Excerpt: 'Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets' by Wendy Lesser


From The Threepenny Review:

In him, there are great contradictions. In him, one quality obliterates the other. It is conflict in the highest degree. It is almost a catastrophe.

Mikhail Zoshchenko, in a private letter about Shostakovich, 1941

It is hard to say whether he was extraordinarily fortunate or profoundly unlucky. Even he would probably have been unable to decide, for in regard to his own situation and his own character, he was often dubious and always divided. He was a self-acknowledged coward who sometimes demonstrated great courage. A born survivor, he was obsessed with death. He had an excellent sense of humor and an equally strong streak of melancholy. Though reserved in outward demeanor and inclined to long silences, he was subject to bouts of intense passion. Mentally and physically he tended to be either lightning fast or practically immobilized. He was both a generous man and an embittered one. Immensely loyal to his friends, he was repeatedly guilty of disloyalty to his own principles. He cared a great deal for words, and he signed his name to documents he had never read. He was a modernist who officially despised modernism. He was a baptized unbeliever with a strong affection for the Jews. As for his country, he both hated and loved it—and the mixed emotion was returned, it seems, for he became at different times a prominent beneficiary and a prominent victim of his nation’s cultural regime. He was an essentially private person who lived out his existence on a public platform. He wrote music that pleased the many, and he wrote music for the very few: perhaps, finally, only for himself. We know a great deal about him, and he remains largely invisible to us.

In this last respect, Dmitri Shostakovich is like all subjects of artist biographies, only more so. You are drawn to the life because you love the art, and you imagine that knowing more about the life will bring you closer to the art, but for the most part the life is a smoke screen getting between you and the art. You pick up threads and clues, searching for a pattern that explains the whole, forgetting that a great deal of life (and art) depends on chance events. You can never definitively find the hidden springs of an artwork; you can only attempt to grasp the results as they gush forth, and with music, which is nearly as changeable and bodiless as water, that grasp will be especially tenuous.

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