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This review appeared in Volume 3 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Censored Musical Messages

by Karen Pegley

The New Shostakovich. By Ian MacDonald. London: Fourth Estate. 1990. Pp. 339 ISBN 1-87218-041-8

The nebula of interpretive dialectics which surrounds the composer Shostakovich constitutes a unique phenomenon in musical discourse. Understood - one is tempted even to say censored - by intellectuals in the West for decades as simply a captive voice of a regime which strangled art, Shostakovich's music is now intensely scrutinized as a secret language of protest. The reassessment of his music invites us to reconsider our notions about the scope of music's semiotic capacities. Can music convey a political message? More pointedly, can music authoritatively and publicly labelled as the vehicle of one message carry, purely through its sonorous form, the denial of that message?

The most promising theoretical tool with which to address these questions may be the notion of intonation, developed by Shostakovich's compatriot, Boris Asafiev. The idea has just barely been glimpsed in the West but is very influential among Eastern European musical semioticians. In his two-volume text Musical Form as a Process (1963), Asafiev, a Russian musicologist and composer, suggested music was more than an art comprised of acoustical and emotive phenomena: it was an "art of intoned meaning" (Tull: 1977, 904). Asafiev's "intonation" here did not correspond to its Western musicological homonym which means accuracy of pitch; instead, his notion is closer to the linguistic concept of intonation as a suggestive pattern of pitch, rhythm and/or timbre. Musical intonation, according to Asafiev, was the human organization of sound acoustics into connotative mental associations. Unfortunately, many of Asafiev's pioneering writings have been largely unavailable to Western readers; what exists in translation, however, is testimony to the deliberation on music's associative elements within the Soviet Union.

In the West, the status of reverential meaning in music has been a longstanding problem, and, in fact, many musicologists today continue to resist (as "extra-musical") the attribution of any meaning to music from the "European Art" repertoire. Another (but expatriate) Russian, Stravinsky, contributed powerfully to this resistance which seems to hinge on the widely misunderstood Nineteenth Century ideal of "absolute music".The term, which we owe to Wagner, enunciated a dialectic of musical mimesis and musical transcendence, but in our century became a slogan for total abstraction. For musicologists researching twentieth-century Russian music, a purely abstract construction of the musical sign is indefensible. Their task, finally the literary scholars, is to address issues of "text" and "subtext". Postulating a music's "subtext can be formidable: Soviet composers' personal convictions have, in the past, often become blurred with those of the Soviet Regime, posing extraordinary problems of evidence. Such is the case with Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music and writings have been used to both support and refute the Regime's ideologies.

At the core of much recent controversy over Shoffikovich's political allegiance was Solomon Volkov's Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. In this 1979 text Volkov, a Soviet musicologist and acquaintance of Shostakovich, depicted the composer as a frustrated individual who wrote dissidence directly into his music. The memoirs were, not surprisingly, an enormous success in the West unto musicologists traced numerous passages to books and articles previously published in the Soviet Union; Volkov was a fraud. After the debate of its validity subsided, however, one question still remained: even with the author's editorial "sleight of hand" could not the "memoirs" still be considered an accurate representation of an iconoclastic composer?

This is the question addressed by Ian MacDonald in The New Shostakovich. MacDonald works on the presumption that Testimony is a valid source, claiming that it is a "realistic" depiction of Shostakovich, but not a "genuine" one (246) In this "preliminary study' MacDonald attempts to prove this hypothesis with the aid of several sources, including various literary works which resisted Communist ideologies and the testimony of Shostakovich's contemporaries on particular his son, Maxim Shostakovich); commentary from these sources are juxtaposed with excerpts from Shostakovich's scores to reveal their interrelationships. After his opening "Prelude" which introduces the reader to various interpretations on Shostakovich, MacDonald, organizes the survey according to musical milestones and subsequent political reactions, resulting in chapter titles such as "Uncertainty 1932-1934" (Ch.3), "Terror 1935-1938" (Ch.4) and "Togetherness 1938-1946" (Ch.5).

Musically, MacDonald dives into difficult territory by dealing with both texted and nontexted ('absolute'?) music and suggests that all of Shostakovich's compositions from 1931 onward clearly supported his renunciation of Communism. A brief background on the events leading up to the controversial Fifth Symphony work will help clarify MacDonald's interpretive predicament.

Following its premiere in Leningrad in 1934, Shostakovich's opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District (see endnote) was immediately welcomed with unprecedented success by Soviet audiences. It was performed 36 times and was hailed as not only one of Shostakovich's greatest works, but one of the most esteemed operas in Russian history. Then, just as suddenly as it was deemed a "masterpiece", it was described by Pravda as "muddle instead of music". Shostakovich's opera was then taken back for "revisions". His following Fourth Symphony suffered a similar fate and was withdrawn during rehearsals due to the composer's supposed "dissatisfaction". For Shostakovich, an apology for implementing Western Formalism and not furthering Socialist Realism, was necessary. This resulted in the anticipated confession of sins: the Fifth Symphony. At the first performance of the Fifth in Leningrad, 1937, the authorities were satisfied that they had 'a Soviet artist's creative reply to just criticism'. Whether the symphony ends on a 'joyous, optimistic note' as they claimed, however, is debatable. Shostakovich himself is claimed to have described it as "forced" rejoicing in Testimony (183) and it later appeared to others that the Fifth was not the apotheosis that was anticipated but a musical representation of fear, discipline and torture.

Were these generalizations offered as mere flights of opinion, the semiotician might shrug and walk away from the debate, but MacDonald is determined to show them rooted in structural details. In his section on the Fifth Symphony, for example, he looks at the opening measures through a microscope and attributes dissident meaning to almost every musical gesture. He concludes-rather defensively-that Austrian audiences heard this inner meaning" from the very beginning (p. 124) He describes the opening of the work as follows:

The first four bars ... consist of an austere vaulting theme in canon on the strings, descending via a motto rhythm to three repeated A's on the violins (p 128)

The author then goes on to explain the composers message synechdotally:

The vaulting theme ... is a succession of two-note figures reminiscent of the Fourth's dominating two-note motif (i.e., the banned message) the descending motto rhythm is that of a military sidedrum; and the reiterated A's are the seed of Shostakovich's Mahler strategy - his blackly ironic attempt to 'straighten himself out' and comply with the simplifications required of him by Pravda and the Composer's Union (p 128)

One problem is that MacDonald's detailed interpretation of Shostakovich's signs proceeds solely from analysis of the written score. In Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (1990) Jean-Jacques Nattiez differentiated between the "physical" and "ontological" modes of musical excellence, naming that "the scow constitutes the work's 'schema,' which guarantees its identify over the course of history, but numerous elements not fixed by the score play an important role for the aesthetic Gestalt of the work" (70). MacDonald provides a list of "Some Recommended Recordings" after his appendices but does not consider these works critical sources in formulating his bold conclusions. Indeed, throughout the book MacDonald has little recourse to the evidence of performance to buttress his position, which is surprising in view of his interest in citing Maxim Shostakovich.

Maxim Shostakovich, having spent the first 43 years of his life in the USSR and having had the privilege of conducting many of his father's scores during that time, would likely have been familiar with both his father's intentions and with the musical techniques used to communicate them. But if we compare Maxim Shostakovich conducting the USSR Symphony Orchestra (1972) or his 1990 version (London Symphony Orchestra) with Mstislaw Rostropovich's 1983 recording (National Symphony Orchestra), we find the latter offering far more correspondences with MacDonald's analysis than the former. In Rostropovich's version, the faster tempo and attack of notes at the opening makes, for example, the comparison between the motto rhythm and a sidedrum plausible. In neither of Maxim Shostakovich's versions, however, is this faster drum tempo or militaristic style present. It becomes difficult to know what community speaks the secret language MacDonald is claiming to decode.

For better or worse, the Shostakovich debate revives questions of authorial intention, long absent from critical musicological discourse. ln order to understand Shostakovich's music, MacDonald claims it is imperative to investigate the composer's motivation. He takes this point so far as to criticize Western listeners:

All that the West...has heard of Shostakovich's music so far is the noise it makes. The music itself being beyond the notes. can only be heard if the listener is in tune with the composer's intentions,/i> -- for to attribute inappropriate meaning to a piece of music is to experience not the music itself, but a sort of selfhypnotic dream one is having about it (15).

The assertion that one cannot "hear" a work of music unless aware of the composer's intentions is, of course, a precarious one. Our current fashion is the opposite allegiance: "the form of a work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood. These give it a wealth of different resonances and echoes without impairing its original essence..." (Eco, 1989, p. 3). Asafiev also commented on the desirability of pluralistic interpretations, making specific reference to the role of the Russian audience in this process: "the listeners, the masses, everyone to whom music is dear as the voice of reality and as ideationally cognitive activity, have created their own, authentic history of music, and have supported that which is essential in its development, i.e., that which is intonationally fresh and vital" (Tull, 945-46).

One additional stylistic problem in MacDonald's analysis must be mentioned, his habitual gender stereotyping. Again from his analysis of the Fifth Symphony: "the vaulting theme (is) feminine in Its longing for a fugitive ideal beyond its frugal means...this fragility is...shattered by a rough masculine directness" (p. 128~ This is discouraging, particularly when this mode of comparison is being largely eliminated from other musicological discourse. If these readings cannot be grounded in specific semiotic practices of the musical culture under review - and MacDonald makes no attempt to do so - they simply further discredit his interpretation.

MacDonald's text, however, is not without merit. He vividly depicts the conditions of Stalin's Soviet state during the time in which Shostakovich composed and this historical account is well worth reading by anyone interested in this period of Soviet history. Furthermore, it is an enthusiastic attempt at a hermeneutical reading of music which will be a useful source for those scholars who are also trying to fit together the pieces of this complex composer as well as for musical semioticians who will find here fresh evidence that the interpretative impulse remains impressible, even for instrumental music. Shostakovich worked in a milieu which insisted on As own official aesthetic ideology. By responding with a richly allusive, freely associative, and frequently histrionic compositionial style supercharged in its demand for and defiance of interpretation he provoked a critical discourse which reawakens the dialectical tension of absolutism in music as does no other in our age. Should this be a surprise? He is, after all, the composer of our most forcefully political grand opera but also the century's most monumental exercise on the highly abstract model of Bach's Twenty four Preludes and Fugues.

Note: The history and interpretation of this opera, the subject of a conference in Toronto in 1987 has given birth to a fascinating panorama of scholarship. See Beckwith forthcoming).


Beckwith, R. Sterling, The Ordeal of Lady Macbeth: music and politics under Stalin. Forthcoming.

Eco, Umberto (1989) The Open Work, translated by Anna Cancogni Hutchinson Radius: United Kingdom.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990) Music and Discourse: Toward a semiology of Music translated by Carolyn Abbatte, Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey.

Tull, James Robert (1976), "B.V. Asaf'ev's Musical Form as a Process : Translation and Commentary' Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University.

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