First, before we turn our attention to Stalin, to Soviet-era dissidence and to debates about Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs, listen. Try the Second String Quartet, from 1944, in which music can veer from somber melancholy to raucous jeers in just a few pages; or trace the coded allusions in the Eighth String Quartet, from 1960, in which the composer uses letters of his name to create a musical motif and invokes phrases from his earlier works that can drift like wisps of smoke; or stay focused through the otherworldly fugal opening of the last quartet, the 15th. “Play it so that flies drop dead in midair, and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom,” the composer told the players preparing its premiere in 1974.
There is no way to listen to the string quartets of Shostakovich and not wonder about their external meanings. In the Western art music tradition, the string quartet genre has been celebrated for its rigor and coherence. But this Soviet composer, whose reputation has been wrestled over almost since his death in 1975, gave us string quartets without stability. The music is marked by extravagant willfulness, but also by an excruciating sense of futility; powerful assertions collapse in submission or despair; we are not always sure when the music is serious and when it is sarcastic. Dramatic principles of unity are widely violated.
We have few such problems with most Beethoven quartets. We can understand their internal principles; disruptions grow out of latent tensions. But in Shostakovich, forces intrude from outside. I don’t mean the music has no internal logic and coherence, only that its drama does not seem autonomous or self-generated. It reacts to something outside itself, something in the mind of its creator, perhaps, or in the traumas of history. It is, in some mysterious way, program music, telling a story. Its twists come not from unfolding musical ideas but from the traumatic character of its chronicle.
And that is how Wendy Lesser treats these works in “Music for Silenced Voices.” This book is a paean to Shostakovich’s quartets and their significance. In her listening, Lesser, an accomplished critic and the editor of The Threepenny Review, is literate, sensitive and imaginative. Her book is an outsider’s perspective — she comes to the quartets as a passionate listener rather than as a musician or analyst — which also gives her considerable freedom to speculate. She hears them as a spiritual autobiography; they are program music about Shostakovich himself.
This is a risky enterprise, though, and there are numerous times when the literate easily turns too literal. Lesser acknowledges the risk: “I realize that to talk about a ‘tale’ at all, in regard to these clearly plotless works, is to do some violence to Shostakovich’s freedom as a composer.” But knowing of the danger doesn’t always prevent it.
“If the Sixth Quartet is in part about the discomfort of happily surviving one’s dear dead,” she writes, “then the Seventh Quartet is (among other things) about the comfort of truly mourning them.”
“If there is a fairy-tale feeling behind this quartet,” she says about the First Quartet, “it is as much the dark story of a small boy wandering alone in a forest . . . as it is the kind of tale that has a happy ending.”
Such allusions seem to constrain the music by giving it artificial frames. But the strange thing is that the music appears to make some such frames necessary. And here we come to the heart of the matter.