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Dmitri Shostakovich

“Shostakovich knew that death — unless it came in the form of heroic martyrdom — was not an appropriate subject for Soviet art, that it was ‘tantamount to wiping your nose on your sleeve in company.’ He could not have the Dies Irae blaze from his scores; he had to be musically covert. But increasingly, the cautious composer found the courage to draw his sleeve across his nostrils, especially in his chamber music. His last works often contain long, slow, meditative invocations of mortality. The violist of the Beethoven Quartet was once given the following advice about the first movement of the fifteenth quartet by its composer: ‘Play it so that the flies drop dead in mid-air.'”

“At the premiere, Shostakovich overcame his usual shyness to explain to the audience that, ‘Life is man’s dearest possession. It is given to him only once and he should live so as not to experience acute pain at the thought of the years wasted aimlessly or feel searing shame for his petty and inglorious past, but be able to say, at the moment of death, that he has given all his life and energies to the noblest cause in the world – to fight for the liberation of humanity. I want listeners to this symphony to realize that ‘life’ is truly beautiful. My symphony is an impassioned protest against death, a reminder to the living that they should live honestly, conscientiously, nobly, never committing a base act. This is very important for much time will pass before scientists have succeeded in ensuring immortality. Death is in store for all of us and I for one do not see any good in the end of our lives. Death is terrifying. There is nothing beyond it.’ … [Shostakovich] disagreed with all the composers who had portrayed death with music that was beautiful, radiant and ecstatic. For him, death really was the end and he took that as an inspiration to make sure that he lived his life to its full.”

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Paragraphs excerpted from Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of and the meticulous notes of composer Mark Wigglesworth. A fly-stunning version of Shostakovich’s fifteenth quartet is here.

Both writers cite a further, clarifying reflection from Shostakovich, which MW describes, “In the disputed memoirs… [Shostakovich] talks revealingly about death:

Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all. I sometimes think that there is no deeper feeling. The irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear people create poetry, prose and music; that is they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence on them. How can you not fear death? […] We should think more about it and accustom ourselves to it. We can’t allow the fear of death to creep up on us unexpectedly. I think that if people began thinking about death sooner, they would make fewer mistakes.

Shostakovich makes the common though deeply misguided assumption that death serves no purpose — that there is not “any good in the end of our lives.” Of course there are individual tragedies which aren’t, in any sense, “good.” But death does the essential business of lending life a clarity and urgency it otherwise would not have. Saul Bellow’s brilliant metaphor, that death is “the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see ourselves,” sets the idea in place: without an ending, albeit an opague one, there is no way to focus on ourselves.

In case that metaphor hasn’t fully absorbed, Alan Lightman’s short story collection Einstein’s Dreams features a fictional world in which people live forever. He characterizes the tragedy of these immortal inhabitants:

[T]hey can do all they can imagine. They will have an infinite number of careers, they will marry an infinite number of times, they will change their politics infinitely. Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer…

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, great-great-aunts, and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their father. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own.

Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

More:

  • Barnes looks at how his understanding of mortality changed as he entered adulthood
  • Sam Harris puts a fine point on the tragedy of wasted time
  • Neurologist David Eagleman explains how consciousness may transcend the physical brain

Dmitri Shostakovich