'. And the point about either description is to make a case for or against his music

One way or another there is something about this composer that worries us.

Modern Western anxiety about Shostakovich owes most, of course, to the 1979 publication of 'Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov'. Whatever anyone might think about the angrily debated authenticity of this book, it would be foolish to deny its impact. In Europe and America at least, it appeared to change the way that many who listened to Shostakovich, thought about what they heard. It spawned a culture of interpretation.

But though the impact of 'Testimony' was great, it must be viewed - like the material of which the book itself is made - in context. It seems clearer now that 'Testimony' was published by chance when it was needed. For one thing these were the tedious 'stagnation' years of the later Brezhnev period and the book's stories and even more its tone of voice seem to have been just right at that point for how a certain kind of Western reader wanted to discover a Soviet 'intellighent', a great Russian artist, to be - mocking, angry, whimsical and self-justifying. Quite different from the public and official Shostakovich seen before. This was a good time to learn that the man who wrote this music was not what they seemed.

And then again the late 1970s were years of restlessness for all who had tired of the long post-war romance with modernism. Certain gods were felt by many to have failed. As Laurel Fay says at the end of her recent Shostakovich biography, 'dissatisfaction had reached a breaking point' . And the music of Shostakovich, seen from 'Testimony's' point of view, offered a different way of listening to the noise of our own time.

And the Shostakovich of 'Testimony' also answered a need in the hearts of those who had always taken Shostakovich seriously, and were frustrated by the refusal of others to do so. For them, in the words of a young friend of mine, the 'Testimony' portrait seemed to fit the music. Or, as others have insisted, the music could be made to fit the portrait.

But 'Testimony' did not create anxiety about the music of Shostakovich. And especially not in Russia where that book has never been made available to read. It was the music itself that first caused worry and from the beginning of this composer's career. From the early 1920s his teachers and mentors alternated between amazement at the brilliance of the child and doubts about the musical result. An exasperated Maximilian Steinberg complained often that the young man's music was 'grotesque' , and even referred to it as 'krivlyan'ye' - something twisted, distorted, grimacing, an affectation . Alexander Glazunov, one of the young Shostakovich's greatest supporters, said of the First Symphony in 1926 that 'it shows great talent, but I don't understand it' . This of a piece that the boy-composer himself proudly called not a symphony, but 'a symphony-grotesque' . One year later, the Second Symphony, 'To October', made Steinberg wonder 'Can this really be the New Art? Or is it only the daring of a naughty boy?' . And it provoked a more distinguished figure, Nikolai Myaskovsky, to write:

'I don't much like his music. But he touches something live. You can't admire him and follow his jokes… but his music simply and immediately thrills you. I spat at the rehearsals… it was as disgusting as the rehearsals of Stravinsky, but at the concert the thing simply astounded me. Everything is so strong, everything in the right place, so laconically and at the same time so interestingly and so consummately well said. He's an unpleasant little boy, but really a major talent. '

One of the most interesting reactions to Shostakovich from this early period comes from another Russian who at that point had not yet met him and must have known little about him, Stravinsky. Stravinsky's defensive attitude towards the success of others is well known. Nonetheless in a letter to the conductor Ernest Ansermet, written from New York in 1935, he has some incisive points to make… and, incidentally, not only about Shostakovich but in passing about another composer the anniversary of whose death is marked in this year's Proms:

'I heard 'Lady Macbeth' by Shostakovich… A well-organised advertising campaign bore its fruit, exciting all the N.Y. snobs. The work is lamentably provincial, the music plays a miserable role as illustrator, in a very embarrassing realistic style… Marches brutally hammering in the manner of Prokofiev, and monotonous - and each time the curtains were lowered, the conductor was acclaimed by an audience more than happy to be brutalized by the arrogance of the numerous communist brass instruments. This premiere (and I hope derniere) reminds me of the performances of Kurt Weill two years ago in Paris and all the premiere-goers and the snobs of my new country [France]…'

A few lines later Stravinsky adds:

'I regret being so hard on Shostakovich, but he has deeply disappointed me, intellectually and musically. I regret it the more because his [first] Symphony favorably impressed me two years ago, and I expected something very different from a man of twenty-seven. 'Lady Macbeth' is not the work of a musician, but it is surely the product of a total indifference towards music in the country of the Soviets. '

Leaving aside the jibes and resentments, that letter, written 65 years ago, already and almost prophetically sums up what were to become, outside Russia, established doubts and reservations about Shostakovich. Words and phrases like 'lamentably provincial… miserable… very embarrassing… merely illustrative… brutally hammering… monotonous… arrogant… intellectually and musically disappointing…' - all these tags and others like them have resonated down the years, especially in the more high-minded traditions of Western commentary, reaction and criticism. As too have the idea that Shostakovich's later music is a betrayal of the brilliant promise of the First Symphony; and that a streak of violence, crudeness and monotony in the music, occasionally identified by some of the composer's own acquaintance as involving the sado-masochistic or malevolent, might appeal in a chic way to a certain kind of Western snobbery.

However Stravinsky's comments are prophetic not only of Western judgements but of Soviet ones too. Consider this famous assault on 'Lady Macbeth', written nearly a year later than Stravinsky's letter:

'From the beginning, the listener is shocked by a deliberately dissonant, confused stream of sound. Fragments of melody, embryonic phrases appear - only to disappear again in the din, the grinding and the screaming… The music is built on the basis of rejecting opera… Here we have 'leftist' confusion… All is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts and growls, and suffocates itself, in order to express the amatory scenes as naturalistically as possible. And 'love' is smeared all over the opera in the most 'vulgar' manner…'

That, of course, is from the famous 'Pravda' article, 'Muddle instead of Music', published in January 1936, a terrible turning-point in Shostakovich's life, and long perceived as written at the personal behest of Stalin. It is something of a shock to find in such a classic Soviet text so many words so close to what Stravinsky had already written, from quite a different point of view.

In fact, when one examines the two main traditions of criticizing Shostakovich from the 1930s onwards - the official socialist-realist one from inside the Soviet Union, and the Western 'high-art' tradition from outside - one surprisingly often finds peculiar parallels. In 1943, for example, at the height of the world-wide propaganda triumph of the 'Leningrad' Symphony, the British writer on Russian music Gerald Abraham sneered that 'Shostakovich cannot write even a moderately good tune ', an opinion he shared, it turned out later, with those repulsive party-hacks unleashed on Shostakovich by Zhdanov in the famous purge of 1948.

But notwithstanding what amounts at times to an eerie East-West critical consensus, the music of this composer did not go away. On the contrary, and more especially since his death, and not only in his homeland but in certain other musical cultures like those of the English-speaking world and Northern Europe, Shostakovich's reputation has gone on growing to the point where he now appears to have found a vastly wider audience than most composers will ever know. But the ancient criticisms have not gone away either. In January this year, in the London 'Sunday Times', Pierre Boulez defiantly placed Shostakovich 'much lower' than 'the second division, where you find Prokofiev and Hindemith…' He went on:

'Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time… It's like olive oil, you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third pressing of Mahler. …with Shostakovich, people are influenced by the autobiographical dimension of his music. '

And that last comment returns us to the central question. For, in Boulez's mind, it is obvious the music cannot be validated by the extra-musical story that it tells. And reactions to that story are not reactions to the music.

It is possible, of course, to put this same point in another way, one that argues for Shostakovich and not against him. The American scholar and intense polemicist about Russian culture and music, Richard Taruskin, observes that:

'Shostakovich's works are fraught with horrific subtexts that can never be ignored. '

It would be hard to disagree. 'Horrific subtexts' cry for our attention. But nonetheless, as we approach the anniversary of this composer's death, it is still worth wondering a moment how far it is true that we can never listen to his music in other ways as well. Can Shostakovich's works not stand without what lies behind them? Has what he wrote so little substance, apart from the 'autobiographical dimension', as Boulez puts it? Is its 'level', in his phrase, so low, so clichéed, nothing but the cheap provincial imitation scorned by Stravinsky? And anyway is that really what the music sounds like? And even if it is, could it not be that Shostakovich wrote it that way on purpose? And that that could be interesting in itself?

For me the broadest, the most urgent question now about Shostakovich is what happens when we listen, not only to what lies or doesn't lie behind the notes, but to the notes themselves and to the way they are composed… or, as the late Alfred Schnittke used to say (speaking specifically of Shostakovich), when we listen to what lies 'between the notes', and not just to what's beyond them . Twenty-five years have passed since his death. It is time, I think, to pay attention to the art of Shostakovich. For it is to that art that we shall have to listen in the future, as the fearful history of this composer and his age begin to slip a little further from us and it becomes less possible and less immediate to hear his music primarily as a chronicle, a 'message in a bottle' , a soundtrack, however moving, to a nightmare.

I am no scholar. I have read only a little of the flood of books and articles about this man. But it appears to me that as yet few questions have been asked about the language, the inner structure and coherence of this man's music… about what it is and how it works and why it is the way it is. There has been commentary, of course, about the signs and symbols that he uses, and some of that is interesting. But still it tells us less about how Shostakovich works, and more about how we are to read things into what he does. And his music notoriously seems to require we read things into it, even to the point, as Taruskin comments, that it might be 'too easily read' . In particular, his rhetoric and gestures, a startling feature of his language, frequently distract us, past the sounds and structures of the notes, into a Looking-Glass world where we are mesmerised by what we take the notes to represent.

This in itself is a crucial quality of his language, one that any investigation of his work might well begin with. There is a fascinating question to be asked as to how he does it, how he makes us listen in this way. Especially if it is true, as Boulez would have us think, that what the notes themselves are doing is clichéed and uninteresting. Or perhaps those qualities that Boulez so dislikes might be exactly how he does it, by rendering the surface of the music somehow lacking, so as to force us to imagine something else behind.

When I was a student in Moscow in the 1980s, the most widely repeated 'bon' or rather 'mauvais mot' about Shostakovich to circulate among younger musicians emanated from the venerably waspish figure of Filipp Gershkovich (or Hershkovits). He was a Rumanian-Jewish composer and theorist who, in Vienna in the 1930s, studied with Berg and Webern, before being swept by events of war into a long strange exile in the Soviet Union. For the rich post-Shostakovich generation of Soviet composers and performers, Gershkovich was a crucial influence and inspiration. As one of his pupils put it, he seemed like 'an apostle sent by Webern to the barbarians' .

Coming from his Middle-European standpoint, and being an unwilling prisoner in Soviet culture, Gershkovich understandably had little time for Shostakovich. But his description of him was memorable: 'khalturshchik v transe' .. meaning, more or less, 'a hack in a trance'. Except that 'khalturshchik' is a word with an ancient history, suggesting not just a newspaper 'hack', but originally someone like a priest or a monk who chants ritual gibberish in an incomprehensible language , someone cynically going through the motions.

Gershkovich's point, contemptuous though it is, is subtler than Boulez's. It acknowledges that the man who wrote the music is himself entranced, like a shaman. So the issue is not merely, as so many have suggested, that we, the gullible ones, have been taken in by a quack. Moreover by using the word 'khalturshchik' Gershkovich is suggesting that it is precisely because Shostakovich wrote like a 'hack', that he has fallen into a trance. The trance is induced by the way of writing, by the relentless incantation, by the frantically scribbled repetition of stock ideas that lost their meaning long ago, by the endless 'playing' (in Boulez's words) 'with clichés'.

What Gershkovich must have intended by his remark is close to what we are told that Goethe said of epic diction: that the problem with its formulae is that they do your thinking for you . Gershkovich was objecting to the absence in this music of what he understood as musical thought. But, however negatively he meant it, his distinctive description of Shostakovich puts its finger on something far from thoughtless at the heart of this composer's way of composition, at the heart of how his music operates.

For what Gershkovich saw and did not like in Shostakovich… art as trance, and the artist in the trance… and the artist's language as trance-inducing babble, or as the delusive parroting of common-stock conventions… these are qualities that, however he might think them bad, at different times have been aspired to and embraced by many, not just by Shostakovich. And not so as not to think but as another way to think. There have been plenty who wanted their art to be this way. And this is especially true of many from the place and time that Shostakovich came from, the complex, fascinating world of early 20th century Russian modernism… and more particularly the immediate post-revolutionary years in Leningrad.

This is important because insofar as recent writers have tried to describe Shostakovich's language at all, they have tended to concentrate on his more 'mature' pieces, from the Fifth Symphony on, often treating the way they work as an Aesopian strategy of codes and implications evolved specifically to deal with the catastrophic circumstances of the Stalinist terror from the mid-1930s onwards.

The trouble with such an approach is that it treats his language as though it had sprung from his head at that point in his life, and fully formed that way in reponse to immediate undeniable needs. It may have done so. But it also arose out of what was there before, a seething, restlessly experimental atmosphere, that flourished in both Moscow and St.Petersburg/ Petrograd/ Leningrad. This often self-consciously brave new world was dominated, naturally, by the familiar giants of Russian modernism: not just composers, like the already-dead Skryabin and the far-away Stravinsky and Prokofiev, but also those who changed the course of all the other arts, like Meyerhold, Eisenstein, Mayakovsky and Malevich.

And, especially in Leningrad, it was a world with a wealth of complex sub-cultures, contrasted and shifting networks of artists and of theorists, often of Shostakovich's own age and circles of acquaintance. There were schools of them, writers, musicians, painters and all sorts in between… with manifestos, concerts, magazines, discussion groups, exhibitions and impromptu happenings on roofs, in cellars and on corners of the street. Among those with whom Shostakovich had connections at that time were that rich swathe of writers called the Leningrad absurdists ; and a small but important circle of film-makers who at one point named themselves 'the Depot of Eccentrics' . And, something that should give thought to anyone considering examining Shostakovich's musical language, this was as well the time of that deeply influential school of literary theory, the Formalists.

It is my contention that to understand how Shostakovich works, how he was formed as a composer and then what he became, we must begin where he began, before the period of high Stalinism, in Leningrad in the 1920s and early 1930s, in the artistic and philosophical ferment from which he sprang. For that was where and when key aspects of his art and outlook first took shape, aspects which continued to play a part in his musical thinking, right to the time of his apparently so different final works in the early 1970s.

The character of the Russian cultural life that the young composer knew is well remembered by his friend from student days, the musicologist Mikhail Druskin:

'Life seethed around the young Shostakovich, sucking him into its vortex. Anyone who did not experience those years together with [him] must find it difficult to imagine the intensity of this whirlpool, which threw up an explosion of creative energy and provided the strongest impulse to increased artistic endeavour and innovation. '

Shostakovich's detailed connections to this 'whirlpool' of artistic life around him in his youth have not yet been mapped in detail , although the lineaments of whom he knew and associated with are plotted in the opening chapters of Laurel Fay's new biography. It is clear from what she writes that, as Shostakovich himself suggested afterwards , his relations with his cultural and intellectual surroundings were mediated to a considerable degree from 1927 onwards by his close friendship with a prominent figure in Leningrad at that time, Ivan Sollertinsky - critic, linguist, aesthete, polymath, socialite and wit .

Even a slight acquaintance with the artistic world to which both Shostakovich and Sollertinsky belonged will show there were creative figures all around them fascinated, in different ways and to different degrees, by the kinds of issues touched on by the 'bon mot' of Gershkovich. There were those interested in language as cliché or as nonsense… language and inarticulate sound as incantation, as a window into trance… language and rhetoric as strategy. There were those who delighted in the richly subversive possibilities of the absurd, the grotesque, the banal, the alienating, the deformed and the outrageous… those who played with the preposterous and simultaneously horrifying effect of long lists, for example, or dreary repetitions. And lurking behind all these enthusiasms was the persistent idea of the surface of the work of art, the stuff of which it was made, as something to be distinguished from the intoxicating realm supposed to lie beyond it, whether that realm made sense… or nonsense… or 'trans-sense' , as some called it.

Of course, ideas like these were in different combinations part of the dreams of modernists everywhere, not only in Russia. But the Russian world which Shostakovich knew had its own patterns of them and striations, its own favourite formulations of these issues. And, above all, its own heightened and self-consciously excited awareness of the gap between language and meaning, of the schemes and negotiations needed to overcome and dramatise that gap, and of the bitter-sweet and often culturally specific pleasures to be derived from the contradictions inherent within language.

One thing is clear, though. At this period, what such Russian and Soviet attitudes towards language hardly ever seem to have meant was treating language simply as a signifier, a chain of self-explanatory symbols. Symbols in this world were nearly always double-freighted and ambiguous.

This matters for how we hear Shostakovich. For one thing, it reminds us that the instability and haze of paradox that all his life was such a feature of his music, of the way it sounds and hangs together, was not just a function of his personality or a way of coping with appalling circumstances (though it must have been both those things, at least in part) but a response to a deeper, wider preoccupation with unfixity and change that touched almost everyone within his time and cultural environment.

And this should give us pause at those moments when we long to read fixed and stable messages behind his music. For he came from a world which not only doubted messages like those, but delighted in the assumption that opposite messages would always be present at the same time. Instinctive to that culture's fascination with the play of language was the simple sense that meaning was impossible to fix with words… or notes or daubs of paint.

The music of Shostakovich's early adulthood vividly reflects his engagement with the modernist experiments he encountered. His first symphonies and piano pieces, his scores for Meyerhold's production of Mayakovsky's 'The Bedbug' and for the epic silent-movie 'The New Babylon', and above all his Gogol-inspired opera 'The Nose', show him already a master manipulator of the currents of invention that swirled around him.

In particular what preoccupied him in those days were: violent degrees of dissonance, atonality and disruption; the possibilities of instrumental colour for its own sake; different varieties of heterophony or what he called 'ultra-polyphony' ; and most of all the principle of non-repetition. His friend Mikhail Druskin particularly remembered 'the kaleidoscopically shifting episodes in the Third Symphony, where according to the composer's concept, not one idea was to be repeated… '

What happens next in his career, beyond these early and self-consciously 'avant-garde' attempts, is more debatable. Traditionally little attention has been given to the mass of theatre-music, including the three full-length ballets, that he wrote between 1929 and 1935, except of course for his obvious masterpiece of that period, the opera 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District'. Both that and the Fourth Symphony which followed it have received much attention, at times as though they were works that somehow stood alone, and in the symphony's case quite often with the sense that it represents a vision of the still-modern Shostakovich that might afterwards have flourished had he not been so savagely attacked in 1936. And special attention has been given to the Fifth, as a triumphant answer of whatever kind to criticism, and for its apparent change of stylistic direction, whether that represent an act of political retrenchment or a signing up to the new simplicity or plainness that was such a feature of the work of composers everywhere in the middle 1930s. Viewed from whatever angle, the Fifth Symphony seems to most listeners to have been for Shostakovich a 'rebirth'… a 'vozrozhdeniye' , in the title of the Pushkin poem he turns out so curiously to have hidden in the finale.

Perhaps not surprisingly - since I have spent time trying to reconstruct missing theatre pieces of 1931 and '32 - I take a slightly different view. It seems to me that although the Fifth Symphony sounds like a dramatic change, it is also the culmination of a long period of development, of more than fifteen years spent making a musical language, making a way to write.

And the more than twenty film and theatre scores (apart from the opera), from those six years or so to the mid-1930s, are worth looking at because they represent a bridge, a line of continuity and evolution between the early works and what came later. And they tell us much about what was going on in Shostakovich's mind at this period of his life. They are certainly marked, like his more 'serious' pieces of this period, by what Taruskin calls 'the debunking spirit of the 'new objectivity' that had emanated in the 1920s from Germany' . But they were also what the conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky calls a 'laboratory', a laboratory for the exploration and development of new techniques and a fully fledged dramatic language. As Shostakovich worked on 'Lady Macbeth', for example, his most ambitious theatre work, he threw ideas from it into other pieces he was writing at the same time . The ballets also overlap with one another, quote from other pieces and in turn ideas from them are recycled in yet later music.

In fact almost the whole of his output at this period can be seen as a kind of web or tissue of self-quotation and cross-reference. And this was not because he was running out of ideas - ideas were pouring from him at this time - although reusing earlier ideas must have been helpful working at tremendous speed. What is so interesting about this practice of recycling, is how we find Shostakovich trying out in different contexts the various strengths and weaknesses of his musical material, like a tailor with a length of cloth or a potter with his clay, testing all the different ways it works. And in these pieces, Shostakovich tests his material from several points of view: for example, its dramatic effectiveness; the ways in which it has autonomy and identity; its modal two-sidedness; and, most of all, its pulsing rhythmic possibilities, which, at this point in his development, absorbed him more and more.

Much of character of the raw material he draws on in these theatre works, including in 'Lady Macbeth', depends on the evocation, loving or parodic, of a whole range of models from the musical past, and from the lighter end of the demotic repertoire, including the hybrid jazz-&-klezmer that was the popular staple of the time, 'chastushki' (Russian comic-songs), mass-songs, pioneer-songs, cheap waltzes and marches and those treacly tunes that every Russian knows are only ever sung by drunks .

What matters about this stuff is not just that it is full of energy or funny or aggressive or sarcastic, but that it delivered into Shostakovich's hands possibilities, still modernist and of their time, but different from those offered by the experimental, non-repeating, acoustically blurred material he was more often using earlier. He was becoming more interested in another kind of modernism. The shapes of the tunes and corny harmonies that now obsessed him were designed to be not far out, but typical and recognisable, even (to paraphrase Taruskin) 'too easily' so. For out of such imagery came opportunities for (often relentless) patterns of contrast, repetition, exaggeration, and the reduction of the surface of the music to banal absurdity and at times even to the blank-faced, uncertainly half-mocking, half-ecstatic horror that was the stock-in-trade of contemporary writers of the then-called 'avant-garde' .

But as well as allowing Shostakovich to engage with musical versions of the forms of play that meant so much to his most innovative contemporaries, material like this also did something else, basic and crucial to his craft as a composer: it opened new possibilities of unfolding what he wrote, of continuity and form. For the problem with the earlier more obviously 'modernistic' material was, as Shostakovich is not the only composer to have found, that it posed massive problems of syntax (making sustained invention very difficult) and of articulation (making the construction of any kind of musical architecture hard). And from the beginning Shostakovich had been someone who yearned to write on the large-scale, who needed syntax and articulation. He longed to breathe the air of the symphonic.

Of the various ways in which his theatre work allowed Shostakovich to move towards a greater mastery of large-scale form, the most vital was his growing grasp of pulse and rhythm, and in particular of middle-ground rhythm, the kind that governs how you move from phrase to phrase and paragraph to paragraph.

Like the tunes and harmonies, the characteristic rhythmic images of this period of Shostakovich are cheap, vulgar, commonplace and everyday, even by the standards of some of the more notorious ideas he used in later life. He was fascinated by 'hammering', to use Stravinsky's word, and exaggerating to absurdity and outright aggression, the plainest and silliest patterns of eight and sixteen bars, like those in many kinds of popular music. By latching on to the way such trashy, low-down rhythms inevitably fall and collect themselves into larger groups and phrases, making crude shapes of a kind the previous generation of composers like his teachers loathed, Shostakovich could do several things. He could hold on to some of the more outrageous images from his earlier work, but simplify them, give them a framework and theatrical immediacy. And he could also make his music flow in new ways, new spans of time. He could expand his language to build sequences and pulsing paragraphs of sound which, in the old phrase, 'rock and roll'.

This 'rock and roll', so obvious to any music-lover swept away by a great performance of almost any of the fifteen symphonies, is probably at the heart of what annoys all those who have never been able to take this composer seriously, all those who feel cheated or manipulated by him, all those who think his music a 'slap in the face of public taste' and decency, or who hate, as Robin Holloway puts it, Shostakovich 'banging on my head'.

Or to put it another way, it is this that produces what Gershkovich called the trance. It is this that makes even the thinnest of Shostakovich's later film-scores never quite devoid of concentration and endows his greatest concert masterpieces with what, as time passes, seems their ever more disturbing force.

It is this 'rock and roll' that enables us to make sense of all the other layers of thought and meaning in his music, of what would otherwise be the amorphous shifting of modal and tonal sands, the apparent shapelessness of so many of his melodies, the raucous orchestration, the ciphers and the disrupting gestures to neo-classicism or romantic film-music. And it is this 'rock and roll' that holds together the mighty polyphony of this composer's vision… polyphony not just in the sense of counterpoint, although Shostakovich was one of the natural contrapuntists of his age… but in that other looser sense, once so popular with artists and theorists of the time of Shostakovich's youth, meaning the complex play of different contradictory voices in a drama, in a narrative… what keeps a story going, what makes a piece of music come alive.

This fundamental rhythmic power of Shostakovich has its sources in his early work. There are examples, in the first three symphonies and in 'The Nose', of what one might call, to use a tennis metaphor, long rhythmic 'rallies'. And these were already marked, as was to stay true of this composer to the end, by their striking connection to the physicality of human movement, rather than being, as seems true of the rhythm of some other music of that time, invented and self-conscious. A visceral grasp of pulse and of the patterns that it makes was always part of Shostakovich's gift. You can hear it in surviving schoolboy works and in recordings of his piano-playing.

But through the theatre years, while he went on working on his opera or later dreamed of starting the Fourth Symphony , he stretched this gift, tightened it and made it stronger. And the opera became a virtuosic demonstration of his new powers in this field. In 'Lady Macbeth' pulse and sequences of different pulses become a vital way of driving the drama forward musically. And to make pulse work in this way Shostakovich raided an astonishing range of sources, from Verdi and Offenbach, to what sound like scraps of silent-movie music, the dance-hall, or stuff written for the radio and gramophone .

Stravinsky's reaction to this use of pulse was that it was 'brutal' and 'monotonous'. And presumably, given the nature of the drama, it was meant to be just that. But not only that. It was also a show of eruptive rhythmic impetus, sustained and drawn out for as far as it will go. As far, that is, until it could go further in the next large-scale work, the Fourth Symphony.

The symphony is shorter than the opera. But the rhythmic paragraphs are larger, less segmented, more complex, interlocking and dependent on each other. The composer's rhythmic language has advanced another stage. On the other hand there are elements in the melodic and harmonic material of the Fourth that look back to music earlier than the opera. Disruptions, contrasts and non-sequiturs, that echo the Third Symphony and that work's principle of non-repetition. The volcanic character of the Fourth has much to do with tension between the implosive material of which it is made and the explosive, neo-Mahlerian scale of its rhythmic architecture.

The conversion of that tension into dynamic energy not just eruptive but constructive is the work of the composer's next step forward, the Fifth Symphony. This, more even than the 'Leningrad', is his piece most charged with history, myth and expectation. It is probably the one most often played, most often treated as a masterpiece, most mocked by those who hate the very sound of this man's music, most loved by audiences, recorded and chewed over. As Viktor Suslin has put it, maddened both by this symphony and its reputation: 'Good God!… How much ink has been spilt [over it], how many lofty words been spoken!'

No-one can take from the Fifth the circumstances of its making, the terrible words printed in 'Pravda' in 1936, the unspeakable threat of state-instigated violence, the treachery of erstwhile friends and the isolation of its composer. No-one can deny the engulfing Terror of that time. Nor can they take away the tears of those who heard the first performances.

But this symphony, a triumph of one human spirit, is a structure, made of sound as well as fury, of notes and images and phrases held together by a will and by technique and by musical experience. It was written by a man who over many years had made for himself a language out of music.

Gerard McBurney
21st July 2000

NB: Footnotes were originally supplied for this article, but I have not managed to include them here for lack of time.


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