In what way is the music of Dmitriy Shostakovich political?
Musicology Ghent University Gent, Belgium
The music of the soviet composer Dmitriy Shostakovich is an ideal case to study the interaction between art and social context. His music has been explained as heavily influenced by political factors. The composer was obliged to respond to the vicissitudes of a totalitarian regime. Since the times of glasnost, the political meaning of Shostakovich's music has been read as an act of dissidence. While it stands above question that the composer could turn his music into a voice of opposition, it is equally clear that such an exclusively dissident reading cannot account for many facets of his art. Beside a force to contend with, the soviet system created the institutional opportunities for the development of Shostakovich's talent.
The proportion in his work between the voices of the establishment and of personal dissent remains to be determined. A possible approach should start with a better understanding of his sociological make-up. The standard interpretation relies heavily on the romantic ideal of the artist, whose identity is defined by the criterion of autonomy. With the rise of sociological studies of soviet culture, the image of Shostakovich as a heroically independent mind is losing ground.
What makes Shostakovich exceptional, however, is the way in which he succeeded in redefining the significance of high art for a new society. While the regime subordinated art to radical functionality in service of the rituals of state, Shostakovich succeeded to safeguard the position of high art as a means of human expression. It is precisely this quality that endeared his music to his soviet audiences. The political meaning of Shostakovich's music should be searched for in its quality of multifaceted human commentary on the rigidity of official ideology. The question transcends the search for hidden political messages into a broad definition of the significance of aesthetic values under totalitarian conditions. The case of Shostakovich could help to refine the production of culture paradigm by demonstrating the subtle ways in which artistic production and context interact.