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The Rhetoric of reference; or, Shostakovich's ghost quartet.


It's typical that Wayne Booth titled his autobiography My Many Selves: he loved to point out that he was not a consistent person--at least not in any superficial way. Of course, all those selves had many common features; when I hear others talking about him, therefore, I can always recognize the Wayne I knew. But the recognition is always blurred, even haunted, by the vague presence of one or more of his other selves. James Redfield, for instance, mentions their conversations about religion--with me, religion rarely came up. (1) Rather, with the Wayne I knew, music tended to be uppermost. I remember the first time he called on me in class. "What would Aristotle have to say about the Lenox Quartet's performance of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge?" he asked, challenging a review I had, with the sophomoric self-confidence of the college sophomore I in fact was, written for the Chicago Maroon. (2) And music remained central as our friendship developed. Especially in later years, our conversations were more apt to start with talk about what he had been playing or how his practicing had gone or what I'd been listening to than with talk about literature. And he always supported my efforts to apply narrative theory to music. So the decision to anchor this article in Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet is a way of dedicating this paper to Wayne the cellist, more specifically Wayne the string quartet player--even though, as should be obvious, the way I think about things is profoundly influenced by Wayne the narrative theorist.


If you include recordings of the numerous (misguided) transcriptions, there are, as of early 2007, nearly as many available recordings of the Shostakovich Eighth as there are of the Ravel, and far more than there are, say, of any of the Bartok Quartets. Its popularity is surprising, given its basic mood. Wayne called it "perhaps the gloomiest, most despairing composition I know" (Booth Love 169); and while you might quibble with the superlative, the general characterization is indisputable. This is not the sort of music you would expect audiences to clamor for.

The Eighth was written in 1960, when increasing pressure was being put on Shostakovich to join the Communist Party. He had gone to Dresden to work with Leo Arnshtam on Five Days--Five Nights, a film about the Soviet rescue of Dresden's art treasures after the war in the wake of the allied fire-bombing. As Laurel Fay puts it, "He viewed the graphic film footage, toured the ruins of the devastated city, and then repaired to the tranquility of Gohrisch, in 'Saxon Switzerland.' Instead of scoring the film, however, in a white heat he wrote a new string quartet, his Eighth, completing it on 14 July 1960" (Fay 217).

Officially, the quartet--"In Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War"--commemorated the devastation of the city. But because of its extensive self-quotation--and because of its extensive use of the DSCH (D E-flat C B) (3) motif drawn from the letters of his name in standard German spelling--even Soviet critics like Keldysh, despite pressure to place the work in terms of objective history rather than subjective psychology, recognized an "autobiographical" strain from its first performance. Bernard Stevens expresses the critical consensus: "It is perhaps his most personal statement" (Stevens 157). True, when the music was brand new, the self-reference could be read as a sign that he sided with victims, rather than a sign that he saw himself as a victim. (4) But as time has passed, nearly everyone has come to agree that, regardless of its position on German atrocities, (5) the work expresses (or also expresses) Shostakovich's sense that he was personally oppressed, especially given its prominent use of the popular song, "Exhausted by Grievous Bondage." As the composer himself described "this ideologically flawed quartet" in what has become an oft-cited letter to Isaak Glikman, "I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself. The title page should carry the dedication: 'To the memory of the composer of this quartet'" (Shostakovich 90-91).

"Nearly everyone has come to agree ...": if the popularity of the work is surprising, the degree of interpretive harmony is more surprising still, especially given the ideological charge of the music. After all, since the publication of Solomon Volkov's purported Shostakovich memoir, Testimony, there's been a contentious split in the reception of Shostakovich's music. To simplify, there are two major camps.

The revisionists, relying on Volkov's picture of the composer as a long-time dissident, tend to see his entire output as the expression of his oppositional politics; at their most extreme, revisionists offer detailed narrative descriptions revealing the music's secret anti-Stalinist meanings even (or especially) in works that superficially glorify the state. Thus, for instance, Paul Serotsky's analysis of the Twelfth Symphony finds programmatic meanings for each of the main themes (Lenin, the People, the Victims) and neatly organizes them into a "plot." Serotsky describes the conclusion as follows:
   This provokes a massive outburst of "Lenin", and the music becomes
   immediately more martial, propelling the "Victims" and the "People"
   into a stark confrontation with the grim figure of "Lenin", now in
   his original (true?) colours. The ensuing coda is a victory even
   more hollow than that of the Fifth Symphony, the "Victims" and
   "People" themes hysterically festive, but repeatedly halted by a
   massive, stagnant three note phrase on heavy brass. Is this the
   people's three notes, banging their heads against a brick wall, or
   the second phrase of Lenin's "inspiration/plan" theme, stonewalling
   the celebrations, or what? (You choose!) (Serotsky)

In contrast, the anti-revisionists, most of whom distrust Volkov, argue that such revisionist readings are too simple, even that they are Stalinist in reverse--investing the music with cheap and unambiguous ideological messages that ignore both the composer's emotional/political ambiguity and the music's formal qualities. As Richard Taruskin, one of the most prominent anti-revisionists, puts it, "The politically correct late- or post-Soviet position on Shostakovich has become a facile inversion of the old official view" ("Public Lies" 53). (6)

Now as always with schisms, there are shared principles. "Nearly everyone" writing about Shostakovich today agrees that his music, more than most, has to be contextualized in terms of the harrowing narrative of his life. As Esti Sheinberg puts it, "The domain of Shostakovich research was so loaded with political and ideological considerations that even works which sincerely aspired to be purely analytical could not entirely avoid ideological preconceptions" (3). The disagreements lie, rather, in what constitute the basic details of that narrative, in how particular musical works fit into and/or reflect it, and in how to balance those biographical elements with the music's formal qualities. Oddly, though, whatever version of the basic biographical narrative you choose, whatever position you take on the degree and consistency of Shostakovich's supposed dissidence, and whatever your attitude toward formal analysis, the fundamental import of the Eighth Quartet seems uncharacteristically stable, offering much the same biographical meaning and serving much the same function in the plot of his life. (7)

Of course, there remain disagreements about the facts surrounding the composition. Lebedinsky makes the most dramatic claim, arguing that Shostakovich intended to commit suicide after finishing the piece (Lebedinsky 477)--a position strongly disputed by the composer's son Maxim (Fanning 18). There are also shadings of difference in interpretation of the work's meaning as well. Thus, there's some question about whether the personal, autobiographical meaning replaces the anti-Fascist meaning (as Lawrence Kramer argues when he calls the official dedication a "sham" [Kramer 232]) or merely supplements it; there's some question as to whether the music's formal elements support its extra-musical message or whether, to quote David Fanning (the closest thing to a nay-sayer on this issue), "the Eighth Quartet makes a point of transcending the extra-musical meanings it invokes" (Fanning 3). Still, everyone seems to agree that this is a piece in which the composer expressed his opposition and his sense of victimhood with unusual explicitness. As Fanning puts it, "There seems to be little doubt that the business of joining the Party brought home to him his impotence vis-a-vis authority, and that the Eighth Quartet in some way reflects his consequent agonizing" (Fanning 20).

It seems relatively straightforward, if disappointingly self-pitying--but I can't help wondering whether we've missed something important here. I'm going to argue that we may have. And I'll do so, as I often tend to do, by way of a few theoretical detours.


Before the theory, though, it's time for a quiz: I'm going to describe a novel, tossing out details one by one. I want you to keep track of the point in the description when you know what novel I'm talking about. (1) It's an American novel (2) written in the mid 20th-century (3) by an author who had, at the time, an academic affiliation at an eastern American university. (4) It's a first-person narrative and (5) although it consists basically of after-the-fact recollections, it does interpolate key extracts of a diary from the time of the events in question. (6) The issue of anti-Semitism emerges with the representation of Americans' tendency to assume that people with strange names are Jewish. (7) Moths flutter through the text. (8) Dante makes direct and indirect appearances, as do numerous other texts of popular and high culture; and (9) there's a key moment where the narrator listens to the distant sounds of school children from a height far above them. Still puzzled? (10) The male narrator speaks of the special tang of sex with girls "barely in their teens" and then (11) gets into an inappropriate sexual relationship with a young woman for whom he has responsibility. (12) He does everything he can to keep her sexuality under his own control, eventually (13) killing his rival. (14) The girl's name (or rather her nickname) serves as the title of the book (15) and is spelled L_LIT_. We'll come back to this novel later.


First, though, I want make yet another turn to a moment in Strindberg's Ghost Sonata, where Jacob Hummel urges Arkenholz to attend a performance of Wagner's Die Walkure. Interpreting this allusion has all the problems that interpreting a metaphor does. Even once we recognize it as a reference to a specific, real work of art, we need to ask ourselves: what are the possible interpretive consequences? They are numerous--and there are many ways of sorting them out. But thinking about the problem in the context of Wayne Booth's critical practice certainly encourages us to schematize them in terms of the rhetorical aim of the citation. What does it do to us? If, in Boothian terms, the goal of a work is to produce the agreement between the created selves of the author and reader/viewer/listener (Booth Rhetoric of Fiction 138), how do references of this sort contribute to that union? Or, to put it in slightly different terms, how do they help define the authorial audience or to align the actual audience with the authorial audience?

Before I get down to the inevitable taxonomy (a passion that Wayne and I shared almost as much as we shared a passion for music), let me start with a limitation. My subject here is not intertextuality in general; nor is it ekphrasis, influence, or literary or musical borrowing broadly construed. I'm not talking about such re-visions as Wide Sargasso Sea or such adaptations as Apocalypse Now or Clueless. I'm leaving aside, as well, simple recyclings (say, Chandler's "cannibalisations" of his short stories for his novels), homages (say, Enescu's Piece sur le nom de Faure), and references to non-existent works (like the Vinteuil Sonata in Proust or de Selby's philosophical writings in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman). Rather, I'm talking about more specific, often (but, as we'll see, not always) local, allusions in one work of art to another work or group of works that both the authorial and the narrative audiences view as real, pre-existing works of art. (8) For convenience, I'll use the word "reference" to label this phenomenon, with the understanding both that the word itself has other meanings as well, and that the phenomenon has fuzzy borders.

So what are the rhetorical purposes of references? My classification begins with four basic functions--we might call them illocutionary acts--that references can perform as an author works to define or refine the implied author/authorial audience relationship. Granted, this taxonomy takes on the issue at a fairly generalized level: in actual practice, particular references are apt to be more complex than this theoretical scheme suggests. In part, that's because the four categories do not chart out four mutually exclusive classes of references--that is, as we'll see, a particular reference in a particular work can fulfill several functions at the same time. More important, each function is subject to a wide degree of variation in terms of intended effect. Still, schematic as it is, I believe that the classification offers a valuable first step toward understanding the ways in which particular references operate.

First, there are what we might call acts of invitation, phatic acts that serve the same function as a phrase like the midwinter greeting, "Cold enough for you?" Invitations welcome us into the authorial audience by showing (presumably) that we and the author are part of the same community because we have some shared background. This is particularly useful where the author wishes to draw in readers for whom certain aspects of the text might otherwise seem exclusionary. Thus, for instance, the intense discussion of physics in Rebecca Goldstein's Properties of Light might make many non-scientists uncomfortable; references to Proust, Schubert's Unfinished, and Mozart in the opening pages encourage high-brow readers with a more artistic and literary bent to continue reading.

Like all of the basic functions, invitations can operate in one of two directions. Positive invitations (say, Dostoevsky's praise of Pushkin) define the community in terms of common likes. Negative references define it terms of common disdain (as when Flaubert knocks cheap romances in Madame Bovary). That distinction, though, merely gives one rough mapping of a more complex terrain. Some invitations (for instance, Twain's parody of familiar Shakespeare in Huckleberry Finn) invite us into fairly large communities; others (for instance, the Goldstein references I mentioned above) invite us into more elite clubs; some (say, Nabokov's references to Timon of Athens in Pale Fire) may, in fact, make actual readers feel excluded from the authorial audience altogether. Regular viewers of Law and Order and its spinoffs know this kind of difference well: highbrow literature and music is almost uniformly mocked in Law and Order; Law and Order: Criminal Intent is far more friendly to elite culture. Thus, for instance, the solution in the second-season Criminal Intent opener "Anti-Thesis" involved, among other things, knowing that it was Ezra Pound and not T.S. Eliot who called civilization "an old bitch gone in the teeth" and recognizing the significance of a someone owning the recording of Penderecki's Devils of Loudon.

Sometimes, in a more complex move, invitations serve to split the authorial audience--say, by winking to some sub-set of potential readers who might otherwise feel out of place. Children's cartoons, for instance, often throw out references to keep parents engaged. Similarly, by naming the dashing bounder "Willoughby" and naming a mental hospital after its head doctor "Wuthering," the William Powell/Myrna Loy comedy Love Crazy welcomes more educated viewers without alienating the rest of the audience. Beyond that, invitations come with different tones and different levels of appreciation that give different nuances to the nature of the authorial audience. Pushkin's chiding of Tatyana's reading habits in Eugene Onegin is nowhere near as severe as Flaubert's dismissals of Emma Bovary's, and helps produce a warmer, more forgiving authorial audience for his novel.

Second, there are acts of information, which offer data we need in order to interpret the text as the implied author wishes us to. These are sometimes largely descriptive. For instance, we learn something of how Odette appears, at least to Swann and to the narrator, when we're told of "the melancholy Botticellian droop" she shares with such portraits as that of the Virgin in the Magnificat (Proust Grove 265). More important, though, informational references in literary texts often carry some ethical valence, in the broadest sense of "ethical"; that is, they often encourage us to make judgments, to align ourselves with the authorial audience by aligning ourselves with or against a particular character. Sometimes, the information comes when a character is compared, positively or negatively, to a character in a prior text. Thus, Leskov gives strong sense of his protagonist's character when he calls his short story "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District." (Indeed, it's possible that it was partly to escape that characterization that Shostakovich, in the revised version of the opera he based on that story, chose to change the title to Katerina Ismailova.) And Raymond Chandler tells us something about what Philip Marlowe is not like when he has Marlowe tell General Sternwood, "'I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance'" (Chandler 213). Alternatively, informative references can give us a sense of a character's aesthetic (and, often by extension, moral or psychological) disposition by showing the way that character responds, well or badly, to a work of art. Whatever the Baron de Charlus's failings, we discover something about his "spiritual gift" when we're told of the skill with which he accompanies Morel "in the purest style, the closing passage" of Faure's First Violin Sonata (Proust Sodom 479); the complexity of our sympathies in The Clockwork Orange is brought about, in part, by Alex's love for Beethoven; the ambivalence we feel toward mass-murderer Nicole Wallace ("Anti-Thesis") has something to do with her knowledge of Melville, Pound, and Eliot. (9) In contrast, in "A Teacher of Literature," Chekhov sketches out a minor character's intellectual limitations with one well-placed reference: "Captain Polyansky began assuring Varya that Pushkin really was a psychologist, and to prove it quoted two lines from Lermontov" (Chekhov 113).

Informational references, too, come with different shadings. At the end of Nabokov's short story "Music," the unmusical protagonist asks an acquaintance what piece he's been listening to. "'What you will,' said Boke in the apprehensive whisper of a rank outsider. '"A Maiden's Prayer," or the "Kreutzer Sonata." Whatever you will'" (Nabokov Stories 337). The failure to distinguish between the kitsch of a salon perennial and the sophistication of one of the towering classics of the 19th century would, in a work by Proust or Chekhov, be a fairly clear signal; and even here, I suspect, we're intended to look down at Boke. But Nabokov himself was notoriously unmusical--and more or less proud of it to boot. "I am indifferent to ... music. When I go to a concert all that matters to me is the reflection of the hands of the pianist on the lacquer of the instrument" (Nabokov "Master" 68). And the tendency of his protagonist--whose name not coincidentally begins with "V"--to engage in the same visual activity, rather than to listen to the music, complicates the meaning of his disengagement. Add to this the Nabokovian echo in "Boke" and the possibility of a secondary reference to Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata (which shreds Beethoven mercilessly), and the informational implications of the reference begin to spiral out of control.

Third, there are acts of indoctrination. If Proust is using Botticelli largely as a descriptive device in the case mentioned above, he's doing something rhetorically different when he points out the "little patch of yellow wall" in Vermeer's View of Delft, just before Bergotte dies (Proust Captive 244-45). Here he's trying to change the authorial audience's appreciation or evaluation of a particular work of art. Positive indoctrination increases our appreciation--as, for instance, when James Cain, in Career in C Major, explains the difficulties involved in performing the Quartet from Rigoletto. Negative indoctrination, in contrast, decreases appreciation, as when Tolstoy, as I've mentioned, tries to get us to see the horror of Beethoven in The Kreutzer Sonata. (x)

Fourth, we have acts of instruction. In terms of their power to guide us as we try to join the authorial audience, these are the most influential references. Instructional references are generic clues in the sense that I've defined "genre" elsewhere; that is, they're intended as a way of letting us know what rules of notice, signification, configuration, and/or coherence to apply (or, in negative references, what rules not to apply) as we construct the work in question. (11) By comparing his protagonist to King Lear in King Lear of the Steppes, for instance, Turgenev sets in play a number of rules of configuration which in turn set up a series of expectations--and the ultimate coherence of the novel depends, in large part, on the way that the ending suddenly swerves away from the punishment of the Goneril and Regan stand-ins (there's no Cordelia in this story) that we have anticipated. In an instance of negative instruction, Edna Ferber warns us not to seek out moral clarity as we read Showboat by explicitly rejecting the simplicity of such melodramas as Mary Jane Holmes's Tempest and Sunshine, with their unrealistic endings in which "Love triumphed, fight conquered, virtue was rewarded, evil punished" (65) and in which "onrushing engines were cheated of their victims" (102). More generally, Borges shows, in "Death and the Compass," the danger of following the interpretive instructions in standard detective novels. (12)

Now even when we have something that is unambiguously a reference, it's not always clear what it is a reference to. Among other things, it's not always clear what its referential depth of field is. Take, for instance, the scene in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds where we see an LP of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Annie Hayworth's house. (13) It's obviously a reference--but how tight is its focus? Is it a reference to music in general (perhaps, in part, a way of drawing the audience's attention to the absence of a traditional musical soundtrack)? To "classical music" more specifically? To romantic operas even more specifically? To Tristan in particular? Or is it, perhaps more circuitously, a whimsical reference to the "sound consultant" Bernard Herrmann, whose score for Vertigo a few years earlier had borrowed liberally from the Wagner opera? (14)

Then, too, as I've said, while the functions themselves are theoretically distinct, a given reference can potentially serve several of them. Indeed, one can argue that nearly every reference does, in some way, serve multiple functions. Certainly, every instance of information, indoctrination, and instruction is inevitably, on some level, serving as an invitation as well. And it is possible that even the purest examples of invitation also provide at least some information. Thus, to return to Strindberg's Ghost Sonata: it's possible to interpret the Wagner reference here as an instance of any or all of them. It could, for instance, be read as an act of invitation, a way of saying to the advanced readers of his day that Strindberg, too, is a solid member of the high art club; it could be informative, a description of the kind of person Jacob Hummel is; it could an attempt at indoctrination, the pressing of a Wagnerian (or, more likely, an anti-Wagnerian) agenda; it could be an act of instruction, urging us to construct the coherence of the play, for instance, in terms of its use of leitmotifs or in terms of the theme of incest that underlies the opera.

Interpretation is therefore tough enough even when dealing with fairly direct references. But the problems are further compounded when we're dealing with what I've come to call "ghost references"--references that aren't concretely there, yet that seem to haunt the work we're reading. Ghost references are not simply "implicit" references: many references, although implicit, are so unambiguous that the authorial audience doesn't stumble. When an institutionalized young woman says to her lover, "I'm only a wild girl with dirty hair whom you keep locked in your attic" (Salamanca 241), there's little question that this is intended as a reference to Jane Eyre. Nor are ghost references simply obscure references: some references, while far from obvious, flavor a moment in the work without haunting it. The brief exchange about cucumbers in Shaw's You Never Can Tell is a faint nod to Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, but it has no real aura. (15) Ghost references, in contrast, make a significant difference in our fundamental interpretation of the text; when we come upon them, we feel like the narrator of Nabokov's "Vane Sisters," chilled by an eerie sense of some ambiguous secret narrative behind the one we're reading. (16)

Ghost references are generally of the fourth type, instructional; they're generally not local; and they're troubling because they lead us to believe that there may be rules at play--especially rules of coherence--other than the ones we're employing. Most important, to take up one of James Phelan's distinctions, they tend to be stubborn, not difficult (Phetan Narrative 178). Indeed, they're stubborn in two interlocking ways. We're never sure of whether or not they're actually there. (In this sense, confirming a ghost reference is like confirming a fingerprint: it's never clear how how many points are sufficient to declare a match.) And beyond that, we're never sure of their interpretive consequences.

Sometimes, a ghost reference is transformed into an explicit reference through authorial explication. The Lord's Prayer was a ghost reference for John Barth's "Glossolalia" when it was first published; since Barth himself coyly revealed it in the "Seven Additional Author's Notes" appended to later editions of Lost in the Funhouse, it has become merely an ordinary reference, although still subject to interpretive ambiguities. In other cases, there are enough points of similarity that the presence of the ghost has become a matter of critical consensus. Few seriously question the claim, for instance, that Robbe-Grillet's novel Les Gommes is haunted by Sophocles' Oedipus; and it is hardly controversial to maintain that Pale Fire is haunted by Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin, even though the interpretive consequences (for both texts) of that haunting are far from sure.

The most troubling ghosts, though, remain elusive despite critical investigation: does Alban Berg's Lyric Suite really haunt Witold Gombrowicz's Cosmos, as I've argued elsewhere, or are the interconnections but a series of coincidences seen as a pattern simply because of my own interests and presuppositions (Rabinowitz Before 178-83)? Is Ian McEwan's Atonement, as James Phelan has suggested in conversation, haunted by Farewell to Arms? And even when we're sure of the presence of a ghost, it's not always easy to be sure of its identity. Elgar's Enigma Variations is perhaps the canonical example here. At the first performance, the program notes included a comment from the composer: "'through and over the whole set another and larger theme "goes," but it not played'" (Anderson 41). Since then, dozens of solutions--some nearly rivalling solutions to the Kennedy Assassination in their ingenuity--have been proposed, most of them bringing with them significant consequences for the underlying political or personal meaning of the piece. (17)

Ghost references have a disquieting effect on our relationship to the implied author. On the one hand, their subtlety increases the pleasure of reading (or listening) by deepening the level of intellectual collaboration with the implied author, by forcing us to slow down and read more carefully and think more expansively. On the other hand, their stubbornness ultimately obstructs the Boothian communicative ideal: in the most extreme (and most interesting) cases, they leave us in perpetual doubt about the fundamental nature of the text we're reading. It's important to distinguish the effect of such cases from the kinds of unstable irony Booth finds, say, in Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee, where we find "paradoxical communings," where in our "very puzzlement [we are] enacting what [the author] has required [us] to" (Rhetoric of Irony 265, 267). For ghost references do not, in fact, make us enact the intentions of the implied author. To put it differently, the ambiguities introduced by ghost references are not ambiguities experienced by the authorial audience; they are, rather ambiguities experienced by the actual audience about the nature of the authorial audience. Thus, while ghost references, like certain kinds of irony, create doubt, that is not their rhetorical point. Either their rhetorical point is to guide us or they have no rhetorical point because they are, in fact, not there. The doubt is an interpretive side-effect.


Back to the quiz I gave earlier: at what point did you know that I was referring to Lolita? In any case, you were wrong: the novel I was referring to was not Lolita, but J.R. Salamanca's Lilith. (18) Or, more accurately, I was enumerating a series of points of contact between the two, a series of parallels that are striking and tantalizing, and that, once you see them, are hard to forget. Nor is this the full extent of the overlap. Lilith is full of other parallels to Lolita as well: the narrator's first vision of Lilith, for instance, has much in common with Humbert's first vision of Lo; and the book has at least one Nabokovian list (262).

What's going on here? Salamanca isn't "rewriting" Lolita--but I can't escape the eerie feeling that his novel is haunted by Lolita in a way that should influence our reading strategies. But how? Should we apply a standard late-Nabokovian rule of notice and pay attention to anything that might be an anagram? For instance, above Lilith's bed is the phrase, in her supposedly invented language, "HIARA PIRLU RESH KAVAWN," a phrase that seems to promise "revelation" and "insight" (257). Is it appropriate to read that as "A pawk. V Sirin, Ruler. Haha!"--to read it, that is, a message that there's a trick or artifice here, and that an amused Nabokov (who in his early years used the pseudonym V. Sirin) is the spirit behind it all? (19) Should we follow the rule of signification that the names of books and movies "randomly" encountered in the novel bear some deeper meaning? More generally, should we be wary of the narrator's own version of events, his tendency to blame Lilith for much of the tragedy that ensues? To what extent is he, to use Phelan's terminology, misreading and misregarding? There are no easy answers to these questions--and that ambiguity adds a poignance to the text, one that's neither defined nor easily escaped. (20)


So what does this have to do with the Shostakovich Eighth Quartet? As I've said, nearly everyone recognizes the not-so-hidden message. Although it's officially dedicated to the "Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War," the self-quotation--re-confirmed by many remarks the composer himself made to friends and colleagues--has made it clear that this is an autobiography and that Shostakovich himself is the victim. "The message seems explicit enough," writes Ian MacDonald, one of the leading revisionists: "'Shostakovich is tormented by lack of freedom.' In fact, taken as a whole, the quartet is probably the most explicit thing in the composer's output" (MacDonald 222). The composer's son Maxim seconds MacDonald's reading: "Only a stupid person could not understand the combination in that quartet of his musical signature ('DSCH') along with the tune of a well-known Russian prison song ('Tortured by grievous bondage')" (M. Shostakovich et al "Symposium" 390). (21) Fanning, too, agrees about the extra-musical message, even though he feels the music eventually transcends it: the thematic confluence at the end of the fourth movement, he notes, "confirm[s] [Shostakovich] as a fellow-victim, or at least as a witness" (Fanning 118). And Richard Taruskin, among the most outspoken antirevisionists, similarly accepts the autobiographical program as an explicit message, even though he sees it as a vice, rather than a virtue: "There are works of Shostakovich--the much-admired Eighth Quartet is one--that sound as if they were written to be paraphrased. And the paraphrase, especially when informed by readymade assumptions, all too easily replaces the music as primary experience" (Taruskin "Public Lies" 55).

Possibly. But while one can understand why large public works written under compulsion--say, the Twelfth Symphony--might be written in a way that allowed for such paraphrase (even double-voiced paraphrase that opens up the possibility of an opposite message), it seems odd that a more intimate work would need that kind of superficial clarity. Certainly, even beyond the duality of "offical" meaning and "private" meaning, Shostakovich's own descriptions of the work are, to say the least, puzzling. In that famous letter to Glikman, he undermines his own status as victim by calling the Quartet a pseudo-tragedy and by disparaging his own tears ("I shed the same amount of tears as I would have to pee after half-a-dozen beers"), suggesting wryly that what he really admires is its "superlative unity of form" (Shostakovich and Glikman 91). Surely, there's reason to believe that there are mirrors behind the mirrors here. (22)

I'm not going to offer a new interpretation here; but at least I do want to propose a possible ghost reference that may suggest the presence of alternative, or at least additional, meanings. Everyone has agreed on the Eighth's referential target, assuming that the self-quotations are references to Shostakovich himself; but isn't it possible that they are, at least in part, also references to another self-quoting work? After all, self-quotation isn't inherently, much less exclusively, autobiographical. Mozart's self-quotations in Don Giovanni, for instance, hardly ask for an autobiograpical gloss. Nor does Elgar's re-use of the First Pomp and Circumstance March in his Coronation Ode: it serves both as an act of solidarity with his general audience and, more specifically, as an act of invitation to Edward VII, who loved the piece; but in contrast to the self-quotations in Music Makers, there's no obvious reason to read it in autobiographical terms. In fact, I'd argue that the rule of signification that musical self-quotation is to be taken as autobiographical is fairly limited and fairly recent--and that it was developed by a specific repertoire of works, from Schumann to Strauss, that trumpeted the technique.

So let's try another attempt to match fingerprints. What composer and works come to mind with the following constellation? (1) He's a composer known in his younger years as an avant-gardist but often chided in his later years for having made an aesthetic retreat and (2) for having come to terms with the totalitarian state in which he was living. (3) He's the composer of a major and popular work with a strong net of self-quotation, framed in such a way that (4) there is an unambiguous invitation to read those self-quotations as autobiographical and (5) to see his compositions as works of peace, not war. (6) Working at fever pitch, he wrote, in less than a month, (7) a sorrowful work for strings partly inspired by destruction of Dresden that (8) begins with a key four-note motif heard in a cello line, that (9) contains a key motif that centers on four notes consisting of two two-note half-step lines, all crammed into a major third and that (10) ends in C minor, pianissimo. (23)

One answer to the quiz is clearly Shostakovich and the Eighth Quartet; but another equally correct answer is Richard Strauss, his autobiographical Ein Heldenleben, and his late response to wartime destruction, Metamorphosen. Is there a connection? (24) It's surely not definite; but it's far from implausible, especially if we consider the Eighth Quartet's companion piece, the score Shostakovich did write for Five Days--Five Nights. Here, just as in Metamorphosen, we have a musical narrative in which the theme of a Beethoven symphony (the Third in Strauss's work, the Ninth in Shostakovich's) emerges slowly as the secret ur-theme behind some of the music's surface thematic material.

If Strauss, and especially the Strauss of Metamorphosen, is the ghost behind the Eighth, what instructions is the reference giving us? (25) In terms of rules of notice: The DSCH theme has close connections to the main theme of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge: does the ghost reference to Metamorphosen, which has an even more direct link to Beethoven, mean that we should pay more attention to this similarity? (26) In terms of rules of signification: does the ghost reference change the resonance of the Jewish music of the Quartet--itself quoted from the Second Trio? Shostakovich's identification with Jews is often commented upon; it's particularly strong in this work where, as David Fanning puts it, the "close association" of the DSCH motif and this material from the Trio "seems to reinforce Shostakovich's self-identification with the Jewish theme and, by extension, with the suffering of the Jews themselves" (Fanning 81). (27) But with Strauss in the background, does this quotation from the Trio urge us to think not only of the connections of Soviet and German anti-Semitism (connections that don't really require the ghost reference anyway), but also more personally, of the relationship between Shostakovich's friends swept up by the Terror and Strauss's Jewish colleagues and the Jewish part of his family? What configurational expectations are launched? Most important, in terms of coherence: how does the meaning of the work change if we view it as a recognition of the linkage, perhaps even kinship, between these two composers under totalitarian duress--particularly at a moment when Shostakovich was about to join the Communist Party? (28) Does the fact that Strauss himself never joined the Nazi Party color our understanding of Shostakovich's own sense of self as he looked ahead?

I don't have any answers to these questions--but they certainly do haunt my experience of the Eighth Quartet. Haunt it--and enrich it, as well. This sense of enrichment may well offer a way of escaping from the interpretive doubt I discussed earlier. Booth famously argued that "other things being equal, one should always accept the reading that contributes most to the quality of the work" (Rhetoric of Irony 184). And accepting the ghost reference, even as a tentative hypothesis, does arguably enhance the quartet. As I suggested earlier, the traditional readings of this work have, at their base, a strong vein of self-pity--and self-pity, as Booth often pointed out, rarely makes for good art. Accepting the ghost behind the quartet doesn't lift the sense of personal suffering, but it does--by putting that suffering in a broader context--mute the self-indulgence. And it consequently makes it easier to receive the paradoxical uplift that Booth found in the score: "The capacity to write and play and sing such music is already a transcendence of the mood that it in a sense pretends to succumb to" (For the Love of It 170).


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An earlier version of this paper was given at the International Conference on Narrative at Ottawa on April 7, 2006. Thanks to Katie Berlent for her valuable research assistance as I put the essay in final form. Thanks, as well, to colleagues at the conference, and to other friends, who have give me suggestions for sharpening the essay: George Butte, Harold Fromm, Elizabeth Jensen, Michelle Masse, Brian McHale, Alan Nadel, Zecharia Plavin, Gerald Prince, Nancy S. Rabinowitz, Jay Reise, David Richter, Peter Stokely, and Kerry Higgins Wendt. And finally, thanks to James Phelan who has, throughout the entire process, been an ideal editor and intellectual spur.

(1.) Booth's autobiography suggests that he thought I didn't have the background. In his discussion of the student demonstrations of 1969, he mentions a remark I made to him--"'I hope you don't give up, lose yr. faith.'" His commentary is telling: "I'm pretty sure he couldn't have had in mind the multiple meanings the word 'faith' would carry for me" (Booth Many 192).

(2.) The question terrified me--as did almost everything about the class, which I eventually dropped. It's a bizarre coincidence that David Richter, another of Wayne's students and long-time friends, and another contributor to this special issue, seems to have dropped the same class at the same time. This should tell us something about the difficulty of assessing the long-term (or even medium-term) effects of teaching, and thus about the limits of end-of-the-semester teaching evaluations.

(3.) Traditional German nomenclature uses the letter B for B-flat, the letter H for B-natural, and the letter S (or Es) for E-flat. In using musical notes to "spell" in this way, Shostakovich was following a long line of other composers, including Bach (who represented his own name musically), Schumann (who immortalized Asch, the birthplace of his then-fiancee, as well as parts of his own name, in the central motifs of Carnaval), and Berg (who referred to Schonberg, Webern, and himself in his Chamber Concerto).

(4.) See, for instance, Keldysh's claim about the self-quotations: it's "'as if he wishes to underline that the struggle against the dark forces of reaction has always been a basic theme of his work" (Keldysh 226).

(5.) As Taruskin points out, "there is no reason, apart from political bias, to regard [the two readings] as contradictory" ("When Serious Music Mattered" 374).

(6.) Reading some of MacDonald's symbolic substitutions, it's hard not to agree with Taruskin's point here. Thus, for instance, MacDonald claims that "Once we have given up dutifully persuading ourselves to hear bombs falling in the fourth movement of his Eighth Quartet, we stand a chance of recognising that the figure in question actually represents a fist pounding peremptorily on a door in the middle of the night" (MacDonald "Writing" 583). Taruskin goes further, though. Besides charging revisionist Ian MacDonald with mirroring the vices of the Soviet apparatchiks he claims to be challenging, Taruskin also charges him with employing a "method" that is "precisely what is known in the West as McCarthyism" ("Public Lies" 53) and claims he is "unable to distinguish his own boring voice from Shostakovich's" (55). I'm sympathetic to Taruskin's frustrations; even so, this is not a way of framing the dialogue that Booth would encourage.

(7.) Besides its meaning as a work of art, the Eighth Quartet had another role in Shostakovich's life as well: as Volkov often points out (see, inter alia. Volkov xii and Maxim Shostakovich et al "Symposium" 391), it was through his review of the piece that the 16-year-old writer first met the composer. An important turn of events, whatever camp you belong do.

(8.) For a discussion of situations in which this last stipulation does not hold--where, for instance, the authorial and narrative audiences disagree about the ontological status of the work--see my "What's Hecuba to Us'?" For a discussion of the rhetorical impact of references to imaginary works of art, see my "A Bird."

(9.) But what are we to make of her mispronunciation of Penderecki?

(10.) In an intriguing chain. Cather. in Song of the Lark, tries in turn to get us to resist Tolstoy's negation of Beethoven.

(11.) See Before Reading, chapter 6. See also Fowler's discussion of allusion as a way of indicating genre in Kinds of Literature, especially chapter 6, and his discussion of genre and interpretation, especially in chapter 14. As he puts it, "Apart from explicit labelling, the most direct form of indication [of genre] is reference to previous writers or representatives of the genre" (Fowler 88).

(12.) The function of a reference sometimes depends, as well, on whether the reference exists on the level of the authorial or the narrative audience. In many cases, this distinction doesn't matter. In The Kreutzer Sonata, Pozdnyshev's attack on Beethoven on the narrative level coincides with Tolstoy's on the authorial level. But in texts with unreliable narrators, the sign of a particular reference may well be inverted: that is, a reference intended as positive by the narrator may well be negative for the implied author and vice-versa. Thus, the narrator of Merimee's Carmen introduces himself to us with an assumption that we share his passion for the geographical details of Bellum Hispaniense; it is plausible that, for the authorial audience, this is a negative introduction that points to the narrator's pedantry and unreliability. Certainly, these qualities are confirmed later in the text. Similarly, in Michel Butor's l'Emploi du temps (Passing Time). the positive acts of instruction by narrator Jacques Revel. who attempts to read his life through the story of Phedre. are negative instructions to the authorial audience. Moving in the opposite direction, in Nabokov's Pale Fire, narrator Charles Kinbote offers negative instructions when he tells us that Timon of Athens is not relevant to understanding Shade's poem; in fact, this turns out to be a positive instruction for the authorial audience, although few readers, lost in the dizzying labyrinth of the novel, are unlikely to understand Nabokov's game here without some critical guidance.

(13.) Thanks to George Butte for directing my attention to this scene.

(14.) Not everyone hears the Wagner quotations in Vertigo: see. for instance, Brown 165. Determining the existence of musical references is even more difficult, I think, than determining the existence of literary references, as became especially clear to me when, in Spring 2004, I found myself serving as the advisor for a senior thesis by Luke Vaughn on the musical apperances of the Dies Irae theme in music after Berlioz. Although Vaughn and I usually saw eye to eye (or heard ear to ear), we often had trouble convincing others that he'd found true allusions. For one schematic approach to the problem, see Allen Gimbel, who points out that assertions of thematic reference "have a tendency to meet with instant resistance from some musical scholars, who are quick to dismiss apparently undocumentable thematic resemblances between works as mere coincidence" (Gimbel 232).

(15.) The role of Valentine, in fact, was to be played by "Allan Aynesworth, fresh from his success as Algy in The Importance of Being Earnest." Aynesworth was apparently so inadequate in the part that Shaw withdrew the play from production (Bryden n.p.).

(16.) There is some overlap, but not a direct correlation, between ghost references and what John Hollander calls "echoes." Certainly, the ghost image and its variants (e.g., "texts are haunted by echoes" [23]) come up often in his discussion. But echoes are more specifically stylistic, or at least verbal, phenomena than references in my sense; and in contrast to ghost references, they need not be intentional, and certainly need not have the kind of interpretive impact that ghost references do. Most significant, echoes do not "implicitly assume a reader's knowledge of the source" (106).

(17.) For some tortuous attempts to "find" the ghost in the Enigma Variations, see Colless and Pickett. There are even--rarely, I think--negative ghosts, texts evoked by not referring to them. Leopold Stokowski's orchestration of Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition is haunted by Ravel's in this sense--many of his decisions are grounded in an attempt to differentiate himself from what Ravel has already done.

(18.) This rhetorical device of pretending to refer to Lolita when referring to another novel is itself (self)referential: see my "Solipsized."

(19.) Anagrams are extremely malleable: finding them is little proof of anything. See, for instance, the playful account of the anagrams that can be derived from The Da Vinci Code (Morion and Morton).

(20.) There is some further evidence, too, but it's no more conclusive: the credits of the film version of the novel are filled with images of butterflies; more important, there's a stuffed bear named Humbert in Salamanca's later novel, That Summer's Trance. There are also some possible references to Pale Fire in Lilith--particularly in the prominence of Timon of Athens. By what can only be accounted a Nabokovian coincidence, in the films of both novels, the narrator's nemesis is played by an actor named Peter.

(21.) He even goes so far as to claim that you can hear "the knocks on the door by the KGB" (390)--precisely the sort of reading the anti-revisionists attack.

(22.) And why has Shostakovich quoted the particular works that he has quoted? Volkov has Shostakovich pointing out that they have nothing to do with Fascism (Volkov 156)--but it's not easy to see them as examples of works that were repressed either. Rather, they seem a kind of general overview of his work. Of course, if you're sufficiently ingenious in your ability to read coded messages in Shostakovich's work, you can find ideological echoes here, too. See, for instance, Lebedinsky's claim that "the theme first heard on the timpani in the First Symphony (later used in the Eighth Quartet) represents the 'scaffold.' Following the 'Hero's execution,' the orchestration is radiant, symbolizing immortality" (Lebedinsky 475).

(23.) Shostakovich adds morendo.

(24.) Fanning briefly flirts with the Strauss connection when he suggests that the line of thinking represented by MacDonald turns the work into "Shostakovich's anti-Heldenleben"--but he doesn't follow through on the possible implications (Fanning 14).

(25.) To use a different terminology, I'm asking what happens when we treat Strauss's Metamorphosen as part of the "attributive" strand in our listening. For a fuller discussion of the technical, attributive, and synthetic aspects of listening, see Rabinowitz and Reise.

(26.) The DSCH motif can be seen as a transposed copy of the opening four-note motif of the Grosse Fuge, with a single octave displacement in the middle. It was probably difficult for Shostakovich to write quartets without thinking of Beethoven, not only because of Beethoven's prominence in the genre, but also because the Eighth Quartet was. like all of Shostakovich's quartets from the Second to the Fourteenth, first performed by the Beethoven Quartet. Late Shostakovich has other links to Beethoven as well: the Viola Sonata quotes the "Moonlight" Sonata extensively, and one of Shostakovich's last compositions was an orchestration of Beethoven's "Es war einmal ein Konig" ("The Song of the Flea"). Significantly, in their 1991 performance documented on Russian Disc RD CD 11087, the Borodin Quartet paired the Shostakovich with the Grosse Fuge. Oddly, although Fanning has found slight thematic connections between the Eighth and other late Beethoven works (for a summary, see Fanning 54-55), and although he sees a large-scale structural comparison between, among other works, Beethoven's op. 130 (with the Grosse Fuge as its finale) and Shostakovich's Eighth (with its own fugal finale), he doesn't mention this very strong motivic connection (Fanning 131). See also Jackson's and Kramer's comparisons of the Eighth and Beethoven's op. 131 (Jackson 602, Kramer 233). Oddly, Jackson uses the word "haunted" in his description of the quartet--it's "'haunted' by the Neapolitan" (602). The Eighth Quartet has also been compared with Beethoven's op. 135 (see, for instance, Kramer 238).

(27.) See also Jackson: "Shostakovich does not merely sympathise with the Jews or pity them. He is not just solicitous or generous. He is not a generalist but a particularist. In his Eighth String Quartet, ... he identifies himself as a Jew. and as a Jew who expresses his Jewishness in his music" (Jackson 599).

(28.) See Stradling: "In retrospect, it may well be that future generations will conclude that Shostakovich was never fully nor directly engaged in an altruistic struggle for the principles of intellectual freedom. On the other hand, it can hardly be denied that, unlike his counterpart Richard Strauss, his consciousness of their importance is a central and essential element in his musical life's work" (Stradling "Shostakovich" 207). Particularly resonant is his suggestion that in the Eighth, Shostakovich was "now able to feel for the sufferings of the German enemy--or rather, perhaps, the German civilian-comrade. (It is worth remark that it is contemporaneous with Britten's War Requiem)" (Stradling "Shostakovich" 211). Given his sensitivity here, it's hard to understand his general claim that the Eighth fits in with a socialist realist aesthetic: "Though ... the Seventh and Eighth Quartets are tragic in conception neither seems susceptible of an interpretation connecting them with a wider dissatisfaction or profounder disease" (Stradling 204). Even in 1982, this reading was outside the norm.

Peter J. Rabinowitz, Professor of Comparative Literature at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., divides his time between narrative theory and music. He is the author of Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation and co-author, with Michael Smith, of Authorizing Readers: Resistance and Respect in the Teaching of Literature. With James Phelan, he is also co-editor of Understanding Narrative and A Companion to Narrative Theory, as well as series co-editor of the Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series at Ohio State University Press. His published articles, which have appeared in such journals as Critical Inquiry, PMLA, Modern Philology, and 19th-Century Music, cover a wide range of subjects, from Conrad to Scott Joplin, from the ideology of detective fiction to the rhetoric of musical structure. He has been active as a music critic for thirty years, and is currently a contributing editor of Fanfare as well as a regular contributor to International Record Review.
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