Irony, Satire, Parody and the Grotesque in the Music of Shostakovich -
A Theory of Musical Incongruence

by Esti Sheinberg.

378 pages, 2000. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, England.

Louis Blois


The biographical and political aspects of Shostakovich's life have received a wealth of coverage in recent years. With two major English language biographies now available and with the repetitive wrangling over Testimony surpassing the point of exhaustion, there are signs that the focus of attention is at last turning toward musical and aesthetic matters. And rightly so, if Shostakovich is going to assume a position of academic respectability comparable to that of other great composers. In recent years, David Fanning's Breath of the Symphonist, his essay collection Shostakovich Studies and Richard Longman's Expression and Structure, among others, have made significant contributions to the understanding of musical process as it pertains to Shostakovich. The current title takes a small step into this fertile territory.

It is almost impossible to think of a single work of Shostakovich's that fails to touch one of the categories listed in the title. Collectively these qualities lie at the core of Shostakovich's creative universe. They hinge upon the essential duality of his music, where manifest and implicit content compete everywhere for interpretation, from the sneering dissonances of his famous polka to the grandiloquently tragic utterances of his symphonies. For those familiar with all or any part of this imposing corpus, the mere title is an inspiration of necessity.

In her packed book, author Esti Sheinberg, Music Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, examines these modes as they manifest themselves in almost the entire spectrum of the arts in Western culture. She discusses their various structures, the range of techniques employed to express them and their philosophical and historical background. Robert Hatten's Musical Meaning in Beethoven (1994) is credited for establishing much of the terminology and methodology used throughout the book. The treatment is broad and meticulously detailed, if a bit helter-skelter. The text is generously illustrated with schematic diagrams, plates and plenty of musical examples that at last leave room for the subject of Shostakovich.

Each mode in the title is dealt with as a separate category and occupies its own major section in the book. Each section is then broken down into chapters that deal with subcategories of the particular mode. The 'Parody' section, for example, occupies four chapters, covering definitions, structure, historical background and, finally, musical instances. The longest section, 'The Grotesque', covers extensive territory dealing with its manifestations in literature, the stage, painting, music and includes a special section on its particular use in Russian Jewish music. Assembling these diverse, sometimes sprawling, topics into an integrated analytical tool in order to examine the music of Shostakovich is the challenge the author has set for herself.

The categories in question have inspired much thought throughout history. Sheinberg is fluent in summarizing the literature from Quintilian and Kierkegaard to contemporary academics such as Robert Hatten and Wayne Booth. Relevant to the Russian focus of the book, Sheinberg takes aim at a fascinating circle of Russian/Soviet writers who made important contributions to aesthetic analysis during the first third of the 20th Century. These include Yury Tinyanov, Boris Eikhenbaum and in particular, Mikhail Bakhtin, leaders of the formalist circle in Leningrad who helped develop a new "materialistic" view of Russian literature. The author argues that through Shostakovich's close friends, among them Ivan Sollertinsky, the group's prevailing views on parody and other devices of alienation may possibly have found their way into Shostakovich's musical thinking. Likewise, she discusses the role of theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, "Shostakovich's theatrical mentor", who embraced all aspects of ambiguity and double messages in art and who was an influential presence during Shostakovich's formative years. It is a set of influences on the composer that has been scarcely, if ever, discussed in such detail.

The chapter on the grotesque in the early 20th century draws parallels between Shostakovich's music and corresponding attributes of the artwork of Boris Kustodiev and Marc Chagall. The pages are generously illustrated with more than twenty black and white reproductions. Kustodiev, himself, was known to the composer and his family since his childhood. Sheinberg quotes Testimony's Shostakovich: "Kustodiev's painting is thoroughly erotic - if you dig deep into my operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth, you can find the Kustodiev influence - in that sense." Sheinberg finds incongruities of dialogue, instrumental register and harmony in Lady Macbeth, which she suggests are analogous to those found in certain Kustodiev paintings. Similarly, she correlates the chaotic juxtaposition of animal, acrobat and dancing Jewish musicians in Chagall's work with incongruities in selected Shostakovich passages: the "limping, weird, crippled hopping" theme in the Finale of the E minor Piano Trio; and in the 'Song of Poverty' from From Jewish Folk Poetry, the juxtaposition of a "hopping dance rhythm, a very high pitched whirling, repetitive motif with an emphasized augmented second, that stands in strong musico-semantic incongruity with the otherwise lighthearted musical import" (page 273). While comparisons of the kind between different art forms always require a bit of cajoling, a number of interesting parallels arise from their strongly connected cultural settings.

Sheinberg delves into the philosophical and linguistic aspects of the 'modes of semantic ambiguity' in her book's title. Terms are defined and ideas discussed in a manner that is rigorous yet always clear to the nonspecialist. Parody is defined as "an ironic utterance, the layers of which are embedded in two or more incongruent encoded texts." The grotesque is "an unresolvable ironic utterance, a hybrid that combines the ludicrous with the horrifying." From these basics she offers many ideas to ponder:

"The absolute negativity of irony is the result of a subtractive process, in which meanings are constantly negated and rejected. Contrary to that, the grotesque is the result of an additive process, in which all meanings are accepted and accumulated. Thus while irony rejects everything, the grotesque accepts everything. Viewed in this context, although irony and the grotesque share the same structure, they are located at two opposing poles: the one of eternal negation versus the one of eternal affirmation."

Interesting as they are to read, the detail and elaboration given to these abstract matters seems disproportionate to the musical objectives at hand. In each section Sheinberg eventually moves from theoretical foundation to musical discussion, attempting to demonstrate the applicability of this background to Shostakovich's music through a variety of devices and musical examples. Therein lies the book's potentially most important contribution as well its most confounding attributes.

The analytical techniques that are described seem well suited to the music of Shostakovich and they are graphically illustrated in a wide variety of literary and musical examples. The literary examples concentrate on Russian authors, Chekhov, Gogol and Bulgakov. The musical examples are drawn from almost the entire range of classics, from Haydn divertimento to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Sheinberg does have her favorite Shostakovich works that she repeatedly refers to throughout the book - The Nose, Lady Macbeth, From Jewish Folk Poetry - presumably because their interdisciplinary nature (music + text + theater) better provides for her purposes. In proportion to their importance in the composer's oeuvre, the chamber music, the concerti and the symphonies are disappointingly underrepresented.

In the section on Satire the author takes up the technique of "quantitative exaggeration by repetition", citing the examples of Pianistes from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals and Musorgsky's Rayok. Repetitive passages in Shostakovich's The Nose are then compared to Gogol's use of repetition in the original text. The author comments:

"The musical purport is divided into two layers of information: in one Ivan tries to explain himself on the semantic level, in a non-repetitive, declamatory style, trying to 'speak sense'. In the other, which is totally disconnected from the former, semantics is transformed into music: the sole import is a mechanical, motoric series of repetitive screams in the highest pitch the voice can achieve, accompanied by similar hysterical, sudden, loud and high-pitched 'screams' in the orchestra. The utmost expression of horror, however, is itself transformed, by its sheer repetition, into a piece of sound wallpaper that is transformed into a caricature of itself."

In the section on satire, the author exemplifies redundancy with John Cage's silent composition 4'33" and Satie's piano miniature Españaña, which "accumulates redundancy "without actually rendering any musical 'subject matter'". The redundancy in Shostakovich's music, however, "does not result from the removal of essentials, but rather from the manifest presence of the 'inessential', that is, the emphatic use of musical banalities." The example cited are the servants' unison chorus from the first act of Lady Macbeth and the ultimate expression of banality in the Shostakovich canon, the march section in the first movement of the Seventh Symphony. The author aptly characterizes the latter passage as follows:

" - when all peaks of musical inanity have been reached, banality culminates in chaos, the aesthetic axis is transformed into an ethical one and the stupidity of 'crass tastelessness' is correlated with the annihilating stupidity of war."

The discussion quickly moves to other examples of banality in the musical literature, making pithy comparisons between the waltzes of Johann Strauss and their stylized counterpart in the Scherzo of Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

The examples do make their point yet tend to follow each other in short succession, leaving the discussion wanting. There might have been further consideration of how exaggeration or banality serves Shostakovich's larger expressive purpose, how their dramatic function differs or remains the same over works of different periods and genres, how each fits into a broader stylistic picture and contributes to a general analytic approach.

There are a few sections where a broader overview is taken, yet only with certain surface characteristics of the music. In Techniques of Parody, p. 198, Sheinberg observes the use of Shostakovich's characteristic anapest rhythm - two shorts and a long, whose status she promotes to a motif - in 'euphoric' and 'dysphoric' (meaning violent or obsessive compulsive) contexts. In early scores such as The Nose and Age of Gold, its character is whimsical, or 'euphoric'. In the Fifth Symphony its 'dysphoric' potential is exploited for the first time as a single repeated pitch; in other works both aspects are simultaneously present. A number of other musical examples are cited, yet the matter is not developed beyond the most perfunctory observations.

In another section, Sheinberg asserts that the grotesque in Russian culture is often represented by an "uncontrollable mob", which itself is always related to violence. In Russian classical music, she claims that frenzied crowds of people are implicitly represented by the use of various dance forms. It is the kind of naÔve assumption found throughout Ian MacDonald's The New Shostakovich, a text which Sheinberg references throughout her book. From this tentative premise, she proceeds to associate waltz rhythms in Shostakovich's music with a sense of mob-associated menace. Instances are cited, with half a dozen musical examples taken from the Lebyadkin song cycle, Eighth String Quartet and a handful of symphonies.

The section on satire presents the technique of "replacement of a component", defined as the "replacement of one characteristic of the satire's subject for another, contextually alien component, which is nevertheless in some respects still compatible and satirically meaningful". Unexpected shifts in cadential harmony in the music of Bartok, Prokofiev and in Shostakovich's Three Fantastic Dances are cited, as are the tonal deviations in the whimsical polka from the Age of Gold.

However, there are many other ways that shifts in expectation can manifest themselves in Shostakovich's music other than by note-by-note departures. The device of 'replacement' suggests any number of more structurally significant settings with deeper emotional resonance that the author neglects to explore; for example, the vacuous repartee between trumpet, snare drum and strings that replaces the anticipated climax in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony; or likewise, the maudlin fanfares that stand in for another anticipated climax at the end of the second movement of the Second Cello Concerto. Once again, rather than investigating broader schematic tendencies, Sheinberg is content to use Shostakovich's music to serve the narrower, ad hoc purpose of illustrating isolated constructs.

Almost as compensation for the brevity of the musical treatment elsewhere, Sheinberg, in the midst of a discussion on Russian formalism, abruptly launches into a detailed, four-pronged analysis of Shostakovich's Piano Prelude No 2 from the op. 34 set. The ensuing analysis is the most extensive in the book, though awkwardly so, taking up as it does eleven pages of text plus the reproduction of all five pages of the score, highlighted in full-colored plates - all this for a work that takes less than fifty seconds to perform. The analysis is heavy-handed to say the least. The points of parody are comprehensible and would be otherwise justifiable. Yet in all the expounding on this diminutive Prelude, Sheinberg provides no representative connection to any other Shostakovich work. Even when allusions to Spanish music in the Prelude are taken up, the prominent references to Spanish music elsewhere in the Shostakovich canon, as in such major works as the 7th, 8th, 9th and 14th Symphonies, could have been mentioned. Shostakovich's music is again used in a subordinate role, this time exemplifying the phenomenon of "Bakhtinian plurivocal discourse" described in the preceding section.

The reader should note with caution that Sheinberg refers to, sometimes extensively quotes from, Testimony, more than two dozen times throughout the course of the book. Though she acknowledges Malcolm Brown for 'stimulating' e-mail correspondence concerning the current state of research on Shostakovich, Sheinberg nowhere indicates that she has the slightest inkling of the controversies and troubled evidence that forever will persist in casting shadows over Volkov's publication. The fact that she hinges so many of her arguments on quotes drawn from the document should flash warning lights to the reader. It is one thing to take a position of defense regarding Testimony. It is another to quote obliviously and without qualifying remarks from its controversial pages in a work of presumed scholarship. That alone throws into serious question the reliability of Sheinberg's research methodology.

In the last analysis, Irony, Satire, Parody and the Grotesque is more a patchwork than a unified work of scholarship. In places it is a fascinating patchwork, especially in describing distinct aspects of the intellectual and artistic milieu that surrounded the young composer. It is also a helpful guide to the definition, structure and philosophical moorings of the devices listed in the title and the manner in which they manifest in various art forms.

The book also lays the foundation for a potentially fresh and valuable approach to the music of Shostakovich. As promising and as eloquently drawn as this foundation is, most of the musical examples that are discussed throughout are of limited scope. What seems to be missing is the insight required to penetrate the larger processes of the music, to illuminate the deeper, subtler connections that are so richly embedded in the various modes of irony, satire, parody and the grotesque. For that, a more intimate acquaintance with Shostakovich's compositional procedures is needed.


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