Is Music the Key to Understanding History?


Last Saturday saw one of music history’s lesser-known anniversaries. On March 29th 1942, at the height of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony got its Moscow premiere. In truth, it’s not one of the composer’s best works (though it’s pretty stirring stuff), but the story of its premiering across the Soviet Union, in the darkest days of the war, is nothing short of astonishing.

The symphony was intended for the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, but they – like the composer himself – had been evacuated from the besieged city. At that time, such was the fear of Hitler’s invading troops, that much of the government itself had fled Moscow to Kuybyshev (present-day Samara), and it was there that the world premiere took place on March 5th.

Next came Moscow on the 29th, but it was what happened next that was truly amazing. First the score was microfilmed and flown out to the West via Tehran. It received its New York premiere in July, but – almost immediately after the Moscow concert – plans were then announced to play the symphony in the one place it was really meant for. Perhaps the most dangerous place on earth in 1942. Leningrad itself.

The 252-page conductor’s score was airlifted from Kuybyshev to the stricken city; according to some sources a team of copyists was employed to transcribe the various orchestral parts. Others say that the musicians did this themselves. The players were recruited from across Leningrad, but such were the horrendous conditions that rehearsals frequently had to be stopped thanks to air raids or simply the malnourished exhaustion of the musicians. Three of the orchestra died.

But the day of the premiere arrived.

Loudspeakers were placed across the city. A special artillery bombardment was ordered to silence the German guns, and Soviet troops were given orders to turn on their radios. ‘Listen, Comrades!’, urged the conductor, in a wireless address.


And they did. As, too, did the invaders. In fact, the conductor Karl Eliasberg claimed later to have been told by a German soldier that when he heard the music he knew Leningrad could never be taken. The people, he thought, were simply too resilient.


In my meaner moments of interviewing university candidates, I sometimes ask them whether historians can use music as a primary source. Can we use music to understand the societies that created it? We’re pretty comfortable with plays, or novels, or songs and poems. We’re good with paintings, and such lost art-forms as masques have been used extensively by students of, say, the culture of the Stuart monarchy.

But music is different. Music is abstract. In its purest forms it is wordless. In fact, some of us – myself included – feel that it is this amazing ability to express images and emotions without using words or pictures that makes music the greatest form of human art.

But it also makes music an astonishingly foggy window onto a past culture. We can sense the emotional clarity of a work, but it’s rarely obvious whether this is a broad reaction to the times, or simply reflects the personal feelings of the composer.

Take the brilliant, dark, tortured late Beethoven string quartets (here’s the beautiful slow movement from the 15th). Are they a reaction to a shattered post-Napoleonic Europe, in which the optimism that once followed Bonaparte was dying in a sea of shattered states and battlefield casualties? Or are they a reflection of the composer’s personal anguish at his own growing infirmity and encroaching deafness?

To what extent does music anyway just follow its own internal logic, regardless of the social change around it? Did punk originate out of 1970s urban decline, or was it simply a musical reaction to the excesses of prog-rock?

But to a point, of course, this is to ask the wrong question. Music clearly both follows and helps to shape cultural trends. And those trends are themselves historical.

In the early nineteenth century, musicians developed an obsession with the night. The most famous example is Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, but there are also well-known ‘Nocturnes’ by composers such as Liszt and Chopin. Perhaps the greatest piece of musical darkness from the age was Schubert’s astonishing, haunting, Winterreise (‘Winter Journey’), which tells the story of an unhappy lover’s decision to leave his home and to tramp the icy and dark wilderness of the cold countryside, longing for death. It’s irrational, it’s pessimistic, and above all it’s dark – in every possible sense.

It is, indeed, hard not to interpret all this as a (post-Napoleonic?) rejection of eighteenth-century rationalism and optimism. The fascination with darkness and the night, and all the strange things that happened there, was meant to stand in stark contrast to the earlier ideals of ‘Enlightenment’.

Nor is this the only example. In a more optimistic age, the music of JS Bach can be interpreted as a quest to understand the musical patterns that underlay God’s design of the universe. Very Newtonian.

And the later Romantics were influenced by underlying patterns, too. This time those that made up the fabric of nations and peoples; the national myths that influenced Wagner, for example; or landscapes, as with Smetana’s famous depiction of the Moldau river in his wonderful Ma Vlast (‘My Country’).

Others collected the folksongs of ordinary people. The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the most egalitarian composers who ever lived, contains snippets from songs he collected on his travels around the countryside, as well as hawkers’ calls he heard on the streets of London. It helps make him the most English of all musicians, but it also reflected a particular form of democratic nationalism.

Which brings me back to Shostakovich. Once you actually sit and listen to it, his music is so quintessentially of a time and a place that it simply cannot be understood without History. And so we can read History in it.

His music, as much as it contains moments of Soviet tubthumping beloved of his paymasters, is laced with fear, paranoia, and sarcasm. In several of his symphonies, most terrifyingly in his difficult but riveting Fourth, there are moments when it feels like the listener is being chased. At other times, such as the slow movement to his famous Fifth Symphony, or the opening part of the First Violin Concerto, he descends into deep introspection, as if he is wishing the world away but simulaneously unable to escape anywhere happier.

Or, perhaps most astonishingly, in his chamber music from the 1940s and ‘50s, there starts to appear a buffoonish character, who intrudes into the music, performing ungraceful peasant-dances, repeatedly hitting the wrong notes. You see this in the Cello Sonata, the Piano Quintet, and the Eighth String Quartet, but I think it’s most obvious in the last movement of the Second Piano Trio, where a Jewish-style pizzicato jig is suddenly interrupted by a thumping and repetitive refrain. When the dance returns it has been mangled and is dominated by a graceless underlying rhythm, as if some uncultured idiot has barged in and forced the music to dance to his own, ugly tune.

The idiot, surely, is Stalin.

Indeed, as much as we like to think our modern musicians are rebellious, the worst most of them have to worry about is irritating David Cameron or swearing on the BBC. Shostakovich took the piss out of Stalin, while also being paid by his government. He is, therefore, the most rock-and-roll person ever.

But it’s the emotions he conveys which are most useful to historians. It is the terrible fear, the introspective despair, and the feelings of intrusion by a thuggish leader which make his music so valuable to us.

Because, as much as Westminster City Council are a pain in the ass, I’ve never actually had to live under a totalitarian government.

So if I want to know what it feels like, I have to look to historical sources, to peoples’ writings, to interviews, to visual images.

But also to music.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. asouth says:

    Fascinating post. It reminds me of a paper I read years ago, talking about how Soviet cultural policy encouraged ‘boring’ art (including music). I’ll have to dig my dissertation out to see if I’m remembering right.

    1. Glad you enjoyed. The post originated out of one of my meaner Oxford interview questions (but one which tried to link up two of my major passions). One day I hope a student will give a really cogent and interesting answer, but that day has yet to come!

  2. JM says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and would certainly have welcomed this question at interview, rather than the one I was asked (what is feudalism?). My own dissertation explored the relationship between Music and the ‘Cult of Elizabeth’, in particular instances where music was used to subtly criticise Elizabeth (in a similar fashion to Shostakovich’s criticisms of Stalin). Music can be used to understand the societies that created it, but only if the historian (or musicologist) develops a ‘period ear’. In other words, just as Baxandall has argued in regards to images, it is not enough that we place music within a social context, but we must try and listen in a contemporaneous manner. Thus, our first task would be to focus on theoretical ideas of music. From the early modern, this would mean asking what feelings or emotions contemporaries thought specific rhythms or modes would inspire. Both the Henrician humanist, Thomas Elyot, and Elizabethan/Jacobean composer, Thomas Morley, wrote extensively on this. We would then need to place our select pieces of music within their performative context, asking not only where and when they were performed, but also who composed them and why were they composed. Once both of these stages have been taken into account, then we should be able to provide a potential answer to your interview question.

    However, the obvious snag is whether or not we can truly develop a ‘period ear’. After all, our own society is so full of sound (noise?) that our listening experiences are vastly different from previous generations and societies. And, whilst we like to think in the binary form that a major key means a ‘happy’ piece of music, whilst a minor key equates to a ‘sad’ piece of music in our attempt to remove historical difference, I think this oversimplifies the problem (numerous examples of pieces of music spring to mind where, indeed, the opposite is true). At any rate, it does not account for the fact that the concept of keys only really developed in the late sixteenth century, and so music composed in modes simply does not fit into this framework.

    But, ultimately, we must be aware that, as with all of the Arts, music has no fixed meaning. Rather, its significance depends on the appropriation on the part of the audience. Just as Stalin heard Shostakovich’s music and enjoyed it, others heard the same compositions as Shostakovich’s criticisms of the regime.

    Yet, despite these complexities, I still stand by my conclusion: that music can tell as about the society that created it. Just because we cannot listen to a madrigal by William Byrd, Galliard by John Dowland, or symphony by Shostakovich in the way that contemporaries did, does not mean that we cannot understand the theoretical listening practices underpinning these pieces of music and use them in our own analysis.

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