Satire, Parody and the Grotesque in the Music of Shostakovich -
A Theory of Musical Incongruence
378 pages, 2000. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, England.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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."
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.
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
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:
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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