Irony, Deception, and Political Culture in the Works of Dmitri Shostakovich

By Gerstel, Jennifer | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1999 | Go to article overview

Irony, Deception, and Political Culture in the Works of Dmitri Shostakovich


Gerstel, Jennifer, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The existence of irony in music is a topic that has recently attracted the attention of both musicologists and literary theorists. Focusing on the "double-voicedness" employed by Shostakovich under the Soviet regime, this essay explores the ways that the production and reception of musical irony are influenced by cultural and political context.

The fact that the arts in the Soviet Union survived the 1930s and 40s is amazing, for Joseph Stalin had no more taste for art than he had for insubordination. Yet somehow, despite the constant threat of silencing, Soviet artists managed to produce masterpieces which revolutionized the art world and were globally acclaimed, especially in the field of music. Richard Taruskin, in Defining Russia Musically (1997), writes that "no one alive today can imagine the sort of extreme mortal duress to which artists in the Soviet Union were then subjected, and Shostakovich more than any other" (516). If there is something ironic about the achievements of artists like Shostakovich, however, the question that arises in turn is where does the irony lie and to what extent was it a deliberate strategy adopted by musicians under the Stalinist regime?

Although irony as an artistic strategy has traditionally been associated primarily with literary works, such "double-voicing" has a long history that spans the spectrum of artistic endeavor, as Linda Hutcheon has recently argued in a far-ranging study provocatively titled Irony's Edge (64). Highlighting the differences and similarities between irony in literature and in other modes of art, Hutcheon taps into the difficulty of delineating exactly where irony is located and how ironic meaning is generated. She titles one section of her study "The unbearable slipperiness of irony," and musicologists have noted the same frustrating inability to pin down ironic effect in music, perhaps more so in the case of Shostakovich than with any other composer. Indeed, in an analysis of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, David Fanning concludes: "it is still no more possible to prove the existence of irony in music than to define the parameters of an ironic 'oh yes' in literature." As he also observes, however, listeners do see m to recognize the existence of irony and respond to it, a situation he sees as owing partly to extra-musical factors: "Timing, context, and cultural conventions, some would say ideology, too, all contribute to the instinct which may lead us to impute such meaning; and performance...plays a crucial role in its communication" (73).

In this essay, I want to pursue both a musical and an extra-musical reading of Shostakovich's use of irony, showing how the extreme cultural and political circumstances surrounding his activity as a composer entwine content and context and how a perception of the ironies built into his works are largely dependent on what Hutcheon calls "discursive communities" (18). As Taruskin puts it, "[w]hat made Shostakovich's music the secret diary of a nation was not only what he put into it but what it allowed listeners to draw out" (474). I will begin my analysis with a brief history of Shostakovich's unique position in the Stalinist regime, and move forward to investigate how Hutcheon's theory of irony operates when applied to several musical texts by Shostakovich, taking into account the external problems of authorial intention, a shifting historical context, and what Taruskin describes as the "social value" of Shostakovich's music (476). Finally, I will draw attention to the continuing critical debates and lack of consensus surrounding the interpretation of Shostakovich's music, with a view to suggesting how such controversy provides perhaps the best indication of all that the essence of ironic expression continues to elude its pursuers.

In The Irony Tower, Andrew Solomon writes that "one seldom needs to search for ironies in Moscow; more often than not, they are given like gifts" (7). Indeed, the collection of strategies used by 20th-century Soviet artists reads like a recipe for the range of methods possible in the production of irony.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Irony, Deception, and Political Culture in the Works of Dmitri Shostakovich
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.