Book Reviews 23


Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 by David Fanning

23_mitya /

Written and illustrated by Dick Wolf.

61 pages, sketches in colour and black & white.
Trafford Publishing, 2005.
ISBN: 1 4120 5034 0.

Part fantasy, part fact, the appearance of this charming book, very much a personal project combining the disciplines of story-telling, musical and political history of the twentieth century and impressionistic artwork, comes in the wake of another surprisingly ‘lightweight’ tome, Memories of Shostakovich by the Reverend Michael Ardov (reviewed in DSCH 21). Here the term implying less-than-heavy refers to the esoteric and academic foundations contrasting with those of other vying volumes from such authorities as Volkov, Brown, Fay et al. Here the reader is invited simply to experience the tale of the young Shostakovich through to his wartime role and the Seventh Symphony. The reader here could be ninety or he could be nine; Wolf’s style and approach never descends to condescension and always maintains a lucid and appropriate interest in the subject at hand.

On a less positive note, the uninitiated reader might well fall for any number of traps and of clichés unwittingly set by the author—over-simplification of the role of the artist within the totalitarian state, likewise the compositional process and the painting-over of cracks in Shostakovich’s own personal life. But this is NOT a ‘true’ biography and doesn’t ever purport to be so; it is attractive, sympathetically conceived writing combined with highly imaginative sketches, examples of which are included below.

But why, this book—now, and in this form? Why stop in the 1940s?

Wolf’s own words to DSCH:

“What began it all was the music. Although I am primarily a visual artist, music has always moved me most directly and forcefully. My first encounter with Russian music was with the symphonies of Tchaikovsky. The grandeur and excitement of his work captivated me at an early age. As regards other music; also at an early age I can remember the broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y. over the radio every Saturday morning. My mother and I used to listen faithfully to these events. Other composers I came to enjoy once I could afford a record player or tickets to concerts were Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Puccini, Rachmaninov and of course Dmitri Shostakovich.

“So far as conceiving sketches for this particular book Mitya, I came up with the idea following two visits to Russia. The first was a trip in the summer of 1994 to Moscow and St. Petersburg. The second trip was limited to a winter trip to St. Petersburg with a visit (with Russian guide) to the birthplace of D.D.S. on Podolskaya street, the composer’s early home at Nikolaevsky street (now Marat) and to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the Marinskii Theatre and to the Philharmonic Hall.

“The story Mitya was conceived pretty much in tandem with the pictures.  Soon I was plunged into what was to become an eight-year extended series of writes and re-writes of materials I had somehow digested up to that time. These materials included the marvellous works of Volkov, Wilson, Lukyanova, Roseberry, MacDonald, Norris, Stevenson, Feofanov and Ho, and Fay. Many of the references and anecdotes compiled by Elizabeth Wilson were particularly helpful.

“The entire life of Dmitri Shostakovich came to me to symbolise the epic adventure of outstanding generosity and courage of the Russian people in the face of incredible suffering..

“In 1965, while attending graduate studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art, I put together a suite of 18 prints with pictures of various composers of classical music with quotations by them of varied views on the art of music. In compiling these quotes I was soon drawn to the comments of Dmitri Shostakovich and so later I dedicated the suite to him for his forthcoming 60th birthday. Dmitri Shostakovich was such a generous and kind individual that he sent me a reply of thanks in his own hand. The original suite is now housed in the rare books room of the Buffalo Public Library [USA]..

“In writing this story and after numerous re-writes, I decided to limit the story to roughly the first half of Shostakovich’s life. It begins with Mitya at nine years of age and ends with the invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941. The writing of this story is fictional yet based on many facts. Because I wished to appeal to a young adult audience I felt the need to use a certain degree of fantasy in the telling (thus the runaway piano). Having no musical knowledge I nevertheless believed that this story needed to be told to help explain how classical culture is such a vital element in our education..

“Most of the visual material for this book was sketched and completed for that purpose. Not all of the sketches were actually used in the final work, however. Several paintings were included to illustrate in a more general way, the times..

“The main message of this book:

“That a young man finds the means to bring a message of hope and courage to a great city during a terrible attack. This message proves vital but not verbal. Music alone, without words, sounds an alarm within the city then under attack..

“From its beginnings at a piano in an otherwise quiet Russian apartment, we quickly proceed to scenes of turmoil and danger. An early morning rush takes our young Mitya and his friend swiftly over the many bridges of a great city to final safety at the other end. After visiting an elderly crippled artist, Mitya endures a wintry ride back home and a brief battle with schoolyard bullies. We then go to a new career as a movie piano player, a concert performer and composer of a new symphony. Rapidly now we follow Mitya’s adventures as composer, victim of the secret police, through numerous musical endeavours and finally as a champion of the city with his mighty Seventh Symphony.

“This book is unique in that it is the only biography of Dmitri Shostakovich to be fully illustrated with drawings and paintings by the author. Many other fine books have been written about this great man but are illustrated with photos.”23_mitya_223_mitya_3

Richard W. Wolf (the author) was trained in the fields of Art and of Art Education. He held a two-year scholarship to the Art Institute of Buffalo, a Bachelor’s degree in Art Education From S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo, a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and a Professorship at Eastern Connecticut State University where he taught for 23 years.

Alan Mercer

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8
by David Fanning
200 pages.
Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2004.
Includes 2 black-and-white illustrations and 36 musical examples. Accompanied by a CD.
ISBN 0 7546 0699 6.

Undoubtedly like many other Shostakovich fans, I was first introduced to the composer through the Eighth String Quartet. That first performance I heard was gripping from the first second until the final dying note, and became all so much more captivating once I read the programme notes. While any self-respecting Shostakovich book is required to mention the Eighth Quartet, an entire book devoted to the work is very welcome, and on the whole David Fanning has done a fine job in providing this ‘missing link’.

His book is divided into four sections:

  • a closely focused historical background on the piece
  • a broader historical view of the Thaw period and Shostakovich’s place within it
  • an in-depth analysis of the piece itself
  • several appendices

In the first section, Fanning addresses an issue that seldom fails to arise when discussing this piece: does the Eighth Quartet derive all of its power from its quotations and allusions, or does its sheer musical power make it so compelling? Before expressing his own thoughts on the matter, Fanning draws extended quotes from other musicologists’ discussions of the work, pitting their points against each other in a relatively unbiased manner. Fanning subsequently elaborates his own view, which is that the music is strong for its own sake, and that the quotes and allusions from other works are simply enhanced by their surrounding musical texture, and that they do not create it in themselves. It is at this point that he makes clear his goal to prove the inherent power of the piece, independent of external material.

The second chapter, dealing with the historical circumstances behind the Eighth Quartet’s composition could, perhaps, have come first, as the reader might expect to go directly to the analytical aspects after the end of the first chapter. The historical setting Fanning does provide seems to cater to an audience that already knows some Soviet history. While I agree that this is a logical assumption and that most readers of this book will already have some familiarity with Shostakovich’s life history to some degree, those who do not will require to refer elsewhere for the finer contextual details.

For me, as someone well familiar with the material, however, Fanning’s description did enhance certain points in my own knowledge of the work. The analysis section comprises most of the book, and is impressively thorough. It is supplemented by printed excerpts of the Shostakovich score in piano reduction, excerpts of some of the quotes and allusions also in reduction, and harmonic summary diagrams. The sections that are not reprinted in the book are referenced by rehearsal numbers. This is a wonderfully useful facility for the trained musician, but it should be noted that an enthusiast with no such training is likely to become lost in the musicological woods at this point.

As I said, Fanning’s analysis is comprehensive, dealing with issues of rhythm, harmony, and structure. He makes the case that all three elements are equally important in creating the compelling texture of the work. The main structural concept is one of incompleteness – all five movements run into each other, and in the case of the middle three, they literally interrupt each other, cutting off recapitulations or expected developments, creating a sense of unease. Fanning also often returns to the subject of Shostakovich’s use of the fugue in the work, repeatedly pointing out that while the first movement seems headed in that direction, it is not until the last movement that this promised fugue develops in full, thus creating a strange sense of transfiguration rather than resignation.

Harmonically, the work is surprisingly static, which gives the shifts in texture and chords a heightened sense of emotion and tension, again finally resolving in the near-textbook fugue of the fifth movement. Rhythmically, Fanning reduces the work to several simple cells, which, like the work’s harmony and form, combine, stop in mid-track, fail to develop, or continue obsessively, all to promote the further sense of uncertainty.

While Fanning uses the DSCH motif as the main unit of analysis for all aspects of the piece (and how could one not with the Eighth Quartet?), he generally keeps true to his aim of regarding the quotations and allusions as secondary. He has sought out many of the more obscure citations (such as references to Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre or to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony), but here most of them go unexplained other than in a chart at the beginning of the analysis chapter. It is only in his discussion of the fourth movement, which he regards as the climax of the work, that he integrates the external material directly into the analysis. He rationalizes this by noting that this movement serves as a nod to the listening audience in contrast with the rest of the work which is seen as a personal expression of Shostakovich’s inner pain, and that the quote of “Tormented by Grievous Bondage” (which would have been known to the entire contemporary audience) is a very specific tool to stir up a more external reaction.

This chapter is thorough and detailed to the point where a trained musician who did not previously know the work should be able to envision each and every modulation. To someone who thought he might know the Eighth Quartet like the back of his hand, it presents exciting new revelations and concepts. However, I do think this book functions even better as an analytical tool when read directly alongside a score.

The analysis chapter is divided up by movements, and at the end of each movement description, Fanning provides a summary of same. I found this unnecessarily redundant, though the summaries would be far more comprehensible to the enthusiast who might have become lost in the more detailed terminology of the chapter’s main body.

The first of the three appendices deals with the song “Tormented by Grievous Bondage.” It contains the full text to the song and an excerpt from a history of Russian revolutionary song tracing the development of the melody and its words, and what it had come to mean by the time Shostakovich cited it.

The second appendix is an assortment of quotes about the work from reviewers, friends of Shostakovich, and from the composer himself.

The final appendix deals with different recordings and arrangements of the Quartet, quoting different performers but mostly expressing Fanning’s own preferences. The book is accompanied by a recording of the piece by Munich’s Rosamunde Quartet, one of Fanning’s personal favorites.

I found this book to be very readable, fascinating, thorough, and important for a veritable consideration of the Eighth Quartet. It would not, however, be a wise choice of reading material for the non-musician; but as Fanning emphasizes after all, the work continues to speak for itself without the aid of musical quotes or explanatory literature.

Julia Lozos