Monday, January 01, 2007

Shostakovich, a note

In response to my post on Sibelius, Anonymous wrote...

A serious question: What is wrong with the music of Shostakovich? I find widespread hostility to his music from many people, particularly people with musical training (less so from non-musicians), yet almost nobody has been able to tell me what precisely they dislike.

My intention was not to deprecate the music of Shostakovich, but rather to elevate that of Sibelius. I'm not, in fact, hostile to the former but respectfully distant (his Fourth Symphony makes my short list of composers who were at their best in their fourth symphonies: Brahms, Ives, Sibelius, Piston, Harrison). But I do have one great reservation: as far as I can hear, Shostakovich's music does not pose a fundamental challenge to the way in which music is made or heard. The conservation of a particular tradition of listening and music-making is an inseparable part of Shostakovich's music; it is music that both demands and fits study and performance in a conservatory environment. For the listener, the parameters of that which is understood to be music are the same before and after the experience of one of his scores. His music, often with great technical virtuosity and direct -- even when sarcastic or ironic -- emotional pull, plays well-behavedly within the established parameters. My ears, however, are always drawn to that which is less well-behaved.

Although I can recognize the traditions from which Shostakovich's music was drawn, and locate his music as a unique instance of that tradition summed-up, I cannot, personally, as a composer, locate a productive path forward from or out of Shostakovich's music. In part this is due to simple ethnographic distance to the topoi and traits of his tradition, and a particular distance to his version of the grotesque topic (a distance which I do not have with Ligeti's version of the same). But it is more due to his technique. From the movement-to-movement eclecticism with which Shostakovich works, there is indeed the "polystylism" of Schnittke, and perhaps sampled music lies beyond this, but this is talking about material rather than a way of working with material, and a way forward would have to be found there instead.

It may be reasonably objected that my criteria are those of a musician, and a composer besides, and not those of an "ordinary" listener (whoever that may be). But frankly, I'm not much interested either in ordinary listening, that is, listening reduced to some normative experience, nor in ordinary composing. Life's too short and music's too precious to waste on the ordinary when the extraordinary is available. Shostakovich's technical gifts were great, but they were assembled from the tools that every schoolboy virtuoso knows, whether Musiker or Musikant.


Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your response to my question, and for taking the question seriously. I mean no personal animus in my response below, but my feelings on this matter are very intense, and your post has provoked them.

I can understand your analysis of Shostakovich's music, although I would not say I agree with it. However, even if I did agree with the analysis, I don't accept the inference you then draw from this analysis -- the inference that one should therefore not listen to his music or compose in the same way. I think this inference rests on two fundamental assumptions about which we clearly disagree.

One is an assumption about how we do (or can, or should) listen to music. I believe you are mistaken in believing there is something wrong with ordinary listening. Of course, in this error you are in good company, starting with Richard Wagner. But error it remains, and IMHO, a moral error: In lives which are dark, dismal, nasty and short, listening merely for pleasure is a certainly a morally worthwhile activity.

The other is an assumption about the role of the composer in the world -- the romantic notion that composers are here to change the world. In contradiction to this quaint notion, I believe there is nothing wrong with composing music for other reasons, for example, to demonstrate artistry -- in literature, we admire Shakespeare's Sonnets primarily for this reason -- or for amusement -- think of Haydn's many effects, and then see Assumption 1 above -- or to reflect some aspect of the world (whether material or spiritual) as it is -- think, for example, of the music of Felix Mendelssohn or Morton Feldman.

Please don't take offence at these remarks -- they are not intended personally (unless you happen to be Richard Wagner!)

David Toub said...

Shostakovich has been one of my favorite composers since I was a kid; for years, he was unquestionably my favorite composer, period. A handwritten score of his Symphony #13 was the first orchestral score I learned to read, and I still am tickled pink by the fact that I have an old 78 of DSCH playing and announcing some of his piano works. While his output admittedly was uneven (like most composers), and there is the persistent question of whether he was acquiescing to the USSR or freely became its tool (I think the answer is somewhere in between), his best stuff is incredible.

It's true that he didn't revolutionize music, or do something radically different. But did Roy Harris? Prokofiev? And regardless, who cares? It's the music that counts.

I also have noticed some discord on Shostakovich and posted something recently on my blog. That perhaps sums it up best. Good post---thanks, Daniel!

Daniel Wolf said...

Anonymous -- your inference is simply wrong. Nowhere do I say that one shouldn't listen or compose like Shostakovich (or any other composer, for that matter), it's simply that I cannot locate a way to compose new music out of the ideas or materials Shostakovich has left us.

I disagree with you entirely on your second point. I have my own intense experience of the darkness and brevity of life, and finding solace in music is essential to me. But to fill it with music that reconciles itself entirely with the world as it is, is only to give in to despair, and that I firmly refuse.

David -- your blog item is fine. You manage to talk about the topic I avoided here, the political background, which does trouble me, but perhaps in a more complicated way. I just don't know what to make of a composer who is held up as a model of virtue by both Soviet propaganda and the western conservative press, and marketed appropriately -- whether to Pravda or to Commentary. All of this is likely something that Shostakovich had little or nothing to do with, but perhaps we are now in a moment where we can begin to defend the composer from his devotees.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "But to fill it with music that reconciles itself entirely with the world as it is, is only to give in to despair

This is not true at all. One may be reconciled to the world as it is without embracing despair.