Non-Party Pieces

Shostakovich's string quartets shine a light on the real composer in a way his symphonies cannot

Jessica Duchen

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. 
Lesser steers a ribbon-fine path through territory that could easily have become awkward. Unlike Adam Zamoyski, a historian who in his otherwise beautiful biography of Chopin mostly avoided discussion of the music itself, she ventures into lengthy verbal descriptions of the quartets, or at least of the effect of listening to them, as well as the possible correlation between their musical content and the composer’s philosophical or emotional state of mind.  Musicologists and critics always fight hard against the notion that a work of art has anything to do with its creator’s life. Conversely, most of the listening public is emotionally affected by music — that’s not the least point of listening to it — and can find it difficult to swallow the idea that the composer of a work that moves us was not himself emotionally involved in it. Lesser is anything but unaware of this contradiction. She makes it clear that her descriptions are personal responses and that the oversimplified life-and-work correlation that is often applied, especially to the popular Eighth Quartet, is not a good idea. 
There are as many shades of meaning and contradictions of intent within the pieces, and our responses to them, as there were within Shostakovich himself. She makes her case in the pages devoted to the Eighth Quartet: “Certain kinds of artworks have an even more intimate relation than usual to the person who created them […] I believe Shostakovich’s string quartets are this kind of artwork: I think that if they are examined closely, in the context of his daily existence, they can give us a form of access to this extremely veiled artist, however tenuous, that we otherwise might not have.”
A trained musician’s eyebrow might flick upward at certain comments — for instance, the idea that a solo violin suggests a singing voice is perfectly standard, so could be thought less remarkable than is made out. Yet Lesser is adept at capturing the elusive way that musical meaning is complete within itself; she often moves in a few lines from a pertinent comparison to the acknowledgement that such parallels ultimately can’t work.
For instance, of the Fifth Quartet: “The whole feel of the piece is at once vast in its scope and tiny in its focus. The visual equivalent might be a Poussin landscape with its distant sunlit mountains in the background and, in the shadowy space up front, the smallest human gesture closely examined. But there can be no visual equivalent, nor any literary or theatrical equivalent, because the Fifth Quartet is utterly abstract and irreducible in the way only music can be […]”

It may not be ideal — yet in its way, it works. It’s a hard balance to strike and Lesser manages it with admirable self-awareness. The cumulative effect of the book is to send us back to the music with renewed enthusiasm and enhanced insight; and the impression of Shostakovich and his world as conveyed in its pages lingers in the mind long after the cover is closed. 

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