The debate over Shostakovich's "collusion" is inconclusive; the music is notby Erik Tarloff / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: Shostakovich and Stalin Author: Solomon Volkov Price: Little, Brown, £14.99
Is there any other recent composer whose stock has fluctuated as widely and as frequently as Shostakovich’s? Lauded as the last great symphonist (Sergei Koussevitsky called his eighth symphony the greatest since Beethoven), scorned as an anachronistic irrelevance (Bartók parodied him cruelly, Stravinsky thought him unworthy of notice), by turns praised and damned in both the Soviet Union and the west, Shostakovich was, even by the terrible standards of the 20th century, exceptionally victimised by politics.
Politics of the conventional variety, yes: he lived through a revolution and a civil war, two world wars and a cold war, and was a citizen of one of the most barbaric tyrannies in history. These were not mere background; they affected him directly as man and artist, sometimes silencing him, sometimes compromising him, sometimes placing his life in jeopardy. But politics of the artistic variety, too: in a century of fiercely conflicting aesthetic imperatives, he often found himself on the wrong side of fashion as well as of power. Isolated from western musical developments by Stalinist censorship, he was forced to labour in a vacuum, largely oblivious to what his most talented contemporaries were up to. Known primarily as a composer of big tonal symphonic works, he came to be regarded by many colleagues and academics as a dinosaur.
Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich and Stalin is a compelling account of the composer’s painful odyssey. Volkov is the refusenik who, in 1979, soon after emigrating to the west, published Testimony, a book purporting to be a transcription of Shostakovich’s spoken memoirs. At the time, Testimony occasioned considerable controversy over its authenticity. During the intervening decades, the doubters (led by Laurel Fay) and defenders (pre-eminently Allan B Ho and Dmitry Feofanov) have refined the argument without resolving it. To this non-specialist, the earlier book seems largely convincing; if Testimony is a hoax, it’s certainly a skilful one.
In his new book, Volkov revisits the same territory, examining it through the prism of Shostakovich’s relations with Stalin. He provocatively compares the composer’s relations with the dictator to Pushkin’s fraught relationship with Tsar Nicholas I, and posits that Shos-takovich was a modern incarnation of that traditional Russian figure, the yurodivy, or holy fool, given licence to speak truth to power. The latter trope isn’t very useful – the composer was no fool, and Stalin didn’t really…