Was Shostakovich coding a subversive agenda into the performance?

Play it both ways, Dmitry

This new biography has set my feet pounding, for once in admiration rather than indignation

Survivors of the Shostakovich wars — we wear chestfuls of medals on the composer’s birthday — suffer savage bouts of PTSD at the sight of a new biography of the composer. The wars, for those of you who have not read newspapers for the past 40 years, were triggered by the appearance of Testimony, a book claiming to be the composer’s memoirs as dictated to a journalist, Solomon Volkov, who in the late 1970s took them to New York and found a publisher.

While questions were raised about provenance of Volkov’s work, there was no mistaking the authenticity of the composer’s voice, which was vouched for by his close friend Mstislav Rostropovich; by Vladimir Ashkenazy, an unimpeachable stickler for accuracy; and by the composer’s émigré son, Maxim. Amid the clichés of Cold War equivocation, Testimony offered a shaft of light into the mind of a great artist who, until the book appeared, was presumed to be a loyal Soviet citizen.

He was also considered, by Western modernists, to be a second-rate composer — “a reactionary” in Pierre Boulez’s indelible putdown. Both perceptions were overturned by Testimony, which sold mountains of copies in 30 languages.

Critical Lives: Dmitry Shostakovich
By Pauline Fairclough
Reaktion Books £11.99

After a predictable onslaught of Kremlin denunciation, some Soviet-educated US academics led by the ebullient Richard Taruskin and the biographer Laurel Fay, demanded proof of the composer’s authorship. Volkov produced a number of signed manuscript pages. This failed to satisfy the scholars who, among other cavils, demanded to see a note in Shostakovich’s hand criticising communism. The war went ballistic when I likened Taruskin’s position to David Irving’s, refusing to accept Hitler had ordered the Holocaust until he saw a slip of paper reading “Kill the Jews. AH.”

Big books banged down ballistically either side of the battlelines. In 1994, Shostakovich Remembered by Elizabeth Wilson, cellist daughter of a former British ambassador to Moscow, yielded multiple firsthand accounts of the composer’s uncomfortable existence in the USSR, validating much of what Volkov had written without — significantly — endorsing the composer as a resistance hero.
Both sides took comfort from Wilson. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the war petered out. These days I can hardly be bothered to march any more.

But a concise new biography by a postwar musicologist has set my feet pounding, for once in admiration rather than indignation. Pauline Fairclough, a professor at the University of Bristol, has left the Taruskin camp to present a superbly nuanced account of a musical homo sovieticus who sampled all of the century’s emotions, from Leninist exhilaration to Stalinist despair, from youthful dreams of a better society to a desperate struggle to appease the commissars.

Resorting frequently to Wilson and to unfamiliar Russian sources, Fairclough finds the young Shostakovich preaching to his mother the virtues of free love. Working as a cinema pianist in 1925-6, he wrote two symphonies in his twentieth year and was delighted when the first was taken up in Berlin by the Mahlerian conductor Bruno Walter.

The second symphony was dedicated, whether in homage or opportunistically, to the October Revolution. But his first piano sonata was bleak and percussive, and a small opera, The Nose, poked fun at Soviet officialdom.

Pauline Fairclough has left the Taruskin camp to present a superbly nuanced account of a musical homo sovieticus

Paradise was lost when, in 1936, Pravda launched a virulent assault at Stalin’s behest on his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Shostakovich saw various of his influential friends vanish overnight. He had married, after much hesitation on both sides, the physicist Nina Varzar and, while devoted to their two children, both appear to have agreed to an open marriage. Needing to repair his official standing, he suppressed his Mahlerian fourth symphony and wrote a fifth, subtitled “A Soviet artist’s response to justified criticism.” Abroad, this tagline earned him a reputation as a Kremlin lackey.

Volkov’s book highlights ambiguities in the symphony which indicate that Shostakovich was coding a subversive agenda into the performance of the work. Rostropovich once shared with me his conviction that the 15 symphonies of Shostakovich are a secret history of Soviet Russia and the 15 string quartets an intimate account of his personal experience.

Fairclough downplays the notion of composer as resistance hero, a story fancified most recently by Julian Barnes in The Noise of Time, while testifying to his repeated courage in interceding on behalf of two arrested Jewish friends, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Alexander Veprik. In a rackety system, he reached an accommodation with the controlling composer-apparatchik Tikhon Khrennikov, reckoning that Khrennikov was not the worst, and nor was the Soviet Union. Exposed to inherited wealth on visits to Britain and America, he recoiled from the unjust distribution of assets.

Cornerstone composer of the twentieth century: A statue of Shostakovich was unveiled in Samara, Russia, in September (Photo by Albert DzenTASS via Getty)

Nina’s death in 1954, followed by a degenerative neurological condition which contorted his features to misery, reinforced the image of Shostakovich as victim of a heartless system. Yet he continued to play it both ways, becoming a member of the Communist Party when ordered to do so in 1960 and confronting the regime two years later with a 13th symphony based on Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar”, a poem that indicted the Soviet state of complicity in Hitler’s murder of the Jews.

Even at his most morose, Fairclough argues, Shostakovich keeps a glint in his eye. “Shostakovich’s essential personality never changed,” she concludes. “He kept both his iron grip of his incredible talent and his keen sense of humour to the very end of his life.”
He died, aged 68, in 1975 and went on to emerge from the ideological wars as one of the cornerstone composers of the twentieth century, the one who most effectively applied Mahler’s method of conveying contradictory meanings in music. In contrast to Boulez, he owns the next century.

There may be more still to emerge from KGB archives but Fairclough’s study, delicately balanced and compellingly readable, is the most reasoned and revealing biography I have yet seen. Between the lines, her passion for the music is irresistible. Before I do anything else, I shall sing a few bars of the first violin concerto, written for David Oistrakh and suppressed for a decade. There, that’s better.

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