Music for Silenced Voices (Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets)

Music for Silenced Voices (Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets)
By Wendy Lesser
Yale University Press; 316 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

It’s impossible to discuss the works of Dmitri Shostakovich without also discussing the composer’s relationship with the Soviet authorities which haunted his entire career. Was he an ardent communist? A clever subversive? A submissive pawn? Wendy Lesser in her engrossing new biography proposes something else, that Shostakovich was most honest when under the radar of Soviet leaders. Of course, they punished him whenever his symphonies or other major works strayed from Marxist/Leninist doctrine. This was how Shostakovich learned to give the apparatchiks what they wanted when they were listening. But they paid less attention to his so-called minor works, like his 15 string quartets. It was into these works, according to Lesser, that Shostakovich poured his true self and produced some of his greatest music.

Silenced Voices touches on the major events in the poignant story of Shostakovich in clear, thoughtful prose. From the optimism and romance of his 1920s heyday to his heroism during the siege of Leningrad to the dark hours of the Soviet decree against him in 1948, Lesser gives us a strong feeling of how this gentle, nervous, sardonic, brilliant man dealt with conflicting loyalties and emotions. Never knowing if he’d appear before a firing squad, Shostakovich played ball with the Soviets well enough. Does this make him complicit with their crimes? Or simply a tenacious survivor? Lesser gives no answers, because Shostakovich himself didn’t have any.

Through the introspective letters of Shostakovich and interviews with his surviving relatives and colleagues, Lesser reveals much of Shostakovich’s inner thoughts, his regrets, and his triumphs. Especially poignant was when an ailing Shostakovich in the early 1970s offers to shake a young musician’s hand but was rebuffed because his signature had appeared on a letter condemning Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Shostakovich was mortified.

Yet Shostakovich continued composing until the year of his death in 1975. Foremost on his mind during this time was his string quartets.

What Lesser does better than anything is provide vivid, non-technical interpretations of the quartets, movement by movement. This is the perfect introduction to Shostakovich, whose music can be difficult for the uninitiated. Especially gripping is her description of the harrowing 13th quartet. She also portrays the love Shostakovich had for each member of the Beethoven Quartet, the group that premiered his work. Towards the end, it seemed as if Shostakovich kept himself alive just so he could dedicate a quartet to each member of this group.

When Shostakovich finally died, Lesser suggests the Soviet authorities were secretly relieved to be rid of this troublesome composer. Yes, he was never outwardly subversive, but he always managed to go just far enough to annoy them—to let them know that one can put constraints on an artist, but never his art.

This book review appeared in the fall 2011 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

See all our book reviews.