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
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
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
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.