In the United States, the music of Dmitri Shostakovich has most often been associated with political protest, and treated as a coded and dissonant (read: dissident) reaction to Josef Stalin, Nazism, and/or Soviet/totalitarian injustice. But as the cold war, with the rest of its century, recedes in memory and the music of Shostakovich continues to resonate, the restrictiveness of that image begins to become more and more clear.
This is not to say that it isn’t true, however. Shostakovich was indeed profoundly affected by the gruesome political realities of grand social fantasies. The possibility of murder, exile, and/or public humiliation because of pseudo-academic points of musical style (as defined by despots or bureaucrats) was a fact of his life in Soviet Russia- as were invasion, siege, and Pyrrhic victory on the Eastern front during the Second World War. We cannot underestimate the horror. But there is no need to get stuck in political discussion; there is a great deal more in Shostakovich’s music than reaction to this political atmosphere, asphyxiating though it may have been.
Part of the problem, though, is that what’s not political in Shostakovich is extremely hard to describe – it can sometimes seem as though Shostakovich exploited some backdoor category of paradox in his music. A work may be crystal clear in form, but completely opaque in meaning; it may be evidently ironic, yet have no clear target for its irony; it can seem meaningfully cryptic, but may well be indecipherable even after many levels of code might seem to give way. There is a sense of the continual inversion or deflection of what’s obvious, a sense which is almost the opposite – or complement – of the political, but not ‘political opposition’. Pin it down closely, and you can be sure only that you’ve got it wrong.
The piano quintet makes extremely curious progress, more like a gradual sublimation of forms than a developed solution of formal issues. Its opening movements, a Prelude and Fugue, refer directly to the architectural forms and harmonic forces-at-work of J.S. Bach. The fugue, however, is weirdly muted and strained, and a strangely blunt third movement throws the piece toward much more lyric forms in the fourth and fifth movements. The music of the last movement can seem more like refuge than real relief, but is nonetheless welcome.