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SHOSTAKOVICH IN DIALOGUE: Form, Imagery and Ideas in Quartets 1-7, by Judith Kuhn, 2010, Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 296pp £57

Experience Classicsonline

Like the composer himself, Shostakovich scholarship has been through some turbulent times. From the early 1980s, American and Russian academics staged their own cold war over the veracity of Testimony by Solomon Volkov, a debate which cast a shadow over almost all other academic discussion of the composer’s work for decades.
Judith Kuhn positions herself in a post-Testimony generation of Shostakovich scholars, and it is notable that Testimony does not appear in the bibliography to this volume, and that the debate surrounding it is only mentioned in passing. Considering the political sensitivities that still remain, this is probably sensible, although as reception history is an important aspect of this study, the absence of any Testimony-tainted criticism is all too apparent.
However, while this book gives a broad view of context, its subject is quite a narrow slice of repertoire, the first seven of Shostakovich’s String Quartets. They are popular works - although some more popular than others - and have been the subject of little scholarly study in the past, so in that sense alone this volume is a welcome addition to the growing Shostakovich bibliography. The fact that Kuhn stops short of the 8th, perhaps the most famous quartet of the sequence comes as a surprise, especially since her discussion of the DSCH monogram effectively works backwards from its starring role in that work. The reason, I suspect for the omission is the fact that an entire monograph has already been devoted to it, which was not only written by the supervisor of the PhD thesis upon which this book was based, David Fanning, but is also available from the same publisher unless Kuhn’s motivation for stopping at number 7 is to leave the last 8 quartets for a second volume; on the strength of this volume, a laudable plan.
This is, by any standards, an impressive piece of scholarship. The transition from PhD thesis to book is achieved with remarkable fluency. The methodological framework - more on that presently - is still very apparent, but the reader is always put first. Each of the quartets is discussed in terms of its genesis and reception before being subjected to close analytical inspection. This makes for very readable prose, and casual readers will gain much from Kuhn’s rare ability to summarise the political and cultural complexities of Soviet history. Shostakovich had an interesting life, and some of the stories that Kuhn relates with regard to the genesis of these works are remarkable, such as that his first wife may have died from radiation sickness, and that his second wife didn’t really like his music. I love the story about how, when the composer gave the Borodin Quartet the score of the 4th Quartet, he was compelled to wrap it in a copy of Pravda. Shostakovich’s relationship with Galina Ustvolskaya is also handled well, a subject of specific relevance here because of quotation of her music in Shostakovich’s 5th Quartet.
Many issues are more nebulous and open to subjective bias than biographical details, and these too are covered with an admirable evenness of tone. The 2nd Quartet was written in the mid-1940s, a time of Jewish persecution by the Soviet state. The work contains many references to Jewish music, and so the subject is of acute relevance. And rather than try to whittle down the relationship between the politics and the music to the specifics, Kuhn instead presents a detailed study, first of Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies, then of their personal relevance to the composer. She then looks in detail at how and why Shostakovich represents Jewish musical styles in this and other works. In some ways, it is a bit of a detour, but it is a necessary one given the importance and complexity of the subject.
The title of the book is a little misleading, as it suggests a close relationship between the research methodology and the cultural theories of Mikhail Bakhtin. Perhaps Bakhtin was a stronger presence at the start of the research project than at the end of it. In a sense, it is just as well that he has been demoted to a supporting role, as his ideas fit uneasily with Shostakovich’s work, at least in my opinion. Bahktin’s concept of dialogue or ‘polyphony’ in artworks is based on the idea that interactions within texts, when based on sufficient autonomy of characters, styles or sub-genres, are able to mirror the relationships between the text and its cultural and/or social context. Shostakovich’s music doesn’t really work like that because it always sounds uniquely Shostakovich. In the words of Pauline Fairclough: ‘Shostakovich’s music is hardly a model of ‘polyphony’ in the Bakhtinian sense; his strong authorial presence disqualifies him as a composer of ‘dialogical’ symphonies.’ (Fairclough, P., 2006: A Soviet Credo: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony (Aldershot: Ashgate) p.63.) On the other hand, Bakhtin himself struggled to define any single artwork as categorically undialogic; his efforts to elevate Dostoevsky’s dialogism through contrast to the ‘monologism’ of Tolstoy required a wilful misreading of the latter. Kuhn limits her application of the ideas of Bakhtin to Shostakovich’s ‘dialogues’ with tradition, genre and with officially sanctioned artistic discourse. In those senses it works, but adds little to the discussion.
A more prevalent methodology throughout the book is something called ‘Sonata Theory’, which has been pioneered by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy. Their approach is a formalisation of the more vague assertions that musicologists regularly make about sonata form, about when it works, when it doesn’t work, and when the constituent music resists the functions it dictates. So they come up with ideas like ‘essential sonata trajectory’, ‘expressive deformation’, and ‘expositional failure’ to classify the requirements of the form and the consequences of their not being met. I have to confess that the whole project sounds to me like very old-fashioned structuralism. For example, on page 78 (footnote): ‘Sonata theory describes the minor mode relationship of a major mode theme as a ‘a grim, minor-mode variant’ that creates a ‘lights-out’ effect’. That to me sounds like it was lifted straight out of Deryck Cooke’s The Language of Music, which already sounded outdated when it was published in 1959. On the other hand, musicians and musicologists do use these kinds of assumption when talking about musical form, so standardising the terminology must surely be of benefit.
Sonata theory has much to offer the analyst of Shostakovich’s String Quartets, for as Kuhn points out, they none of them behave as expected with regard to their generic forms. Hepokoski and Darcy formulated their ideas through the study of the 18th century repertoire, but the musical forms in Shostakovich have the added baggage of two centuries worth of anachronism. The forms were also symbolic of official sanction by the Soviet state, adding to the interpretive potential of an approach that can make sense of the continual and varied deformations and structural ‘failures’.
Kuhn is never afraid to interpret what she finds, even when her interpretation amounts only to deciding that the composer is creating deliberate ambiguity. The detail in which the music is discussed means that there is interpretative appraisal here of pretty much every note. And, as I say, despite the quantity of methodology, there is never any dogma in her conclusions, and like the composer, she is often happy to leave the reader and listener to make up their own minds based on the evidence provided.
One subject where Kuhn anticipates disagreement, and quite rightly I suspect, is in her discussion of the DSCH motif. This is a musical cipher based on Shostakovich’s name and in the 8th Quartet is an almost continual presence, driving home the music’s autobiographical significance. It doesn’t really appear in ‘root position’ (on the original note names as an uninterrupted succession of pitches) in the earlier quartets, but Kuhn’s argument – and she is supported to a certain extent by other scholars – is that it gradually emerges from the 5th Quartet onwards. By this theory, its earlier appearances include vertical presentations (as a chord), transposed versions, and most commonly of all, the intervals between the notes appearing in rearranged form. I personally find much of this very tenuous, but Kuhn, anticipating as much, provides very detailed discussion of the debates surrounding the subject, in particular looking at the extent to which we can talk about fixed boundaries between ‘signatures’ and ‘motifs’.
All in all then, a well researched and well written study that most readers should find both informative and provocative. It is a handsome book, although the graphs and tables can get slightly tedious, and many appear without a key to the abbreviations. Good musical examples though; all are well presented and all appear for good reasons linked to the arguments. With that in mind, you will at least need a knowledge of musical notation to get much from this volume. But if you’re concerned about being out of your depth in terms of analytical theory, academic methodology or the details of Soviet-era Russian history, fear not, as all are explained with patience, clarity and detail.
Gavin Dixon


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