A few months ago, I gave this introduction to a performance of Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet, given by my wife's quartet. If you are not familiar with the piece, try this from the Borodin Quartet.
Few artists have come to represent their own time and place as much as Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet Union’s preeminent composer who, from the 1920s until his death in the 1970s, was Russia’s musical propagandist, conscience, provocateur and human voice.
From its earliest details, Shostakovich’s life was a tool of Soviet propaganda. Born in 1906, he is alleged to have witnessed Lenin’s return to Russia, from exile, in 1917. At 18, his precocious 1st Symphony was trumpeted around the world as a dazzling example of a new wave of Soviet artists. This new paradise of Communist Russia seemed, at first, a haven of artistic freedom: as long as what you said was ideologically sound, it didn’t really matter how you said it.
Like so many others, Shostakovich was lulled into a false sense of security, pushing the boundaries of the musical language until firmly bitten by the culturally and socially conservative crackdown of Joseph Stalin’s first years as leader of the Soviet Union. Art was no longer to test the limits; only artistic expression which the masses could easily understand, and which celebrated the greatness of the communist utopia, would do. In this new hell of rigid rules, denunciations and show trials, one misstep could mean death. Writers, artists, theatre and film directors, friends of Shostakovich, disappeared, swallowed by the human meat grinder of Stalin’s genocidal state. Footsteps in the hall; a knock at the door; a visit to the headquarters of the secret police: thousands were erased from life like this and not even their families would dare mention their names again.
Shostakovich’s brush with danger came in 1936, in the form of a damning newspaper review, ordered, it is believed, by Stalin himself. The state newspaper, Pravda, blasted his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, as “chaos instead of music”. The message was clear – adapt or die. The composer, eventually, offered his own amends for his past wrongs in the form of a Symphony. The symphony was his fifth and, like Beethoven’s, it rises from fierce darkness to a conclusion of blazing light. But little mattered more to Shostakovich than personal artistic integrity. Within the triumphant bombast of the Symphony’s finale, a kernel of defiance could be heard – a grin through gritted teeth. Shostakovich’s admirers heard this, the authorities did not, and the pattern was set for a new musical identity of outward conformity and inner resilience.
Little did he know, though, that in allowing for the possibility of contradictory meanings, Shostakovich would unleash a bitter battle to interpret his music. Some have tried to dismiss him as a propagandist hack; others find anti-communist barbs in every note; others still find a middle ground that celebrates him as a composer of hugely affecting and original music. Nowhere is this battleground of meaning more intensely fought than in the 8th String Quartet. Shostakovich began writing the piece during a visit to Dresden in 1960. The visit may have inspired the dedication “to the victims of fascism and war”, but clues in the very music itself point toward an altogether different interpretation.
After WW2, Shostakovich had begun using a four note phrase in his music: the notes D, E flat, C, B which, when said in the German manner, become D, Es, C, H – the first initial of his forename and the first three letters of his surname, in the German translation. The Eighth Quartet begins with exactly this phrase, confirming that this piece is not only about the victims of fascism and war; it is about himself. He then does something remarkable – he constructs a fugue with his own name. A fugue is among the most complex of musical forms – a way of layering a tune upon itself within a very rigid set of rules – and was precisely the kind of artistic complexity outlawed by the Soviet authorities. This isn’t only a daring and dangerous step on the part of the composer; it is a self-definition. “I am music”, Shostakovich seems to be saying here and, as if to prove the point, he offers a few quotations from past works, such as the opening bars of his 1st Symphony, followed by a resolute restatement of his name.
It’s clear that this piece, in five continuous movements, was an intensely personal project for the composer. After his return from East Germany, he wrote to a friend “When I die, it’s hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself... The pseudo-tragedy of the quartet is so great that, while composing it, my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half a dozen beers. On arrival home, I have tried playing it twice, and have again shed tears. This time not because of the pseudo-tragedy, but because of my own wonder at the marvellous unity of form.” One could be forgiven for balking slightly at the apparent self-pity of the composer, but Shostakovich knew better than anyone that there was nothing unique about his own personal tragedy. The Jewish folk theme blasted out in the frantic second movement can be connected to one of the composer’s perennial concerns: the suffering of others at the hands of others. Shostakovich was submerged deep within the tragedy of the twentieth century and, with his unique ability to express that tragedy, offered a memorial to the suffering of one individual out of countless millions, namely himself. That this piece, and many others, survived and are today celebrated and loved, offers hope that the individual can endure in the face of overwhelming odds. And, that his music remains enigmatic to the last, never meaning quite what it appears to mean, is a fitting reminder that the dark and violent times for which it was written can never fully be comprehended.