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January 20, 1994 - Image 9

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1994-01-20

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he 15 string quartets of
Dmitri Shostakovich are as
far from light music as it is
possible to get. In terms of
expressive extremes and
emotional intensity, there is no compa-
rable body of work in any repertoire.
Shostakovich's career spanned most of
the 20th century, until his death in 1975 at
the age of 69. He composed under every
Soviet regime starting from the post-Revo-
lutionary period, and the course of Soviet
history strongly influenced his works.
The cellist for
the Borodin String
Quartet, Valentin 3
Berlinsky, sug-.
gested precautions
for people planning
to attend the upcom-
ing performance ofn
the complete cycle
of quartets. "I ad-
vise you to bring a
handkerchief," he '4
said. "You should
not feel very happy
when you listen to
this music."
James Leonard,
perhaps Ann b
Arbor's most re-
n o w 'n e d
Shostakovich afi-
cionado, was even
more mellow-dra-
matic in his assess-
ment. "I think a lot
of people are into
Shostakovich be- -
cause he speaks so
articulately about
the black heart at the
center of the 20th
century," Leonard
About the quar-
tets specifically,
Leonard said, "I
think Shostakovich worked out his pri-
vate emotions in the quartets. The real
Shostakovich may be in the quartets, be-
cause the public Shostakovich was a fig-
ure with a lot of demands on him."
Leonard believes that there is a vast
difference between Shostakovich's pub-
lic works, such as the symphonies and
other large-scale works, and the so-called
private works of chamber music. "This is
usually the case with chamber music,"
Leonard said, "and especially the string
quartet medium, after
Beethoven. I think t h e
quartets give a more inti-
mate view of the com-
poser than the sym-

phonies, in the sense that he was writing
for himself and less for a public."
In Shostakovich's public works, com-
municating specific messages to his audi-
ence was often very important, and he
was often very constrained by the reac-
tions of the Soviet government. "You
can't think of a comparable composer in
the West who had the same commitment
to a public that Shostakovich did,"
Leonard said. "A piece like the 13th Sym-
phony is clearly a critique of the regime
- it would have been a death-sentence to
write it in the
.... consideration for
his public is sup-
ported by his
words, "I always
try to make myself
as widely under-
.O stood as possible;
. andif I don't suc-
MC ceed, I consider it
my fault." In con-
trast, Leonard said,
~ ~ "Shostakovich
F wrote his quartets
just to be able to
writeabsolute mu-
sic and not have to
worry about con-
text or criticism. I
think that - what-
ever this means -
the string quartets
are much more
emotional works."
Because of
nature as a com-
s iposer and due to
his often troubled
relationship with
the Soviet govern-
ment, much of his
music can be un-
derstood at many
levels. "The public music makes sense in
context," Leonard said. "The private music
can be heard either way. It's like Eliot's
'Wasteland' makes perfect sense if you
don't use all the notes at the end, and it
makes more sense in a different way if
you do use the notes at the end."
Berlinsky echoed Leonard's senti-
ments. "I do not think that the political
context is necessary," he said. "It is pos-
sible to understand his music as absolute
music like the Beethoven Symphonies.
The political context is not essential but it
helps a great deal if you know something
about Russia and Russian history and
what the situation with Stalin was all
Certain works are com-

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

prehensible at numerous levels. Among
the quartets, the eighth is the best example
of the kind of complexity that can arise in
Shostakovich's music. "It's devoted to
the victims of fascism," Leonard said.
"He wrote it in Dresden in four days. On
the surface, it's supposed to be about the
horrors of what the Allies did to Dresden.
And then you look underneath and there's
all these quotations from his works, and it
starts to take on a whole different tone. It
becomes a much more personal work and
less of a public comment on something."
Although many of Shostakovich's
works have a great deal of complexity
beneath the surface, they remain compre-
hensible on the level of immediate musi-
cal response. Leonard said, "If you don't
know the quotations and you don't know
the eighth quartet was devoted to the
victims of fascism, and you just listen to

merous, and certainly the fall of Soviet
Russia has heightened international inter-
est in the events of that period. Berlinsky,
however, downplayed the importance of
recent political events in Russia. "Great
music is great because it exists," he said.
"It's not important when something was
written. It is not important what is hap-
pening in Russia now. The important thing
is that this is music that will be living
forever, and now we have more ability to
make it available to everybody around the
Regarding the growth of interest in
Shostakovich, Leonard said, "I think there
are political reasons - there's the fact
that the government fell and people get
into stuff like that," he said. "Then there's
the emotional context - what he's really.
good at, what people seem to be attracted
to, is this grim, dark stuff."


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