Where does the music of Dmitri Shostakovich leave the musical sophisticate? After all one's learning about the innate purity, sanctity, and untranslatability of musical statements into the verbal or mundane spheres, how does one reckon with the fantastic hodgepodge of the sophomoric, cynical, and sublime that makes up Shostakovich's musical output?
It's an interesting question, and it means getting involved in the issue of how much, and what kinds of, meaning we are supposed to look for in a composer's music. Looking for meanings has (rightfully, I think) always taken on a kind of Rosetta Stone specter for people, and has, with most composers, rarely produced any satisfying answers. But with Shostakovich, we seem to be given not much choice, unless we are to settle for a simple write-off of the man as a talented musician who was forced to waste himself for most of his life in churning out shallow, rhetoric army-ant columns of notes in obedience to pathetically destructive dictatorial conditions over which he had no control.
But I, for one, can't really settle for that, especially in light of all that we now know of Stalinist Russia and the virtual neurosis in which people conducted their daily lives then and there. What Dmitri Shostakovich did, in his own way, was to help our century in its redefining of the word heroism. His life is a testament to all those men and women who, instead of standing up like Romantic heroes and being martyred, have quietly sat things out, year after year , hoping in some subtle, individual way to make a small change, tell a story, teach a lesson - to endure both ''survivor's guilt'' and the constant assault on human dignity that oppression and repression make.
Shostakovich was twice during the Stalin years the victim of massive denunciation by the governmental committee supposedly responsible for keeping music on track as an art of the people. The first attack was made for writing ''decadent, formalist, bourgeois'' music of jangling Modernism; the second, on works written during World War II, for the music's being ruminative and self-absorbed, instead of tub-thumping assurances of the USSR's victory (over its political enemy but social twin, fascism). In hindsight, we see that both criticisms were accurate descriptions of exactly what Shostakovich was doing.
Appalling as it is that this sort of thing has gone on, it is ironic in Shostakovich's case to realize that, in the first instance, the attack for the arcane and dissonant came at a time when he was in fact looking for a better, more clear-headed way of expressing himself. The Fourth Symphony and the Sonata for Cello and Piano are examples of that, having been composed during or just before that stormy period in the 1930s. The Fourth Symphony (1935) is a sprawling work filled with acrid dissonance and driving passages of annihilating force, and the listener will be repaid for seeking out one of the recordings of it.
The cello/piano sonata, however, is a piece of great economy, and clarity of expression. It is extremely poignant without either the earlier raucousness or the vacuuity and self-conscious vulgarity of much of his subsequent music-for-the-masses style.
However, it is this fascinating vulgarity that points us in the direction of the attack in the late 1940s. From Symphonies 5 (1937) to 8 (1943), we see how much Shostakovich had split himself between a seeming inability to distinguish bad writing from good and successful musical gestures of the most exalted and universal significance, whether deafening or hushed. We see a man painfully forced to lead two lives: wearing a public mask of good socialist conscience in symphonies, choral works, film scores, and the like, and leading a ''secret,'' almost confessional, diarist's life - in a chamber, almost. Hence, his chamber works, including fifteen string quartets, reveal the least-masked Shostakovich the man.
But all his works, really, seem to take on a breakable-code aspect, the longer one thinks about them. The quartets reveal plainly the sensitive artist, muzzled like a dog, tortured by a knowledge of all the murder and dirt, which became generally known only later in the '50s, following Stalin's demise. But even in the ''public'' words, in the most obssessive, banal, neurotic, stupid passages, there is, I suspect, a kind of coded message - for the rest of us and for the rest of history - about what oppression does to people (think of the bizarre, expressionless faces of some caged zoo animals you've seen).
The ending of the Twelfth Symphony is an interesting case in point. No composer, at his cheapest, was ever as trashy as this interminable, flag-waving ending. The symphony is subtitled ''The Year 1917,'' is dedicated to Lenin's memory, was written for the 22d Party Conference in 1961, and closes with a movement labeled ''The Dawn of Man'' - proletarian man, of course. But what I get from this drugging apotheosis of D major is - not the birth of anything, but death! Loud music can be a subtle commentary, too, and it is from this frame of reference that I read a lot of Shostakovich's music that has given him a poor standing in critical assessment over the years.
Gian Carlo Menotti, in his opera The Consul, uses a great phrase, ''To this we've come: when men withhold the world from men.'' When the coded messages in Shostakovich's music are read properly, I suspect we shall hear a hope that the sacrifice of the victims of brutality can be a lesson for the rest of us. There is the chance that we may learn to do better by our brothers and sisters in the future. And, although pessimism ultimately overtook him, Shostakovich sends us a missal, at least in his great Eighth Symphony, about man's capacity to purify himself and ascend above his strife.
The ''essential'' Shostakovich - a listening list: * Symphonies 4, 8, 12, 13 * Violin Concerto No. 1 * String Quartets 5, 7, 8 * Sonata for Violoncello and Piano