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Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets Hardcover – March 20, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Music for Silenced Voices is a sensitive and enlightening meditation. . . . Lesser, in other words, is giving Shostakovich back to his listeners.”—Paul Mitchinson, Washington Post (Paul Mitchinson The Washington Post)

“Riveting.”—Laurence Vittes, The Huffington Post
(Laurence Vittes The Huffington Post)

“This book is a paean to Shostakovich’s quartets and their significance.  In her listening, Lesser…is literate, sensitive, and imaginative.”—Edward Rothstein, The New York Times Book Review
(Edward Rothstein The New York Times Book Review)

“Lesser has written a sensitive biography…a generous reflection on his life and chamber music.”—Michael O’Donnell, The Nation
(Michael O'Donnell The Nation)

"An elegant, thought-provoking synthesis of the current state of knowledge and ideas about one of the most celebrated and controversial composers of the twentieth century. It is a delight to read, and reread."—Laurel E. Fay
(Laurel E. Fay)

"Lesser moves between looking at the life as a way of understanding the quartets, and using the music of the quartets as a way of comprehending the complexities of Shostakovich and the manner in which he both negotiated and was pushed through the history of Stalin’s Soviet Union. The always imprecise links between a life and the work that comes out of it are beautifully elucidated. The idea of the quartets as songs for not singing resonates with many other elements of Shostakovich’s contradictory life."—William Kentridge
(William Kentridge)

“Wendy Lesser has written a fantastic book that is as exciting as a detective story. Music for Silenced Voices is a book for those who love Shostakovich and also for those who are going to love Shostakovich after they read it. A must read.”—Menahem Pressler
(Menahem Pressler)

"A sensitive biography. . . . Her enthusiasm for the quartets is infectious."—Michael O'Donnell, The Nation
(Michael O'Donnell The Nation)

"What makes Lesser's book such a ripping good read, in addition to deeply considered music appreciation, is her intelligently personal involvement with the subject."—Jonathan Kiefer, SF Weekly
(Jonathan Kiefer SF Weekly)

"A sensitive and enlightening meditation. . . . Lesser is giving Shostakovich back to his listeners."—Paul Mitchinson, The Washington Post
(Paul Mitchinson The Washington Post)

“A book of musical and biographical insight.”—Jewish Book World (Jewish Book World)

Winner of the 2011 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) in the Performing Arts category, as given by the Association of American Publishers
(PROSE Award in Music and the Performing Arts Association of American Publishers 2012-02-02)

"An essential companion for anyone planning to hear the quartets."—Ed Vuillamy, Guardian
(Ed Vuillamy Guardian)

"We need to find new approaches in order to bring music into the mainstream of general culture, where it belongs. Music for Silenced Voices helps to show that this can be done, and done well."—Jessica Duchen, Standpoint
(Jessica Duchen Standpoint)

About the Author

Wendy Lesser, the editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of seven previous nonfiction books and one novel. She divides her year between Berkeley and New York.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (March 20, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300169337
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300169331
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,110,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Wendy Lesser was born in 1952 in California, where she grew up. She attended Harvard University, Cambridge University, and UC Berkeley, earning a PhD in English from Berkeley in 1982. Though she has taught on occasion (at UC Santa Cruz, Princeton University, and Hunter College, among other places), she has mainly supported herself over the years as a writer, editor, and consultant. From 1976 to 1980 she and her friend Katharine Ogden worked as public policy consultants through their firm Lesser & Ogden Associates. In 1980 Lesser founded The Threepenny Review, which she still edits; it has become one of the most respected and long-lasting literary magazines in America. She is the author of ten books (including one novel, two memoirs, several works of literary or cultural studies, and a biography of Shostakovich) and the editor of two. She also writes book, dance, art, and music reviews for a variety of publications in this country and abroad, dividing her year between Berkeley and New York so as to cover cultural activities on both coasts. Lesser is married to Richard Rizzo and has one son, Nick Rizzo.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 57 people found the following review helpful By ifutureman on February 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My review of this fine book is unavoidably influenced by the fact that I have been a huge fan of Shostakovich for many years, and not all Shostakovich either ... yep, it's his string quartets that speak to me so personally. Imagine my excitement when I learned about Music For Silenced Voices.

The title is aptly chosen; while his symphonies were often carefully written to avoid disfavor with the Communist regime, Shostakovich felt no such need to censor or disguise himself in the fifteen string quartets he composed during the last four decades of his life. Shostakovich's Russia was a country defined by its government - a gray, faceless world of ministries and bureaucrats. The brilliant composer suffered the indignity of having his work criticized and even suppressed by Stalin and his stooges, if the powers-that-be decided that the work failed to adequately promote nationalistic ideals.

Such a completely irrational set of rules and restrictions silenced some, but not all, of Shostakovich's voice. Of necessity in order to have his music heard at all, he made sometimes major concessions in his large-scale writing. But the composer's quartets allowed him to create music that was often darker, but somehow more personal, in my opinion, than most of his symphonic work.

How does a book like this manage to turn the exquisite sound of the fifteen quartets into a narrative? Again, I must claim a bias; I already love this music, so I am probably inclined to be generous here. I do believe that Wendy Lesser has done a superb job of collecting source material to tell a very specific story. The events (both personal and global) that took place during his life were always sure to leave their mark on the mood of Shostokovich's work.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Wendy Lesser has done her homework! This 'biography' is obviously a work of love as the author informs us of her introductions to the brilliant quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich and how the immediacy of his pure music, music written out of the limelight (the positive and negative focus) of his endurance of Soviet condemnation, is more a sensitive to his reactions to his life and the people who surrounded his life. Her writing style approaches conversation and that is an aspect that makes this volume such a pleasure to read.

Lesser does indeed understand music and has found a manner in which to evaluate in words her perceptions of the various aspects of the compositions she address in a way that even novices will find understandable. But the really superb part of this book is the technique Lesser uses to offer up the life of one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, tracing his life from childhood to youth and his introduction to composition, through the period of Stalinism when he was condemned for his decadent Western music, his music from the 4th symphony and his operas were banned form performance, nearly losing his life at the Zhdanov Decree in 1948, how he had the courage to 'bow down' (very much with tongue in cheek) to the demands Stalin placed on him, falling from the stance of being the finest composer in Russia to being penniless until Stalin once again allowed his works to have performances in the USSR. With Stalin's death and with the eventual changes or softening of policy against the arts Shostakovich regained his status and has been influential in music since that time.

The author's choice of examining the fifteen quartets as the inner map to revealing the true character and life of Dmitri Shostakovich is a wise one.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By KenOC on July 14, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was very disappointed with this book and, in fact, read only the first half before giving up. The author tries to explore Shostakovich's string quartets through the events and circumstances of his life when he wrote each one. This is after an initial warning that knowledge of a composer's life is as likely to come between us and the music as it is to "explain" the music. Well, fair warning indeed, which perhaps she should have heeded herself.

Be that as it may, the parallel biography and musicology halves never seem to connect. Worse, the music part consists almost entirely of "the third movement makes me feel like..." stuff with almost no analysis of form, no attempt to trace the development of the idiom over time, no connections with other works, and so forth. Of course, not a single musical example is given in the entire book. This is thin stuff indeed!

There is at least one site on the Internet with detailed and helpful analyses of all the quartets. Although it's free, it's worth ten times this book. I would recommend looking at that site and skipping this book, which seems to me to have little value.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Dr Carl on October 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The author clearly loves the string quartets of the great Dmitri Shostakovich and she has tried to pay hommage to the legacy that he has left us. She has also skillfully intermingled the composition and content of the quartets with what is known about DSCH's life, from existing sources as well as her interviews with people who knew him and loved him, not least several members of string quartets that pioneered his works. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult for a non-musicologist to write intelligently and informatively about music without resorting to cliches and platitudes, something that this author does quite a lot of. I think that the entire discourse of 'silent voices' is such a tired one and one that does not begin to capture the complexities of life for a creative genius in a tyranny. Many of the great Soviet artists, including composers like Shostakovich, performers like Richter and Oistrakh, dancers etc. enjoyed a relatively great lifestyle compared with many of their compatriots, provided that they adhered to certain routines and standards. Of course, many of them found them intolerable, though undoubtedly the unfreedom and oppression stimulated their creative imagination and disciplined delivery in remarkable ways (probably helping them rise to greater levels than their Western counterparts). But what price did they have to pay? The author does not really begin to cast any light into the psychological complexities of someone like Shostakivich beyond what is already known.

I am very reluctant to criticize a very honest effort, but as a psychologist, I find the author's venture into Shostakovich psyche simplistic and unenlightening.
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