Diagnosing Dmitri

I spent all day writing program notes for the Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, and I finally pinpointed why I can’t love his music as much as I do Mahler’s. It often demonstrates the same contrapuntal saturation, timbral variety, and rhythmic drive as Mahler, but it lacks meaningful background harmonic movement. A foregrounded chord, tensely sustained, will finally shift to another chord – and then back again, instead of onward toward another, continuing harmony that would make the move seem significant. Long sequences are not unified, as they are in Mahler, by a large-scale voice-leading that leads somewhere. Instead, the large-scale harmony wavers, and fluctuates, and diddles around, leaving the impression that he’s just stretching out the length without a goal in mind. The melodic aspects are great, but the tonal background has no tautness. You can feel the approach to an inevitable Mahler climax ten minutes in advance, but Shostakovich, for all his many virtues, just too often feels harmonically arbitrary. And, as a composer, large-scale voice-leading is one of the things I pay most attention to in my own music. I’m kind of fanatical about it.

And whatever legitimate oppressive hardships Shostakovich had to work under, I doubt that Zhdanov and the Communist Party Central Committee ever cracked down on large-scale voice-leading.

[AFTERTHOUGHT: By the way, I don’t say here that Shostakovich wasn’t a great composer. I say that I can’t love him as much as I do Mahler (one of my very favorite composers) because I’m highly attuned to large-scale harmonic movement. On a good day I’m very precise in my formulations.]


  1. says

    Could the political and emotional dynamics of the times play into DSCH’s diminished attention span? If his Testimony memoir is to be believed, he lived under constant anxiety, first viz Stalin and later over his own death. Could it be that he could not deal with the details? And I often wonder if the comparison with Mahler is justified. Maybe its Bruckner?
    KG replies: Mahler is the one whose influence he often cited. And Bruckner’s voice-leading seems even more continuous to me than Mahler’s.

  2. says

    Hi Kyle! You may remember me as an overly enthusiastic student in what may have been your first harmony class in a long time, back in 1998 (or ’99?)… but in any case, I just started reading a few days ago, and I’m glad to have found your delightful blog…

    Now on to my comment. It’s funny, but I have the exact opposite reaction when I think of Mahler and Shostakovich. For me, I’m a foreground-dramatic-arch-obsessed guy more than a background-tonal listener… so I always find Mahler frustrating in his profusion of climaxes (I often feel like there are 10 “high points” per movement) and Shostakovich more satisfying in his delaying of surface tension to give the listener one big whopper of an apotheosis. Even though I can hear the harmonic movement through a Mahler piece, I still find myself unable to sustain my attention through the whole thing, because of all those arrival points in the surface texture and dynamics and such.

    Also, on a much less technical note, to me there’s something just delightfully evil about Shostakovich’s music, like the best heavy metal. Just tossing that out there.
    KG replies: Hello Scott. Glad to hear from you.
    Yeah, that’s my problem with living in the 21st century – I have a very long attention span.

  3. says

    I guess this would be as good a moment as any to repeat Boulez’s 2000 remark:
    “It’s like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler”
    My complaint about Shostakovich is that he seemed to learn nothing new at all. In the 1960s, when Schnittke and Part were using twelve-tone techniques, Shostakovich was totally oblivious to the recently-introduced possibilities. Sure, the Soviet authorities would have come down harder on him if his work showed avant-garde qualities, but he could have written them for his desk-drawer like he did with “Rayok”.
    I don’t think that he should have become an “aging camp-follower of serialism” like Stravinsky, but the late Shostakovich of the early 1970s doesn’t really sound different than what he was writing forty years earlier. That seems to me to be a problem.

  4. says

    Even though Shostakovich was for years my favorite composer (and still is among my favorites), it took me a long time to warm to the 11th Symphony. But it’s actually, in my opinion, very clever, very dynamic, and I’ve come to love it. I think it just doesn’t reveal itself until after multiple listenings. But give it a chance, as well as his other music. The Maria Tsveteyevna settings, from around the time of the 14th symphony, are amazing.
    True, he didn’t become a raging modernist in terms of 12-tone music. He dabbled, particularly towards the end of his life. But so what? Many of his students were actually pretty avant-garde, so I know he was open minded to all of it. And the early works, like The Nose, Aphorisms, and the first Piano Sonata were certainly modern for what was otherwise going on in Soviet music.

  5. says

    The 11th is far from being my favorite Shostakovich symphony, but I’ll defend it anyway with this contrary question: what would you say if someone criticized, say, Tom Johnson’s Four-Note Opera for lacking “meaningful background harmonic movement”? What if Shostakovich were playing by fundamentally different rules than Mahler? The freezing of harmonic movement (periodically) is one of Shostakovich’s most powerful devices for creating tension. He is in tension with conventional musical argument on many levels, even as he uses the available foms. I’d think you’d enjoy this, Kyle! I agree with the above remark that I actually find Mahler hard to take these days, at least with the ridiculous saturation of performances and the overblown self-importance of the interpretations. Unfortunately, Shostaovich is being annexed by Maestro egos in the same way.
    KG replies: Oh, Alex, that’s an easy one. In any music, or any communication, if you’ve signaled intentions, you either have to follow through or acknowledge that you’ve frustrated them. Tom Johnson, just like me in some of my pieces, has no intention of moving from the harmonic area in which he starts, and you know that very quickly. He creates no false expectations. Stravinsky and Bartok are both great at freezing harmonic movement, even creating temporary stasis between two chords – and then shifting to two more chords to up the ante. But I always feel like Shostakovich is introducing new pitches with clear harmonic implications, then pulling back, as though he was simply trying to spice up his diatonic scale. It seems like a failure to deal with pitch in a two-dimensional way.
    I will add that, in the 11th Symphony, I think it’s especially true of the third and forth movements. The almost-minimalist first movement doesn’t bother me in that respect, for the same reason Tom Johnson doesn’t.

  6. Richard says

    Oddly enough, though Shostakovich is considered the great “symphonist”, I’ve come to think that his best works were chamber music. With reduced forces, he seems to avoid the pointless clutter and note-spinning of the large scale works. Maybe it’s just that I’m not a big fan of late romantic monumentalism.

  7. says

    The problem wasn’t that Shostakovich didn’t “learn” anything, it’s that he decided to change course from the radical early years, as Toub rightly says, to the Romantic allusions and style he turned towards with the Fifth Sym. and later.

    Boulez’s quotation makes less sense today than it did when he said it. So he didn’t explode the existing structures, big deal. He knew how to work with them, and far from being a lackluster composer technically, he knew his counterpoint, as can be heard in the Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues.

    Then there’s the 13th Quartet (1970), which opens with a 12-note theme from the viola. It’s not developed serially, but it’s there regardless. And DS also reportedly admired Marteau sans Maitre. He wasn’t out of touch. He just had other ways to say what he said (even if his “large-scale voice-leading” is subpar).

    Nice post, Kyle.

  8. Peter says

    What I find to be the most interesting question about Shostakovich’s music is this: Why do so many music critics dislike his music? Your post, Kyle, is the first criticism I’ve seen which actually is rational, in the sense of being based on a reason (whether one agrees with your analysis or not). I often have the feeling that many critics dislike Sh’s music only because he is popular with concert goers, and “hence” must be suspect.

  9. says

    I don’t think DSCH was in the frame of mind in the latter part of his life to take on new challenges of style or technique. He was still working out the emotional turmoil of the rest of his life. Often we forget that composers are people living in a historical moment. What I’ve read about DSCH in those later years amazes me that he was able to compose anything at all, much less something as monumental as the 11th. But I do agree that his chamber and solo piano music are far more interesting than some of the symphonies. It seems to me that the symphonies were written with more than just musical intentions alone.

  10. says

    Shostakovich was an awesomely gifted musician. His memory, his ear, his facility, his mastery of basic technique all were reported to be insane, off the charts. I think it’s a big mistake to think that when he produces an effect it’s because he didn’t know what he was doing, because he is failing to follow through on “signaled intentions” (how can we really agree on what those intentions were?). If the music feels repetitive, if the harmonic rhythm is frozen, it is because he wants it to be. So, for me, I want to figure out how to absorb that effect, not to question the intentions.
    … Boulez isn’t one to talk about being the second or third pressing of anything (qv Webern). There’s a great story, which Shostakovich tells in his letters to Glikman, about when he came to New York in 1973, I think it was, when Boulez was conducting the Philharmonic. There was a party after a concert and Boulez came up to Shostakovich and — get this! — bent down to his kiss his hand. Shostakovich was amazed that the arch-deacon of modernism, the scourge of the useless non-atonal composers, would make such a gesture of respect. Obviously he understood it to be an insincere, sardonic, characteristically political move, for, as he wrote to Glikman, he did not succeed in snatching his hand away in time. Shostakovich remains.
    KG replies: Well, OK. Shostakovich was a genius; ergo, all his intentions were perfect, those intentions were invariably perfectly realized, and in objective reality, all his works are perfect. The simple sole purpose of music criticism is to decide who the perfect geniuses were, so that we may abase ourselves before them. But though I may be only an ant on the back of an elephant, I am too old and too rebellious an ant to prefer reality to my perceptions.

  11. Stepan Razin says

    But is what you’ve described a failure of the author?
    It seems to me that failure is a key element in Dmitri’s cosmos, and one that he described with heartbreaking accuracy. He lived to see almost everything around him fail.
    To Mahler, heaven, like empire, was attainable. To Shostakovich, it was not. All there is at the end of the tunnel is death.
    So the melodies break into fragments, motives wander as if they’re feeling their way around in the dark, harmonies falter and systems collapse into bombast.
    Sounds like he was describing the world he knew. To me it is incredibly moving.

  12. says

    I wasn’t saying that Shostakovich invariably writes perfect music. I was simply arguing against the still surprisingly widespread thesis that he was some sort of emotionally and politically damaged idiot savant not in control of his materials. People used to say very similar things about Mahler.
    KG replies: Ah! OK. My apologies. I wasn’t even aware people said that about him. I assumed that he was a fully capable musician, but that, like all composers, he chose certain things that were important to him in structuring his music, and let others go that, for whatever historical or personal reason, weren’t so important. For instance: I got so sated with tracing motivic development in other people’s music in school that I never use motives to tie my music together. It would just seem painfully academic and old-fashioned to me to do so, too modern. And people for whom motivic development is a major component of a composer’s craft doubtless listen to my music and find it lacking, and think I didn’t know how to do something that every composer should. In the same way, I figure Shostakovich jettisoned, entirely as a conscious artistic choice, the late Romantic tendency to subject underlying harmonic voice-leading to the same type of criteria that composers have always used for melodic counterpoint (not repeating climax pitches, for instance). Maybe he analyzed too much music like that in school and got bored with it, maybe he thought that in itself it was too redolent of Romanticism. For me, given the idiosyncratic way I listen (which is perhaps more attuned to deep level than surface), that’s an important element in making large passages of music graspable as a gestalt. Grasping large complex passages as an intelligible whole is a pleasure, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Mahler’s harmonic practice allows me to do that in much greater doses than Shostakovich’s.
    Perhaps Shostakovich felt he compensated for that undeniable lack (just as my own abjuration of motives is an undeniable lack) by some other structural element, but if so, it’s not one I pick up. (Like, I compensate for not using motives by a global harmonic logic in which quasi-motives are generated anew at each juncture by the voice-leading. In other words, the underlying harmony in my music generates the surface detail. I could forgive someone for not perceiving that, because it’s kind of individual to me.) It’s conceivable that, as superbly talented a musician as Shostakovich was, he underestimated the importance of large-scale gestalt structuring. It’s possible that I underestimate the important of surface-detail similarity. Ya buys yer ticket, and ya takes yer chances. In any case, he and I aren’t very well in sync. I wouldn’t drop him from the repertoire on that account alone.
    Of course, it’s also possible that I, too, am some sort of emotionally and politically damaged idiot savant not in control of my materials.

  13. says

    This is great, Kyle — a heated debate about Shostakovich in which Stalin has not been mentioned (oops)!
    You’ve isolated something really fascinating about Shostakovich’s large-scale structure, even by way of disliking it. Me, I love the musical surface (a product of sitting listening in a seat all the time, I guess), and I happen to enjoy Shostakovich’s “frozen” quality precisely because it’s perverse, surreal, illogical, charged with psychological tension. I imagine some quotation from Meyerhold could be found to explain it. And you’re surely right about him jettisoning what had been drilled into him — the conservative Germanic syllabus of the Russian conservatory system. A kind of manic mechanical repetition was apparent not only in his music but in his prose style; as Glikman noted, he tends to say things three times, and by the third time you know that he is not being altogether serious. Or, perhaps, serious about something else behind the surface, which probably won’t show up in conventional musical analysis.
    KG replies: It’s like Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: you disagree with the evaluations, but I’m always impressed with how perceptive the insights are.

  14. milton parker says

    all I really know of shostakovich is the 11th symphony. but given your criticism of it as ‘stretching out the length without a goal in mind’, it might be worth mentioning that I keep encountering the first movement in the context of soundtrack & ambient music, where your description becomes a virtue.
    I heard the first movement as a child in the late 70’s as part of the soundtrack of the first episode of Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’, where it is seamlessly crossfaded into an early Vangelis piece (“Creation du monde”). I’ve heard it in chill rooms mixed with The Orb, heard it paraphrased on countless film soundtracks as mood music (most recently in Morricone’s score for ‘The Battle of Algiers’), mixed it myself during radio sets (it goes particularly well with Paul Dolden’s wall-of-sound ‘Veils’). I’m also impressed with Glenn Gould’s early 70’s Radio Documentary on Stokowski, which uses the piece as a floating soundbed for a wild collage of world & folk music melodies spiral around the tonal center of the music. It doesn’t land, and it’s not supposed to.
    I know you’re criticizing the impact of the symphony as a whole and I can’t claim to listen to it through that often either. But there is something special about that first movement that keeps coming back.

  15. Julian says

    i don’t think critics dislike shostakovich (if indeed they do) because he’s popular with audiences. like me, they probably just find him really really boring, and for two of the reasons stated above. one, that his harmonic landscape really is all over the place (and intensely irritating to try and follow) and, two, that he was way too timid to write anything in that top drawer that contributed anything really new to the 20th century. mind you, lady macbeth of the mtsenk district is absolutely mindblowing! he really should have kept writing in that style somehow (even if only for posterity).

  16. Peter says

    And listen to his score for Kozintsev’s film “Hamlet” (1963), which is thrilling beyond measure. The film itself reads as an allegory of life under dictatorship, and the music supports this reading superbly.

  17. Peter Gena says

    You already know that I can’t agree more. As I’ve always said to my students, “progression is the better part of Mahler.”