Shostakovich and Music for our Times Jayati Ghosh

The music of Dmitri Shostakovich has always been controversial, in different ways. This Soviet-era Russian composer was the master of the big picture, creator of large and complex works which summarised the human condition, but also often seemed to be difficult and unapproachable. He had an especially complicated relationship with the state authorities: at times lauded and honoured for “affirmative” music which could portray Soviet glory, and at other times threatened and reviled for being too pessimistic. And this also affected perceptions of him in the international music scene.

Thus, in the West, Shostakovich was typically seen as a dissident composer, whose music could be interpreted as an implicit critique of the Soviet system. Indeed, such analyses proliferated and became not only the norm but also almost mechanical in their approach, with certain symphonies being programatically interpreted as describing particular events, or suggesting his discomfiture with the yoke on his musical creativity imposed by the state.

In a sense, therefore, appreciation of Shostakovich the composer was very strongly determined by Cold War sensibilities in the West. When that particular conflict disappeared from the public consciousness, so to some extent, did interest in his music.

Yet there is now a quite a Shostakovich revival, as people realise that the intricate dissonances, sharp percussion, evocative lyricism and complex use of instrumentation that characterise Shostakovich’s work actually have much broader relevance. It emerges that Shostakovich was a composer who captured the human condition in a way that remains startlingly contemporary. It may be that his music speaks to us even more eloquently today, in a world where so many certainties have evaporated and apocalyptic visions of various kinds dominate the spirit of the times.

All this came to mind during a recent performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The concert itself was probably emblematic of the ways the world has changed since Shostakovich wrote his symphony in the summer of 1943. Within a splendid concert hall in the WASP heartland of Boston, a highly skilled orchestra consisting substantially of people of east Asian origin was conducted by a north European (the Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund) for an audience dominated by East European migrants rather than local residents of many generations standing.

Just before the performance of Shostakovich, the orchestra had accompanied a young violinist making her local debut, a remarkably talented young German-Czech woman called Julia Fischer, who played a violin concerto by Jean Sibelius. This was much more predictable programming, a satisfying rendition of a well-known romantic work, by a beautiful and accomplished musician. (It is increasingly the case, because of the convoluted yet inexorable workings of the international classical music industry, that the acclaimed violinists of today are inevitably attractive young women who combine formidable musical talent with great physical allure. What this means for all the promising young men – or indeed the older and fatter men and women – who play the violin, we do not really know.)

But while the Sibelius concerto was given a lyrical interpretation, it did not create the frisson of excitement and tension that can be associated with this music. And the subsequent performance of the Shostakovich symphony revealed why: clearly, the orchestra and conductor had been holding back some of themselves in the first piece, in order to give their all to a most intense, dramatic and deeply felt elaboration of this very powerful work.

Much of Shostakovich’s best known and most effective music was written during the Second World War, and this Symphony too belongs in that category. It is less famous than the previous Symphony, No. 7, known as the “Leningrad” which is widely regarded as portraying the Soviet overcoming of the Nazi siege on that city. The Seventh Symphony is commonly interpreted as being essentially positive and triumphant in its approach. The Eighth Symphony, by contrast, is described as a darker exploration of the horrors of war, which has been compared to Picasso’s famous painting “Guernica”.

In fact, even to describe this Symphony only in terms of war and violence would be misleading, since it encapsulates much greater complexity and embraces much more in affective terms. Certainly, it is not exactly a pleasant experience to hear this music, although it can be deeply moving and uplifting as well. But the nervous energy, the insecure but insistent rhythmic patterns, the frenetically violent passages interspersed with ironic or tragic statements, and the final conclusion with solo flute playing gently above barely audible strings, make this an unforgettable experience.

It was obvious that this music had deeply captured the imagination of the conductor and all the orchestral players – and it turned out, of the audience as well. The profundity of emotion devoted to the performance was unmistakable and infectious. What is it about such music which makes it so apparently appropriate as a metaphor for our times, which speaks so movingly to people even in such peaceful and untraumatic places as the city of Boston in the rich and developed United States?

It could be that this music has so much impact because it captures not only our fears and concerns but also our doubts, and musically expresses those complex shades of perception which we find so difficult to put into words. In the first movement of this symphony, for example, Shostakovich creates a sense of excitement that makes the listener participate in what then builds up into oppressive violence, and the resulting feeling of being overwhelmed by forces beyond our control is all the more disturbing because of the uneasy sense of our earlier complicity.

The thematic centre of the symphony is a vivid and horrifying danse macabre that burns into the brain as an indictment of war, and also of other forms of aggression. Yet even after its compression there is no real peace, only the bleakest of tranquilities. This is music full of grief and yearning, with no answers and no certainties other than rather depressing ones.

It is interesting, then, that, finally, it was this wrenching music which found the greatest appreciation and resonance in such a crowd. It suggests that the consciousness of being at the edge of an abyss is what increasingly defines a lot of public and private sentiment, in the ruling country of the world.