By Daniel Sheridan


Composed in 1960 in the cultural context of such a repressive environment as the Soviet Union, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor easily invites, if not demands, politicized readings. Indeed, arriving a mere seven years after the death of Stalin and the end of his totalitarian regime makes it a potentially fruitful work to be situated within the ongoing scholarly disputes over the political orientation of his music, a debate centralized around the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the controversial “memoir” Testimony, which purports to be the composer’s reminiscences, as related to the volume’s author, Solomon Volkov. In that book, Shostakovich attributes coded “dissident” messaging into his music at multiple points; these claims prompted any number of revisionist interpretations among musicologists (particularly Western ones), arguing for a “new Shostakovich” (to invoke the title of one noted volume) that could take his place as a significant voice of artistic resistance.

The debates over Testimony’s authenticity are too complex and heated to be recounted here (this author sides with the view that whatever Shostakovich may have himself thought, the book itself is not what Volkov claims it to be). Moreover, the framing of the composer’s music as rife with blunt anti-Stalinist and indeed, anti-Soviet and anti-Communist symbolism is overly reductive, catering to Western prejudices by substituting one simplistic narrative (Shostakovich as martyr and secret dissident) for another (Shostakovich as loyal Soviet patriot). That said, the revisionist impulse is emblematic of the urge to explore how creativity finds outlet in repressive (and often tyrannical) environments. Adherents of the “new” Shostakovich realize as well as anyone that an artist’s work cannot help but be affected by the cultural context of its production. They see Shostakovich’s work as an endeavour to come to terms with his and his society’s suffering. A productive way to accomplish this without getting mired in narratives about “secret dissidence” and other forms of black-and-white thinking is to examine his work as an expression of trauma, an effort to give musical voice to the multiple anguishes Soviet citizens had endured in their history.

Studies of trauma typically foreground the condition as a psychic wound, an injury to the mind whose severity is too much for the individual’s ability to accommodate it. Psychological trauma is so injurious because it destabilizes subjectivity, making it impossible to recover a sense of coherent identity. Trauma is so disruptive that it cannot be adequately assimilated into the everyday, cannot be encapsulated by conventional language. Dominick LaCapra contends that the attempt to “write” trauma is to set out to merely frame it in comprehensible terms, while Cathy Caruth posits trauma as the wound given voice, which “cries” out in an attempt to communicate a reality that is otherwise unavailable or incomprehensible. The notion of trauma as a cry that resists reduction to language would seem to find an appropriate vehicle in music, particularly instrumental music: at once emotionally expressive and lacking in textual specificity, its apparent indeterminacy allows it to be pregnant with potential meaning. Music’s multivalence invites the perception that it conveys through sound what language cannot, that it is the “cry” that gives voice to the traumatized, creators and spectators alike.

Dedicated “to the memory of the victims of fascism and war,” the Eighth Quartet’s score explicitly announces itself as a product of mourning. To reiterate, its composition in 1960 situates the work within the context of a Russian population carrying memories of a twin collective trauma: the devastation of the Second World War and the terror of Stalin’s dictatorial rule, which resulted in magnitudinous numbers of arrests, imprisonments and deaths of Soviet citizens (the twin afflictions are significant: trauma is often noted for its belatedness, requiring a second trauma to uncover the original one, previously repressed in the psyche). That would lend itself to an interpretation of the work as a sonorous requiem for that period of massed suffering; the published dedication seems straightforward enough, but of course things Soviet seldom are, starting with the fact that the work was composed in Dresden and thus carries the double meaning of apparently memorializing wartime losses on both German and Russian sides. But as Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay points out, the dedication amounts to an “official legend,” one palatable to Soviet bureaucracy, especially one eager to rehabilitate itself in the aftermath of tyranny; an anodyne commemoration to generalized victims of war does nothing to outwardly implicate the Soviet state. But a parsing of Shostakovich’s correspondences and reminiscences of his friends suggests that the quartet was much more personal: the prominence of the “DSCH motive” – D-S-C-H being the German note names for D-Eb-C-B, Shostakovich’s musical “initials” – and the liberal use of quotations of previous compositions certainly implies autobiographical intent. One unsubstantiated claim from friend Lev Lebdinsky even held that Shostakovich intended the quartet to be his epitaph, and that he would attempt suicide afterwards.

Despite that story’s lack of corroboration, it points to an emotional turmoil that the music seems to bear out. The piece is at various points tragic, embittered, sardonic and grotesque. The prominence of the DSCH motive here is in marked contrast to its usage in the Tenth Symphony, where it came off as defiant and triumphant. In this context, the motive, along with the other quotations, takes on the guise of lamentation. Shostakovich’s musical history becomes a site of bereavement instead of celebration. His artistic identity is refashioned as an anguished cry, as if his life as a composer was in the end primarily an outlet to express pain that could not be adequately communicated in any other fashion. The presence of direct and identifiable referents expressed purely in tone without any definitive text results in a thorny combination of specificity and ambiguity, for what exactly is Shostakovich mourning? Is his trauma the enduring memories of living through the terror of the war and Stalin’s oppression? Revisionist interpretations would certainly eagerly embrace the anti-Stalin viewpoint. But does Shostakovich’s wound cut even deeper than that? Musicologist Lawrence Kramer suggests that an element of the quartet’s tragic air might be a sonic self-flagellation over his own capitulations to the demands of the state (note that the quartet’s creation closely followed his joining of the Communist Party, a condition of his becoming the head of the Union of Composers of the Russian Federation, essentially a quid pro quo); part of Shostakovich’s enduring trauma is his co-operation as a means to both survive and thrive within the system, his music an enduring reminder of knuckling under. Perhaps all of the above were traumatizing; multiple wounds endured in proximity feeds into the notion of trauma as that which is too much to be reliably dealt with. The music of the Eighth Quartet steps where the conscious mind will not, “crying” out to give voice to a wound that cannot be comprehended, cannot be expressed verbally.

Of course, for Russian audiences not necessarily privy to all of that, the quartet’s cries might indeed speak directly to wartime sufferings and Stalinist terror. Instrumental music’s indeterminacy is an ideal outlet for the unbearable to be processed, the perfect mirror in which individuals and communities can find their fears and pains reflected. Music can be what the spectator needs it to be in order to try to come to terms with psychic trauma. Studying Shostakovich’s music through this lens allows us to contextualize his work within Russian society without succumbing to re-fighting the Cold War, to read every tragic, mournful, or violent gesture as some anti-Stalin broadside. The musical expression of trauma permits us to see Shostakovich as a complex, three-dimensional being with a similarly complicated relationship with his culture. We need not reduce him to either martyr or sycophant, nor do we need to pigeonhole his music to propaganda on either side. Shostakovich deserves more than that.