10 January 2011

Two passages re: Shostakovich

March of 1949 (source: Nikolai Nabokov, cited in Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Second Edition

When, after several trying and ludicrous speeches, his turn came to speak he began to read his prepared talk in a nervous and shaky voice. After a few sentences he broke off, and the speech was continued in English by a suave baritone. In all the equivocation of that conference, Shostakovich’s speech was the least direct. Written in the style of the Agitprop speeches, it was quite obviously prepared by the ‘party organs’ in charge of the Waldorf-Astoria conference, on the Soviet side of the picture. In it these ‘organs,’ through their mouthpiece Shostakovich, condemned most Western music as decadent and bourgeois, painted the glories of the rising Soviet music culture, attacked the demon Stravinsky as the corrupter of Western art (with a dig at Prokofiev) and urged upon the ‘progressive Americans’ of the conference the necessity of fighting against the reactionaries and warmongers of America and . . . and admitted that the ‘mouthpiece’ (Mr Shostakovich) had itself often erred and sinned against the decrees of the Party.

I sat in my seat petrified by this spectacle of human misery and degradation. It was crystal clear to me that what I had suspected from the day that I heard that Shostakovich was going to be among the delegates representing the Soviet government was true: this speech of his, this whole peace-making mission was part of a punishment, part of a ritual redemption he had to go through before he could be pardoned again. He was to tell, in person, to all the dupes in the Waldorf conference and to the whole decadent bourgeois world that loved him so much that he, Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, is not a free man, but an obedient tool of his government. He told in effect that every time the Party found flaws in his art, the Party was right, and every time the Party put him on ice, he was grateful to the Party, because it helped him to recognize the flaws and mistakes.

After his speech I felt I had to ask him publicly a few questions. I had to do it, not in order to embarrass a wretched human being who had just given me the most flagrant example of what it is to be a composer in the Soviet Union, but because of the several thousand people that sat in the hall, because of those that perhaps still could not or did not wish to understand the sinister game that was being played before their eyes. I asked him simple factual questions concerning modern music, questions that should be of interest to all musicians. I asked him whether he, personally, the composer Shostakovich, not the delegate of Stalin’s government, subscribed to the wholesale condemnation of Western music as it had been expounded daily by the Soviet press and as it appeared in the official pronouncements of the Soviet Government. I asked him whether he, personally, agreed with the condemnation of the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith. To these questions he acquiesced: ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I completely subscribe to the views as expressed by . . . etc. . . .’ When he finished answering my questions the dupes in the audience gave him a new and prolonged ovation.

And 1968, per Laurel Fay, Shostakovich: A Life

Critics remarked on the novelty in form, language, and technical means in the new quartet [the Twelfth], on the composer’s unique ability to remain himself while exploring new horizons. There was, indeed, a great deal here that was new and unexpected for Shostakovich’s music, not least of which was the considerable dependence on twelve-tone rows for its thematic material, within a broadly tonal context. This was not the cutting edge in Soviet music. Though revered as its elder statesman, a living legend, by now Shostakovich was no longer seen as a pioneer. From the late 1950s through the years of official bluster by the leadership of the Union of Composers—including Shostakovich himself—proclaiming the dangers of dodecaphony and alien avant-garde styles, genuine interest among Soviet musicians in the contemporary trends filtering in from the West had increased steadily, especially among young composers and performers. So had the volume of homegrown “experimental” scores. Shostakovich was not oblivious to these developments. Composer Nikolai Karetnikov even credited him with lending his support and authority to overcome the resistance of the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, one of the most conservative bastions of musical tradition, to the staging of Karetnikov’s twelve-tone ballet score, Vanina Vanini in 1962.

Shostakovich’s adaptation of aspects of twelve-tone writing was not an aesthetic volte-face. Isolated examples of twelve-tone rows had already appeared in Seven Verses of A. Blok and in the Second Violin Concerto. His propensity for chromatic melody writing was longstanding. Queried by Tsyganov about the serial elements in his Twelfth Quartet, the composer is said to have commented: “They can also be found in Mozart.” In an interview concerning young composers that appeared just before the Twelfth Quartet received its initial screening, Shostakovich’s comments highlighted the consistency of his present practice with his lifelong principles:

As far as the use of strictly technical devices from such musical “systems” as dodecaphony or aleatory is concerned ... everything in good measure. If, let’s say, a composer sets himself the obligatory task of writing dodecaphonic music, then he artificially limits his possibilities, his ideas. The use of elements from these complex systems is fully justified if it is dictated by the concept of the composition.... You know, to a certain extent I think the formula “the end justifies the means” is valid in music. All means? All of them, if they contribute to the end objective.

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