It’s risky business to speak for the dead. In the terrible case of Dmitri Shostakovich, the temptation is strong, because history, in the form of Stalin, didn’t allow the composer to speak for himself.
Of course, there’s the music, but music is reticent about meaning — like a therapist, it prefers you draw your own conclusions.
Shostakovich’s music presents a particularly thorny nest of meanings and counter-meanings, with upsetting traps of tone. When I was 12 I fell under the spell of his Fifth Symphony, loving its triumphant, thrilling ending. Thirty years later, however, I re-encountered the piece, led by a young and intelligent conductor, who explained to all of us that this glorious ending was an artifact of Leonard Bernstein’s intervention, and a betrayal of the real metronome marking and character, all of which was a defiant, ironic swipe at Stalin. He proceeded to conduct the ending half as fast, as though being hammered to death by D major, erasing all the joy I’d ever had from it. I trudged glumly from the concert hall. The triumph was fake, I understood that; the joy was enforced. But did I have to be as miserable as Shostakovich was? Was that the point of the music? NY Times