History only hears the music

Miles Hoffman is violist of the American Chamber Players, a music commentator for NPR's "Morning Edition" and the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."

THE LIST OF classical composers active after 1950 whose music is sure to last -- whose music will not just be archived, analyzed or “admired” by specialists but listened to for profound pleasure by a broad public, and loved -- is depressingly short. And the names on that list are by no means a matter of consensus. Propose a few, if you like, but be prepared for arguments.

Dmitri Shostakovich, however, is a sure bet. A hundred years from now, barring global flood or frizzle, our descendants will still be listening to his music, as their descendants will be 200 years from now, and so on without limit.

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, 100 years ago Monday. He composed symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, film music, piano pieces, songs and chamber music of every variety, and he completed his last major work in 1975, the year he died. He tended to construct his pieces from simple musical materials -- melodies and rhythms so simple, in fact, that they often seem banal, and so banal that we sometimes say to ourselves, “He’s kidding, right? Surely he’s not going to try to make a piece out of that stuff.”


Yet, in his best works, Shostakovich managed to put his building blocks together in extremely compelling ways and to cover a vast expressive range. Within the same piece, whether it’s his massive Fifth Symphony or his haunting Sonata for Viola and Piano, the music may at various times sound powerful, nasty, sentimental, vulgar, clever, funny, repetitive to the point of obstinacy or gorgeous to the point of heartbreak.

Political questions, however, have shadowed Shostakovich’s work from the very beginning. He lived his entire adult life as a citizen/subject of the Soviet regime and was at various times honored, vilified, encouraged or threatened, depending on who happened to be in power and the vagaries of the political climate. His opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” was praised by critics at its premiere in 1934, for example, and was said to reflect “the correct policy of the Party.” But a performance in 1936 elicited violent condemnation in Pravda (including accusations of “left deviationism” and appealing to “the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences”), and the opera was banned for the next 2 1/2 decades. In 1948, Shostakovich was again denounced in Pravda and fired from his position at the Moscow Conservatory, but after Josef Stalin’s death he was gradually rehabilitated, and in 1959 he was made first secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers.

Even during the periods when he was promoted as a Soviet hero, Shostakovich is said to have lived in fear that the gulag was only a knock on the door away. But he never left the Soviet Union -- or was never able to leave -- and he remains what the scholar Richard Taruskin has called “the Soviet Union’s emblematic composer.”

Taruskin’s term is deceptively complex; it can be construed on various levels. At the very least, however, it tells us that Shostakovich plied his craft in a totalitarian country, with unceasing scrutiny from officials who in some cases understood and in some cases didn’t understand his artistic achievements but who in all cases imposed their judgments -- or gave their blessings -- for political reasons.

And for decades now, Shostakovich’s own political views and personality have been subjects of great controversy. Was he a loyal Soviet citizen, writing music to glorify the state (he did join the Communist Party in 1960, after all), or just a terrified artist (and alcoholic to boot) who eventually caved in to enormous pressures? Or was he in fact a true hero, a secret rebel who suffered for years under the harsh conditions of his personal and artistic existence and yet contrived time and again to encode powerful subversive messages into his music?

Well, I hate to make light of questions that at first seem quite weighty and that on a personal level for Shostakovich (and others) may indeed have been issues of life and death. But in the long run of Art, the answer is simple: It doesn’t much matter. And as more time goes by, it matters even less. What kind of guy was Homer? What did Michelangelo think of Savonarola? Was Bach fervently religious, or was he merely a prodigiously gifted and passionate composer who was paid to write a cantata every week? Or both? And by the way, was he an anti-Semite?


I’m not saying that such questions are not interesting, even fascinating. Why would we study historical contexts and influences -- in any field -- if we didn’t hope to be enlightened in various ways? But it’s also true that many questions that seem, and indeed often are, terribly important in their own time lose their urgency as the decades and centuries pass. And the lasting value of great works of art is found not in the personal opinions or attributes of their creators but in the appeal to eternal human qualities -- and human needs -- in the artworks themselves.

What matters about Shostakovich is that he was a brilliant composer who wrote wonderful music. What he was thinking or feeling when he wrote it is anybody’s guess, and most guesses will be wrong. They will be wrong because from bar to bar, chord to chord and note to note -- even in works with suggestive titles and “programs” -- a composer’s creative choices are musical, not political, polemical or pictorial. And the creative process in music, as in all the arts, remains a mystery. Did Shostakovich have to contend with severe external constraints in the Soviet Union? Certainly. But so did many others, and we’re not celebrating their centenaries.

In his essay, “Portrait of Beethoven in his Thirtieth Year,” Romain Rolland wrote, “The hammer is not all: The anvil also is necessary.” Virtually every artist has to operate under constraints and pressures imposed either from the outside or from within. But when those forces are at their most extreme, only artists of the greatest gifts are able to bear up, or somehow even to turn the forces to their advantage -- and finally to transcend them.

As Beethoven transcended his deafness, so Shostakovich transcended the hell of his political predicament. Long after anyone alive remembers Shostakovich personally or knows much about the circumstances of his life, his music will remain, and listeners will be grateful.