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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.

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


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