'He speaks to us': why Shostakovich was a great communicator

Recently, in a little book by Colm Tóibín about the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, I was struck by phrases that rang a bell: “The music or the power was in what was left out … words in which the emotion seems to be hidden, seems to lurk mysteriously in the space between … Nothing would be said but everything suggested...”

Back in the mid-1980s, I remembered, this was the kind of thing my friends in Moscow used to say about Shostakovich. Of course, such things have been said before and about many different artists. But something in the way Tóibín puts it brought the old song back.

I heard another version of the same idea in a small room in London, during an encounter between two composers who had not met before: Russia-born Alfred Schnittke and Englishman Peter Maxwell Davies.

Schnittke was describing his first visit to the west as an adult – I think in 1979 – when he attended a performance in Vienna of a Shostakovich symphony led by the famous conductor Kyril Kondrashin, who had defected from the Soviet Union a year or so earlier.

“The same piece,” said Schnittke, “and the same conductor. But it sounded completely different.” Davies asked him whether he could be more specific.

“I think it was because the Viennese musicians played the notes on the page … beautifully and correctly. But our Soviet musicians played the spaces between the notes. Especially the string players.”

And with his trembling left hand (he had recently had a stroke), he imitated the perilous journey a violinist’s finger takes to travel millimetres along the fingerboard from one note to another.

Tóibín suggests that one of the great strengths of an elliptical way of putting words together is that it opens the possibility of tremendous effects of tone. Speaking not only of Elizabeth Bishop but of James Joyce, he observes: “When they allowed the tone of their work to soar, there was the feeling that they had earned the right to do so by holding so much back in the pages that came before … They could allow language to compensate and console, then rise above such petty urges and seem to redeem what had been lost, or redress much that they both cared about deeply.”

This seems to describe a quality I find vividly in Shostakovich, especially in the flood of chamber pieces the composer began in his late 20s and continuing to the end of his life: the 15 string quartets, works for strings and piano, and the solo piano music.

Tone can be a slippery and vapourish thing in a poem or a piece of prose, but perhaps even more in the non-verbal arts. How do we agree about the tone of voice in a painting? It has one; there are few human statements that can be made without some suggestion of tone. But what is it? You and I can easily find, when we attempt to describe what we experience, that we completely disagree.

In music, this disagreement – or so I seem to have found – can become even more acute because there is something about music, perhaps the obvious fact that it is apparently less representational and less concrete than all the other arts, that brings tone right to the front of most people’s experience of it. When we listen, tone is one of the first things that we notice, and one of the primary enablers by which we feel enobled, corrupted, seduced, charmed, moved, threatened ... or bored and irritated.

For my Soviet friends of 30 years ago, the question of tone in Shostakovich was naturally affected by their shared experience over previous decades of a society in which, to put it simply, freedom was curtailed. Shostakovich’s ability – and music’s ability – to create clouds of powerfully suggestive but unpindownable tone by exploiting those “spaces between the notes” was important to them.

I remember my first sense of that. After a blistering performance of the Second Piano Trio, a friend turned to me and said: “He speaks to us.”

Speaks about what, exactly?

I thought I knew. But now, when I look back, I find I naively overreacted to what she said. Or reacted, as the Russians say, “to the wrong address”. Or even underreacted. My immediate instinct, as a sentimental and inexperienced visitor to their culture, was to pin everything I imagined I heard in Shostakovich’s tone of voice to what I was learning about Soviet life and history.

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