Dec 1, 2007

Shostakovich and Jewish Wedding Music

One thing Shostakovich was not was Jewish, by birth or belief. Yet from the frenzied klezmer dance melody of the Second Piano Trio (1944) to the mournful vocal cycle From the Jewish Folk Poetry (1948) to the sweeping sorrow of the Holocaust evoked in the Thirteenth Symphony ("Babi Yar") of 1962, Shostakovich carried on a lifelong affair with the sound and soul of Russian Jewry. Why would a non-Jewish composer living in one of the modern world's most bitterly anti-Semitic and repressive societies, where mere possession of Hebrew literature could lead to arrest and imprisonment, choose to make Jewishness a recurrent theme in his work? The answer is tied up with the debate over the man behind the music.

Shostakovich was a Communist Party member and First Secretary of the Soviet Composers' Union, and his signature appeared on a 1973 letter attacking the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. Few doubted his tremendous musical talents, but there was little interest in the West for a composer who seemed such an obedient musical apparatchik.

Then came Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovitch as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov, purportedly dictated shortly before the composer's death in 1975. Volkov, a senior editor at Sovetskaya Muzyka, the leading Soviet music journal, brought the manuscript to the United States in 1976 and published in English in 1979. Testimony offered a startling image of the quiet, legendarily taciturn composer as a secret freedom fighter, an anti-Soviet liberal who revealed himself only in these private conversations. Volkov's Shostakovich was boldly courageous and pettily proud, alternately explaining the hidden anti-Soviet political meaning in many of his famous compositions and dismissing former colleagues such as Prokofiev in unflattering, gossipy terms.

The book's convoluted title was the first indication that this was not a standard autobiography. In fact, charges of forgery immediately began to surface among Soviet authorities and Western scholars. Volkov offered as evidence of Shostakovich's approval the composer's signature on the first page of each chapter, certifying that he had read the contents. And in the context of the Cold War and the political movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry, Westerners eagerly embraced the new heroic image of Shostakovich as a secret dissident, making his music a new concert hall favorite and Volkov's book a bestseller.

Shostakovich with Ivan Sollertinsky
Shostakovich with Ivan Sollertinsky

Among the themes to emerge from Testimony was the central place of Jews and Jewishness in Shostakovich's life and creative work. Many of the people closest to Shostakovich were Jews, including his favorite pupil, Venyamin Fleishman, and his best friend, Ivan Sollertinsky. Both men died tragically during World War II, Fleishman as a Red Army soldier and Sollertinsky of illness exacerbated by wartime living conditions. Shostakovich produced musical tributes to each. He completed Fleishman's unfinished opera, Rothschild's Violin (1944), based on a Chekhov short story about a Jewish klezmer musician. Sollertinsky he recalled in the mournful, piercing Second Piano Trio, written as word of the Holocaust was reaching Moscow. The final section of this piece includes a freylekhs, a Jewish wedding tune that seems to link the dead and the living in a desperate, sacred dance of joy and sadness.

These are among a dozen major works in which Shostakovich displayed an intense, sustained interest in the larger symbolic meaning of Jewishness and Jewish music. What was the source of this attraction? Testimony provided one answer:
Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it's multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It's almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be... Jews became a symbol for me. All of man's defenselessness was concentrated in them. After the war, I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact, it's always a bad time for them.

Solomon Volkov with Shostakovich
Solomon Volkov with Shostakovich

...A substantial portion of his Jewish audience, in Russia and beyond, also continues to claim Shostakovich's music. Vladimir Zak calls Shostakovich's musical language a form of Jewish "biblical romanticism." Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the late exponent of American Jewish religious music, spoke of Shostakovich's music as soaked through with "the sorrow of the Jews...crying out together with the Torah." And so Volkov's work, while it may not successfully prove that Shostakovich was a political dissident, does rightly remind us that the great master of modern Russian music was also a great Jewish composer.

James Loeffler is a musicologist and writer based in New York City.

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