Shostakovich and Bowles

I read an interesting and thought-provoking post this morning in the Classical Life blog which caught my eye because it was about Shostakovich, a composer whose music is very dear to me. Tim Managan, the blogger, quotes from the composer and author Paul Bowles, who in his book Paul Bowles on Music discussed the 6th and 8th symphonies of Shostakovich in somewhat disdainful terms.

 Managan, who edited the book, doesn’t tell us when Bowles made these comments, so it’s hard to know whether these were opinions offered on first contact with the two symphonies in question at the time they were written, or whether these were the long-thought-out evaluations of an older musician. I would be curious to know.
Interestingly, I doubt it would make much difference. In my student days, disdain for Shostakovich’s music among people of otherwise good taste and high intelligence seemed a largely generational question. Take for instance the members of the La Salle Quartet in Cincinnati. Their life-long advocacy of Schoenberg and the New Vienna School had left the older members of the group with a certain disdain for Shostakovich, whose music was held to be reactionary and unsophisticated by the serialist school. On the other hand, Lee Fiser, my teacher and the quartets second cellist, who was about 20 years younger than the other members of the group saw no need to take sides between Schoenberg and Shostakovich. I think Lee was right- the modernist project predicted a clear path to the future in all aspects of life, and that path has failed to materialize. Instead, it has produced a wealth of great works of art, alongside works produced in all other styles. Bowles belongs to a different zeitgeist than the modernists, but his general hubris is typical of the 20th Century’s general obsession with finding the one true path to the future.

Take Le Corbusier. His houses are some of the most beautiful of the 20th Century, with wonderfully sparse, contemplative spaces, dynamic angles and a vibrant relationship to their surroundings. His giant tower block apartments, on the other had, are some of the ugliest, most soul-destroying buildings ever designed, and these designs have ruined countless thousands of lives, warehousing people like cattle in giant, concrete prisons. Is it any wonder that the riots in France last year erupted in housing projects like those designed by Corbusier? In his life he was a (perhaps the) major figure, pointing the way to the future of architecture. Now, we know him as a great architect who built some inspiring buildings, but who also failed to understand the full implications of some of what he advocated.

In any case, Bowles criticisms of Shostakovich now sound hopelessly dated. Take for instance the remark:
“In this sense it wavers between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Again, there Is none of the twentieth century’s knack of establishing tension immediately.”

What a remarkably small-minded version of the twentieth century! Were we really expecting all 20th music from 1900-1999 to establish tension at the same rate? Of course Shostakovich’s music has roots in the 19th Century, but this was not due to a lack of insight, technique or discipline on his part. Composers of true genius write the music they want to write, not the music they think others want to hear.  This is as true of Shostakovich as it is of Webern- in this sense they’re both equally true to themselves (and don’t be fooled into thinking that serial composers don’t feel pressure to conform to serials ideals just as much as Shostakovich felt pressure to conform to the ideals of Socialist Realism or whatever other bogus doctrine was being trotted out at the annual composers conventions). Shostakovich chooses to connect his music to musics of the past for many reasons- to exploit, encourage and defy the formal expectations of the listeners, to evoke common reference points of meaning and to explore compositional questions he felt earlier composers had posed in their works. His endless fascination with Mahler, Beethoven and Bach as well as with the Russian school, particularly Mussorgsky, meant he was always studying their models, their problems and their solutions. He also knew that he could take advantage of the collective listening experience of his audience by writing in classical forms- the meaning can be more explicit because the medium is more familiar.

It may not entirely surprise the reader to know that, as a younger man, I was prone to stating very strong opinions about the music of other composers, opinions that I now cringe to remember. Tchaikovsky- cheap! Haydn- silly! Yikes! I was too immature and narrow-minded to understand that they each had reasons for every single compositional choice they made. I now try to approach new pieces and composers with the attitude that they may be better musicians and deeper thinkers than me, and I try to understand why they’ve written what they have before I try to judge how successful they’ve been writing it.

Imagine that you go to a restaurant and ask for the best item on the menu. The waiter brings you a beautifully cooked steak. Yum. You might even think that this was the meal you’ve been looking for your whole life. The next day you go to another, highly recommended, restaurant and again ask the waiter for the best dish on the menu. This time they bring you a perfectly prepared vegetarian curry. Of course, it tastes nothing like steak. Does it make sense to review it in terms of steak, to discuss how fully it embodies the ideals of steak? Can you call it the worst steak you’ve ever had?
Now imagine coming away from that first meal and declaring that, in the 20th Century, everyone would eat steak. Medium-rare, goddam it. It will be served on plain, white dishes- none of that frilly 19th Century bone china, please.  Chicken is old-fashioned, fish is bourgeois. Vegetarian curry is for spineless lefties!

Anyone, no matter how musically illiterate, can describe music. Bowles says of the 6th that:
     “The two brash and brilliant last movements do not balance the endless first.”
But Bowles never explores why the composer made this choice, or looked at other works from this period to see if this was a trend in his music. It was never Shostakovich’s intent in the 6th Symphony to create balance or closure, everything about the piece speaks of enigmas, riddles, instability and expecations denied. In that sense, it is truly modern music., and it will always be modern music precisely because Shostakovich so resolutely refuses to satisfy our expectations, much as he encourages them.

Bowles says of Shostakovich in general that:

     “Invention comes suddenly on the heels of tired repetition, delectable bits of sound follow masses of harassing noise.”
But again, he never considers that these were Shostakovich’s choices, or tries to understand or explain why they were made. Certainly any reasonably musical person, let alone a genius, can recognize when repetition begins to grate on the nerves. Why then, would Shostakovich so brazenly jump the repetition shark as he does in the 3rd mvt of the 8th? Surely he wanted us to tire of the repetition, just as he often intentionally interrupts delectable bits with masses of harassing noise (something Mahler was also criticized for). Why? What is the music expressing? If it upsets us, maybe he wants us to be upset. If it annoys us, maybe he wants us to be annoyed. Maybe the very reactions Bowles describes are manifestations of Shostakovich’s success in communicating the states of mind and emotion he set out to.
 Bowles says of the giant form of the first movement that:
       “The result naturally tends to be cumbersome.”

Of course! A 20-25 minute first movement marked “adagio” is must be meant to be cumbersome.

Surely any critic would accept the idea that the composer’s job is not to entertain or to please the tastes of the listener, but they often forget this and become no more thoughtful listeners that the emperor in Amadeus when he condemned the fictional Mozart for “too many notes.”

Thanks to Classical Life for getting me started today. Surely there will be more on Shostakovich in future posts.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Shostakovich and Bowles”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    Tim Managan was kind enough to get in touch with me about the timing of Bowle’s comments-

    “Hi, Kenneth,

    Thanks for your comments on my blog. The Bowles reviews were written in
    the early to mid 40s. He was writing at times about U.S. premieres of
    Shostakovich works, though I’m not sure that was case with the 6th and
    8th (I’d have to check again, and I don’t have the book at my disposal at
    the moment). He was rather more admiring of the 5th, as it happens.

    Tim Mangan”

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