"To understand that music, they'd have
to forget about their Party card."

Rostislav Dubinsky's Stormy Applause: making music in a workers' state

Rostislav Dubinsky was first violinist of the Borodin Quartet from its formation in 1946 to 1975, after which he made his way to America where he founded the Borodin Trio with his wife, pianist Luba Edlina, and cellist Yuli Turovsky. Dubinsky's memoir of musical life in the Soviet Union Stormy Applause was published in 1989. Now out of print, it was never widely reviewed and remains little known. As bitter as Testimony, it tells much the same story from a different angle. Yet its insight into the anti-semitism, professional corruption, political arm-twisting, and general fear which permeated the Soviet cultural scene during the period it describes (1949-75) offers a vital complement to the parallel narrative in Testimony. Anyone unaware of the extent of the resentment and Aesopian irony current in the musical community under Soviet rule will find this book illuminating.

In a passage describing a visit by the Borodins to Moldavia in 1956, Dubinsky recounts a concert performance of Shostakovich's Fourth Quartet:

"The first row was occupied by leading Moscow composers, with Shostakovich himself in the center. Sitting in front, he probably thought no one could see him, and his face unwittingly reflected what he had wanted to say with his music. But I saw his face: the contorted mouth and the eyes of a pursued, wounded animal. His face was the strongest impression I remember of the whole festival, a sharp contrast to the officially lacquered lie with which the authorities covered their crimes. Twice in his life - in 1936 and in 1948 - Shostakovich had suffered a 'civil execution'. Stones flew through his windows, accompanied by shouts of 'Formalist', 'Traitor', 'Trotskyite', and even 'American spy'. The natural end of this 'ideological' campaign should have been physical execution, but by some miracle that didn't happen. The expectation of violent death, however, became the main theme in Shostakovich's music and was stamped forever on his face.

"We played the fourth quartet with this subtext of life and death. We were in no danger: the music was officially permitted, and the notes, after all, were only innocent sounds, all sorts of F-sharps and B-flats. Even Mozart and Beethoven played with them! Notes are not words, not yet - even in the USSR! But playing now to Shostakovich about Shostakovich, we felt we were not obedient Soviet court musicians but fearless unmaskers of evil and hypocrisy. It's easy to be brave when there's no menace, but what kind of courage must it take when you risk your life for the truth!

"The final pianissimo, like a last sigh, flew off into the hall and returned to us as a barely audible echo. We tried to prolong the silence, but the audience interfered. Destroying the fragile world of brief truth, uncertain applause broke out in the hall. We rose slowly, bowed very low to Shostakovich, and left the stage. The applause died out without gaining strength.

" 'Well, to hell with all of you,' swore Berlinsky softly.

"'I agree,' I answered. 'To understand that music, they'd have to forget about their Party card for half an hour.'"

After the concert, the Borodins joined Shostakovich and other composers and musicians for a meal in a restaurant. Drink flowed freely and an oaf in a black leather jacket tried to join their table, only to be thrown out after proposing an anti-semitic toast. (To which Shostakovich replied "What filth!".) Afterwards the company called for the Borodins to play the quartet again:

"We each took two instruments and two music stands and headed downstairs without speaking. Four chairs were already waiting for us in a corner of the room. I opened my case, got out the violin, checked the tuning... And suddenly I felt an unusual lightness and freedom in both hands. What was it? Surely not a glass or two of wine? If so, then such a creative path threatened to become extremely dangerous.

"I looked at my colleagues. Alexandrov was tensely tuning his instrument and probably cursing me. Shebalin and Berlinsky had clearly drunk to excess, and it showed. The former wisely did not try to tune his instrument, but repeated that he was a 'sportsman', while the latter's hands were visibly uncoordinated. He tried his solo from the second movement, and at one point his fingers turned up on one string while his bow was on another. He laughed and turned to Shostakovich.

"'Dmitri Dmitrievich, forgive me if something is not just so...'

"'Everything will be "so", don't worry, everything will be "so"...'

"We began to play. In the first movement there were problems. Someone was always late, and it proved impossible to lead the quartet; instead, it was led by whoever played the slowest. The second movement went better. A peculiar, drunkenly rhythmical balance, from which it was dangerous to diverge, had settled in the music. We played fairly successfully up to the recapitulation, where the initial melancholy melody reappeared. Several voices began to sing along with us...

"It really means something if people sing Shostakovich's music!

"They sang along again in the scherzo, which we played in manner of a street gang's song. With the discordant voices there appeared a particular musical effect, which would be impossible to write into a quartet score. This seemed to please Shostakovich, because he also started singing... This was unexpected and even frightening. I never heard Shostakovich sing before or after that evening.

"Gradually the quartet got used to the drunkenness, and by the 'Jewish' finale we were all playing confidently. After the incident with the man in the black leather jacket, it rang out in a somewhat different key... There was neither applause nor praise, only the long silence that is necessary after such music."

On another occasion in the early 1960s, Dubinsky describes rehearsing Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio with his wife Luba Edlina and Valentin Berlinsky, the quartet's cellist:

"At our first rehearsal I felt the change right away. A beautiful woman was with us, and for that reason my colleagues had shaved painstakingly, put on cologne, and dressed with taste. They smiled and spoke pleasantly. Furthermore, without Alexandrov, Berlinsky seemed like a different person. There was now a non-Party majority in our piano quartet, and it was possible to relax for a while. This was especially noticeable when we rehearsed the Shostakovich Trio in E minor. Berlinsky said that the officially accepted program of the work did not correspond exactly to reality. My wife and I only glanced at each other.

"The trio was written during the war, right after the Seventh or 'Leningrad' Symphony. Soviet musicologists explained the complete absence of optimism in these works as the result of the treacherous attack of the Germans on the peace-loving Soviet Union and the ensuing war, unequaled in its brutality. They conveniently forgot that the first movement of the Seventh Symphony already existed a year before the war, back when Stalin was still Hitler's faithful friend. And really, how could one openly say that Shostakovich's music depicts the destruction of Russian thought and culture, their gradual ruin, which Stalin began and Hitler only wanted to complete?

"To translate the sounds into words is an ungrateful task, all the more so because every listener interprets music in his own way. But if, after the performance of the trio, the whole audience is depressingly silent and doesn't hurry to applaud, does it not suggest that the much-abused composer has been heard and understood?

"And yet, if one wants to express the music of the trio in words, its very beginning sounds like an anxious premonition of misfortune. It overwhelms the listener without mercy, and eventually, in the second movement, in the scherzo, there bursts forth a fiendish, destructive dance of death. In the third movement, the passacaglia, one hears blood-curdling piano chords. Is it not the sound of a hammer on a railway track which tells the prisoners of the concentration camp that 'one more day in the life of Ivan Denisovich' has started? While this evil sound reverberates across the hall, the violin and cello weep and pray for the people who perished.

"The finale increases in tension, achieving in chamber music the rarely attained dynamic fff. When it seems that all means of expression are exhausted, the violin and cello unexpectedly become mute. As if in deathly agony, a wail escapes from a throat strangled by an iron hand. The trio ends with the initial Jewish motif, disappearing into nothingness, like a question mark about the fate of the whole nation. It was the courageous act of an artist who dares to tell the truth and who, for this, in four years' time would be condemned to silence."

In 1970, the Borodins played for David Oistrakh, then recovering from illness:

"We got our instruments, set up our music stands, and sat down. In an artificial voice, as if addressing an audience from a stage, I said, 'We shall play the third quartet of Shostakovich in F major, Opus 73, in five movements, the fourth and fifth to be performed without interruption. The quartet was written in 1944.'

"Oistrakh looked at us, smiling. We started to play...

"The Third is Shostakovich's best quartet, written in his wartime period. A lot of sorrow had accumulated for the Russian intelligentsia during these years of Soviet rule, from the 1917 revolution until the beginning of the war in 1941. And it was only during the war that it found its emotional outlet. This was particularly true in music. Like Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, this quartet was officially touted as anti-Fascist. But it was in essence anti-Soviet, a disturbing musical tale about the destruction of Russian culture.

"The first movement of the quartet is a perfect sonata allegro, the last bright day before an irremediable misfortune. The second: gathering clouds and the approach of disaster. The third: the wild triumph of evil. The fourth: a funeral march, a prayer for those who have perished. The fifth: a sorrowful, moving story about Shostakovich himself and his pain and anxiety about the future of humanity.

"We never played any concert as we did that evening for that one sick man. In the fourth movement Berlinsky, who was seated facing Oistrakh, started making signs to me. I glanced at Oistrakh. He was lying with his eyes closed, tears running down his cheeks. Tamara brought him some medicine, but he gently pushed her hand aside. In the finale, where the last muted chord is like an unearthly choir against whose background the first violin rises higher and higher and disappears, we made a long diminuendo, and the silence that followed was like a confirmation of the music."

The Borodins also played the Eighth Quartet to Shostakovich himself in 1960:

"'Hello, how are you? Thank you for coming,' he said convulsively shaking all our hands. Four music stands were waiting in the room. Shostakovich sat down in an armchair and waited impatiently. We quickly opened our cases, took our places, and immediately began playing.

"The five-movement Quartet No. 8 in C-minor, Opus l10, is played without interruption. The slow fugato, with its theme, 'D-S-C-H'; the furious scherzo, with the Jewish melody from his own second trio, Opus 67; the agitated waltz; the requiem for those who perished; and once again the original bitter fugato con sordino, with his initials.

"As he listened, Shostakovich picked up the score and a pencil, and then put both aside, his head bent. What he must have felt at this moment, we could only guess. Having openly said at the beginning of the quartet, 'This is myself', he sat before us, tormented, listening to his story about himself, his musical confession, the sorrowful cry of a soul, where each note weeps with pain.

"We tried hard not to look at him. We began the fourth movement, which imitated either bombs falling from above and exploding on the earth or just hearts breaking. Then came the old Russian song 'Tormented by Heavy Bondage', and finally the culmination of the quartet, which came from his opera Katerina Izmailova. In the last scene, when the prisoners are being moved across a Siberian river, Sergei, for whose sake Katerina has sacrificed everything on earth, betrays her with Sonetka. The impact of the scene is that the entire audience, the orchestra, and all the characters see this; even the gendarme spits at Sergei and Sonetka; only Katerina alone knows nothing and is happy to meet Sergei. The insolent Sonetka appears, and slowly the irremediable catastrophe reaches Katerina's consciousness. She throws herself into the icy water, pulling Sonetka with her. Thus it happens in the opera. The same melody sounds different in the quartet: here, it is the loneliness of the composer himself and his premonition of his inevitable end.

"We finished the quartet and looked at Shostakovich. His head was hanging low, his face hidden in his hands. We waited. He didn't stir. We got up, quietly put our instruments away, and stole out of the room."

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