No foreign sky protected me,
No stranger's wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
Survivor of that time, that place.
-- Anna Akhmatova, 1961
How does an artist work in the context of an oppressive political regime? This question never loses relevance (since oppression never does either), and it's especially in focus now, with Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei's recent incarceration and release. In Soviet Russia under Stalin's terror, how an artist maneuvered the need for personal expression against the erratic demands of an unpredictably umbrageous state meant the difference between living a pampered (if precarious) life and slavery in the gulag or death. Anna Akhmatova was among the USSR's most celebrated poets, yet her work was repeatedly condemned and censored by Stalin.
Dmitri Shostakovich, the era's most famous composer, survived -- not unscathed, and not without being forced to make some risible and humiliating concessions, declarations, and betrayals (his forced public condemnation of the work of Igor Stravinsky he described as "the worst moment of my life"). Author Wendy Lesser has written an account of the artist's personal, professional, and political life as revealed through his 15 quartets in Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets. Lesser is the founder of the literary journal The Threepenny Review and has written nine books. She did graduate work in literature at UC Berkeley.
Why Shostakovich, and why the quartets as opposed to any of his operas, symphonies, or other major works?
I fell in love with Shostakovich's music, but, like most people, was mostly familiar with his symphonies. They have the "sound" he is most known for -- grand, bombastic, and so on. The quartets are completely different. As "smaller" works, they were less scrutinized by the authorities, and he would not have been under the same pressure to toe the party line in them. I suspect that he was less afraid of inviting criticism and therefore could express himself more freely through the quartets, because they were "just chamber music." Also, he wrote them all for the same small group of musicians, the Beethoven Quartet, with each of whom he had close relationships. I think he found it easier to write more intensely personalized works for friends.
Your descriptions of what you believe the different movements, even individual cadences within the movements, to signify in the composers life are very persuasive: the four movements of the second quartet as ruminations on the death of his friend (intellectual Ivan Sollertinsky) and his attempt to incorporate the unleashed, heartfelt quality of song into a wordless (and therefore less inviting of state criticism) composition, a tension explored in the fourth quartet. But you also say, "The fifth quartet is utterly abstract and irreducible in the way only music can be; it is its patterns and repetitions and chords and silences, which do not stand for anything other than themselves." Couldn't that be said of any of them?
Absolutely. You could apply it to anything; I just didn't see it that way. These are obviously subjective examinations. I didn't listen as a musician, for 'notes,' but rather for an impressionistic reception, and asked myself, 'What's happening here?' I don't, as many people do, read the quartets as a political statement, but as a personal expression of feelings. To me, all but the 5th said something about his life.
What would you say to someone new to Shostakovich?
You might think you don't like 20th century classical music. Certainly what stands out in Shostakovich's music at first are the dissonant notes, the clashing chords. But there's something in his music that gives over as much feeling as anything from the 19th century. Because of the times he lived in, to survive, he had to develop an ironic sensibility, to express himself beneath a sort of surface rightness. This comes across in a lot of his music, but that feeling, that honesty is there. His music stands on its own. But I think the story of his life -- a fascinating person trapped in this situation - is a way into understanding and enjoying the music.
Wendy Lesser reads excerpts from Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 30, at City Lights Books, 261 Columbus (at Broadway). Admission is free.
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