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Shostakovich and symphonic semiotics


Dmitri Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony was recently performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, impressively conducted by Hugh Wolff.  The printed program notes, written by Ken Meltzer, call to mind DS’s widely debated and intriguing legacy, and in a way suggestive for our conceptualizations of music as a sign system.  The 5th marks a significant turn to a more conservative style in Shostakovich’s compositions, likely caused by the harsh criticism he received from Soviet critics for his more imaginative opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and reflective of his wish to return to popular favor at a time when being unpopular could be easily fatal.  The 5th was appreciatively received by the public who heard it as a euphoric tribute to the heroic socialist citizen and a testament to the utopian Soviet fantasy of a tightly controlled society nonetheless able to actualize the triumphant possibilities of individual action.

The posthumous publication in 1979 of Testimony, organized by Solomon Volkov and presented as an authentic reflection of Shostakovich’s actual views, threw all this into question.  Volkov presented a revisionist Shostakovich savvy to the oppressiveness of the Soviet system, and offering music not celebratory of the state but condemnatory of its crude and ghoulish authoritarianism.  The 5th symphony, Volkov/ Shostakovich explains, is not an joyish anthem to the Soviet citizen but a clunky symbolic representation of slavery and the stifling opposite of triumphant celebration.

Testimony is much debated, obviously. Shostakovich’s surviving family members, even while conceding some of the revisionist account, see the book as a fraudulent (Volkov claimed to be offering a dictated account, and that in particular is denied).  What is not apparently denied is that Shostakovich did indeed, in composing his work, aspire to embed very particular themes.

The ambiguity of music as a notational language makes this a tough puzzle.  Are we to read the 5th as enacting joy or oppression, or both?  The score, or perhaps more importantly, its performance does not dictate or arguably prefer one reading over the other.  And all this is made more fully complicated since a conductor persuaded of one view or the other might easily, by subtle interpretive changes, produce an audience response favorable to her or his reading.

As a simple fan of classical music, my knowledge of these debates is not sophisticated enough to weigh in, especially when exceptionally intelligent and careful explications of all this have been produced by analysts like Ian MacDonald (also a revisionist) and Richard Taruskin (who rejects the authenticity of Testimony).  The puzzles presented quite starkly by Shostakovich’s 5th are, however, not at all unique to musical performance or the analysis of similarly ambiguated visual images, but rather characterize all symbolic systems, including even such propositionally transparent modes as oratory and argumentation and perhaps mathematics.

How else can one explain the often wholly opposed audience responses to even very carefully designed and apparently explicit messages like speeches and advertisements – how can the same message so often induce love/hate responses in the same audiences?  And how is one to judge the apparent importance of knowing whether an author/composer intended a work to be read one way or the other in an age where such presumably important questions are so readily dismissed on account of of the final unknowability of the author’s mental state (an idea Roland Barthes so influentially championed as the “death of the author”)?  It is hard not to be sympathetic to the compelling case now commonly adopted against authorship except of course for the fact that audiences are every bit as inscrutable as authors, and if the critic ends up abandoning both, there is the considerable risk that criticism is reduced to nothing more than solipsism.  And what, then, do we make of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony?

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