[Yale University Press; 2011]

by Alli Carlisle

As a young violist in high school, I loved playing chamber music. It was easier to read, easier to interpret, more intimate than the panoply of voices in a symphony. I particularly loved the Romantics—Brahms, Dvořák, Borodin. Such grandeur of feeling. But the composer whose darkness and turbulence, even violence, seemed like a refuge for the teenage soul in its unsteadiness, was always Shostakovich. I suppose the pervasive sense of oppression in his music spoke to a teenager’s natural sense of oppression and scrutiny. Of course, Shostakovich’s sense of oppression came from the constant scrutiny and pressure of a totalitarian regime—a teenager’s comes from the sense that the whole world is a totalitarian regime.

Wendy Lesser, a quiet giant of the world of criticism, most recently turned her far-reaching curiosity on the chained genius. In Music for Silenced Voices, she gives us a biography written within the narrative framework of his fifteen quartets. Lesser’s premise is that the quartets are Shostakovich’s truest music—that they are “a kind of ‘diary’ that records ‘the story of his soul,’ as his widow puts it—they offer unparalleled access to the composer’s inner life. This is not hard to accept about a man living under the Stalinist surveillance machine, whose symphonies and operas could raise their author to glorious heights or sink him into misery by their perceived nationalist content.

Lesser’s credentials are those of a literary critic. She tells us early on: “In speaking about Shostakovich’s quartets, I have sometimes borrowed from the languages of literary and art criticism, both of which have a stronger tradition of impressionistic response than one usually finds in academic music criticism.” Lesser transplants her method of inquiry and analysis from these traditions, frequently using comparisons with Russian literature in particular to read Shostakovich, to guess at what is behind the mask of this man who mastered deception and irony in his art and in his life. Sometimes this method has better results than others.

Lesser builds her evidence piece by piece, often walking the reader through the process quite slowly before coming to her point. She is the thorough researcher here, making considered and careful presentation of her facts, commenting on the mystery and emotional embeddedness of Shostakovich’s life. Her careful compiling of information and straightforward presentation can feel plodding: “We know from literature—not just Russian literature, but also Dickens and Shakespeare—that sadness and humor, tragedy and satire, can often go hand in hand.” Yes, we do.

But Lesser’s project is to show how the quartets serve as the voice for a man, and by extension a people, forced into silence and false speech by political conditions, and she shows this well capably. Her crossover appearance as a musicologist yields some striking moments. In one passage, Lesser reads Shostakovich’s last quartet with Chekhov’s story “The Black Monk,” and comes up with this passage that left me momentarily breathless:

I am not sure how thoroughly the analogy between ‘The Black Monk’ and the Fifteenth Quartet holds up; what I am sure of, though, is that both works are very pointedly and upsettingly about the way death casts its shadow back over life. The sense we get from the Quartet No. 15, as from the Chekhov story, is that everyone is finally alone. Even when we are paired, as two instruments sometimes are, we do not walk the same path at the same time but are forced to wander separately. We cannot save each other. We cannot even keep each other company beyond the grave. But we can mourn each other. And something of us survives death—not the body, not the soul, not anything that can make the individual feel it is alive, but some trace of ourselves in the minds of others and in the world we leave behind. This vague consolation lends life a sweetness but also a sadness, because you cannot remember and treasure the dead without reminding yourself of their absence.

In passages like this one, Lesser’s empathetic ear comes out, and the scale of her project, her self-designated amateur’s approach to this work, makes an impression. (Listen to the quartet, and see if you can come up with a Chekhovian reading this good.)

Music for Silenced Voices is partially an account of one person’s engagement with a body of work, and a kind of inquiry, with which she was unfamiliar; partially a scholarly attempt to illuminate the life of an artist whose work’s meaning can feel apocryphal. Lesser’s efforts leave us with a solidly researched glimpse into a body of work wrought with pain and shame. If the results of her inquiry don’t quite shine a brilliant light into the corners of Shostakovich’s labyrinthine artistic consciousness, they at least lead us capably towards those darker crevices and show us how to close our eyes and listen.

Read our interview with Wendy Lesser here.


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  • Thanks for the review of a book that’s going to be on my list (when it gets to Goodreads, which it’s not yet!).

  • Alla Aranovskaya

    July 5, 2011
    Director, Music Mountain Festival
    P.O. Box 738
    Lakeville, CT 06039
    Dear Nick,
    It was an enormous pleasure, as usual, for us to perform at the concert of Sunday, June 26 at Music Mountain; especially because we played three of our favorite works: the Brahms Violin Sonata in D minor and his Sextet, op. 36; as well as one of my favorites, the Shostakovich Quartet No. 4. As I remember, this is our 22nd season here. Time flies!
    I’d like to alert you to a situation that deserves a closer look, regarding author Wendy Lesser and her new book, Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets. After our concert on June 26, I attended her lecture and book signing and was truly shocked to discover that the Taneyev String Quartet was barely mentioned in her book.
    I’ll return to the book, but first, here’s some background information on our long and close relationship with the Taneyev String Quartet and its intimate association with Shostakovich himself.
    As you know, the members of the St. Petersburg String Quartet studied with Prof. Vladimir Ovcharek, the first violinist and founding member of the Taneyev String Quartet, from 1976 until 1992. We studied also with other members of the Quartet: Grigory Lutsky, second violin, Vissarion Soloviev, viola, and Joseph Levinson, cello.
    The Taneyev String Quartet, formed in 1946, worked closely with Shostakovich and performed most of the premieres of his quartets in Leningrad. They recorded the complete cycle of Shostakovich Quartets.
    Soviet political rules demanded that all premieres be performed first in Moscow. This was done by the famous Beethoven String Quartet. The second performances were always given in Leningrad by our teachers, members of the Taneyev String Quartet.
    Therefore, for sixteen years, we, the St. Petersburg Quartet, were privileged to absorb all their knowledge about the music of Shostakovich, first-hand.
    Later, as you know, we twice recorded the complete works of Shostakovich, for the Sony Classical and Hyperion labels.
    Sony Classical’s release of the St. Petersburg Quartet playing Quartets Nos. 3, 5, and 7 of Shostakovich was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1996. In addition, this recording was chosen “Best Record of the Month” by both Stereo Review and Gramophone magazines.
    In 2002, the St. Petersburg String Quartet won the Chamber Music America/WQXR Record Award for Best Chamber Music Album of 2001. The ensemble was honored for its Hyperion recording of Shostakovich String Quartets nos. 5, 7, and 9.
    On four occasions, we performed the complete cycle of Shostakovich Quartets:
    ·         In New York City, in January and February, 2011.
    ·         In Sweden at the Shostakovich Centenary Festival, where we performed eight concerts from September 30 through October10, 2006.
    ·         In Great Britain at the Shostakovich Centenary Festival in January, 2006.
    ·         At the Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio in 1997 and 1998.
    Why am I telling you all of these stories?
    I had a great disappointment.
    After Wendy Lesser’s new book presentation following our concert of June 26, I met the author. She presented me with a signed copy of her book.
    Immediately after Ms. Lesser left Music Mountain, I opened the book. When I read the first chapter, “Dramatis Personae,” I could not believe what I saw. On page XIV, where members of string quartets who performed Shostakovich’s quartets are listed, neither the Taneyev String Quartet nor the St. Petersburg String Quartet are mentioned.
    The only reminder of the Taneyev String Quartet was found on page 271—that’s all!
    I was incredulous that a serious author could omit such an essential group, who worked directly with Shostakovich for many years. In fact, Dmitry Dmitrievich revealed all the small details and hidden ideas of his music for them. For sixty years, the Taneyev String Quartet not only performed music by Dmitry Shostakovich all over the world, but also opened the door to secret messages that Shostakovich inserted into his fifteen Quartets. The Taneyev String Quartet was known, without a doubt, as among the best interpreters of Shostakovich’s chamber music.
    Could you, therefore, please help me contact the editor and author of this book and ask them why Ms. Lesser has allowed this Quartet to virtually vanish into oblivion within the pages of her book?
    Thank you very much for your attention and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
    Alla Aranovskaya
    First Violinist of the St. Petersburg QuartetDirector of the St.Petersburg International Music AcademyAssistant Professor of Violin, Wichita State UniversityTel: 1-440-574-9164Email: [email protected]          [email protected]          [email protected]: www. stpetersburgquartet.com          http://www.stpetersburgacademy.com