Shostakovich's Quartets | Квартеты Шостаковича

In spring of 2011 my wife and I joined the Eastern Washington University Choir on its spring tour to New York, where we enjoyed the energetic and personalized tour-guidery of Laura Hall, one of Jess' friends from childhood past. While strolling through Lower Manhattan, McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore with café, caught my attention and before long I was reading Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets by Wendy Lesser. Within the first few pages I found myself embroiled in a compelling story, a story of history and art and politics and powerful but elusive meanings, a story that reminded me what attracts me to musicology at a fundamental level.

Engrossed in that air conditioned coffee house on Prince Street, it became very apparent to me that I needed to have a refresher course on this music. Lesser's artful descriptions are so poignant and suggestive that they simply demand more and new listenings. For me that meant putting down this book  for half a year and experiencing these pieces repeatedly with the aid of sheet music and some some keyboard sight reading. Over this winter break I took the dive and shot through Music for Silent Voices with great enthusiasm. It's my own nerdy version of pleasure reading. :)

At one level I am amazed and inspired by Lesser's degree of research, organization, interconnectivity, and artistic insight. Primary source interviews by Shostakovich's family and musical friends, as well as museum curators and string quartet members at once gave the story a sense of continuity—you can't do that in a Bach bio—and also a wide array of authentic, human opinions to set right next to the plethora of others that continually crop up in regard to Shostakovich's life and music. Shostakovich's letters or reminiscences about his life were particularly interesting, and often heart-rending.

Lesser's critical analyses of the music are fascinating, especially for the level of communication she achieves without any technical musical apparatus. I thought she did a particularly good job negotiating the Gordian knot of interpretation amid all the cultural and political obfuscations, personal vendettas, complex, ironic, cryptic personalities, and the mysteries of artistic creation. The analyses answer that insistent quest for meaning that is so prevalent in Shostakovich's music while always balancing it with an admission of and even reliance upon the ineffable and unknowable that will always remain.

I'm having a difficult time understanding how this book has effected me. When I finished reading I was left feeling rather... alone? Isolation is a huge theme in the book: the stripped away textures of Socialist realist music; Shostakovich turning away from his own keyboard idiom to pour his soul into four solitary string players; the death, both natural and unnatural, of so many acquaintances and strangers; the composer's negative spin on his Rossini-like longevity; the horrifying tension of Soviet life through so many unpredictable disasters. I shiver, standing her in the sunlit living room of my Santa Barbaran house, trying to enter into this world and to hear it in music that is truly haunting, that is, filled with ghosts.

It's a very strange sensation to have when it's coupled with overwhelming family time over Christmas in Santa Barbara and Pasadena. I think time will only tell how this book influences my listening of these pieces, but I can definitely say that it has whetted my appetite for new ways of thinking about music.

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