Music for Silenced Voic­es: Shostakovich and His Fif­teen Quartets

  • Review
By – December 21, 2011
Dmitri Shostakovich’s music is marked by its almost unearth­ly abil­i­ty to con­vey emo­tion — joy and hope­less­ness, anx­i­ety and ambi­gu­i­ty, humor and anger. In this biog­ra­phy of the great Russ­ian com­pos­er, Wendy Less­er, edi­tor of Three­pen­ny Review, has writ­ten a book of musi­cal analy­sis and bio­graph­i­cal insight. The trag­ic irony of Shostakovich’s life was that music and art in Rus­sia were revered by both the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion and its repres­sive lead­ers, leav­ing him always to grap­ple with the pos­si­ble and often dan­ger­ous reper­cus­sions of the polit­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of his music. As in oth­er total­i­tar­i­an states, all Russ­ian music was con­sid­ered pro­gram” music, that is, intend­ed to con­vey a mes­sage, or mean­ing out­side itself. Thus, the ongo­ing dra­ma of his life saw his music at times open­ly sus­pect­ed by Stal­in and the par­ty as being the work of a secret dis­si­dent”; at oth­er times he was reput­ed to have been a loy­al par­ty mem­ber, some­times betray­ing col­leagues and fel­low musi­cians when his word in their defense was des­per­ate­ly need­ed As such, he has left behind a lega­cy of doc­u­ment­ed, some­times egre­gious actions, leav­ing last­ing ques­tions regard­ing his char­ac­ter. Less­er describes him as a series of con­tra­dic­tions, a self-acknowl­edged cow­ard who some­times demon­strat­ed great courage…immensely loy­al to his friends, he was repeat­ed­ly guilty of dis­loy­al­ty to his own prin­ci­ples.…” and yet, he was a bap­tized unbe­liev­er with a strong affec­tion for the Jews. For her part, Less­er views as con­jec­ture the uproar over Shostakovitch’s loy­al­ties, choos­ing to leave it all behind as point­less” and empha­siz­ing that it is above all Shostakovitch’s music, par­tic­u­lar­ly his fif­teen quar­tets, that must be lis­tened to again and again to be heard in all their superb diver­si­ty.
Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

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