The Question of Dissidence (5)

To be read in conjunction with
the Chronology of the Debate.

"Trivial specificity"

In terms of the question of dissidence, the main focuses of discussion have been the Fifth Symphony, From Jewish Folk Poetry, and the Eighth Quartet. The latter is now generally accepted as a dissident composition (or, at any rate, in Taruskin's detached phrase "a message in a bottle"). Forced, by this shift in understanding, to acknowledge the contextualism long urged by revisionists, anti-revisionists now typically downgrade the work, deploring its specificity of meaning as something which allegedly diminishes its worth and claiming that it shows its composer as a spineless capitulator to Soviet pressure, wallowing in self-pity. Needless to say, having steadfastly neglected the background for so long, anti-revisionists have not suddenly acquired a deep understanding of Shostakovich's predicament, options, or behaviour in this unhappy context. As with most Western evaluation of Shostakovich's actions and motives, the new anti-revisionist view of the Eighth Quartet and its meaning is, at best, ill-informed, insensitive, and uncomprehending -- at worst, frankly self-serving.

Downgrading the Eighth Quartet, Richard Taruskin muses that "maybe incertitude -- irreducible multivalence -- is essential to experiencing it as a work of art. There is more to an art work, one has to think, than there is to a note in a bottle." It is hard to tell whether such determined aesthetic obstinacy -- stubbornly preferring "open" meaning to an engagement with the composer's probable intentions - springs more from a desire to discredit Shostakovich's dissident credentials than from a wish to stay aloof from the specificities of his message in order to preserve the right to "irreducibly multivalent" private responses. When dealing with Shostakovich, Taruskin is intolerant of the sort of contextual detail which casts new light on the works under study, damning the interpretations offered in The New Shostakovich for "trivial specificity". The implication -- borne out in his obscurely evasive account of the Fifth Symphony -- is that to pay more than cursory attention to the context of Shostakovich's music is to tarnish it with purely contingent trivialities. So far as the Fifth Symphony is concerned, this argument is easily seen through. If we followed this logic, we would reject works like Schoenberg's A Survivor From Warsaw or Martinu's Memorial To Lidice on the a priori grounds that their historical specificity trivialises a notional aesthetic compact between artist and audience. One would have thought that 20th century art, in its response to 20th century life, had adequately demonstrated that there is no such aesthetic compact -- and that nothing, however disturbingly specific, is now forbidden.

So intent is Taruskin to preserve private and personal "open" meaning against "trivial specificity" where Shostakovich is concerned that he upbraids Isaak Glikman for attempting to "take possession of the meaning" of the composer's satirical letters to him by elucidating their specific references. Taruskin's insistence that nothing, not even explanatory annotations, should be allowed to come between us and the unmediated purity of the text implies that it is more important to preserve the right to dream up purely private and personal interpretations for the anti-Soviet satire in Shostakovich's letters than to understand what the composer actually meant. Taruskin strives to discourage contextual investigation of Shostakovich -- of the kind he is only too happy to urge in respect of other composers -- because doing so supposedly binds the music to time, place, and circumstance, rather than allowing it to float free of history: "supple, adaptable, ready to serve the future's needs". There is, though, no suggestion in revisionism that understanding the context of a given work pins it forever in its historical place. Were that so, all but the most locally undocumented music would be similarly constrained. What contextualism should create is heightened awareness of a work's dynamic within its original context, the better to apply its meaning in other situations as time goes by. If we hear Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony (as Alex Ross recommends) merely as a traditional Romantic work unfolding "the making of a man", we can "reapply" it only in that way (with all the confusions such a reading bequeathes in respect of the parts of the score which do not accord with it). If, on the other hand, we recognise that the Symphony refers to the experience of Terror in 1937, our scope for reapplying its meaning in our own time becomes clear. Certainly the "future's needs" are paramount, since the past is gone -- but there is a limit on how "supple" or "adaptable" meaning can be before becoming... meaningless.

Alternatives to the dissident conception

First floated (like nearly all anti-revisionist thought) by Richard Taruskin, the claim that "we can never know" what Shostakovich meant to convey in his music is often repeated. The motive for this assertion is clear: it licenses freely subjective listening, private interpretations which, rather than admit context, chiefly reflect inner individual concerns. "Witness" statements and contextual factors cannot be reconciled with this claim; nor can we know what evidence may yet emerge from Russia regarding the composer's outlook, aims, and intentions. Judging by what we already know, any such evidence will point in the direction so far indicated. Evidence pointing in other directions would be of vital interest to all involved in the debate; however, since it would conflict with present knowledge, it would require to be treated with the same caution legitimately applied by anti-revisionists to Testimony. Put simply: we cannot legislate the future, much as Taruskin and his cohorts would like to.

Meanwhile, what of alternative conceptions of Shostakovich? There are three main options: (1) the "pre-Testimony" assumption that he sincerely supported Soviet Communist aims and values (an opinion held by Christopher Norris, by Robert Matthew-Walker and -- in her "allowance" that "Shostakovich might have been serious" rather than ironic -- by Laurel Fay); (2) the "collaborationist" concept, whereby Shostakovich, too vacillatingly cowardly to resist a regime which he may or may not have liked and probably did not understood, tried to toady to the authorities with sometimes farcical results (e.g., Taruskin's view of Lady Macbeth, Fay's view of From Jewish Folk Poetry); (3) the "enigma" theory in which the composer is an imponderable introvert given to bouts of unbecoming blatancy, the latter embodying either token gestures to the public sphere or an innate tastelessness in his personal make-up. Since these options conflict with the "witness" testimony -- or, in order to succeed, require that contextual evidence be distorted, e.g., Fay's redaction of the context of From Jewish Folk Poetry, Taruskin's polemical account of the reception of the Fifth Symphony (effectively discredited by Fay's biography) -- there is no sensible reason to allow them equal consideration with the dissident conception. (A fuller discussion may be consulted in the article Witnesses for the Defence.)

Some anti-revisionists maintain a view of Shostakovich compounded of all three of the options outlined above, though it is not strictly legitimate to dilute the first of these. Broadly, anti-revisionism sees Shostakovich as someone who never really knew what he believed and therefore drifted uncomprehendingly in and out of situations he failed to understand, his life a tragi-comic tale of confusion interspersed with unseemly episodes of unnecessary grovelling and distasteful attempts to ingratiate himself. Whether this sorry picture can be reconciled with the music he wrote is, say anti-revisionists, an irreducibly subjective question; all that is clear is that Shostakovich was not a great man, merely "a great composer", and thus we can do no more than return to his scores and analyse them purely in their own self-referential structural terms.

Unfortunately for this general interpretation, the "stupid Shostakovich" it posits is wholly unsupported by the testimony of those who knew him, united as they are in awedly describing his formidable intellectual talents and almost incessant irony. Anti-revisionism has so far been unable to say how a composer so gifted could, in other respects, have been such a blundering dullard. The proposition that he was a political innocent in any case perishes on the sharp dagger of Rayok, arguably the most vituperative satire written in the USSR.

The hagiographical accusation

Revisionism, say anti-revisionists, treats Shostakovich's life in "black-and-white" terms, oversimplifying the issues in an effort to reconcile what must be accepted as essentially irreconcilable. Some anti-revisionists go further, accusing revisionists of idealising Shostakovich -- of making a saint of him:

Cultists... cast Shostakovich as the Soviet dissident supreme: an omnipotent anti-Stalin, able at the height of the Stalinist terror to perform heroic acts of public resistance (absolutely transparent to all his fellow dissidents but absolutely opaque to those in power) such as even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did not hazard until he was living abroad. It is important to quash the fantasy image of Shostakovich as a dissident, no matter how much it feeds his popularity, because it dishonors actual dissidents like Mr. Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov, who took risks and suffered reprisals. Shostakovich did not take risks. Four of the five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that Shostakovich incorporated into his "dissident" 13th Symphony (including "Babi Yar," the famous protest against anti-Semitism) had already appeared in the official Soviet press by the time Shostakovich set them, and the fifth, "Fears," had also been published there by the time the symphony was first performed...

Here Richard Taruskin (The New York Times, 5th March 2000) drops his semantic-chronological objection to regarding Shostakovich as a dissident, proposing instead the criterion of heroic risk-taking. In doing so, he resorts, as so often, to caricature, reducing the dissident conception to a cult in which Shostakovich is worshipped as "an omnipotent anti-Stalin" performing "heroic acts of public resistance" in a way "absolutely transparent to all his fellow dissidents but absolutely opaque to those in power". The sheer crudity of this misstatement debunks itself. As for the idea that Shostakovich's dissidence could only have been predicated on the Soviet authorities having "absolutely" no inkling that he was not of their persuasion, it suffices to repeat what is said earlier in this article: such an assumption is extraordinarily naive.

On the subject of heroic risk-taking, Taruskin compares apples and oranges. The conditions under which Solzhenitsyn (from 1967) and Sakharov (from 1968) set out, publicly and openly, to oppose the Soviet regime bore no relationship to those obtaining under Stalin when such public opposition as was feasible could only be oblique (amounting to discreet Aesopian speech... or music). Since a work like the Thirteenth Symphony -- more grimly outspoken than A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, with which it is contemporary -- predates the open dissidence of Solzhenitsyn, Taruskin attempts to belittle Shostakovich's role in the Symphony, rather as if he sneaked in at the last minute to add music to Yevtushenko's dissident poems in order to steal some unearned kudos. In fact, Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar" caused a violent backlash from neo-Stalinist elements in Literaturnaya Rossiya during 1961 -- a backlash which Shostakovich quite deliberately resisted by setting "Babi Yar" on his own initiative, selecting three more of Yevtushenko's most candid poems, and requesting (or inspiring) the poet to write the devastating "Fears". Such was the risk involved in this project that Mravinsky ducked it and two soloists dropped out along the way.

As for the risk involved in works like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth symphonies, no common calculation can be made in comparing them with, say, Solzhenitsyn's open letter against censorship addressed to the Fourth National Congress of Soviet Writers in May 1967 or the samizdat publication of Sakharov's Progress, Co-existence, and Intellectual Freedom in June 1968. It is robustly arguable that, within its context, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was the most heroic artistic statement ever made in the USSR. Furthermore, it was preceded by a work of considerably more explicit dissidence: the Fourth Symphony (which Shostakovich was required to withdraw but which he pointedly left as a gaping hole in his symphony list). Even Taruskin recognises the disturbing subversiveness of the Fourth Symphony, conceding (in his 1995 essay "Who Was Shostakovich?") that "there is indeed something [in the work] that does seem naggingly to foreground the issue of individual integrity and social stress -- namely, the extremes within it of inwardness and extroversion, and the manifestly ironic way in which these extremes are juxtaposed and even thematically interchanged". Recycling this passage in his collection Defining Russia Musically (1997), Taruskin ventures a reading of closer specificity:

This music [the last half of the Symphony's finale], which was almost certainly composed postdenunciation, seems palpably to set the inner and the outer, the public and the private, the manic, turbulent collective and the human fate of the bruised individual, in blunt, easily read (indeed, as it turned out, too easily read) opposition. [op. cit., p. 493]

Implying that the Fourth Symphony was effectively quashed by the apparatchiki because they suspected its composer of subversive intent, Taruskin here comes close enough to revisionism to be practically indistinguishable from it -- a complete contradiction of his suggestion elsewhere that Shostakovich can only have been a dissident in such a mouselike way that the apparat did not notice. Hastening to regain proper doctrinal distance, he adds that ("of course") he cannot say exactly what Shostakovich's "disquieting" use of juxtaposition and thematic interchange signifies: "I have no ready verbal paraphrase with which to replace it." This critical method -- inaugurate a promising interpretation but, beyond a certain point, refuse to take it further -- is characteristic of anti-revisionism, which amounts to an endeavour to suppress any investigation of Shostakovich which might undermine its presumptions about him. Not to draw any conclusions, whether "black-and-white" or merely circumspectly grey, about what Shostakovich intended in his music leads only to the feeble confusion of Laurel Fay's biography or the tiresome ducking and diving of Richard Taruskin.

Far from turning Shostakovich into a saint, revisionists rationally seek out plausible explanations for those twists and turns in his career which would otherwise remain opaque, attempting to understand his work in such a way as to render it "communally" applicable in future historical situations of a similar kind. In doing so, revisionism endeavours to bridge the gulf of understanding between democratic life and life under authoritarian or totalitarian societies where art is forced to serve instead of the free speech and right of reply which democrats take for granted. Much Western incomprehension of Shostakovich stems from a failure to understand that he had no right to answer back. To equate forced silence with absence of independent thought (as Richard Taruskin does with his sweeping claim that there were no dissidents under Stalin) is grievously to misconstrue Shostakovich and the world he lived and worked in.

Back to The Question of Dissidence. Back to The Shostakovich Debate. Back to Shostakovichiana.