The brave new world of musical modernism

From a lecture by Gerald McBurney, a Russian music specialist given to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Shostakovich
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The Independent Online

What is 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 questions emerges. 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?

What is 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 questions emerges. 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?

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. 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. 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 to hear his music primarily as a chronicle, a "message in a bottle", a soundtrack, however moving, to a nightmare.

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. His rhetoric and gestures, a startling feature of his language, frequently distract us past the sounds and structures of the notes. There is a fascinating question to be asked as to how he does it, how he makes us listen in this way.

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. They often treat the way they work as an Aesopian strategy of codes and implications that evolved specifically to deal with the 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 fully formed from his head at that point in his life in response 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.

This often self-consciously brave new world was dominated 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. It was a world with a wealth of complex sub-cultures, contrasted and shifting networks of artists and 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.

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 great artistic and philosophical ferment from which he sprang.

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