Music for Silenced Voices by Wendy Lesser, published in paperback this month, is a biography of Shostakovich that views him through the intimate music of his string quartets. In this exclusive extract Wendy Lesser discusses the challenges a biographer faces when writing the life of this elusive composer, a man full of contradictions, crafting his art under the close surveillance of the Soviet State.
Extract from Chapter 1: Elegy of Music for Silenced Voices
In him, there are great contradictions. In him, one quality obliterates the other. It is conflict in the highest degree.
It is almost a catastrophe. —Mikhail Zoshchenko, in a private letter about Shostakovich, 1941
It is hard to say whether he was extraordinarily fortunate or profoundly unlucky. Even he would probably have been unable to decide, for in regard to his own situation and his own character, he was often dubious and always divided. He was a self-acknowledged coward who sometimes demonstrated great courage. A born survivor, he was obsessed with death. He had an excellent sense of humor and an equally strong streak of melancholy. Though reserved in outward demeanor and inclined to long silences, he was subject to bouts of intense passion. Mentally and physically he tended to be either lightning fast or practically immobilized. He was both a generous man and an embittered one. Immensely loyal to his friends, he was repeatedly guilty of disloyalty to his own principles. He cared a great deal for words, and he signed his name to documents he had never read. He was a modernist who officially despised modernism. He was a baptized unbeliever with a strong aff ection for the Jews. As for his country, he both hated and loved it—and the mixed emotion was returned, it seems, for he became at different times a prominent beneficiary and a prominent victim of his nation’s cultural regime. He was an essentially private person who lived out his existence on a public platform. He wrote music that pleased the many, and he wrote music for the very few: perhaps, finally, only for himself. We know a great deal about him, and he remains largely invisible to us.
In this last respect, Dmitri Shostakovich is like all subjects of artist biographies, only more so. You are drawn to the life because you love the art, and you imagine that knowing more about the life will bring you closer to the art, but for the most part the life is a smoke screen getting between you and the art. You pick up threads and clues, searching for a pattern that explains the whole, forgetting that a great deal of life (and art) depends on chance events. You can never definitively find the hidden springs of an artwork; you can only attempt to grasp the results as they gush forth, and with music, which is nearly as changeable and bodiless as water, that grasp will be especially tenuous.
Nevertheless, there is a desire to connect the human being who once lived to the still-living music, which seems to have a human voice behind it—does have a human voice behind it, if only one could hear it properly. For me, and I think for many other avid listeners, Shostakovich’s own voice is most clearly audible in his fifteen string quartets.
He became famous in his lifetime for the symphonies and operas, and it is through these larger-scale works that most people know his name today, but those are precisely the works of his that were most subject to interference by the Soviet authorities. The interference was internal as well as external: that is, Shostakovich often censored himself, distorting and suppressing his own talent in order to write the kinds of pieces that were demanded of him as a public artist. But nobody at the top of the Soviet Union’s cultural hierarchy paid much attention to what he was doing in his smaller-scale, under-the-radar chamber music. So whereas the symphonies can be bombastic or overblown or afflicted with moments of bad faith, the quartets are amazingly pure and consistently appealing. Taken individually, each represents a major contribution to the string quartet literature; taken as a whole, they stand as one of the monuments of twentieth-century music. And as a key to Shostakovich’s own preoccupations—as a kind of “diary” that records “the story of his soul,” as his widow put it—they off er unparalleled access to the composer’s inner life.
Musicians who play Shostakovich’s string quartets can read that diary through the music: that is how they manage to perform the quartets, even if they know little or nothing about the composer’s life. You can get the whole story from the fifteen quartets themselves, if you are alert enough. But I am not alert enough, and I am not a musician, so I have had to go about it backwards, by way of the life first and then the music. Only after learning something of the biography have I been able to hear what was there all along in the quartets.
When we nonmusicians listen to music, we respond with an awareness of logic and pattern and history, but also with our emotions and imaginations, and to put these responses into words is not an easy matter. In speaking about Shostakovich’s quartets, I have sometimes borrowed from the languages of literary and art criticism, both of which have a stronger tradition of impressionistic response than one usually finds in academic music criticism. I have tried to remain faithful to the specific demands of music, which by its very nature is less imitative of reality, less “naturalistic” or “figurative” than literature or painting.
Still, my approach to Shostakovich’s music is essentially that of a writer, and this entails certain pitfalls. To hazard an interpretation, in the literary sense of the word, is to venture an opinion (some might even call it a guess) about what was intended or accomplished in a work of art. The line between correct interpretations and incorrect ones is bound to be fuzzy and inconstant; even the artist is not the ultimate authority in this regard, for he may well have given rise to something that is larger than his own intentions. (In fact, if he is a good artist, he has almost certainly done so.) But there are wrong interpretations, wrong assumptions, wrong pathways in approaching an artwork—or, for that matter, a life story. To say that opinions can vary is not to say that anything goes. And in dealing with Shostakovich it seems especially important to keep the known facts in mind at all times and to adhere to them, precisely because falsehood, dishonesty, and misrepresentation were such devastating issues in his life.
To uncover the truth about a dead artist is always difficult. Many things stand in the way: jealous colleagues who lie about their competitor to make him look worse; sycophantic followers who lie about their hero to make him look better; innocently inaccurate memories, which get the facts wrong and compound the myths; contemporary reviews, which are often silly and always subjective, then as now; and the artist’s own secretiveness, or evasiveness, or simple inability to articulate what he is doing in his art.
But to these normal layers of obfuscation, Shostakovich’s case adds many more. Silence was at the heart of his enterprise. It is there in his music (which, especially toward the end, seemed to be pulling the notes out of a deep silence, or sending them back into it), and it is there in his personality (there are numerous stories about his sitting in silence, even in the company of friends), and it is there, most particularly, in the conditions of his twentieth-century Russian life. To speak, in those circumstances, was to betray, and to speak the truth was to betray oneself. Even private letters could be intercepted; even private words could be conveyed to the wrong ears. History got rewritten every few years, and no one was safe from the sudden switchbacks. So the wise kept their own counsel and didn’t put anything down on paper, except nonsense and distractions. People learned to speak in code, but the codes themselves were ambiguous and incomplete. Nothing that emerged from that world (or perhaps, indeed, any world) can be taken at face value.
This is why the uproar over Solomon Volkov’s Testimony—which purports to be the unmediated truth about Shostakovich’s experiences and opinions, as told to Volkov by Shostakovich himself—is finally so pointless. Perhaps the controversy had some meaning when the book first appeared in 1979, with Shostakovich only a few years dead and the Soviet Union still alive; perhaps it seemed significant then that Shostakovich could say nasty things about Stalin, the Party, and the whole Soviet machine. After all, his New York Times obituary had described him as “a committed Communist,” and though people within Russia might have been aware, even at the time, of his uncomfortable relationship to authority, no one on the outside spoke of it. But now we have numerous other kinds of evidence—the oral testimony of the composer’s friends and relations, recently published letters to and from him, analogous instances in previously unprintable novels, stories, and poems, and our own increasingly informed sense of how life in that time was lived—to suggest that Shostakovich could never have been the placidly obedient Party apparatchik he was sometimes made to seem.
So Volkov’s central and rather doubtfully obtained revelation is no revelation at all. And, perhaps more importantly, nothing is gained by this sleight-of-hand effort to transform the reluctant public figure into a secret dissident, for the Volkov portrayal of a resentful, self-righteous Shostakovich is far less appealing and finally less persuasive than the tortured and self-torturing man it replaces.
As for the rest of the book, well, anyone who has ever read a bad transcription of a poorly conducted interview will recognize in Testimony the feeble efforts of the speaker’s voice to make itself heard over the static generated by the interviewer’s biases and preconceptions. Some elements of his own opinions do probably make it through, which is why we Shostakovich-seekers are all tempted to mine Testimony for the fragments that are personally useful to us. But we need to recognize that in doing so we are essentially choosing at random, with no certainty about the veracity of our selections. We could be quoting Shostakovich, or we could simply be quoting Volkov—a character straight out of Gogol or Dostoyevsky, rubbing his hands with oily fake-servitude as he announces proudly in the preface that Shostakovich called him “the most intelligent man of the new generation.” Even this remark needs to be taken as coded (if indeed it was ever spoken at all), seen as a typically dark joke, similar to the one Shostakovich made annually when he offered as his New Year’s toast, “Let’s drink to this—that things don’t get any better!”
Wendy Lesser, the editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of seven previous non-fiction books and one novel. Winner of awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and numerous other organizations, she has written book, theatre, film, dance, and music criticism for a variety of print and online publications. She divides her year between Berkeley and New York.
Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets is available now from Yale University Press.