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April 12, 2011

Review: Wendy Lesser's 'Music for Silenced Voices'

Music for Silenced Voices:
Shostakovich and His 15 String Quartets
By Wendy Lesser
Yale University Press (2011)
New Haven & London

How was it that I found this dark, difficult music welcoming and warm rather than frightening and off-putting? It was something to do with how personal it felt.... Shostakovich's own voice could be heard behind the quartet the way it could not be even in the best of the symphonies.... what he was revealing was not just his own personality but all the suffering, awareness and shame that had come to him through his peculiar placement in history.

Wendy Lesser, Music for Silenced Voices


Dmitri Shostakovich, a fearful genius to begin with, lived in continual anxiety for himself, his family -- and the music that likely was as necessary to him as breathing. The terrors began in 1936, when the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District was derided by the Soviet authorities and his Fourth Symphony suppressed. His music was denounced again from 1948 to 1953, the so-called Zhdanov Period. Nor did his fears allay after Stalin's death or during the Cold War thaw. When his friend Mstislav Rostropovich emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, Shostakovich wept, "In whose hands are you leaving me to die?"

Debate continues over his 15 symphonies: which were concessions to Party leaders looking over the composer's sardonic shoulders, which passages don't ring "true"?

Such speculations are rare to nonexistent with the 15 string quartets that Shostakovich (1906-1975) began in 1938, shortly after his daughter Galina's birth, and continued until the year before his death. If the symphonies show a public face or mask, the string quartets are as close as we shall get to the private man. In Music for Silenced Voices, a ruminative biographical and critical study, Wendy Lesser, who is not herself a musician, combines current Shostakovich scholarship with investigative passion and a journalist's acumen. As she has done in her previous nonfiction books, Lesser, the founding editor of the literary quarterly Threepenny Review (and a contributor to ARTicles) uses first-person narrative for her explorations. The language is fresh, the manner inviting, though the writer's enthusiasm for putting such ambitious material in context occasionally results in information overload.

The novelty in Music for Silenced Voices is to have in one tome a depiction of so many of the loyal friends (including two of his three wives) to whom the contradictory and fragile Shostakovich was devoted and to whom he dedicated ten of his quartets. These include his closest colleague, Ivan Sollertinsky, the polymath, historian and critic to whom the Second Piano Trio is dedicated; Lesser believes he is also memorialized in a Mahlerian waltz within the Second Quartet. Also part of this circle, Vasily Shirinsky, the second violinist and founding member and "heart" of the Beethoven Quartet, which premiered all but the first and final quartets.

The book draws upon interviews Lesser had with Slavist scholars, second-generation relations to the composer, and performers: Galina Shirinskaya, the violinist's niece; Kurt Sanderling, the conductor; Ignat Solzhenitsyn, conductor-pianist and son of Nobel laureate Aleksander Solzhenitsyn; and members of several string quartets.

The beauty of the book is Lesser's unfussy, attentive descriptions of the quartets. They read more easily than a majority of program notes, which can be formulaic, key-dispensing bores (unless they have been written by the late, great Michael Steinberg).

I don't agree with all of her interpretative flights, but Lesser writes engagingly about our elusive art, as when she notes the "distinct if phantomlike appearance" of jazz in Quartet No. 9 in E flat-Major -- and finds it "astonishing ... that the party watchdogs missed it."

Here she is on the Quartet No. 7 in F# minor, Op. 108, dedicated to Nina Varzar, the composer's first wife:

"Something cut short. Smallness and quietness made powerful and intense. Ghostly other-worldliness and pensive interiority. The bravery of a single voice. It does not take much to hear the connection between these musical elements and Shostakovich's feelings about Nina. ... What Shostakovich is doing here possibly for the very first time is to use abstraction and pattern rather than melody to suggest narrative qualities like character, story and meaning. ... It is not asking for sympathy, not is it crying tears over its own sorrow. Instead it is trying to work something out..."

Lesser is especially fine on the Eleventh Quartet in F minor. It is dedicated to Shirinsky, whose unexpected death set Shostakovich on a series of quartets dedicated to the Beethoven Quartet's individual players. Though even with the subsequent Twelfth, Shostakovich continues to reference the violinist, so that in many passages the absence of a second violin part is noted. This lag in grieving is all too human -- and Lesser remarks the way grief and remembrance may have affected other works as well.

There are downsides to moving play-by-play from quartet to quartet through the politics and across the life. Indeed, Shostakovich's life is so complicated that a political timetable and a separate timetable for the quartets -- perhaps a chronology of the major works -- would have been helpful in addition to the Notes and Recommended Listening provided. Despite Lesser's compelling, non-technical analyses, one gets impatient to stop and should stop -- many times along the way -- to hear this extraordinary music.

Lesser takes more space to narrate Music for Silenced Voices (316 pages) than Laurel E. Fay takes telling Shostakovich: A Life (287 pages), the brilliant account which Lesser credits, frequently, for her synthesis. There is so much Lesser wishes to discuss, including Shostakovich's literary preferences and allusions; his ability to use humor to express tragedy, as in the composer's film and theatre scores for Lear and Hamlet; the possibility of a Hamlet theme in the Ninth Quartet. She wittily underscores the uses and futility of allusion -- whether in music or poetry -- with wise words of William Empson, which I leave the reader to enjoy.

Like his inspirational mentor, Modest Mussorgsky, Shostakovich admired the wily Nikolai Gogol, of whom Lesser does not say enough. I wish, too, there were more Mussorgsky in this book; the first, ninth and fifteenth quartets arguably contain references to Boris Godunov and Songs and Dances of Death. A portrait of Russia's greatest musical dramatist was the face Shostakovich looked at every day at his worktable.

Most poignant: Shostakovich, who called himself a coward, a man who could not say no to anyone, least of all the Soviet authorities, saw himself as Ragin, the pathetic character at the center of Anton Chekhov's novella, "Ward No. 6." (Lesser, however, also shows the composer in acts of generosity to friends.)

During the last years of his life, Shostakovich was reading Chekhov's "The Black Monk," a death-laced tale he wished to set as an opera. Lesser believes the story may be referenced in the Fifteenth Quartet, whose six adagios inspire her on death riffs. The movements of the Fifteenth Quartet are Elegy, Serenade, Intermezzo, Nocturne, Funeral March, and Epilogue. Lesser borrows the headings for her chapter titles.

The last chapter, Epilogue, is a grab bag for inquiry, some of which may be of more interest to enthusiasts than professionals, or the reverse. Can music tell truth or lies? Express shame? Is there a narrative to the cycle? (The Emerson Quartet believes so. I stand with musicologist Richard Taruskin, who believes that this sort of thinking is dangerously reductive.) Can we hear shame in music? This question intrigues.

"He had a lot to be ashamed of," the composer Sofia Gubaidulina told Elizabeth Wilson in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. (Wilson's book is another key resource for Lesser.) "When Shostakovich joined the Party in 1960, our disappointment knew no bounds. That such a man could be broken, that our system was capable of crushing a genius was something I could not get over. He had succumbed to weakness and become pain personified..."

Yet Gubaidulina believes: "Shostakovich's music reaches such a wide audience because he was able to transform the pain he so keenly expressed into something exalted and full of light."

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the novelist and Nobel Prize winner, and for a time Shostakovich's neighbor, wrote of Shostakovich's "moral impotence." He could not make the allowances for him that friends, such as the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, did.

Shortly after his father's death, the laureate's son, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, told Lesser, "He loved his music. ... he warmly sympathized with the plight Shostakovich found himself in. But to understand is not to condone. I'm sure he wished he had more fight in him."

When the Emerson String Quartet recorded its entire Shostakovich quartet cycle, it did so before live audiences. Violinist Phillip Setzer told Lesser the group felt this audience involvement "allowed the emotional and narrative logic of the quartets to come through."

Ignat Solzhenitsyn agrees that live performance appears a necessity for Shostakovich's works, both the symphonies and quartets. "I can't think of another composer where the meaning only fully comes out in the performance," the conductor said.

"Shostakovich knew what it was to be forcibly withdrawn," Setzer told Lesser, "having experienced it twice, he dreaded it almost more than anything else. His intense desire to hear his quartets played aloud, even in the depths of the Zhdanov period was not simply a self-centered need to hear his own latest production: he wanted to have his music played to an audience because only then did it fully come to life ...

"He wanted to be understood."

Music for Silenced Voices deepens and puts in context aspects of a contradictory genius, who survived extremely complex times. The achievement is not so much the interpretation of the 15 string quartets as the consideration -- in tandem -- of this compelling music with this complicated man. If Lesser's passion leads others to listen -- and re-listen -- as carefully to Shostakovich as she has, that is invaluable indeed.

April 12, 2011 8:42 AM | | Comments (2)

2 Comments


"The language is fresh, the manner inviting -- "

Much like this blog by the very talented, under-utilized Lesley Valdes.

Get this woman a regular writing gig!

Lesley Valdes' distinctive, forthright, and appealing presence comes through beautifully in this article. It's immensely difficult to write a review of a book that is itself a review of one composer's oeuvre (specifically, Shostakovich's string quartets), but she has done it, with all three voices (hers, the author's and the composer's)vividly expressed.

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