The first volume of the Diaries of the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev is published in English today. The translator, Anthony Phillips, and I appeared on Radio 4's Today programme this morning to debate how much we could learn about the music from the autobiographical account. (If you follow the link, our brief discussion is at 8.21am. The link will be good till tomorrow.)
My friend Stephen Pollard heard the programme and has posted this comment on his site:
Oliver Kamm was on Today this morning discussing the newly published diaries of Prokofiev. His basic point was that a piece of music is just that, a piece written in the language of music, and any diaries or biographical notes are irrelevant to it.
I take his point. We don't need to know if Prokofiev preferred apples to pears or whether he enjoyed football, but biographical information can be essential to a full understanding of some works or composers. What about, for example, Shostakovich? Of course his works can be enjoyed on their own terms, but I would contend that one can’t understand them – or what he intended them to be – without knowing at the very least their background, if not his own circumstances....
Stephen and I are very much in disagreement, then.
I'll start with Prokofiev. Prokofiev's life story is fascinating in itself. He lived and worked successively in New York and Paris, before deciding he must return to his native land. He did this in 1934, just as Stalin's murderousness was getting into its stride. From then till the end of his life, and despite being favoured as a state-supported artist, Prokofiev lived at constant risk of "disappearance". Stalin's Cultural Commissar Andrei Zhdanov, a philistine and a bonehead, famously condemned Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian in 1948 for "decadent formalism" - roughly, art for art's sake. Prokofiev died in 1953, on the same day as Stalin. Prokofiev's art is accessible and eclectic. His music is predominantly tonal, but with modernistic features such as leaps in the melodic lines and sudden changes of key. I admire and like it.
The question we were discussing on the programme is whether knowledge of the life helps us with appreciation of the art. My view is that the biographical details of an artist can tell us about the creative impulse behind the art, but they don't tell us about the art itself. Note what Stephen says about Shostakovich's works: "I would contend that one can’t understand them – or what he intended them to be – without knowing at the very least their background, if not his own circumstances."
Stephen's argument fails because he is assuming that the works and the composer's intentions for the works are equivalent. That is a fallacy. In fact, it has a name: the "intentional fallacy". This is a term associated with two influential figures in the school known as New Criticism, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley. (You can read their celebrated essay on the intentional fallacy here.) We don't have reliable knowledge of the intentions of the artist, and the artist's intentions are not necessarily the best or even a reliable guide to what he has wrought. A symphony or a poem is the fruit of the artist's creative imagination, but it is expressed in the conventions of language, which is a public medium. Musical language is obviously not the same as prose, but it is language nonetheless. The disposition of the notes and their relation to each other give a piece of music an inner life that allows us to talk sensibly about the music's being elegaic, or joyful, or sombre, and so on. The meaning of a work of art inheres in the art itself, and not in anything else. The fact that Prokofiev wrote his breezy, even sugary, Third Piano Concerto in New York in 1921, at the dawning of the jazz age, can tell us something about the creative process; it doesn't tell us anything about the work itself. The fact that he wrote his sombre Fifth Symphony in wartime likewise is interesting information about the composer but is of no relevance in interpreting the work.
Stephen goes on to argue in his post exactly what I dispute, with reference to Shostakovich:
Take [Shostakovich's] Fifth Symphony. It lends itself, in the fourth movement, to a garishly triumphant performance. Even the title he gives would support such a reading: "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism".
And yet. Even without the evidence of Testimony, Solomon Volkov's much-challenged book (he claimed they were Shostakovich's memoirs as dictated to him), it is clear from all the biographical and historical evidence that the piece was meant as anything but a glorification of Soviet communism. To hear it performed properly with all the tragic irony of the final movement, surely it is not only the performers who need to know the background; so, too, does the audience. The same - even more obviously, I would argue - applies to his 'Leningrad Symphony'.
Volkov's Testimony is an interesting case that I believe demonstrates the point I'm arguing. Stephen says correctly that the book is much challenged. There has been a furious argument involving charges of plagiarism and fakery. The balance of scholarly opinion, however, is that the work is definitely inauthentic. The researches of an independent scholar, Laurel Fay, have demonstrated that Volkov's account of how he compiled the supposed testimony was false. (Fay's original 1980 article making this charge, with much relevant other material, is collected in A Shostakovich Casebook, edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown, 2004.) Yet one influential biography of the composer, The New Shostakovich by the late Ian MacDonald (1990), explicitly draws on the spurious Testimony to offer a programmatic account of the works. (MacDonald knew of the problems of authenticating Volkov's work, but he considered the book contained nonetheless an essential truth about Shostakovich's anguished disaffection from the regime.)
Shostakovich was certainly a tortured personality whose artistic liberty was severely constrained under Soviet rule. He did, however, join the Communist Party in 1960 - years after Stalin's death, and after Khrushchev's Secret Speech. That wasn't necessary for his artistic output or his livelihood. It doesn't fit with the picture presented by Volkov. If you interpret music with the help of biographical material on the composer, you're left in Shostakovich's case with impossibly conflicting information. None of that information is, however, relevant - as Stephen claims it is - to the music. To interpret a symphony, a concerto or a novel, we have only the work itself - not biography, history or politics.