A review of Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, by Wendy Lesser

The title of Wendy Lesser's book, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, holds a great deal of promise. Shostakovich's quartets, held by many (including this writer) to be his greatest music, deserve this kind of attention. But the book only partially delivers on its promise.

Unfortunately, Lesser begins by gratuitously maligning Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. This book, published in 1979, was assaulted in some quarters as a fabrication. One of the leading accusers was Laurel Fay, to whom Lesser, an author, critic, and the editor of the Threepenny Review, expresses thanks in her acknowledgments page and who wrote an endorsement for the book jacket. It would be one thing if Lesser simply stated her doubts about the work's authenticity and moved on. But she does more. She finds the portrait of Shostakovich that emerges from Testimony unacceptable, because "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."

The standard here should be the truth, not what is more appealing. Lesser goes on to say that, by any standards, the book reads like "a bad transcription of a poorly conducted interview." What's more, she makes the extraordinarily unattractive remark that Volkov, a Jew, strikes her as a character "straight out of Gogol or Dostoevsky, rubbing his hands with oily fake-servitude." This is nasty stuff.

Unfortunately for Lesser and Fay, a great deal of evidence has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union authenticating Testimony. Most of it has been assembled in Shostakovich Reconsidered, a book written and edited by Allan Ho and Dmitri Feofanov, published by Toccata Press in 1998. Here is a sample of the people testifying to the veracity of Testimony: Shostakovich's children, Maxim and Galina; conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya; and conductor Kiril Kondrashin. In the "overture" to the book, conductor and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy states that, "When I read Testimony, there was no question in my mind that the real Shostakovich was here in this book." All of these people lived in the Soviet Union and knew Shostakovich intimately. Shostakovich Reconsidered is a devastating rebuttal to Fay and the others who contested the book's provenance. Lesser apparently does not speak Russian, nor was she ever in the Soviet Union. For her to dismiss Testimony without even acknowledging the existence of Shostakovich Reconsidered or of the evidence it puts forth is, to put it kindly, a grievous omission. It is hard to take her seriously after this. What is more, Ho and Feofanov have now issued a follow-up volume, titled The Shostakovich Wars, which answers the rebuttals to their first book and provides further evidence for Testimony. (The book is posted for free on the Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, website.)

I would also contest Lesser's characterization of Testimony as the transcript of a botched interview. Having conducted hundreds of interviews myself, including some with great 20th-century composers (included in my book, Surprised by Beauty [2002]), I find Testimony to be a riveting read that leaves an indelible impression. I was also a minor participant in the Cold War, and had the privilege of working with some Soviet dissidents. When I first read Testimony, I, like Ashkenazy, was completely convinced by it. I am even more convinced of its indispensability both as a document of the Cold War, with extraordinary insights into the nature of the Soviet Union, and as a source for understanding Shostakovich's remarkable music. The self-portrait of Shostakovich in the book also unlocked for me the enigma of some of his orchestral music, which had seemed to me deliberately disfigured for reasons I could not discern.

* * *

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was widely touted as a "Soviet" artist because he was the first significant Russian composer to have been completely educated under the new Communist regime. Nevertheless, he was in a state of constant tension with the Soviet Union, which alternately celebrated and suppressed his music, depending on how Joseph Stalin was feeling. Stalin first censured Shostakovich's music in 1936, calling the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk "muddle instead of music." Shostakovich packed a small bag in readiness for the late-night knock at the door that he expected would end in a firing squad or internment in the Gulag. For the rest of his life, Shostakovich never unpacked his small bag. He was always waiting for the sound of the mailed fist on his apartment door. In 1956, when Shostakovich's friend Flora Litvinova suggested, "And you, too, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, are for the ideas of communism," he answered, "No, communism is impossible." When forced to join the Communist Party in 1960, he contemplated suicide.

Yet to all appearances, he conformed, publicly recanted, and became a good Soviet cultural apparatchik, which included being sent abroad as a musical emissary. The symphonies and choral works dedicated to Lenin and the Revolution dutifully poured forth from his pen, as did the articles praising the "Great Leader" (signed but not read by Shostakovich). Even at their best, the symphonies can be enigmatic; at their worst, they inexplicably degenerate into bombast. Some of the heroic symphonies make less than convincing wholes. Their caustic grotesqueries and deliberate banalities, juxtaposed with passages of searing intensity and unrelenting power, can leave the listener reeling and confused. Are the incongruities lapses of judgment or failures of talent? Why does the meaning of Shostakovich's symphonic music seem so elusive?

The answer is that Shostakovich was engaged in secret writing in the exact way in which Leo Strauss defined it, although transposed to the world of music. In Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Strauss said, "Persecution…gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing…in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines…. It has all the advantages of public communication without having its greatest disadvantage—capital punishment for the author." To the consternation of many who had interpreted Shostakovich's music programmatically, according to various Communist or "Great Patriotic War" themes, Shostakovich revealed in Testimony that he had been speaking in code.

For instance, Shostakovich said that the end of the Fifth Symphony is a false apotheosis: "the rejoicing is forced, created under threat…. You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that." The Seventh Symphony, subtitled Leningrad, was blatantly used for propaganda purposes against the Nazis during World War II. Shostakovich said that the Seventh was "planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler's attack. The ‘invasion theme' has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme…. [I]t's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off." Likewise, the Eleventh Symphony is not about the Revolution in 1905: "it deals with contemporary themes even though it's called ‘1905.' It's about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over." Of the 14th Symphony, Shostakovich said, "I don't protest against death in it, I protest against those butchers who execute people." As for why he said different things to different people at various times, Shostakovich gave a reply that, no doubt, Leo Strauss would have enjoyed: "I answer different people differently, because different people deserve different answers."

As mentioned earlier, Shostakovich's remarks in Testimony have the ring of truth: "The majority of my symphonies are tombstones…. I'm willing to write a composition for each of the victims, but that's impossible, and that's why I dedicate my music to them all." In Galina Vishnevskaya's autobiography, she wrote, "In his symphonies, those wordless monologues, there is protest and tragedy, pain and humiliation. If music can be anti-communist, I think Shostakovich's music should be called by that name." Here is the real substance of Shostakovich's symphonic message. Yet visits to the graveyard are often difficult, and so is listening to many of Shostakovich's 15 symphonies.

* * *

Thus we come to the string quartets and to Lesser's meditations upon them. To her credit, she does see the quartets as "music for silenced voices," including Shostakovich's own and those of many others. Shostakovich said, "Art destroys silence." His art, as he put it, is "a requiem for all those who died, who had suffered." I think Lesser is also correct in seeing the quartets, a large body of fully mature works that were begun after the Fifth Symphony, as far more accessible than Shostakovich's symphonic works. The quartets are more homogeneous and more easily grasped than the symphonies, perhaps because of the inherently intimate nature of their form, which also precludes their use, or abuse, asde rigueur hymns to the Russian Revolution. (One hapless Soviet minister of culture tried and failed miserably when he once gave orders to organize "a quartet of ten men.") Quartets are somewhat protected by their privacy. Also, their messages usually do not have to be decoded. If Shostakovich's symphonies are tombstones, the quartets are the flowers he lays on the graves. Lesser appreciates this.

She proceeds in chronological order by interweaving biographical information with meditations upon the quartets. At the same time, she is careful not to reduce these works to a form of musical autobiography. Though they are obviously rooted in Shostakovich's experiences, his quartets speak in a universal language, which is why we are still listening to them.

To her credit, even without Testimony, Lesser gets a good deal right about Shostakovich's character and the Soviet Union. She is particularly appreciative of his lacerating humor and irony, which is often at the level of Gogol or Chekov. How delicious that he should respond to conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky's question regarding a certain passage in the Eighth Symphony by saying, "the scherzo in the second movement represents the functionary who has received his exit visa to the West." (In Testimony, Shostakovich said, "humor is a manifestation of the divine impulse.") Lesser also has a deep understanding of the spiritual price Shostakovich paid for his compromises. Of the tremendous self-revulsion he felt at having joined the Communist Party, she says, "the [public] mask was seeping inward."

Even so, Lesser is occasionally prosaic and puzzlingly naïve. Early on, she says, "Shostakovich was a brilliant, excitable, successful, ambitious Soviet composer. There is nothing wrong with this." For whose benefit is this latter sentence? Is it meant as an exculpation of Shostakovich? By the age of 20, Shostakovich was already disillusioned with both Communism and "Soviet reality." He certainly seemed to think there was something wrong with it. That is, after all, why he was so self-conflicted. Perhaps what irritates is his having said so in Testimony.

After quoting conductor Kurt Sanderling as saying, "Stalin had a very ambivalent attitude toward Shostakovich," Lesser goes on to write, "whether Shostakovich was, in turn, ambivalent about Stalin is something we will never know for sure." What could Lesser mean by this bizarre remark? Ironically, she seems to be unaware that Sanderling completely embracedTestimony: "I have no doubt that it's true." Had she only allowed herself to refer to this book, she would have known that Shostakovich could not possibly have loathed Stalin more. There are other sources to confirm this.

* * *

Toward the end of the book, Lesser describes "a period when lies are routinely put forth as truth and vice versa. I do not know of anyone who has not lived in such a period, but the version of it that Shostakovich experienced was more extreme than most." This suggests that the difference between the Soviet Union and, say, the West was one of degree, rather than kind. There were simply more lies told there than in, for example, West Germany. This statement seriously shortchanges the total inversion of reality on which the Soviet Union was based. As Solzhenitsyn and others have testified, suffering is qualitatively different in a regime founded upon a lie, than in one in which lies simply exist. If Lesser does not understand this, can she really have understood what Shostakovich underwent?

Lesser's dismissal of Testimony also leads to needless speculation. It is not necessary to ask "if Shostakovich associated Jewish music with tragic experiences," when he clearly says in Testimony that he did. When one of Shostakovich's opponents, Pavel Apostolov, the leader of the Party organization of the Moscow Composers Union, dropped dead during the rehearsal of his 14th Symphony, Lesser says that, according to Isaak Glikman, Shostakovich "never once gloated or laughed about it." Yet in Testimony, Shostakovich jokes that

Apollinaire was stronger [a reference to the text of an Apollinaire poem in the 14th Symphony]. And Comrade Apostolov, right there at the rehearsal, dropped dead. I feel very guilty, I had no intention of killing him off, even though he was certainly not a harmless man.


Also, while Lesser quotes several different sources for her account of Stalin's famous phone call to Shostakovich, she doesn't bother to say that those accounts completely comport with Shostakovich's own in Testimony.

* * *

Despite these serious shortcomings, the principal value of Music for Silenced Voices is its attempt to grapple with the meaning and significance of the 15 quartets. The stylistic touchstones for the quartets are not, curiously enough, Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg, or Paul Hindemith, the three most influential European composers in the genre at the time. Neither do the principal influences on Shostakovich's symphonies—Mahler and Prokofiev—make their presences felt. Without any intermediaries, the quartets, as Lesser points out, establish their Classical lineage directly back to Haydn and Beethoven. In 1956, Shostakovich wrote: "We still can learn a lot from [the composers of the classical era whose art] was always searching and restless." This does not mean his quartets do not contain surprises. Elements of Russian and Jewish folk song can give them a gypsy-like wildness akin to Leos Janácek's two great quartets. Also, Shostakovich, for expressive purposes, can take things to hair-raising extremes, with pile-driving, manic repetitions, propelling the music into higher and higher registers, with tighter and tighter rhythms, until it starts to scream and seems about to explode.

Lesser has listened closely and has a number of suggestions to make regarding each quartet. While I hardly agree with them all, they have the value of mandating intense listening. One cannot come away from having concentrated on these quartets side-by-side with Lesser's explications of them without a deeper understanding and appreciation of them. That is the redeeming merit of this book.

I also like the way Lesser shows how the same element of music can be used to vastly different purposes. For instance, speaking of the Fifth Quartet, she says that, "the repetitions are both obsessive and probing, not reassuring as they are in Bach." Yet in the Eighth Quartet, she points out that "this constant return to familiar tunes and patterns is reassuring rather than the reverse. It is not obsessive, or if it is, it is an obsession we share: the repetition makes us feel that we are being located, steadied." And in contrast with the Eighth, in which repetition "is used in the service of memory and profundity, like the tolling of a bell or the plangency of voices in a round," she says, "in the fragmentary Ninth, it is not used in the service of anything; it just sits there, a thing in itself, squashing the music with its implacable force. It's as if Shostakovich had to push the idea of repeating something as far as it could go before he could break through on the other side." This is nicely done, as are other comments on the quartets.

The quartets communicate. No matter how bizarre some of them can seem, they never lose their reference points in song and dance—a point Lesser often makes. This is because Shostakovich's interest is not in abstraction but in expression. The weirdness is not in his means of expression, which are really quite conventional, despite the occasional massive doses of dissonance and harmonic eeriness, but in what is expressed—which is hardly strange considering what the man and his country endured. The ghostly dances and songs that pass through Shostakovich's quartets are from a world that Lenin and Stalin attempted to destroy—the world of the human soul, from which emanate the most basic impulses to sing praise and dance in delight. This is why we still listen to this musical testimony of how to remain human in the face of dehumanization.

* * *

Because Shostakovich was a nonbeliever, one can only wonder why, in his last quartet, he chose to write six uninterrupted adagios. It is odd that Lesser does not reflect upon the fact that no one had attempted a string quartet like this since Haydn, in his exquisite masterpiece, The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. It is an obvious parallel of which Shostakovich must have been aware. What can we conclude from the desolation Shostakovich lays before us? Is this the cross without Christ, or Good Friday without the Resurrection? It might fit things neatly to say so, but the deep mourning that pervades the work is not despair in the conventional sense. "When a man is in despair," said Shostakovich, "it means that he still believes in something."

Lesser is particularly thoughtful in her reflections on this quartet. Of its "stately, processional feel," she says, "one would almost call the feeling religious, except there is no suggestion of God or salvation or redemption here—there is nothing religion can address, just a sense of saying good-bye, and one cannot even be sure whether that adieu is made from this side of the grave or the other." True enough, but I disagree with those, like violinist Alan George, who claim that the 15th Quartet trails off "into nothingness," a nothingness Shostakovich supposedly embraced. Shostakovich was not a nihilist. Nihilists do not make tombstones and place bouquets on graves. Neither do they thirst for justice. He proclaimed, "The people who were responsible for these evil deeds will have to answer for them, if only before their descendants. If I didn't believe in that completely, life wouldn't be worth living." Yet, as his music says, it still was.

Lesser intersperses her meditations on the quartets with remarks from musicians who have actually played them, including from members of the Emerson String Quartet and the Fitzwilliam Quartet. She closes with two pages on recommended listening that includes all of the best, except for the Mandelring Quartet's traversal on the Audite label, which was issued at about the same time as this book's publication.

* * *

I will end with my own recommendations, beginning with the Borodin String Quartet—the second of its two versions, made from 1978 to 1983, and now available on Melodiya. With the Borodin, one gets the sense that someone is urgently trying to speak to you and that there is warm blood pulsing through the veins of this music. Their greater expressive liberties with rhythms and their tremendous range of nuance bring the music closer to speech. The Borodin set also contains the Piano Quintet in G minor, one of the finest chamber works of the 20th century, in an electrifying performance by pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

Concerning the quartets, Lesser writes that, "The four familial instruments seem to whisper directly into our ears, communing with us about our own personal sadness and anxieties." This is the sense conveyed by the young Mandelring Quartet on Audite. Three of its four members are siblings and the fourth plays as if he were a family member. They perform as if these quartets were taking place inside a single soul, achieving an extraordinary quality of interiority and unanimity.

There is a budget-priced six-CD set from the Fitzwilliam Quartet on the London label. Telegraphic clarity, surgical concision, and rhythmic drive characterize these versions. An almost forbidding perfection pervades the performances, which makes the music even more eerie. Though the Fitzwilliam formality lacks a touch of Slavic wildness, one gets the impression of extraordinary music played by superb musicians.

There is also a budget series from Naxos with the excellent Eder Quartet. Without sacrificing intensity, the Eder achieves amazing warmth. Their superb renditions are closer in spirit to the Borodin and are available on separate CDs for those who wish to sample before buying a complete set.

By all means, begin with one of these and, with the caveats above, consider having Lesser by your side when you do.