Whistling in the Dark to Keep Monsters Away

Shostakovich cello sonata
The fangs of darkness. © Charles Thibo

Watch out, because they are watching you. They lurk behind every corner, ready to grab you and lock you up. They are monsters. Stealthy, cowardly, insidious. They have the power to destroy you and to make you shine. They are everywhere. Paranoid times. Gruesome times. Stalin’s evil empire. You can sing however to chase away your fears. You can whistle in the dark and hope for the danger to pass. You can be bold and show your strength by acknowledging publicly your fear. You can find allies by being true to yourself.

Dmitry Shostakovich wrote the Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (Op. 40) in 1934, just ahead of the censure of his music by authorities. Two years later a wave of arrests, mock trials and deportations would shake the Soviet Union. It was also a period of emotional turmoil in Shostakovich’s life, as he had fallen in love with a young student at a Leningrad festival featuring his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”. He had estranged himself from his wife Nina, yet he never considered a divorce. The sonata is “a work of classical dimensions that scarcely hints at the turmoil in [Shostakovich’s] personal life”, writes the biographer Laurel E. Fay. But how much do we really know about Shostakovich?

Is it a coincidence that, at the time I am listening again and again to this sonata and while I am writing this post, I also take a close interest at Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984”? I read both books decades ago at school, and I will read them a second time. They seem today more relevant than ever before. I also bought Sinclair Lewis’ novel “It can’t happen here”, inspired by Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian regime and alluding that the United States are not immune against dictatorship, propaganda, oppression of political opponents and overt racism. Am I apprehensive of the future? At times, yes. I do not fear for myself. But I wonder how I can prepare my daughter for a society whose democratic and pluralistic character is at risk.

Shostakovich’s life and his music are part of the answer. He manages to pack fear, criticism and hope in one piece of music, no matter whether the starting point was his personal distress or his apprehension of the future under comrade Stalin. Dissent can be silent and voiceless, it can also express itself through disharmony contrasted with admirably gentle melodies. Sadness, expressed through notes, can move up the scale and transform itself in help. This is the way I hear and understand Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor. Shostakovich’s music allows for many interpretations. What made it precious in the Soviet Union was “the uncontrollable play of subtexts”, as the scholar Richard Taryskin explains, one of the few things the totalitarian regime was unable to control.

Finding a language of his own to express ideas of his own – that was a central preoccupation of the composer in the 1930s. He could count on an attentive audience looking for subtexts. Shostakovich saw simplicity as the key, he wanted to transpose what the writer Maxim Gork had called the “purity of language ” in the field of music. “Sometimes the struggle for a simple language is understood somewhat superficially. Often ‘simplicity’ turns into epigonism. But to speak simply doesn’t mean one should speak as they spoke fifty to hundred years ago. This is a trap many composers fall into, afraid of accusations of formalism.”

Despite all Shostakovich’s efforts , “formalism” would be the accusation hurled at the composer two years later after the premiere of opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”. An anonymous editor of the “Pravda” wrote that the listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds […] in Shostakovich’s work the stage presents us with the coarsest naturalism.” The Soviet regime had the power to destroy any Soviet artist or to make him shine. And you never quite knew who was watching whom and why.

Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor has been recorded by Hélène Grimaud and Sol Gabetta.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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