Arguments for a contextual approach [1]

by Ian MacDonald

"A composer must be local before he can be universal."
- Ralph Vaughan Williams

In The New Shostakovich, I indicated some of the ways in which the modern tendencies to elevate abstraction and formal beauty conspire to create an atmosphere in which music with specific inner significance, such as Shostakovich's, is reduced or glossed over in both performance and analysis. I would like here to amplify this with reference to the dogmatic subjectivism associated with these trends, inasmuch as this critical stance has become something of a fallback position for those once happy to accept the Soviet line on Shostakovich yet now unwilling to adopt the contrary position.

To take a typical example, Nicholas Kenyon has dismissed my account of Shostakovich's historical context as irrelevant, "undervaluing a composer whose musical genius, as someone said of Mozart's, was to suggest an infinite number of possibilities at once".[2] This statement neatly encapsulates the paradox of the aesthetic ideal of "universality" in music - which is that, to be "universal", a given composition must not (as one might expect) signify more or less the same thing to all men, but rather mean different things to everyone who hears it. The oddity of this notion, with its overtones of Doublethink, is clear from the fact that, in language, a statement which suggested an infinite number of possibilities at once would certainly be meaningless.

Having fixed his standard of musical sublimity and qualified Shostakovich for assessment by it, Kenyon rejects the idea that an artist so "neurotically unsure of himself" - "Did he ever know what he really thought? Did his frequent verbal betrayals of himself mean anything?" and so on - could ever be specifically interpreted. In other words, having been asked to accept one dizzy paradox, we are additionally required to believe in a stupid and self-doubting ditherer mysteriously capable of the loftiest ineffability once confronted with score-paper.

Surely this quaint academic notion of Shostakovich as an idiot savant has been allowed to misdirect Western studies of the composer for long enough? How, for example, can those who maintain this theory acknowledge the Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87, as the product of a sophisticated intellect whilst otherwise maintaining that intellect to be basically muddled and naive? As it happens, conjecture on this question is obsolete since Shostakovich's colleagues have witnessed in chorus that he was every bit as intelligent as his music suggests; yet the subjectivists, regarding such contextual material as an irrelevant intrusion on their private response, choose to ignore this.

To refuse to acknowledge Shostakovich's intelligence is, inevitably, to refuse to recognise the crucial satirical strand in his art - to see him, instead, as a confused introvert wallowing in tragic grandiloquence (what I have called the "Hamlet" theory). However, it is not, as the subjectivists insist, merely a matter of taste as to which option one selects. It is not even a question of probability (ie., that while a "tragic-satiric" analysis of Shostakovich creates no contradictions, the "Hamlet" theory breeds paradoxes within paradoxes, yet still makes no sense). It is that the evidence of the historical record has entirely destroyed one of these rival positions, leaving us no fundamental interpretive dilemma over which to hesitate. Shostakovich was indisputably a tragic-satiric observer, not an introspective or bewildered Hamlet figure.

If the abstract, non-contextual, and aesthetic approaches to Shostakovich are discredited, what of the alternative? Why should a contextual approach be more appropriate?

It has been argued, for example by F. R. Leavis and W. H. Auden, that, so far as literature goes, authorial biography and the wider historical, social, and cultural context are distractions to our engagement with the timeless "universality" of the text. I have characterized the similarly score-centred concern for "universality" in music criticism, with its key concepts of "pure music" on the one hand and the "extra-musical" on the other, as subjective. Where music criticism of this kind differs from the sort of literary criticism advocated by Leavis and Auden (rendering it even more subjective) is that it lacks the moral dimension unavoidable in a linguistic medium, instead confining itself to aesthetic criteria.

What is crucial to observe, however, is that this aestheticism is compromised wherever words are added to music in the form of a text, a libretto, a programme, or an exegesis sponsored or written by the composer in question. When this happens, the division between "pure music" and the "extra-musical" element attached to it (in this case, language) becomes blurred in such a way as to point to an underlying philosophical misconception about music best illustrated by means of a simple example.

Interviewed recently[3], Daniel Barenboim spoke derisively of the third movement of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, describing it as "pages of violas playing crotchets - for hours it goes on". When Barenboim took this up with some Soviet musicians, he received a reply that only deepened his irritation: "They said that it symbolized the crushing of the Russian people or something - and I think that's a load of rubbish. When you need non-musical explanations like that to see the value of it - this I can't come to terms with."

Postponing the issue of what, if anything, the passage in question "means" and whether this "meaning" should be allowed to alter our perception of its composer's methods in writing it, it seems reasonable to deduce from Barenboim's description that he finds the music boring or inadequate because formally simple and repetitious. This being so, we can presumably further deduce that he would feel the same about the thirty-four common chords spaced evenly between Scenes 2 and 3 of Act III of Britten's opera Billy Budd. Or can we?

One would, on the contrary, expect a musician of Barenboim's sensitivity to see that, at this point in his opera, Britten's simplicity and repetition are sufficiently apt that formal reservation is obliterated by the emotional effect they produce. Billy Budd has just begged Captain Vere to save him, but being (to coin a phrase) trapped in formalities, Vere must condemn him. Britten's plain sequence symbolizes the agony of Vere's mind, the awe of his power over life and death, the implacability of fate, the insignificance of human endeavour.

How do we know this? Because the music has words attached to it. Elsewhere in the same interview, Barenboim declares that Cosi fan tutte represents "beauty married to falseness". How does he know this? Because the music has words attached to a it. Yet, according to Barenboim's definition with respect to Shostakovich, words are "non-musical" things. How is it that he can "come to terms" with Mozart's music via Da Ponte's words, but cannot do the same with Shostakovich's music via the words of his colleagues (or even, presumably, Shostakovich's own words in Testimony)?

Had Mozart left an account of his intentions in Cosi fan tutte, Barenboim would surely try to incorporate his understanding of these into his performance so as not to travesty the composer's meaning. By reading the libretto of Billy Budd, he would see why Britten uses simplicity and repetition. Similarly, by listening to Shostakovich's colleagues or by reading Testimony, he might see that, in many places (the scherzo from the Piano Quintet, the Leningrad's march, the Eighth's third movement, and so on) Shostakovich uses simplicity and repetition as satirical devices, mocking vulgarity by impersonating it.

As with Mozart, "non-musical explanations" would thus have helped Barenboim to see why Britten and Shostakovich chose to express themselves in certain ways. Whether he nonetheless still found their methods in so doing inadequate or uninteresting is another matter; at the very least, should he wish to conduct their music, he would now stand a fair chance of not making a mess of it.

Barenboim's philosophical misconception is the very simple - and common - one of confusing music with notation. Were music identical with notation, no problems of interpretation would ever arise. Robots could play it. But music is something larger: thought and feeling expressed as sound represented in notation. In this perspective, it is clear that no music is "pure" and that there is no "extra-musical" (or "non-musical") element that contaminates it. Music, like the other arts, is part of life - life, as it were, expressing itself in an aural symbology. As the poet Wallace Stevens says, "music is feeling, then, not sound"[4] - which is why it makes us think and feel (and value it).

Since no music can be divorced from the human context which gave birth to it, it follows that understanding the context in which Shostakovich composed is directly relevant to the performance and audition of his compositions. Once this is allowed, the issue becomes merely one of degree. In the case of most composers, the relationship of context and composition is gentle since the forces acting upon them or arising from within them are/were relatively moderate.

In the case of Shostakovich and his contemporaries in the USSR during the Stalin period, the relationship was harsh - literally a matter of life and death. Theirs was a time and place in which millions died or disappeared into slave camps; in which fear and betrayal were institutionalized; in which natural morality and normal social relationships were virtually annihilated. This was, furthermore, a time and place in which the arts were dragooned, deformed, and all but destroyed in what the radical Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz has called a process of "cultural genocide".

Arguably, no more intense context for the production of art has ever existed - yet, despite this, subjective Western commentators on Shostakovich remain unwilling to admit that objective knowledge of this context has any legitimate role to play in understanding his music. Where reason alone is apparently insufficient, one can only fall back on commonsense. For example, I have in front of me a record of songs by the National Dance Company of Cambodia, the first lyric of which runs as follows:

Sleep well, my child.
We have gone through three fields:
The field of death, the field of chains and prisons
And the field of remembrance...
My child, you should remember this:
The regimes of separating and killing.
You should remember and must never forget
If you want your country to live...
Can anyone seriously maintain that an understanding of the context of such a song is irrelevant to its performance and audition? Of course not. And the same obviously applies to the music of Shostakovich.

This much at least is incontestable to those who knew the composer. For Kyrill Kondrashin, Shostakovich's work is "inseparable from the events of his life".[5] "His music," insists Vladimir Ashkenazy, "was totally connected with personal experiences within the Soviet totalitarian system, the horrors of war, etc. From the 1930s to 1960s he lives through the tragedy of the nation, expressing it through the medium of his music."[6] Daniel Zhitomirsky concurs: "It was by the light of Shostakovich's music that we, his contemporaries, survived our special and indescribable hell, through whose circles he led us like some latterday Virgil."[7]

Referring to the "ideological darkness" which Shostakovich fought through his work, Sofia Khentova states that "everything he wrote was, in essence, a protest against slavery; music, the creative process, remained the last refuge of his free spirit."[8] For Maria Yudina, the links between art and life are audible in the very forms the composer adopted: "Shostakovich does not try to keep his work balanced; instead he invariably draws us into the catastrophe of contemporary reality."[9] Indeed, to Yuri Temirkanov, context is so vital as to be inexhaustible: "I am always nervous when I conduct Shostakovich in the West because people know only superficially what happened; they don't know the real horror of the facts, and to understand Shostakovich fully you have to understand the extent of those horrors."[10]

As to the significance of Testimony in furthering such understanding, Maxim Shostakovich has observed: "When we take this book in our hands we can imagine what this composer's life was like in this particular political situation - how difficult, how awful it was under the Soviet regime."[11] In short, Russian musicians are unanimous in maintaining that a factual and imaginative grasp of the context of Shostakovich's music is not merely advisable, but essential to understanding it.

What, then, is specifically to be gained from such a contextual approach? And how does approaching Shostakovich's music in this way affect its claim to "universality"?

To answer the first of these questions, what is to be gained from a contextual approach is (1) a clearer idea of Shostakovich's intentions in writing in certain ways, leading to (2) a sharper instinct for his "tone" in general, leading further to (3) a more appropriate mode of interpretation (in both criticism and performance) than has been afforded his work in the West so far.

Since working thus from the specific to the general implies a quasi-programmatic treatment of many pieces by Shostakovich usually regarded in the West as "pure music", it is necessary to know that such a treatment is, and has been for some time, standard practice among the composer's colleagues. For example, Kyrill Kondrashin, who premièred Shostakovich's Fourth and Thirteenth Symphonies, described the concepts behind his own performances of the composer's music as follows:

"Not every work can be 'decoded' in detail, of course, but I feel that a conductor can better sense the form and significance of a work if he feels behind the movements of musical thought emotions and feelings that can be put into words. Sometimes he even finds a programmed logic that is close to a plot... The majority of Shostakovich's symphonies do not have titles and at first glance appear to be plotless. Nevertheless, contemporaries associate each of his symphonies with a specific period in the life of the composer, and this allows the listener to transform the development of musical thought into emotions close to the human heart and into direct plot situations...

"The historical cataclysms that gave life to Shostakovich's music passed before my eyes as well, and they were part of my life, too. Several of his symphonies elicited such vivid associations with our reality that I developed them to full programme detail. Dmitri Dmitryevich knew about my 'decodings'. He himself did not like to discuss the subtext of his music and usually said nothing, although he did not contradict me, either. Since he was usually pleased with my performances, I believe he had no objection to such an approach to his music."[12]

The similar "decodings" attempted in The New Shostakovich (published before I saw Kondrashin's statement) were naturally received with scepticism by Western advocates of "pure music" and the subjective approach. In particular, it was argued that I had pursued too consistent a line in metaphor and in linking biographical and musical events. (Inconsistency is, of course, a virtual obligation for any philosophy of music which sees as its highest ideal the suggestion of "an infinite number of possibilities at once".)

From the empirical point of view, it is thus worth pointing out that not only have several of the supposedly contentious commentaries on individual works in The New Shostakovich been confirmed since the book appeared[13], but that Vladimir Ashkenazy[14], Yuri Temirkanov[15], Gennadi Rozhdestvensky[16], Semyon Bychkov[17], and Kurt Sanderling[18] have all recently spoken of various Shostakovich pieces in terms similar to mine.

This is not to claim that absolute specificity of meaning is possible with any given bar Shostakovich wrote. Beyond a certain point, subjectivity comes back into play and we must each feel for ourselves the truth of what we hear. This, though, can only happen once contextual objectivity has narrowed our options from "an infinite number" to something more realistic.

Just such a range of differing, yet closely related, interpretations have, for example, accumulated around the curious percussion passages in Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony (II), Second Cello Concerto (III), and Fifteenth Symphony (IV). I have suggested that the implied association is with marionettes and automata, both of which are known to have fascinated the composer and which arguably held sinister significance for him. For Yuri Temirkanov, however, the passages in the Fifteenth Symphony and Second Cello Concerto signify "the ticking away of the hours" and symbolize the fear of death.[19] (Shostakovich was also, like Prokofiev, interested in clocks.) Speaking of the passage in the Fourth Symphony, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky offers a third possibility: "For me, and I think for Shostakovich, the association is prisoners tapping out messages to one another on the hot-water pipes in jail."[20]

All of these readings are justifiable by reference to context and therefore sufficiently appropriate to be taken on their merits. By comparison, the rare ventures into "decoding" risked by aesthetically-based commentators are nearly always vague (typically an allusion to the Russian landscape) or randomly inappropriate (usually a reference to the composer's music as involuntarily expressive of his own self-dramatised inner turmoil).

For my own part, I cannot, despite the independent confirmations of them, guarantee that my readings are absolutely reliable, let alone exhaustive. They were arrived at by a combination of contextual objectivity and intuition; those who knew and worked with Shostakovich will presumably continue to publish comparable accounts of his music which may be different from mine (although I confidently predict that the range of such differences will be narrow). For now, all that is crucial to grasp is that, in the case of Shostakovich, the objective focus of contextual understanding must precede and guide our individual subjective responses to his music.

It could be argued that the same applies, in appropriately varying degrees, to all composers - indeed, I would argue this. At present, however, it is enough to realise that there is no music more intensely conditioned by its context than Shostakovich's. Such realisation will of itself sweep away the sort of criticism that treats his works merely as formally-determined and self-referential constructions of notes into which we may each randomly project our own private aesthetic and emotional concerns. It will also, by sharpening our sense of his intelligence, humour, and propensity for satire, put an end to the tendency of Western performers to, as one perceptive British critic has rightly complained, "Brahmsify Shostakovich".

As to how approaching Shostakovich's music in this way affects its claim to "universality", it is clear that universality is achieved not by art diffuse enough to mean different things to everyone it touches but, on the contrary, by art specific enough - in Ivan Bunin's terminology, "stereoscopic" enough - to touch all of us in the same way. That is: the more sharply specific our perception of Shostakovich, the more universal he becomes. To grasp this, one need only refer to the comparable specificity and stereoscopic sharpness of the characters and situations presented in the works of his favourite authors (Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov) - or, in our own language, of Shakespeare and Dickens.

It is not by idealisation or generalisation, but by focusing on specific characters in specific situations that universality is achieved. No accident, then, that Boris Tishchenko's description of Shostakovich portrays a mind for which such focus was clearly an article of faith:

"What he said was concrete and specific: every thought was expressed in a strict yet ample literary form, sometimes it was even a short story. Shostakovich was hostile to diffuse, abstract discussions and platitudes. There was no magniloquence, no pathos, everything was specific and well-rounded."[21]
Subjectivists often ask triumphantly how, if Shostakovich's music involves such specific and supposedly unsuspected significance, it has nevertheless managed to achieve "universal" appeal. The answer is painfully simple: one need not understand something in order to enjoy it. In sex, attraction precedes penetration; the same goes for art. That Shostakovich's music should be popular in the West without being widely understood is surely a modest enough proposition?

Rather than cling to obsolete approaches to the subject, it is time to turn from general debate to the more fruitful pursuit of contextual specifics. The sooner The New Shostakovich is, in turn, rendered obsolete by intensive investigations into the many questions it has only provisionally touched on, the happier its author will be and the better all of us will understand this music we so much love.

Copyright 1990
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