December 13, 2007

Excerpts from Vollmann's Europe Central

On the composer "Mitya" Shostakovich during the Stalin era:

...he still didn't swallow the notion that music must be fettered to any "content," but since his well-wishers kept reminding him that he didn't eat the people's bread merely in order to exist for himself, he sincerely aspired to be ideological, to invest his talent with feeling, and to the very end, or at least until he composed Opus 110, he would remember with haunting vividness the purity of this project: create beauty and be useful. Beethoven for the Baltic Fleet, who was anyone to say that that hadn't helped win the Civil War?
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Music gushed out of his fingertips in orgasms of joy; what a young artist lacks in craftsmanship he often makes up for in sincerity; even when principle demands that he withhold, he can't avoid giving of himself.
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And who hasn't felt the same way? The punished child, the one whose lover has just kindly, gravely announced that she's leaving him forever, the Arctic explorer perishing for want of food, how can they not keep faith with the proposition that undeviatingly following a given method will save them?
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Nourished by the melodies he composed, he kept up his fighting strength, such as it was (to look at him, you'd think him far from formidable), his expectations guarded and comforted by the knowledge that should the pressure ever become more than he could bear, the world within the black keys would shelter him....his music conceals extremely deep lyric feelings which are carefully protected from the outside world. In other words, is Shostakovich emotional or not? Feelings conceal -- feelings!
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Although it might be irritating to him to do as others told him to do, as long as he could build secret trapdoors and escape hatches into every score, so that the world beneath the piano keys hadn't been forgotten, he was still living on his own terms. Ancient masons used to wall up a live victim in each temple or bridge they built; when he was much older Mitya would immure himself in just this way in the cornerstone of his Opus 110; but for now there was no need to be as drastic as that. ..If I bow to Lenin's memory and then create what I please, have I been any more constrained than a poet would be by the arbitrariness of rhyme?...Didn't Mitya himself believe that content was irrelevant? Hadn't everything already been said? Our task was to say it in a new way, that's all.

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