Contradictory character: Dmitri Shostakovich (left) in 1932 with his first wife Nina Varzar and a close friend, the musician Ivan Sollertinsky
Reading Wendy Lesser's Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets (Yale University Press, £18.99) has made me more aware than ever of an anomaly that I've long thought needs a solution. Books on classical music in the late decades of the last century became increasingly polarised: at one extreme heavy-duty academicism, at the other the populist-targeted publications "for dummies". Musical education has been watered down so much that many concert-goers can't read music; the vocabulary once thought necessary to discuss music seems to have been denied to a couple of generations. This, though, hasn't stopped people from talking and thinking about music, how it works and how composers communicate. But if the old terminology is out of bounds, we need to find new approaches in order to bring music into the mainstream of general culture, where it belongs.
Music for Silenced Voices helps to show that this can be done, and done well. Lesser is an award-winning American author, academic and editor, a writer on a wide range of cultural issues. She freely admits to having little musical background — but crucially, she's not afraid to dive in at the deep end. If strong wordsmiths can bring to musical topics the ability to vivify character and era and to explore multilayered concepts and paradoxes — present in every art, yet especially elusive in music thanks to its non-verbal nature — this is good news.
The book does not disappoint. Lesser's central tenet is that Shostakovich's string quartets represent the composer's most personal statements: those least clouded by his consciousness of the Soviet lords and masters who were ready to cast censure on his symphonies and operas. Officials were unlikely to bother scrutinising something as intimate as chamber music; therefore to find the real Shostakovich, this is where we must turn.
The 15 string quartets become staging posts in the exploration of Shostakovich's life and inner life: an inspired choice of focus and an ingenious means of containing a topic that could easily have buckled under the weight of its own significance. With sensitively-tuned prose, she shines a probing spotlight on Shostakovich the man, public and private, illuminating by turns different aspects of his often contradictory character.
He was courageous for others, less so within himself; he seems to have lacked confidence yet not a sense of humour, the latter often as ironic and biting as his music can suggest. His loves and three marriages are dealt with in a manner that manages to be revealing, moving and tactful at the same time; and as for the endless complexities of his relationship with the Soviet regime, Lesser explores this at length without implicit judgment upon the composer's decisions. Her select interviews with Shostakovich's elderly widow, the members of several string quartets (especially the Emerson Quartet) and individuals acquainted with him, such as Kurt Sanderling, are illuminating; it would have been nice to read more of them.