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

Controversial Notes About an Embattled Composer


Solomon Volkov (Ed.): Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. ISBN 978-0-571-22792 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Such a thrilling book! Brimfull with interesting details and funny anecdotes. Written in a riveting style. My insight into the motives and emotions, my understanding of the brilliant mind of one of my favourite composers grew in leaps. A fascinating life, full of contradictions, marked by sorrow and joy, desperation and optimism, narrated by Dmitry Shostakovich himself. If only I could be sure that these memoirs are authentic.

Since the book was published by Solomon Volkov in 1979, the discussion has been raging. Is the story, as Volkov renders it, true? Volkov claimed it all happened very quickly, since the composer wanted to give his version of the story as he sensed hus own death. He and Shostakovich would have met between 1972 and 1973 for several lengthy interview sessions, and Volkov claimed to have scrupulously noted the composers memories, explanations etc. The manuscript apparently was smuggled into the West, and was to be published after the composer’s death. Volkov has been challenged by musicologists to share the original notes, which he refused to do.

So did Volkov make it all up? He and Shostakovich were well acquainted, and several witnesses confirmed that the two met several times to write Shostakovich’s memoirs. The common project’s goal was to portray composer caught between party loyality and creativity. To shed some light on the ideological constraints that Shostakovich sometimes accepted and sometimes overcame, at great personal risks, at least as long as Stalin lived.

Volkov shows the composer as a clandestine opponent to the Soviet system, his music being full of hidden allusions about Stalin’s tyranny. He casts Shostakovich as an implaccable accuser of Soviet (un)cultural policies, an eyewitness of the destruction of Russia’s artistic heritage in the name of “Socialist Realism”, the official cultural ideology. A riskless endeavour once Shostakovich was dead – he died in 1975 – and Volkov safely lived in the United States.

But is this Shostakovich narrating his life or Volkov narrating Shostakovich’s life? The New York musicologist Laurel Fay identified eight passages in the book which she asserts had been copied by Volkov from articles or speeches previously published by Shostakovich. This casts a shadow over the authenticity of the whole book. Volkov’s refusal to share the original notes, apparently reviewed by the composer, makes it hard to tell where Shostakovich ends and Volkov begins.

In 1990, the biographer Ian MacDonald published “The New Shostakovich” explaining the composer’s life and work within the context of Soviet history. The picture painted by Volkov gains some credibility, but it doesn’t mean Shostakovich said what Volkov wrote. MacDonald pointed out that the composer’s son Maxim, who had repudiated Volkov’s account while he still lived in the Soviet Union, had endorsed “Testimony” after his emigration.

Testimony, pitching the personal memory of an embattled individual against the official memory of an all-powerful state, is contentious to the last full stop”, MacDonald writes. He recommends to approach it with caution. The Soviet Union officially denounced Volkov’s book as a fabrication, MacDonald sees it as a provoking piece of counter-propaganda. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and remains fuzzy. That was the state of play then, and it will remain so for the near future, I guess. It doesn’t matter actually. Reading this book gave me a lot of pleasure, and, as they say in Italy: Se non e vero, e ben trovato.

Since Shostakovich’s memoirs are such a controversial issue, let’s see, here is a controversial piece, Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77:

Shostakovich crosses the desert of solitude

Moscow’s weakness and our own moral corruption

John Le Carré: The Russia House. ISBN 978-0-141-19635 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I remember the day the Soviet Union ceased to exist: December 26, 1991. I was dumbstruck by disbelief. The Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war had been part of my cosmos since I had been able to think for myself. The Catholic priest in our little chapel once had remarked we were lucky to live close to a NATO logistics hub. In case of war we would be vaporized instantly by the nuclear blast. No suffering, no radiation sickness. A fellow student of mine had protested against the fielding of nuclear-tipped SS-20 missiles aimed at NATO countries. The Soviet Union was a fact and I had every reason to perceive it as a threat.

I came to think of that time when I read Le Carré’s spy novel “The Russia House”, his first post-glasnost novel, published in 1989. At the time I wanted to believe in Mikhail Gorbatchev’s new policy: a Soviet Union embracing transparency (glasnost) and setting out to systemic reform (perestroika). My dad called it a lie – the Communists were not to be trusted – and warned me: Don’t come home with one of these t-shirts with “CCCP” written all across it or else…

I greatly enjoyed “The Russia House” for it gives the blurred emotions of hope and misgivings I felt back then precise contours. After Gorbatchev had made public his ideas on glasnost, a Soviet scientist working in the field of nuclear misdiles, wants to pass intelligence about the failing Soviet system to the West, hoping to trigger nuclear disarmement by exposing Moscow’s weaknesses.

Idealism, the hope for peace, the moral responsibility towards the next generation – these factors propel the plot forward. The detailed and cynic narrative of a joint US-UK intelligence operation – running a reluctant agent in Moscow to make contact with the scientist – provides the background for a much more philosophical insight: that the Western societies at the time were no less corrupt and failing than the Soviet Union before its dissolution. The Soviet Union was a convenient scapegoat for many things that went wrong, a wonderful excuse for morally dubious policies. The Soviet Union suited the West fine as a projection of its own dark side.

You may ask of what interest this may be today, some 28 years later. Well, first it is a goid read. Le Carré is a brilliant story-teller and this novel is yet another proof of hos talent. Second, the Soviet Union has been replaced by an autocratic and thoroughly corrupt Russian Federation, the nuclear arsenal remains in place, Moscow pursues an aggressive foreign policy hoping to restore its former Soviet lustre (if it ever had any) and we seem to be again at the threshold of a new confrontation, possibly on European soil. As for our own moral corruption, the examples of the United States and the United Kingdom are not exactly reassuring.

It is certainly no coincidence that Le Carré picked Dmitry Shostakovich’s music to illustrate the only consolation of a secondary character of the plot, a man who had just been released from the Soviet forced labor camps. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in C minor amounts to a look back at the Soviet Union, times of fear and broken dreams.

Paranoid feelings as the sun sets on the countryside

Birth and death of an illusion

Valérie Igounet, Vincent Jarousseau: L’illusion nationale
ISBN 978-2-35204-597-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️  A timely and interesting project: Two French journalists have interviewed over two years voters of the extremist party Front National (FN) and their opponents in three towns where the FN has won local elections. Supporters of Brexit, of Donald Trump and of the FN share many things: a feeling of insecurity, the fear to be a forgotten generation and to be despised by the ruling politicians, a vulnerability to populism. Marine Le Pen, the FN candidate, may have lost the presidential elections, but the issues uncovered in the book are real and need a solution, which the FN, selling merely a dream, cannot deliver and never will.

The Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich   gained throught his career a lot of experience in coping with changing personal and social circumstances. Some of his wisdom can be found in his Symphony No. 11:

Managing change – a matter of life and death