Book Reviews 51

Шостаковича (Fenomen Dmitriya Shostakokovicha)
Levon Hakobian: Феномен Дмитрия
[The Phenomenon of Dmitri Shostakovich]
St Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo RKhGA (2018)
756 pages
ISBN 978-5-88812-851-0

Russian art-music scholarship is currently under reflection and review: a circumstance that is due to a number of musical and non-musical factors. First, there is the transition in aesthetical and compositional terms from what was previously “Soviet” music to that which is “Post-Soviet,” with this inevitably bringing with it a reassessment of Soviet music and its relationship to artistic, political and sociological structures and cultures. Second, there is the increased use of post-structuralist approaches to music analysis, with this leading to new analytical methods and thus, updated considerations of both Russian and Soviet musics. Third, in a wider context, there is the reappraisal of Soviet music, and by default its existing historiography and analysis, in light of political change: the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties prompting a gradual but steady reconsideration, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, of former aesthetics and values. Scholarly opportunities have also increased in the form of new dialogues and exchanges, with this providing greater access to previously unavailable material, with both of these factors paving the way for a more reflective approach.1

It is within this context that Moscow-based scholar Levon Hakobian in his recent publication, “The Phenomenon of Dmitri Shostakovich” (“Феномен Дмитрия Шостаковича”/”Fenomen Dmitria Shostakovicha”), published in December 2018 by the Russian Christian Academy of Humanities, St Petersburg, provides us with a reassessment of Shostakovich’s oeuvre. Here, Hakobian aims to present—or indeed, re-present—the output of Shostakovich as viewed through the framework of Russian music and its surrounding culture. Penning what is essentially an enlarged and more comprehensive revision of an earlier 450-page book, Dmitrii Shostakovich: opyt fenomonologii tvorchestva [Dmitri Shostakovich: An Essay in the Phenomenology of his Work] (St Petersburg: Dmitriy Bulanov Publishing House, 2004), Hakobian’s approach, as the book’s title suggests, is directly “phenomenological” instead of, say, biographical or political. Using a qualitative research method that focuses upon the experiential—that is, how we might best experience Shostakovich’s output—Hakobian aims to illuminate the music’s intrinsic qualities as well as its deeper cultural attributes, thereby setting aside the more commonly considered socio-political context in which Shostakovich lived and worked. In this, he attempts to provide a more “musical” and distilled appraisal, free from sociological or political hues and bias, stating in the book’s summary that: “[Shostakovich’s music is discussed via] the most diverse trends in art and culture; [his music as such a phenomenon] testifies to the human spirit’s amazing capacity to derive a benefit even from the most inauspicious conditions” (Hakobian: 753).

Written in Russian, and thus directed at a national and specific audience, the volume begins with a 16-page introduction in which the principal methodological position is outlined. In essence, Hakobian takes what can be described as a hermeneutic approach: that is, identifying certain inter-textual connections between Shostakovich’s music and a number of wider artistic and cultural domains through which it can be interpreted. Such an “open” methodology—indeed, one that is more “Western” and post-structuralist than perhaps other Russian approaches to Shostakovich, despite the intention to restrict the actual (highly Russian) context in which the music is discussed—makes associative links. Each work is analysed in relation to its surrounding artistic context, with the musical opus being transformed therefore into a wider mode of communication with a richer and more diverse set of artistic and cultural significations. Different and diverse lines of evolution are traced via a number of non-musical domains: for example, narrative, the visual arts, philosophical concepts and other cultural and academic tropes, with these lines of evolution being both compositional and semantic, and including, for example, certain stylistic elements, properties of language, forms and techniques, as well as the use of leitmotifs and text fragments, to name a few. Shostakovich’s work is viewed therefore as being at the very centre of a variety of allusions; a mass of musical and other, wider cultural meanings—all of which combine to engender the enormous wealth and legacy that is Russian culture.

Following the book’s introduction, we find seven detailed chapters, with the structure of these directly reflecting the delineated periods that correlate to Shostakovich’s life and work. The first six of these chapters are entitled:

“The Twenties: at the Forward Line of Modernism”;
“Before and after 1936”;
“War Years”;
“Before and after 1948”;
“The Thaw”;

Within each of these chapters, a number of Shostakovich’s works from
the period in question are examined, notwithstanding the composer’s music for film and theatre. Using the approach outlined above, each analysis given builds upon existing literature and takes into consideration almost all of the notable Shostakovich publications in Russia and the West to date.2 The principal aim and intention of the author, he states, is to write the most comprehensive work on Shostakovich’s oeuvre to date, although that said, not all of the works which might be considered key have been included. Furthermore, of those under scrutiny, not all are described and/or analysed to the same degree, with particular consideration clearly being given to certain works and not others. For example, Shostakovich’s early opera The Nose (1928) is given a detailed 40-page discussion; likewise, the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth and Thirteenth Symphonies are each awarded between 20 and 30 pages, while much of his chamber music, with the exception of the First Piano Sonata, op. 12 and his Third String Quartet, is noticeably neglected in favour of later works. Many of the works discussed are illustrated with several music examples, with the notations themselves being very carefully selected and, in visual terms, of unusually high quality.

Although the aim is to assess Shostakovich’s output within a context that
is non-biographical and non-political, a number of historical aspects—for example, the events of 1936 and 1948 which led in both cases to the composer’s public reprimand—are discussed in detail as a way of marking the periodisation employed and to provide necessary background information. Some attention is also given to the relationship between Shostakovich and Prokofiev, thus contextualising these early but crucial events further. The seventh and final chapter, “Shostakovich’s School”—this containing quite a few rarities of note—examines the composer’s legacy and his influence on other composers and musicians. It comprises a series of shorter essays on Georgy Sviridov (1915–1998), Galina Ustvolskaya (1919–2006), Mieczylaw Weinberg (1919–1996), the Azeri composer Faraj Karaev (b. 1943), the Armenian composer (and son of the artist Martiros Sarian) Lazarus Sarian (1920–1998), German Galnin (1922– 1966), Boris Tchaikovsky (1925–1996), Revol Bunin (1924–1976) and Boris Tishchenko (1939–2010). The book concludes with a useful list of the composer’s compositions, an extremely comprehensive bibliography, as well as a list of notable persons in Shostakovich’s life and career, all of which has been meticulously collated and cross-referenced. A brief summary of the book is then presented in English in its final pages.

What emerges, as clearly intended, is a portrait of a composer to whom a number of national and culturally significant traits can be attributed. According to Hakobian, Shostakovich, in the final account, displays several highly desirable and unmistakably Russian qualities; these, he states, engendering him as an essential phenomena, and having as a result: “An organic incapacity to refrain from being ambivalent and/or contradictory. The paramount metaphysical theme [throughout Shostakovich’s oeuvre] is […] the decline of the universe and the disruption of the “right” order of things (Hakobian, 753).

While this is undoubtedly a book of enormous scholarly value, it is also, one might suggest, a book in which a certain degree of subjectivity has been employed: this perhaps being inevitable given its hermeneutic approach and the fact that inter-textuality is, by its very nature, highly interpretative. The works under scrutiny are described as “key”, but little explanation is given as to how these particular examples have been selected, over and above the more general criteria that they showcase Shostakovich’s “phenomenological” nature. More significantly, what criteria have been employed when selecting the array of non-musical “texts” that illuminate the cultural and/or national attributes with which this music is paralleled? Given the wealth of Russian and Soviet culture to hand, a more detailed explanation as to how the chosen examples have been selected would have added weight to the arguments in question. That said, the volume is detailed, meticulously researched and original, while also being, crucially, up-to-date. It builds upon contemporary scholarship and provides a very necessary (and dare one say nationally-driven) antidote to the wealth of (notably Western) political and biographical studies that have, on past occasions, presented “Russianness” as a far more one-dimensional trait than it is in reality. In this, Hakobian’s book adds much to the more recent aesthetic of reflection and review. The real disappointment, one could argue—subjectively—is that it is not in the English language, for, ironically, it is a Western readership that would benefit far more from such a volume; not least if it were to include additional discussions on the numerous Russian and Soviet tropes and significations employed. For the present, however, it is a thought-provoking, wide-reaching and timely piece of scholarship, with any composer’s phenomenology—not least that of Dmitri Shostakovich—being extremely difficult to define.

Dr. Tara Wilson


  1. Some good examples of this can be found in the recently published Russian Music Since 1917: Reappraisal and Rediscovery (ed. Patrick Zuk, Marina Frolova-Walker): New York: Oxford University Press/British Academy, 2017.
  2. Hakobian wishes me to stress that all publications by Solomon Volkov have purposely been omitted given the controversy that surrounds his writings.