Online Journal

Esti Sheinberg
Ashgate, 2001
ISBN: 0754602265

The search for the 'true meaning' of much of Shostakovich's music has occupied listeners and academics for decades now, particularly since the posthumous appearance of Testimony unearthed the possibility that Shostakovich may have had strong feelings of antipathy towards the Soviet regime, despite the appearance maintained during his lifetime of dutiful obedience to the Party.

Naturally, given the direct emotional impact of music such as the wartime symphonies, and the close involvement (and sometimes interference) of the State in the work of Soviet composers, many studies on Shostakovich have focused primarily on aspects of ideological and political influence. It is the very directness of Shostakovich's music that invites us to consider what he might be saying beneath the surface – especially where the character of the music is superficially cheerful or humorous. It is tempting to assume that his manic gallops and marches are simple satirisations of the pomposity of the State. However, Shostakovich's irony and satire are not always politically motivated.

What is welcome is a book which seeks to explore irony in a wider cultural context. Sheinberg in his introduction makes it clear that he is anxious to avoid a reading of Shostakovich's music weighed down by political and ideological preconceptions. The aim of the book is to examine irony (and its sub-classes satire, parody and the grotesque, using the terminology and concepts of semantics and semiotics, and to apply these same concepts in a theoretical analysis of irony as it appears in music.

However, this approach places obstacles before the general reader (i.e. anybody without a grounding in semantics and semiotics, including musicologists). There is much in-depth discussion of concepts such as 'correlation' and 'modes of semantic ambiguity', which is very difficult to understand. One wonders whether the explanations of these concepts could be simplified.

Another problem is that it takes a disproportionately long time for the reader to reach the application of the theory to concrete musical examples. There is lengthy discussion of examples drawn from literature, particularly Gogol, and when musical examples are finally arrived at, a good proportion are not drawn from Shostakovich at all. The result is that the scope of the book is too general to merit the title given to it – it is definitely a book about irony rather than a book about Shostakovich.

Of the music of Shostakovich that is discussed, too much attention is perhaps given to his early opera The Nose. This work is an easy target for spotters of irony and grotesquerie, since it displays outrageousness and mockery of convention at every turn. But The Nose is hardly typical of Shostakovich's music, in the sense that there can hardly be said to be any personal subtext. It would have been fascinating to examine in closer detail the ironic aspects of later works such as the Fifteenth Symphony, where hints of coded messages abound in an atmosphere of self-deprecating humour mixed with tragedy.

What I missed in this book was some conjecture as to why Shostakovich used irony in the way he did. Sheinberg draws interesting parallels with ironic devices in literature and visual art, but where music is concerned, concentrates on merely pointing out that the irony is there and, with all due respect, do we need to be experts in semiotics to appreciate that?

Paul Janes  

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