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GG: Attitude towards shostakovich
Thanks to Capt. Nemo for making available the highly pertinent
excerpt on Shostakovich from GG's "Music in the Soviet Union." The
question that I have is: "Was GG right?"
In the context of the times, Gould's view seems to me to be
unorthodox. Because of Shostakovich's willingness to assume figurehead
positions in the Communist Party and the Soviet Composers' organization
(as well as his willingness to crank out safe Socialist Realism like the
"Song of the Forests"), he was dismissed as an ideological hack by the
vast majority of people in the Western musical establishment. Take a
look at what Harold Schonberg has to say about DSCH in _The Lives of the
Great Composers_ for a good sample of Cold War music criticism. Gould at
least recognizes Shostakovich as a real composer and a true symphonist
(though Schonberg, as I recall, also praises the spirit and originality
of the 1st Symphony, and then goes on to dismiss everything else as
hackwork; maybe Gould's views are more orthodox than I first thought!).
But one has the sense that Gould failed badly to recognize the
real conditions in which Shostakovich composed. I greatly respect Gould,
but his airy assurance that one can always opt out of disagreeable
situations is absurd in the context of the grim realities of Soviet
totalitarianism. I recall some of his comments in the wonderful self-
interview (and please forgive any inaccuracies: my e-mail is at work, my
Gould books at home): "Oh, the Orwellian world holds no terrors for me."
You may also recall his comment on the Soviet approach to art: "The
Soviets are a bit roughhewn as to method, but their concerns are
Maybe Gould was right about his ability to withstand the Orwellian
world, but I can't help but think that he really didn't have the faintest
idea what that world was really like. If that's true, then his serene
conviction that he could have avoided the kind of compromises that
Shostakovich made is morally obtuse. For some insight into the reality
of Shostakovich's life, I strongly recommend the biographical compilation
_Shostakovich: A Life Remembered_, published in paperback by Princeton
Let me conclude with a much better-informed appreciation of
Shostakovich's achievement from the article "Who Was Shostakovich" by
Richard Taruskin (_Atlantic Monthly_, February 1995):
"The mature Shostakovich was not a dissident. Nor was he a
modernist. The mature Shostakovich was an _intelligent_(pronounced,
Russian-style, with a hard g). He was heir to a noble tradition of
artistic and social thought--one that abhorred injustice and political
repression, but also one that valued social commitment, participation in
one's community, and solidarity with people. Shostakovich's mature idea
of art, in contrast to the egoistic notions of Western modernism, was
based not on alienation but on service. He found a way of maintaining
public service and personal integrity under unimaginably hard conditions.
In this way he remained, in the time-honored Russian if not exactly the
Soviet sense of the word, a 'civic' artist."
Had Gould recognized that aspect of Shostakovich (similar to
Gould's own ideas about the need of the artist to efface himself), I am
sure that he would have responded more positively to music that bears
witness to some of the greatest horrors of our century. Gould cannot be
criticized for failing to transcend the commonly-accepted criticisms of
Shostakovich, but I think Gould can be criticized--sharply--for his
implicit assumption of moral superiority to Shostakovich.
Thanks to all for so much interesting discussion!
On Tue, 2 Apr 1996, Captain Nemo wrote:
> >From Tim Page's _The Glenn Gould Reader_, chapter title "Music in the
> Soviet Union", Glenn writes:
> In general, the present picture of music in the Soviet Union is a
> rather dismal one. Besides Prokofiex, other men of great talent have made
> their artistic impact since the revolution; but they have been few, and
> even those few have tended to undergo a rather bewildering metamorphosis in
> their music. It is a commonplace to observe that around 1925 one of the
> most prodigiously gifted young men was Dmitri Shostakovich. As everyone
> who has heard it will bear witness, his First Symphony, which was written
> at that time, is as lucid, imaginative, and joyously autobiographical as a
> first symphony ought to be. It is an extra ordinary work -- one in which
> this teen-ager sampled without inhibition the cultural reservoir of Western
> music, dipped cautiously into the expressionistic extravagance of Gustav
> Mahler, borrowed a bit of the motoric rhythms of the neoclassicists,
> sampled the double-enendre pivot chords of the early Schoenberg, and
> whipped all of this into a confection that chronicles the adolescence of a
> young man of such prodigious gifts that he might reasonably have been
> expected to become the great one of the coming generation.
> That he did not become so may bne counted as one of the genuine
> tragedies of twentieth-century music. Shostakovich today is occupied with
> Symphony No. Fourteen or so. He turns out works which no longer speak with
> the intensity of Mahler because there is no longer anything that he wishes
> to be intense about. The rhythmic propulsion of the early works has turned
> into the incessant pulsing of an organism, fatigued and overworked an
> trapped by a treadmill of historical delusion which shows no sign of
> relinquishing its incessant demands of productivity. The skillful
> ambiguities of Schoenbergian double meaning have become frigid and tawdry,
> stylized cilches embarrassing in their frequency. All that remains is the
> occasional moment of some strange ecstatic adagio (Shostakovich, like all
> real symphonists, always had a sense of adagio) to indicate what might have
> been. Superficially, at any rate, Shostakovich would seem to be a victim
> of the stultifying conformity that the regime has demanded.
> And yet one wonders about this in the case of Shostakovich. To all
> intents and purposes, the first blow to his pride, the first genuine
> interference with his creative aims, took place in 1936, when he was
> denounced for the opera _Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk_, and we have perhaps
> permitted ourselves to overdramatize the results of that particular
> denunciation of Shostakovich's future course. I would not, I think, have
> said that a month or so ago, because I was not yet familiar with the work.
> But within the last few weeks I have (with some difficulty) managed to
> acquire a photostat copy of the original, unexpurgated score of _Lady
> Macbeth_, and I have to confess that in my judgment those who condemned the
> work were precisely right: it is a piece of unadulterated trivia. We may
> still assume that they condemned it for the wrong reasons -- that they read
> into its story of adultery and murder an anti-Party activity. We may even
> assume that to a man of Shostakovich's inordinately sensitive temperament,
> such criticsm may have had a long-range effect of inhibition and
> confinement. But the fact remains that whatever went wrong with
> Shostakovich as a creative artist had already begun by the time he wrote
> this work.
> I should say that Shostakovich suffers less from the nagging
> persecutions of Party-imposed direction (afer all, a man of his ingenuity
> could surely surmount some of that simply by taking refuge in the spiritual
> ivory tower of his work) than from an overdose of the Russian guilt complex
> -- that he struggles unsuccessfully against a conscience which encourages
> the idea that duty has named a certain goal for his talents and that,
> whatever the cost, he must adapt himslef in the manner required to attain
> it. Dmitri Shostakovich may yet write another great work, but I doubt it.
> I suspect that the twitching, weak-eyed teen-ager put down in the First
> Symphony in one grand burst of synoptic power all his love of and
> fascination with Western culture. When that first fresh, uncomplicated
> exposure of youth had ended, he became paralyzed by the unshakable conceit
> of duty and responsibility. He became a prisoner of a society in which
> this kind of love and admiration was condemned.
> -- end quote--
> I checked it out: it seems that he has only played the Three
> Fantastic Danses (with Albert Pratz, violin) in 1951 (released by Hallmark)
> and performed the Piano Quintet, op 57 with the Symphonia Quartet on Jan
> 14, 1962 for television...
> I would probably guess that the reason that he didn't play much
> Shostakovich is probably for the same reason he didn't play Stravinski:
> that is, since the composer was alive, he felt somehow restrained, unable
> to make the interpretation that he wanted to because he would have probably
> received a lot of flac for doing so. After all, his interpretations of the
> Beethoven often went over badly, but at least _Beethoven_ couldn't tell him
> that he was wrong whereas these living composers most certainly would have
> been offended by odd interpretations of their pieces. This is just a
> hypothesis though...
> Captain Nemo
> Haverford College
> 370 Lancaster Ave.
> Haverford, PA 19041
> Phone: (610) 896-1680
> I go out into the hall to knock in a nail. On my way there, I
> decide I would rather go out. I obey the impulse, get into a train, come
> to a railway station, go on travelling and finally end up - in America!
> That is modulation!
> Anton Webern, from "Towards New Music"
> "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of
> adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of
> a state of wonder serenity."
> Glenn Gould