Response to the criticisms
of Frank Dudley Berry and Robert Parrish

Made in
on June 26th, June 28th, and July 2nd 1995

by Ian MacDonald

It is sad to read the recent postings by these gentlemen. Not because they aren't entitled to voice whatever thoughts pop into their minds, but because their remarks show how, despite five years of confirmation from authoritative Russians of what I wrote in The New Shostakovich, they (like many other Western pundits) continue to cling to vague "hunches" about the composer with no more than a cursory regard for the facts - let alone the probabilities which flow from these.

Mr Parrish unwittingly puts his finger on it when he invokes Sidney Hook's remarks about academic over-specialisation. "There is a fallacy," he writes, "in uncritically believing someone's pronouncements in one field of knowledge based on their expertise in another." I presume Mr Parrish is a professor of music. Having read his letter, I must further presume that, because of this specialisation, he lacks the time to acquaint himself with the basics of Soviet history and culture, since what he has to say on these subjects is, regrettably, of no more substance than Einstein's views on Communism. If Einstein was "a total jackass" (sic) when pronouncing naively on Soviet politics, what does that make Mr Parrish when he engages in the same exercise?

Though under-informed - for which there is no intrinsic blame since nobody knows everything - Mr Parrish should have known enough to realise that he doesn't sufficiently understand the issues he raises to represent his views as anything other than prejudice. Why does he imagine that a faint outline knowledge of what happened in Stalin's USSR constitutes a qualification for dismissing a view of Shostakovich held not only by myself and other Westerner commentators but by the overwhelming majority of Russian witnesses to have testified on the subject since 1990?

Hopeful of keeping this exchange usefully clear, I will deal with Mr Parrish's contentions later in the following number-referenced discussion. First, though, I must turn to Mr Berry, whose confusion is more glaring because more willfully careless (not to mention trundled out twice).

My book - and the subsequent articles I've written in connection with it, some of which appear in this Website - depend not only on close study and argument but on close listening. Mr Berry (whose level of attention to detail is perhaps indicated by the fact that, despite claiming to have read The New Shostakovich and Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, he could neither remember my name nor be certain of Elizabeth Wilson's) evidently thinks and responds in what might charitably be called an airily generalised fashion. I will attempt to bring him gently down to earth, but do not, in all honesty, expect to succeed in doing so, however many facts and arguments I produce. He is, I suspect, not the sort to let awkward realities intrude on his sunny day.

(1) "It is impossible," contends Mr Berry, "to believe that the Seventh Symphony was not written in a patriotic fever of the type to which even an independent thinker could succumb under the circumstances." Impossible? This is surely pitching things too high - on logical grounds, if nothing else. For example, Lev Lebedinsky, who knew the composer very well, found no difficulty in believing this allegedly impossible thing, and nor does the conductor Semyon Bychkov, to name but two. Better still, what of Shostakovich's own opinion? This was noted in 1942 by Flora Litvinova and is reproduced not only by Elizabeth Wilson but also in a version edited by myself four years ago and newly published in DSCH Journal No. 3:

"Music, real music is never literally bound to one theme. Fascism is not just National Socialism; this music is about terror, slavery, moral decay." [Litvinova continues:] "Later Dmitri Dmitryevich confided to me quite frankly that his Seventh (as well as his Fifth) depicted not only fascism but also events in our own country, as well as tyranny and totalitarianism in general."
Unlike the as-yet-unverified claims of Lebedinsky (Novy Mir, 1990) and Rostislav Dubinsky (Stormy Applause, 1989) that the first movement of the Seventh Symphony was written before the Nazi invasion as a satire on the rise of Stalin, Litvinova's report is unequivocal. Still more persuasive, it was confided to a private journal - and by no less a disinterested party than the daughter of the Soviet Union's former foreign minister (then Soviet ambassador to the USA).

(2) Mr Berry continues: "While the finale of the Fifth can certainly be interpreted as an expression of enforced hysteria, it can also be taken the way it traditionally has been, as an explosion of triumphant will." It is unclear to whose "triumphant will" Mr Berry is here alluding. Stalin's? The NKVD's? Or Shostakovich's? The official Soviet view used to be that, in line with the symphony's alleged programme concerning "the making of a man", this peroration represented Shostakovich's psychological reconciliation with Soviet collectivism. Is this what Mr Berry is suggesting? If so, he must rebut Gerard McBurney's interpretation of the finale, based on his analysis of the part played in it by the song "Rebirth", quoted in the central section. The words of this song (by Pushkin) are:

A barbarian artist with a sleepy brush
Blackens over a picture of genius.
And his lawless drawing
Scribbles meaninglessly upon it.

But, with the years, the alien paints
Flake off like old scales;
The creation of genius appears before us
In its former beauty.

Thus do delusions fall away
From my worn-out soul
And there spring up within it
Visions of original, pure days.

The presence of this quotation, noted by Soviet musicologists at the time of the Fifth Symphony's first performances, was taken as a token of Shostakovich's definitive conversion to Communism from the "political error" of bourgeois individualism ("thus do delusions fall away"). In fact, what supplants the delusions are "visions of original, pure days", implying quite the opposite: that, if anything, Shostakovich was then waking up from the nightmare of Communism. While neither need be precisely the case, which is likelier to incline towards the truth, given the circumstances?

The Fifth Symphony was written in 1937, i.e., at the apex of the Great Terror - an almost unimaginable horror in which literally millions of Russians "disappeared" into NKVD execution cellars or were herded away in cattle trucks to slave-labour or slow death in the wastes of Siberia. During work on the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich's sponsor and protector Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was arrested and shot for allegedly plotting to assassinate Stalin. According to Veniamin Basner (quoted in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered), the composer was thereupon arrested by the NKVD and himself interrogated about the Tukhachevsky affair. In The New Shostakovich, I suggested that the symphony's slow movement was as much a lament for Tukhachevsky as for the millions, like him, who fell victim to Communism in 1937. Basner's contention adds weight to this - unless, of course, one is prepared to believe that Shostakovich (as a presumably orthodox Communist) betrayed his friend Tukhachevsky during his interrogation.

Of the several factors militating against this, the most difficult to refute is the nature of the Fifth Symphony itself, sufficiently antipathetic to the then-official symphonic standard that a special theory had to be invented to account for this once audiences had so warmly applauded the work that it was impossible to suppress it. That this stylistic contradiction was perceived in more than formal terms is confirmed by musicologists like Israel Nestyev (who saw the Fifth's slow movement as "a requiem for the millions of innocent victims of Stalin's regime") and Lev Mazel (for whom the work voices "grief for the fallen and agonizing pain, certainly not caused by the tragedy of war").

Recently Gerard McBurney - observing that the "barbarian artist" who blackens the picture of genius is analogous to Stalin as the personification of Socialist Realism - has pointed out that the first four notes of the song (accompanying the words "a barbarian artist") are also the first four notes of the Fifth's finale. Not knowing when he wrote the Fifth Symphony if he would live or die as a result of it, Shostakovich seems to have encoded into its finale a message that its meaning had been (as it were) "daubed over" by another hand, but that this false accretion would fade and his underlying intentions one day be seen. In the song's last line, the word chisti - meaning pure in the sense of having been cleaned and restored to its original state - is wistfully drawn out, confirming Pushkin's painting metaphor.

None of this can conceivably be said to accord with the idea that Shostakovich was an orthodox Communist who betrayed his patron. These are, on the contrary, the tactics and expressions of a beleagured (and frightened) individual conscience. All in all - taking into account the general historical context of the Terror, Shostakovich's own personal trauma over the Tukhachevsky affair, the stylistic and expressive defiance of the symphony as a whole, and the code-structure of its finale - it is hard (though I will not say "impossible") to come to any conclusion other than that claiming the end of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony to be "an explosion of triumphant will" is grievously to mishear it. The only triumph allowable here is, surely, the triumph of brute force over decency?

(3) On his way to concluding that "Ian Wilson's (sic) interpretation is a gross trivialization of Shostakovich's career", Mr Berry asserts that he prefers

"the more conventional biography described in Elizabeth Wilson (? - I loaned the book, and am no longer sure of the author's name; I mean the one that came out last winter) - the young Shostakovich as more or less a true believer (why not ? who knew then what lay ahead?)".
Leaving aside the fact that Elizabeth Wilson's linking text follows The New Shostakovich surprisingly closely, it is somewhat bewildering to have Shostakovich: A Life Remembered held up as representing a "more conventional" view of, among other things, Shostakovich's youth than the one I presented in 1989.

After writing The New Shostakovich, I was privileged to read the composer's letters to Tanya Glivenko in which it is clear that any allegiance he may have had to Communism lasted (if it, in fact, ever really began) for about nine months during 1923-4 and had completely vanished by 1926. (See "His Misty Youth", melos 4-5, summer 1993.) The remarkable thing about the testimonies about Shostakovich's youth presented in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is that they not only confirm the freethinking references in the Glivenko letters but actually propose a more radical view of Shostakovich's youth than I had done hitherto. I quote the relevant section of my review:

'Elizabeth Wilson presents more than enough material to prove - the spurious "Arnshtam" article notwithstanding - that Shostakovich was not only never a Communist, but almost certainly not even a Narodnik. Speaking to EW some time between 1988 and 1990, his sister Zoya insists that the atmosphere in their house after the Revolution was "very free and liberal" with "no talk of politics". Boris Lossky, a pupil with Shostakovich at the Shidlovskaya School, opines, in an article written in 1989, that the Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution was linked to the massacre of those protesting against Lenin's dissolution of the Constituent Assembly at the beginning of 1918: "During the spring of 1918, Mitya never so much as hinted at any kind of sympathy with the 'existing regime', and I can vouch that this was the case until 1922." The Glivenko letters of 1923 to early 1924 contain a number of pro-Lenin statements which the anti-revisionists will seize on with relief - but the probability (as with the composer's letters to Isaak Glikman) is that Shostakovich was writing against the chance that the secret police might open his mail, which, on the face of it, was highly likely. (He destroyed most of his letters to his mother shortly after her death in 1955. Zoya recalls him "coming into the room, a bundle of nerves, and burning them all in the stove". Presumably they contained compromising passages.)

'Apart from these almost certainly bogus references, the picture is one of an aesthetic, superhumanly gifted, and utterly apolitical boy for whom music (and literature) were the be-all-and-end-all. Writing to Boleslav Yavorsky in 1925, he confesses: "There are no other joys in life apart from music. For me, all of life is music." His fellow student Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, writing under constraint in 1976, lets the cat out of the bag: "An outstanding feature of the young Shostakovich was his early independence of thought and behaviour." (This is reliable Aesopian for "He wasn't a Communist.") Mikhail Druskin effectively confirms this, while elsewhere we learn that Shostakovich was contemptuous not only of Bezymensky's Lenin-lionising verses for the Second Symphony but also of the propagandist plots of all three of his ballets...'

One might take issue with Mr Berry's bland assertion that there is "nothing discreditable with the notion of a young genius, circa 1925, at the dawn of his career, accepting the conventional wisdom of the day and the hope of the future". - Nothing discreditable about the Communist dissolution of the democratic Constituent Assembly? About the Red Terror? About Lenin's concentration camps, exemplary executions of innocents without trial, and deliberate whipping up of civil war? - Yet this is ultimately irrelevant since the immediate issue is perfectly simple: if Shostakovich wasn't a young Communist, no mitigating pleas need be made. Mr Berry is a long way wide of the point.

(4) As, too, is Robert Parrish: "It seems to me that the humanistic Shostakovich presented in Testimony could have easily supported Communism in the 1920's. Many others did so and continued to do so long afterward." One is forced to ask: What kind of critical writing is this, based, as it appears to be, on nothing but supposition and an oddly unacademic lack of awareness of what has been published on this area of Shostakovich's life in the last two years? He goes on:

"I suspect that the Communism that Shostakovich supported was the Left-wing variety that Lenin himself denounced as an 'infantile delusion'. This is just a hunch of course. I don't get the feeling that he was that politically oriented anyway."
The sort of "Communism" Lenin denounced in this way - between denouncing everyone who ever disagreed with anything he said - was basically that of the extremist Proletkult. Shostakovich is well known to have despised the Proletkult as a pack of cultureless numbskulls. Leaving aside the ludicrous idea that the composer could ever have sympathised with such a rabble, how does Mr Parrish propose to square this strange suggestion with his other "hunch" - that Shostakovich was "not that politically oriented anyway"? The two statements are flagrantly incompatible. Indeed, only someone who knew very little about Soviet political history would make such remarks. Suffice it to say that much the same goes for Mr Parrish's incautious and simplistic subsequent observations concerning Shostakovich's relationship with the Soviet regime. (I will expand on this if asked to.)

(5) Mr Berry perorates:

"I believe Shostakovich's political views were fully formed by the mid-30's, but for substantial personal reasons - most notably, his devotion to his children - he compromised them throughout the '40's and '50's. His self-condemnation for these compromises is unusually harsh."
Unfortunately he neglects to say what he thinks these political views were. One might assume that he here follows The New Shostakovich in dating the beginning of the composer's systematic dissidence to circa 1936 (with a great deal of discontent and individualist sarcasm during the preceding ten years). However Mr Berry's inclination to hear the finale of the Fifth as conformist scuppers this deduction. Perhaps he hasn't thought about any of this very seriously, done no research of his own, spoken to no Russians who might be able to help him out of his confusions?

(6) Mr Berry concedes that I am right to say that Shostakovich was "influenced by the political horrors he lived through". However, his assertion that the ideas proposed in 1989 in The New Shostakovich are "truistic" is curious. If he would care to say where, apart from in Testimony (then routinely dismissed by Western critics as "spurious"), he can discover anything else in this vein in the English Shostakovich literature before, say, 1993-4, I'd be interested to learn of it.

(7) Mr Parrish concludes: "Shostakovich's political views at any stage of his life may be interesting to talk about, may even shed some light on why he wrote what he did. But it is fundamentally irrelevent, because music ought to stand alone as music, regardless of any public or secret programmatic themes." Mr Berry, too, pledges his allegiance to this view: "I think that, in in interpreting Shostakovich's music predominantly as a political reaction to events, (MacDonald) does a disservice both to the man and the composer."

Instead of responding immediately to these (all too familiar) sentiments, I suggest that these gentlemen read my essay Universal Because Specific. There they will find a prècis of my views on this subject. If they are still bemused by what I mean after they have read this, or wish to take issue with anything contained therein, I will presently reply to them at length on this page.

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