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 grant him much licence – but this lapse notwithstanding, Volkov adds much to our knowledge of Shostakovich’s life and music.
The two are not easily separable. Unlike many tyrants, Stalin’s interest in the arts was real, and his appreciation genuine, a quality he shared with Hitler. (Those who equate artistic receptivity with a higher morality need to discard some prejudices.) Stalin’s taste wasn’t especially good – in fact it was narrow and almost random – but he was the kind of philistine who knew what he liked. He paid attention. One of the artists to whom he paid close attention was Shostakovich. As a consequence, Shostakovich’s music, like his life, was subject to the dictator’s whims.
On at least two occasions, Shostakovich expected to be arrested and executed or sentenced to hard labour. The first time occurred during the great terror of the 1930s, when Stalin finally heard, and loathed, the composer’s hugely successful opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. A condemnatory article, possibly dictated by Stalin himself, appeared in Pravda the next morning, and overnight Shostakovich became an unperson. Performances of his music all but disappeared, many of his friends shunned him, and he waited nightly for the knock on the door. (Testimony records that the secret police did come once, but he was out and they did not return; this implausible story is not repeated in the new book.) A whole new musical category was devised to accommodate Stalin’s visceral revulsion: “socialist realism.” Any music that failed to embody socialist realism – and Lady Macbeth was exhibit A – was not merely a failure but potentially a crime. The concept bedevilled Soviet music for the next 30 years, as musicologists and composers vainly tried to define it and write according to its dictates, when in fact it meant nothing more than what Stalin liked. Shostakovich was so fearful during this period that he withdrew his fourth symphony during rehearsals, terrified that it would arouse Stalin’s ire. The piece wasn’t performed until the 1960s.
In 1948, as the cold war was getting underway, a group of composers was assembled to be reminded of their dependent status and of their political obligations. The meeting identified three chief enemies of socialist realism: Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and Shostakovich. Of the three composers, Shostakovich was the most extravagantly vilified and thereafter, at least in his public role, he appeared to be a broken man. He could be counted on to deliver whatever public statements the party urged on him, he wrote conservative, usually second-rate music on patriotic themes to satisfy the authorities, and he docilely signed letters expressing support for various party edicts. He continued to do so after Stalin’s death and throughout the Khrushchev thaw, and even, to the shock of many of his friends, joined the Communist party in 1960, long after any serious personal jeopardy had past.
The debate about Shostakovich’s private politics has been raging ever since. Did he make a private peace with the authorities? Many in the west thought so, and vilified him accordingly, but Volkov suggests otherwise. He shows that Shostakovich was descended from a family with a long liberal tradition, and that the composer embraced that tradition at every stage of his life. His resistance to the Bolsheviks, after the brief liberal honeymoon of the 1920s, was consistent and unwavering, although necessarily covert.
He also makes a case for Shostakovich’s music. Some of his apologia is political in nature, and not very convincing. For example, he repeats the claim he attributed to Shostakovich in Testimony that the final movement of the fifth symphony is not intended as a genuine triumphal anthem, but as a grotesque travesty of a triumphal anthem. Regardless, to my ears at least, the finale remains a distressingly banal let-down as the conclusion of an otherwise powerful work. He also claims that the march tune at the centre of the seventh symphony’s first movement portrays not the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, as is generally supposed, but the oppressive regimentation of the Soviet regime, and goes on to suggest that the symphony is an unacknowledged masterpiece. The first of these assertions may be true; the second emphatically is not. Good intentions, even if assumed, do not redeem shoddy composition.
What remains undeniable, however, is that even while composing dreck to order, Shostakovich never ceased writing, in Volkov’s words, “for the desk drawer.” He assembled a collection of masterpieces written more or less secretly and filed away, not to be publicly revealed until he deemed it safe. Some of these works have now entered the repertory; indeed, the first violin concerto, the tenth symphony, and an extraordinary series of string quartets may be the pieces that cement Shostakovich’s reputation as a major composer. Volkov claims these works represent a sort of dissident’s diary. Again, their musical quality must exist independently of such an interpretation, although, in many cases, I’m inclined to grant it credence.
Towards the end of his life, looking back on a long and successful career, Haydn said that owing to his extended periods of isolation on the Esterhazy estate in Hungary, he had been “forced to become original.” Something similar may be observed of Shostakovich. Artificially severed from the central trends of 20th-century music – his familiarity with modernist composers ended with Alban Berg and the Stravinsky of the Symphony of Psalms – he too was forced to forge his own version of how 20th-century music should develop. In the process he composed masterpieces that seem to have been conceived in a sort of isolation chamber. And as deeply human rather than as political documents, the best of them have come to seem indispensable.