By Louis Bayman
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Simon Behrman, Redwords, £9.99
Issue 349

It has been said that passionate engagement sharpens the intellect, and it is the contention of the Revolutionary Portraits series that it also inspires great heights of creativity. Rather than separating artistic achievement from the times in which it is created the series seeks to show how the genius of such people as John Coltrane, William Shakespeare and now Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich resulted from a passionate and often difficult relationship to social change.

Shostakovich is already a subject of controversy. His early works of the 1920s bristle with excitement at the popular liberation represented by 1917. His Seventh Symphony, dubbed “Leningrad” and written under the siege of the city by the Nazis, became an icon of the Soviet resistance that broke the back of the German army. And yet he fell foul of the Soviet hierarchy to the point of even fearing for his life, and has subsequently also been claimed for anti-communism.

The distinctive style of the early masterpieces of Shostakovich contributed to the avant-garde movement that flourished across Russian society as a result of the revolution. In detailing Shostakovich’s life and work Behrman offers a framework which celebrates the Russian Revolution, while identifying Stalinism as its gravedigger. He claims that the debates that have raged over Shostakovich’s “true” political beliefs have been obscured by a lack of understanding of this critical break between the USSR of the 1920s and what came after.

Especially important about the book is its political analysis of musical form. This can be difficult to comprehend, since although one can ask a composer for a personal opinion or look for political statements in the words that sometimes accompany the music, how can one say that the style or structure of a piece makes a political statement? But whether searching for harmony and order, offering an outburst of feeling, or defying preceding conventions, music has an implicit relationship to wider social structures.

Shostakovich’s avant-gardism was thus part of a much wider rejection of established forms both social and artistic, but added to this Behrman argues that Shostakovich’s greatness also lies in his ability to cross the high art/popular art divide. He rejected elitism in a concern for the cross-fertilisation of high art and mass culture, a concern forged in the egalitarian ideals of the revolution itself.

Thus Shostakovich’s identification with the revolution meant that his work strongly evoked the shifting fortunes of the USSR from the early years of hope and experimentation to the Stalinist counter-revolution, the thaw following Stalin’s death and the stagnation of the early 1960s. It is Behrman’s achievement that his book places Shostakovich’s biography within such a wide-ranging analysis of music, 20th century history and cultural debates, and marries the excitement of great music with that of radical action.

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