My colleague George Robinson wrote an insightful piece on the upcoming "Babi Yar" symphony being performed by the New York Philharmonic this weekend. I've never heard the symphony in full, but I look forward to hearing it this Thursday night. Reading up on the work, written by the towering Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich in 1962, made me especially piqued about this question: how does the Jewish Question, addressed by Shostakovich's "Babi Yar," help to answer the Shostakovich Question?
The Shostakovich Question will be well-known to classical music fans. Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960 and remained the government's choice composer his entire life. And yet so much of his work–from his dark and absurdist operas like "The Nose" to vocal symphonies like "Babi Yar," with its explicit sympathy for Jewish suffering–run counter to the sell-out critique. Shostakovich's defenders–and these days, they are the overwhelming majority–argue that Communist membership is not the sine qua non from which judgments about him should be based. They argue that he leveraged his prestige to subtly but substantially subvert the Soviet regime that supported him.
"Babi Yar" is perhaps the most powerful piece of evidence for their case. Soviet officials had long downplayed the extent of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis, instead towing the line that all Russians, Jews included, suffered equally. But "Babi Yar," a five-section symphony with lyrics by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, explicitly mourns the death of 35,000 Jews killed at the Babi Yar killing field, in 1941 Ukraine. Critics have recently argued that he got away these brazen acts of unorthodoxy because he was wiling to bend to Soviet pressure, and because given Shostakovich's international profile, they could not risk quieting him when he chose to step out of line. Anyway, they argue, his audiences were sophisticated enough to read between the lines: they knew what Shostakovich was feeling, no matter how much censors might muzzle him.
As the critic Wendy Lesser writes in her recent book, "Music for the Silenced Voices" (Yale University Press, 2011), Shostakovich's music had a "doubleness, [an] irony, whereby he says one thing . . . and at the same time lets his listeners know that the opposite is the case." Of course, there is a risk reading too much politics into the work of any great artist. As another critic, David Fanning, put it, truly timeless, affecting music "liberates itself from the shackles of its context."