“To the victims of fascism and war.” This is the enigmatic inscription on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 (1960). The puzzle with this dedication is its imprecision. As a composer and writer, Shostakovich was known for being very precise and never misplacing a note or word. The question is: who were the victims he mourned?
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) was eleven years old in 1917 and witnessed the violence and chaos of the Revolution from up close:
I remember another incident much more clearly. It took place in February of the same year . They were breaking up a crowd in the street. And a Cossack killed a boy with his sabre. It was terrifying. […] I didn’t forget that boy. And I never will. I tried to write music about it several times. When I was small, I wrote a piano piece called “Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution” (Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich).
When the Bolsheviks took over later that year, Shostakovich’s family escaped persecution by the communist authorities by pleading that, even though his father worked in the Imperial Civil Service, he was of low rank, and that the family descended from starving artists. From an early age, the composer saw the anti-utopian aspect of collectivism through the brutality of its enforcers. He set about harnessing the power of music to commemorate those who died and to advocate for the living. By the end of his life, he identified his Second, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Twelfth Symphonies as memorial pieces dedicated to the victims of war and collectivism (Testimony).
In the 1920s, he entered the Leningrad Conservatory as a composition/conducting student. For an artist, it was a schizophrenic time: Soviet policies regarding desirable styles and propaganda messages varied wildly on an almost month-to-month basis. Despite the instability of the situation, Shostakovich flourished, receiving critical acclaim both at home and abroad.
All this changed in 1934, when Joseph Stalin himself attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District and reacted very badly to the work. The next day, an anonymous editorial, tacitly understood to belong to Stalin, appeared in Pravda, in which the opera was savaged. Immediately denounced by the Communist Party and authorities, Shostakovich would spend the rest of his life in constant fear of summary execution or deportation to the Gulag. During World War II, the Party rehabilitated him to some degree, recognizing that he could become a potent cultural, and therefore propaganda, symbol in a time of national crisis. Shostakovich himself had no faith in the party, having experienced its fickleness, and kept the communist machine at arm’s length. He also launched a subtle systemic criticism of the Soviet world through his music, covering his back by claiming artistic license and perception.
Although his works conveyed anti-Soviet and anti-Stalinist message through their allusions to prison songs, Western tunes, and old religious melodies and their enigmatic inscriptions and comments, Shostakovich was handicapped in spreading his message by Soviet censorship, which habitually rebranded and re-categorized his works. This is why the dedications required explanation by the composer at the end of his life. Regarding the inscription at the beginning of the Eighth String Quartet, he wrote:
Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. […] I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin’s orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, shot, or starved to death. There were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler began. […] I think constantly of those people, and in every major work I try to remind others of them. The conditions of the war years were conducive to that, because the authorities were less strict about music and didn’t care if the music was too gloomy. And later, all the misery was put down to the war, as though it was only during the war that people were tortured and killed. Thus the Seventh and Eighth are “war symphonies.”
Shostakovich referred in the final sentence to the rebranding efforts of the Party censorship machine. “War” in the composer’s vocabulary meant the victims of communism as well as fascism, and it was a word he chose specifically because he could slip it past the censors. “Fascism” could refer to any totalitarian government.
Knowing that his written words would be distorted, Shostakovich also relied on musical quotes—recognizable snatches of music from other works—to convey his message. In the Eighth Quartet, he quotes folk songs as well as his own past works. But deliberate misrepresentation of his purpose was still a source of frustration:
When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of “exposing fascism.” You have to be blind to do that, because everything in the quartet is clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”
The story of Shostakovich is that of man who being deprived of free speech still managed to find a way of defiantly making his voice heard. Although he lamented the ease of misinterpreting and distorting words, the message of his music is very clear: those who died must never be forgotten. Nor will they be: the music of Shostakovich is their memorial.