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  • A Soviet Credo: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony
  • Peter J. Schmelz
A Soviet Credo: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. By Pauline Fairclough. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. [xxx, 261 p. ISBN 0-754-65016-2. $99.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

Few twentieth-century compositions raise as many interpretative and analytical challenges as Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. Started before and completed after the official denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and therefore preceding his work of "contrition," the Fifth Symphony, for many the Fourth Symphony has traditionally marked the course that Shostakovich's creative development might have taken, a missed path cruelly aborted by malevolent government intervention. Pauline Fairclough's study tackles head-on the work's analytical and hermeneutic challenges and offers a stimulating, albeit inconclusive, guide to the Fourth Symphony's complexities. Fairclough provides a promising step in approaching Shostakovich after the blistering battles of the late 1990s that surrounded the composer and interpretations of his music. In fact, many of the frustrations of the book, chief among them its overly tentative, almost apologetic tone, are testament more to the deep scars left by the "Shostakovich wars" than to any faults of the author.

The avoidance of conclusions is fundamental to Fairclough's central argument, which, in her words, "is to present an analysis which avoids drawing direct (and potentially unreliable) associations between historical events and music, but which is nevertheless shaped and informed by awareness of historical context" (p. xxv). In other words, in the detailed thematic and harmonic examination of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony that comprises the bulk of her book, Fairclough tries to avoid the literal linking of music and biography that has so frequently plagued Shostakovich studies. Borrowing from Theodor Adorno's characterization of Mahler's work, she maintains the Fourth Symphony to be a "narrative that relates nothing," and that she has "not tried to put that nothing in words." "Instead," she writes, "I have suggested ways of describing the process of its narrative in a way that does not tie the symphony to specific events or ideas; readers are free to do so if they wish" (p. x). [End Page 624] Fairclough underscores the fact that "like all analyses, [mine] is an interpretation, not a prescription for listening." And yet, despite this caveat, she declares at the outset of the book that "for me, at least, the Fourth Symphony seems to encapsulate the hope, idealism, fear and sheer insanity of [its time] more compellingly than does any other contemporary Soviet work" (p. x). Fairclough obviously holds deeply felt opinions about the Fourth Symphony's construction, reception, and meaning. Her eschewal of reading it through Shostakovich's biography (or vice versa) paradoxically ensures that biography nonetheless colors all of her evaluations. It is a shame that this defensive posture has caused her to couch her interpretations—biographical, historical, or otherwise—behind hesitation and vacillation, hiding her often strong, provocative readings behind "it seems" and "possibly."

The strengths of Fairclough's study are twofold: the focus on Soviet debates over musical Socialist Realism that preceded the Fourth Symphony's composition (chap. 1), and the detailed, often bar by bar explication of the symphony (chaps. 3 through 5). The first chapter is a distillation of two previous and notable articles that Fairclough has published on the 1935 "Discussion about Soviet Symphonism" and on Ivan Sollertinsky's Mahler writings, respectively. This chapter is loosely organized and the central thread of the argument is sometimes lost. Some of its topics could have been expanded upon, especially its brief coda surveying Soviet symphonic form and hence nascent musical Socialist Realism in representative symphonies by Nikolai Myaskovsky, Vissarion Shebalin, Gavriil Popov, and others (supplying dates for all of these works also would have been helpful). By putting Shostakovich in this context, Fairclough points out, though somewhat overemphasizes, that Shostakovich's Fourth in many ways satisfied the still inchoate criteria for musical Socialist Realism hashed out at the 1935 conference. As she writes, "In several respects the Fourth Symphony was a shining example of precisely the kind of new Soviet symphonism that composers and musicologists might have welcomed" (p. xvii).

Katerina Clark noted in...


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