There is an undercurrent flowing through certain circles in American society, a sort of backlash against what some consider to be a sense of elitism. This has lately taken the form of questioning the value of higher education. “What purpose does it serve,, some ask, “when I be just as smart without a diploma?” That debate came to my mind Sunday night as we were listening to a wonderful piece by Dimitri Shostakovich, his String Quartet No. 3 in F Major (Op. 73), written in 1946.
Shostakovich’s story is an interesting one, as he was continually vilified and attacked by Josef Stalin and his “apparatchiks” off and on throughout his career for the manner in which he wrote his music. Socialist composers were supposed to write music that was deemed to be universally acceptable. Soviet composers such as Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian were to write works for massed choirs, operas on revolutionary subjects with happy endings, instrumental pieces with an implicit socialist agenda (similar attitudes were held in Nazi Germany). Abstraction was discouraged, as was dissonance. Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony in E Flat Major (Op. 70) was actually censured by the Soviet authorities for its “ideological weakness”, and eventually banned in 1948 (it was removed from the banned works list in 1955, following Stalin’s death).
The String Quartet No. 3 essentially serves as a response by Shostakovich to the reception of the Ninth Symphony. Shostakovich essentially used his string quartets as a place to pour out his feelings, things that he was forced to repress when writing his symphonies. Whereas he was often accused of “formalism”, in his string quartets he felt free to utilize various traditional classical forms – and to stretch them out, revise them, bend them to his will. He does all of these things in this wonderful string quartet – in the space of 5 movements, we hear whimsy, unrest, agitation, sadness and mourning, all within a space of under 30 minutes. Shostakovich playfully utilizes various traditional classical music forms (a fugal developmental form in the First movement, a Passacaglia used as the basis for the morose Fourth movement, the Fifth movement cast in the form of a Rondo), while at the same time discarding the traditional four movement format of standard string quartets for five movements.
The result is an absolutely wonderful piece of music that clearly defies Soviet attempts to define artistic endeavors in their own limited, Socialist terms. It too was denounced, like his other works, and some critics even accused Shostakovich of hiding coded subversive messages in it. But in this brilliant piece of musical expression, Shostakovich created something beautiful, a work of art that has managed to withstand the test of time. This task is something that his Soviet critics were themselves unable to match.
Now, the question may have come to mind, “Why does Doug associate this piece of classical music, a product of the Soviet Union, with a modern debate being waged on modern American soil?” The fact is that the sort of persecution endured by Shostakovich and Prokofiev is just part of a pattern of persecution that one can find in the history of Nazi Germany, and in the People’s Republic of China. The overt subjects of this persecution may be artists and intellectuals, but the real target is education. Former Southern Illinois University chancellor Walter Wendler said it very well in a blog posting dated Thursday:
“[Martin Luther’s] idea — squeezed out of his faith and insight — to create an appropriate sense of self- determination was more basic than had been previously known.
This is without qualification the work of the university – allowing lives to be defined by aspiration and passion rather than acquiescence and passivity.
At a university, the power of free thought, and engaging it through scholarship and learning, faith and experience, is so central that I can say with confidence that institutions neglecting it do not fulfill their mission to their students.
Free thought is indeed a dangerous presence for those who are driven by the need to control thought, and this was the quandary felt by the rulers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and currently by China and North Korea. Indeed, the persecution of artists like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others reveals the targeting of free thought, and the labeling of such as an undesirable commodity in that particular society.
However, while free thought can often lead to contrarian ideas, it can also lead to great ideas and magnificent accomplishments, the sort of which we are used to seeing come out of these United States. Dr. Wendler is indeed correct in saying that the encouragement of free thought is by nature one of the essential roles of higher education. I cannot help but think that by questioning the importance of higher education, we place the long term prospects of our nation at peril.
The following is my playlist for October 25th.