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Book Review

Dimensions of Energy in Shostakovich's Symphonies

Dimensions of Energy in Shostakovich's Symphonies by Rofe
Michael Rofe
Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, November 2016 xvii + 274 pp
ISBN-10: 1138268275
ISBN-13: 978-1138268272
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Michael Rofe of the University College, Falmouth (UK), originally explored the issues covered in this book for his PhD thesis ten years ago. It has its origins in the contention that – for all Shostakovich's popularity and stature – there is a dearth of books which actually deal with the composer's symphonic music. This at first seems such a strange claim that one feels obliged to challenge it. But barely a few minutes looking through the standard Shostakovich bibliographies (and on Amazon) easily confirm it. More has indeed been published on the composer's life (and times) than about his actual musical output. Pauline Fairclough's work stands out. As does that of David Fanning, whom Rofe quotes as saying that Shostakovich's works survive "because they speak to listeners who have never heard of Stalin's Great Terror".

Rofe has chosen to write on what – again – at first glance may seem abstruse, or specialized… certainly the use and exact meaning of "dimensions" in the book's title may be somewhat off-putting. In fact it really means "aspects, or varieties, of". But to tackle the very essence of that which thrills in Shostakovich – its energy – surely aids in our understanding and love of the composer's orchestral music. Indeed, Rofe devotes half of the book (Part I is itself entitled "Dimensions of Energy") to meticulously and expansively exploring what musical energy means; though always pegged to Shostakovich.

Each of the six chapters in Part I deals with a different way to think of musical energy. He posits and supports the definition of musical energy as "a psychological construct formed from the perception of instability and the attendant desire for re-stabilization". Musical energy can take a variety of forms: amplitude, activity, dissonance and even the emotions evoked by extra-musical references and/or associations. Rofe defines his terms carefully. He identifies and distinguishes between, for instance, different ways to consider amplitude: "loudness" and "climatic shape" are preferred, whereas "dynamics" refers to the forces responsible for motion; and "dynamic" to that motion itself. Indeed, for Rofe, that (sense of) motion is very important. It's (this) kinetic energy that propels the music along its trajectory.

Crucially, it's not enough for Rofe that there is motion, patterns, change, though. It has to have an end point – whether or not the listener is aware of it or not during any one arc. It's musical energy which moves (us) from instability towards reconciliation. The flow of energy along that trajectory Rofe refers to as an "energy stream". Such movement works because our memory, perception and expectation combine to make sense of patterns. And it's those processes and states specific to Shostakovich which Rofe examines in this book.

He does so against a long history of theorists and musicologists (from Aristoxenus (b.375-360 BCE) to Schenker and Ernst Kurth (1886-1946), who went as far as to define musical events as sonic manifestations of psychic tensions. Of course Rameau's insistence that the dissonant seventh (interval) was the primary driving force in music comes to mind. Rofe reminds us that Shostakovich's predecessor, Boris Asafiev (1884-1949), thought in a not dissimilar way. He too saw the unresolved, destabilized, unreconciled as central to understanding motion as Rofe does in his examination of energy. Significantly, Rofe points out the debt which Asafiev owed to Henri Bergson, who saw time rather as a ceaseless flow (durée), not something whose primary attribute is a set of divisions (into hours, minutes, seconds etc). And, although Shostakovich is known to have taken an interest in (and been influenced by) current Russian musicological thinking about energy, Asafiev joined the Leningrad Conservatory after the younger composer's studies there were complete. The common ground remains, however.

Rofe puts his chapter on energy as melodic-harmonic motion in the context of the theories of modal rhythm based around the primacy of the tritone as advanced by Boris Yavorsky (1877 - 1942), one of the founder's of Russian musical theory, with this quote from Shostakovich: "… [a]rt without motion is not art for me". And his next chapter on the relationships between time and energy he prefaces with the equally revealing words, "It is always completely clear to me what should be at the beginning, the middle, and the end of a composition, and where moments of tension and release belong." The natural extension of this, the building of patterns, thematic and textural, is dealt with in Chapter 4; while Chapter 5 looks at the way in which the symphony (also) represents an archetype, and so establishes and plays to the tensions (and so the energies) which inevitably arise – not least because that form has so many precedents. Chapter 6 is entitled "Symphonism" and expands on this, looking at contrasts and tensions between and within movements, for example. Rofe's narrative is expert in exposing parallels and resonances, examples and consistences, continuities and indeed contrasts between these theories and Shostakovich's music.

The second half of Dimensions of Energy in Shostakovich's Symphonies examines equally skillfully and convincingly how these principles and concepts can be perceived and how they apply to Shostakovich's 4th, 5th, 6th and 14th Symphonies in particular. In each case Rofe provides clean, transparent and accessible commentaries of the Symphonies – yet analyses which are comparatively detailed, technically. He explains how the composer's music can be understood in terms of energy. It would be hard for even the most experienced listener, player or even conductor not to deepen their understanding of how and why Shostakovich's Symphonies work as they do after reading these erudite and comprehensive 70 or so pages.

Chapter 10 steps slightly outside the examination of energy seen kinetically, horizontally and in terms of somewhat linear contrasts and changes. It looks at the balance and the negation almost – certainly the absence – of balance when it is applied in the case of (musical) construction based on the Golden Section, the mathematical condition where the sum of two objects (the number of bars in a movement, for instance) stands in the same relationship to one of the objects as that object does to the other. Rofe handles well what he openly acknowledges is a topic which has been misused, inappropriately used indeed, in the field of aesthetics. He suggests that we might profitably look, not for any contrivance by Shostakovich, but at the way in which composer simply adheres musically to the tendency of nature (in which there are of course numerous instances of the Golden Section) to seek stability. Maybe even unconsciously.

This chapter is typical of the relaxed yet informed and informative style of Michael Rofe in this excellent book. He never over-uses examples or loses us in intricate and complex exegesis. Nor does he expect an understanding without illustration(s). Indeed, he makes such material eminently accessible to all but the most casual music-lover. So specialists too will gain much from this aggregation of data and exploration in an area central to truly appreciating the symphonic music (the concerti etc are not covered here) of this giant of twentieth century music. We all know him well. But stand to gain even deeper insight thanks to the exhaustive and expertly-collated treatment which it receives at the hands of Rofe. What's more, most readers will gain some wider understanding outside the music of Shostakovich – maybe minimal if the ideas are not new to them; perhaps extensive if they are – of this aspect of how music works… chiefly in terms of expectation and resolution.

There are about 80 diagrams, musical, or tabular examples in the text of Dimensions of Energy in Shostakovich's Symphonies. They never fail to clarify or amplify Rofe's argument; although – as is often the case with Octavo-sized books – some are a little cramped. The two appendices provide what might seem an intimidating mathematical underpinning of the statistical methods used in analyzing Shostakovich's 15 symphonies. In fact, an understanding of, and familiarity with, even fairly elementary mathematics will provide the reader with the necessary tools to appreciate Rofe's approach. The book is well indexed and there is an extensive, though unannotated, bibliography. The unobtrusive footnotes are used mostly to cite sources. Few readers will come away from reading Dimensions of Energy in Shostakovich's Symphonies without a new perspective, without learning much about Shostakovich's music itself from an analytical and technical (as opposed to a biographical one) angle. So – given Rofe's initial premise about the body of published material – readers' understanding and appreciation of the composer's symphonies music will be significantly increased. Recommended.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Sealey.