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

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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. …


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