Giving Thanks for an Atheist

               ShostakovichDuring this season of thanks, I would like to take a moment to praise God for all the artists who have brightened, enlightened, beautified, and shaped my experience of living.  I hope it’s true for you, as it is for me, that men and women long dead, from other parts of the world, people with whom it would have been rather awkward to try to have a civil dinner conversation if we could somehow have arranged it, have nevertheless contributed to forming my worldview.  There is a wonderful sense of universality (literally, Catholicism) in being connected to distant lands and distant ages through the works their artists leave behind.  However, as I reflect upon my gratitude for the geniuses who paved my way toward becoming who I am, I cannot help but notice that many of them lacked the one thing for which I am most grateful: faith in our glorious Triune God, or, indeed, any god at all.  As a Catholic music director, I am constantly challenged by the fact that the composer who changed the way I understand the emotional power of sound–the man whose music scrapes the calluses from my soul in a way no one else’s ever has–was an atheist.

 I first encountered Dmitri Shostakovich in one of my college music theory classes, where the instructor played a snippet of his Fifth Symphony.  Nothing in my life had prepared me to discover such raw, immediate intimacy.  Fairy tales tell us this feeling is possible when Prince Charming meets your eye across a crowded room, but falling head-over-heels for the music of a dead Communist?  Really?

Really.  The composer who won my ears at first hearing was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1906 and rose to the height of his artistic prowess during the height of the Stalinist regime.  He spent the last fifteen years of his life as a member of the Communist Party.  He dedicated his Second Symphony “To October” and his Twelfth “To Lenin.”  He composed scores for Soviet propaganda films and received such awards as Hero of Socialist Labor, Order of Lenin, Order of the October Revolution… you get the idea.  However, the subject that dominates scholarship about Shostakovich is his rocky relationship with the Soviet government and Stalin in particular.  There were times in his life when he slept with a suitcase beside his bed, expecting the secret police to arrive at any moment to haul him off to a Siberian Gulag.  Why?  Because, as conductor Mariss Jansons says, “[His music] was in essence exploring people’s personal tragedies and dramas; it was a statement against the regime.”  Jansons is one of only many who speaks about a “dual code” within the music, who listens to the supposed “victory parade in Red Square” at the end of the Fifth Symphony and hears instead “[that] the optimism is contained in the fact that the true hero… was ready to fight.”

It was this true hero who stole my heart: who twisted it in gorgeous, brutal ways to shine a light upon its brokenness, its vulnerability, its capacity to overcome.  The Fifth Symphony sings of a battle between hope and despair.  Melodies as delicate as snowflakes lilt upon the air, struggling to breathe against the brassy onslaught of iniquity, whirled through a confusion of strings scraped in vicious frenzy.  Great art transcends its historical climate, and in the coded musical war wherein the Russian people weep against the oppression of Stalin, I hear Jesus overcoming temptation in the desert as well as Judas being lured away to give the fatal kiss.  I hear the one great battle that takes place every day, in every human heart.  Part of the genius of the Fifth is that it’s never really clear who wins.  Shostakovich lays bare the truth and then sends his listeners forth to write their own finales.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a great deal more than just the Fifth Symphony, and although the work through which we met remains my favorite, his insight into the war within the human soul shines through all of his best compositions.  How he could write such spiritual music without recourse to prayer, I do not know.  I do know that when the truth comes from an atheist’s lips, it is still God who speaks.  The challenge for us Christians is to find the humility to listen.

So, among the many blessings I praise God for this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the atheist who inspires me to hope.  I am grateful for a God so generous, He pours out his love upon our world through every available conduit–even the ones who deny that He exists.  I thank Him for the mercy that allows me to believe Dmitri Shostakovich and all the other heretics who have brought goodness to our world still live beyond the grave through more than just their works.  Above all, I thank Him for giving me the privilege Shostakovich was denied: that whatever little beauty God allows me to create, I can do it without codes, freely and openly, in His name.



  1. Mark Peterson says

    I know exactly how you feel about the music of Shostakovich. For me, it was the quartets and the piano quintet that grabbed hold of me. I saw an explosive performance of the quintet by Alexander Korsantia and the Freimann Quartet earlier this year. It was right after Christoph Campestrini guest-conducted Shostakovich’s 10th symphony (another very good performance; Campestrini did some very interesting things with the tempo at key moments).

    Anyone else see the Met’s recent production of “The Nose”? I loved everything about it, from the music (my first time hearing it), right down to wonderfully absurd aesthetic of Kentridge’s production.

    • Karen Ullo says

      Lucky you! I think it will be quite a while before Baton Rouge gets a production of “The Nose,” but we did get the Tenth Symphony about a year ago. I couldn’t listen to any other music for about two days; it all just sounded like noise.

  2. Tom Hanson says

    I too love Shostakovich but I think you may have done him a disservice in saying that the fifth symphony leaves the listener to write his own conclusion. I know what you mean, but to use a Hollywood terminology, the ambiguities are “subtextual.” Its music is not atonal, semi-tonal, half-tonal nor yet polytonal. It comes very close to being a great 19th century work, but no one with an experienced ear would mistake it for one. And in the Das ist Das Ende department no one in the 20th century, not even Mahler, Sibelius, or Prokofiev bettered it for shear musical finality. Its ending is shatteringly glorious. It requires relistening to even begin to hear undercurrents in it. At least it did for me. And it is immediately listenable and enjoyable. For me, though it is no longer, my favorite piece by him, though it was for a long time. Now its place belongs to the 24 preludes and fugues for piano.
    This comment is a quibble, but seriously intended. I think lovers of “serious” music, whatever that might be, should be very careful not to turn off potential lovers of orchestral music. It is very expensive to produce. And if the world economic situation gets worse it may pretty much die out. Which will not kill serious music. But may drive composers back to smaller ensembles to be heard. That would be a shame, but then Heinrich Schutz made truly powerful music with only a bass singer and 4 trombones cf. fili mi Absalon.

    • Karen Ullo says

      I can agree with that; the finale is spectacularly final, though, as you say, the ambiguity is in the subtext, and (to my ear) that’s what never gets resolved. Thank you for the comment and the clarification!