Understanding Shostakovich

Rosamunde Bartlett (ed.): Shostakovich in context. ISBN 978-019-816666-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Any reader familiar with my music blog will be aware that I am a great admirer of Dmitry Shostakovich’s music. Both his works and his difficult life as a composer in the Soviet Union have been fascinating me for years. After the deception caused by the fact that “Testimony”, published by Solomon Volkov, is a falsification of Shostakovich’s memoirs, I was glad to read a collection of contemporary scientific essays dealing with Shostakovich’s works and exploring certain aspects of his life so far unknown to me. I will limit this review to those essays that interested me most.

Richard Taruskin shows us that the composer’s works intentionally carry ambiguous messages. Was he an ardent supporter of the Communist Party or a secret opponent? Both aspects shine through in his compositions, and his Soviet audience in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was certainly able (and avid) to decipher the subtext of Shostakovich’s works. One can feel sympathy for, even believe in the Communist idea and still criticize the behaviour of party officials. One can officially acknowledge the all-powerful Soviet state and still write subversive music. There is no black-and-white in Shostakovich’s life, there is none in his works.

Laurel E. Fay, author of an excellent biography, offers new insight in Shostakovich’s relation to the Leningrad Association of Contemporary Music (LASM) and to his fellow composer Boris Asafiev. Asafiev was the éminence grise behind the LASM and initially gave Shostakovich a boost of confidence to have his first symphony performed. However, Shostakovich did not see the LASM as being representative of Soviet contemporary music, he leaned himself towards the less formal Circle for New Music, and when Asafiev failed to attend the premiere of the symphony, “the honeymoon ended”, as Fay writes.

Ludmila Mikheyeva-Sollertinsky illustrates the faithful relation between Shostakovich and his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, professor at the Leningrad Conservatory and the artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Both lived Leningrad and saw each other very often up to World War II, nevertheless Shostakovich wrote no less than 150 letters to Sollertinsky. The analysis of the correspondence sheds a new light on the composer’s character and his sense of humour.

Finally I would like to highlight Manashir Yabukov’s study of the composition “Anti-Formalistic Rayok”, a sarcastic description of the Soviet cultural policy, performed only in Shostakovich’s private circle. I was unaware of this piece, and it is wonderful to discover not only a new piece, but also a real testimony of Shostakovich’s defying attitude towards the USSR. Lyudmila Kovnatskaya’s exploration of parallels in the life and works of Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten was of great relevance to me. Britten is one of those composer’s exerting absolutely no attraction on me. Why? I have no idea. Ignorance? Perhaps. If Shostakovich would lead me to become interested in Britten, now that would be an achievement!

Dmitry Shostakovich wrote revolutionary music, but one of his musical beacons was Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1850/51 he wrote a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, inspired by Bach’s “Well-tempered Klavier”:

A fugue or a prelude every third day