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.