Do you think Shostakovich's music speaks in “codes?” I don't mean merely the obvious musical cryptograms, like in his eighth string quartet or cello concerto where a short motif intentionally denotes his name, but rather, the layers and juxtapositions of musical references in all his music—references to Mahler, Stravinsky, folk music, historic music like Bach, Stalin's favorite marches, klezmer. Do all of these references add up to a deeper meaning in his music that he could not safely articulate under the Soviet system? Or is this reading too much into the music and projecting something that really may not be there?
To put it simply and specifically, do you hear the ending of his fifth symphony as the victorious triumph of the Soviet people as his program notes proclaim, or are those unrelenting octave 'A's' and final notes on the bass drum instead a coded message denoting the terror and forced living under the Stalin regime?
Different musicians and scholars champion both of these positions. In Testimony, the controversial memoirs of Shostakovich published after the composer's death in 1979, editor Solomon Volkov maintained that in order to survive as an artist in the repressive Stalin regime, Shostakovich assumed the role of the yurodivy, a type of "holy fool" who spoke uncomfortable truth through paradox and code. After Testimony was published, Western listeners began listening to Shostakovich's music differently. Instead of hearing sarcasm, they began to hear deep bitterness; beneath the sometimes annoying repetition, they heard horror and the insanity of Stalin's repression; the frequent references to klezmer might not be simply a nod to Mahler, but a code for the very real oppression and suffering that even friends had to hide from each other in a society built on betrayal. In fact, maybe the juxtaposition of these different references told a different story for many of his major works. For instance, maybe the seventh symphony ("The Leningrad"), a work that became a universal WWII symbol of resistance against Nazi Germany, was in fact really a depiction of the earlier destruction of the Russian of Leningrad through Stalin's purges before the war. This was a different view of Shostakovich than the patriotic Soviet citizen who decried the decadence of the West and its avant-garde.
But perhaps this view overreaches? Is it merely an indulgent projection on our part to Shostakovich's music? The controversy continues to this day. You can read more about it at this link: The Shostakovich Wars by Allan B. Ho and Dmitry Feofanov.
Let me know what you think. How do you hear Shostakovich's music?
P.S. Here are some wonderful YouTube links of Shostakovich performing his own music:
Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 with Shostakovich on piano
Shostakovich playing some of his preludes and fugues (beautifully)