Shostakovich: A Complicated Hero

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
January 24, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — We tend, more often than not, to like our heroes simple, without dark threads complicating the weave. Happily, with Dmitri Shostakovich, that's an illusion we're forced to discard. That he brought to bear a ferocious intelligence on a singular compositional style and left us, inter alia, the Fifth Symphony, the First Violin Concerto, the Preludes and Fugues, the Piano Concertos, makes him hero enough. His political dodges are interesting, troubling, harrowing, but they needn't define him. They were survival tactics. We speculate on their implications at the risk of ripping up the fabric of the composer's life.

Dmitri Shostakovich simply defied definition. His difficult artistic life in a repressive Soviet Union, the ad hominem attacks he had to endure because of the "crime" of writing music in a certain way and not in another, and the very real threats to his life, have made it tempting to sanctify him as a martyr against tyranny.

The proper socialist composer in the Soviet Union wrote music that was appealing to all.

But alongside this narrative is the picture of Shostakovich as a man who enjoyed unusual privileges in the Soviet Union, who lived more comfortably than most, and who tried to work with the regime as best he could. The proper socialist composer in the Soviet Union wrote music that was appealing to all, was based in the folk music of the people, was optimistic about the Soviet future and celebratory of the Soviet leadership. Failure to do this had consequences. Transgression-reprimand-redemption, contingent upon good behavior. It was a cycle that would repeat itself throughout Shostakovich's life. At the same time, he established a concurrent pattern, also endlessly repeated: of laying another set of expressions deeply between the lines. This was of a different character altogether, and decidedly off-message for the good socialist-realist composer that Dmitri Shostakovich had, at least, to appear to be.

In a way, as in so many things, it's that old equivocal question of balance. The most accurate way to approach Shostakovich may be to hold the disparate, dissonant facts in suspension. And as they begin to settle out, shake them up again. This is labor intensive, and somewhat counter to our sense that once we know the story, we're set.

With Shostakovich the story, and our ability to understand it, is still unfolding. The music, easy and anguished by turns, deceptively joyful, jeremiads amidst luminous fugues, presents a similar puzzle.

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