A reply to Frank Dudley Berry
on "vector biography"

Posted in alt.fan.shostakovich
on July 6th 1995

by Ian MacDonald

Mr Berry's rejoinder to my remarks is the most substantial and well-written contribution I've seen in alt.fan.shostakovich. That contributors should begin to expand on what they feel can only be beneficial, whatever one may think of their opinions. It's good to talk, as we say in the UK.

My position is that there are no experts on Shostakovich, but that there are relative degrees of incomprehension concerning him. Mr Berry should not wonder that he is called upon to justify his observations. It doesn't matter who has written a book or who simply listens and enjoys. What matters very much is that we should speak and think responsibly when serious issues are at stake. It is a little-recognised fact that most of what is said in the West about Shostakovich is scandalously irresponsible, being based on no understanding of (nor any apparent interest in) the Soviet background. The hopeful purpose of this Web-site is, in small ways, to alleviate that situation.

Mr Berry's theory of "vector biography" is valid, there being two main classes of such work: the Hatchet-job and the Hagiography (together constituting the entirety of official Soviet literature). As for local examples, Margaret Thatcher's autobiography qualifies in that she likes to represent herself as superhumanly consistent, correct, and in control at all times. On the other hand, hers is a genuine example of a personality and life which, with its monomaniacal political ambition, fundamentally contradicts Mr Berry's model of universal chance and improvisation. The same, indeed, would have to be said of Lenin and Stalin, and, to a greater or lesser extent, of almost all authoritarian political figures. In the same way, most artists sense early in their lives what they are and bend all their energies to realising their gifts in the form of a career. In other words, the proportion of muddled chance-grabbing to calculated planning in a human life varies according to the individual.

Is The New Shostakovich an example of "vector biography"? The consensus of reviewers when the book appeared was the opposite. It was seen as a fair balancing of the issues in the light of what was then (1989) known about Shostakovich's life and the socio-political context within which it was led. Indeed, some readers of DSCH thought I had shilly-shallied unnecessarily, overdoing my cautious equivocations in the first half of the book.

As for Russian reaction, this was uniformly friendly. Maxim Shostakovich spoke warmly to me about the book; the conductor Semyon Bychkov assured me that my evocation of the Soviet background and my assessment of Shostakovich's manoeuvrings within this milieu were accurate; the critic Andrei Navrozov wrote that The New Shostakovich was "a formal lesson to Western writers on post-1917 Russia, whether their subject is music or life itself"; and Vladimir Ashkenazy, who himself suffered at the hands of the KGB, enthused that "My views are identical with MacDonald's views! He really understands what happened, and he says what I said and what Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya said, and what Maxim said in the end. That's where the truth lies."

Mr Berry dismisses this sort of endorsement as intrinsically suspicious in that little of the sort was said by the Russian musical community prior to the fall of Communism in 1991. I will return to this point later. For now I should just like to point out that the view of Shostakovich and his interaction with Soviet culture which I put forward in my book is by no means isolated or idiosyncratic. Most Continental critics, quite independently, hold similar views. Furthermore, the same outlook has been broadly expressed by Kurt Sanderling, Daniel Zhitomirsky, Kyril Kondrashin, Lev Lebedinsky, Irina Shostakovich, Sofia Khentova, Yuri Temirkanov, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Rudolf Barshai, Rostislav Dubinsky, Marina Sabynina, Israel Nestyev, Vera Volkova, and Lev Mazel. If The New Shostakovich is truly "vector biography", it follows a vector emulated by a surprising number of other commentators. But let us look at Mr Berry's contentions in more detail.

(1) Mr Berry writes:

"In MacDonald's view, Shostakovich was an anti-Communist from the earliest days of his life, his career can be satisfactorily [accounted for] in those terms, and - most distressing of all - the musical content of many of his major works can be adequately described in terms of political reaction. This is a reductionism that only serves to trivialize a great composer and an inordinately complicated man."

It is untrue that I claim in The New Shostakovich that the composer was an anti-Communist from the earliest days of his life. What I actually say is that it is legitimate, arguing from correlations between music and background, to suggest that his lack of sympathy with Communism was lifelong. However, I did not espouse this position in 1989; nor do I now. Furthermore I've never argued that Shostakovich was a lifelong anti-Communist, which is crucially different from proposing that he never had an active sympathy for Communism.

For the record, I believe Shostakovich became actively anti-Communist in 1936-7, partly because of being "unpersoned" after the Pravda attacks and partly because of his experience of the Great Terror (with a particular focus on the Tukhachevsky affair). I believed this in 1989 and attempted to convey as much in The New Shostakovich. As for the composer's earlier career, I proposed a complex view in which what eventually became active anti-Communism gradually evolved under the pressure of circumstances. Now that Elizabeth Wilson has published the testimonies of her various witnesses to this period of the composer's life, it has become more than legitimate to suggest that Shostakovich's lack of sympathy with Communism was lifelong; this has, in fact, become a probability. However, whether this means we can now backdate his transition to active anti-Communism to earlier than 1936-7 remains dubious. On the basis of correlations between the composer's music and its background, I would not argue this, though others might.

I have never suggested that Shostakovich's career can be satisfactorily accounted for in terms of viewing him as an anti-Communist (whether lifelong or converted in 1936-7), nor that the musical content of many of his major works can be adequately described in terms of "political reaction". What I do argue is that to leave this dimension of his mind out of critical consideration of his music is to distort the meaning of the latter so catastrophically as to vitiate further judgements made on the basis of such an exclusion. All the Russians listed above, and many of those quoted by Elizabeth Wilson, share this view (a fact which I discuss, along with its implications for modern Western music theory, in "Writing About Shostakovich", an essay to be anthologised later this year).

There is, in other words, no "reductionism" entailed here; on the contrary: an expansion of the usual, narrowly aesthetic, basis for judging music. (Again, I urge Mr Berry to read my essay Universal Because Specific, where these issues are dealt with.) Trivialising Shostakovich begins when we attempt to leave the politics out of his music, as many aesthetically-based critics now do (having earlier been perfectly happy to treat him as a Communist). To ignore the politics is to eliminate the moral dimension from his art. The morality of art was central to him - and it is only when one fails to grasp this that he appears "inordinately complicated". Western observers, failing to understand the Soviet background, invariably project complications on Shostakovich which are in fact mainly complications arising from the socio-political context in which he lived and worked.

Free speech and going about unfraid of being suddenly arrested is something we in the West are so used to that it is difficult for us to identify with Shostakovich's predicament. It is because they shared this predicament, and the fear it engendered, that so many Russians hear in Shostakovich's music an evocation of experiences which they, like he, endured under Soviet Communism. Their life of whispered dissent and coded exchange needs to be understood and imagined by a Westerner before he or she can empathise with it enough to form a judgement on (for example) how "complicated" a man like Shostakovich really was. Interviewed by DSCH in 1992, Vladimir Ashkenazy was asked if he agreed that Shostakovich was an impenetrable enigma. He replied:

'Not, not at all. In fact, to call him an enigma, if I may say so, is if anything to simplify the issue... It is very hard for you to conceive how it was to be living in the former Soviet Union. A nightmare, really. You can become schizophrenic in the sense that you try to retain your "inner world" somehow and yet, in public, you have to be someone else. You can't really be yourself, you can't speak your mind... So therefore just to put a stamp on Shostakovich as an enigma is simplifying the thing... He knew, I'm sure, that if he wrote The Song of the Forests and the Eleventh and Twelfth symphonies that he'd be able to do his own job, so to speak: "Why don't I write it. I'll pay them off! Then I can write the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth." But it's not an enigma!'

I submit that far from portraying Shostakovich as a lifelong anti-Communist and claiming that everything he ever wrote was conditioned by this, The New Shostakovich is the first attempt by a Western writer to get across to a Western audience the complexity of Shostakovich's situation under Soviet rule and the forces acting upon his art at any given juncture in his life. Not to have been systematic in pursuing this would have been spineless. The context of Shostakovich's life was consistently harsh, almost entirely because he lived in a totalitarian Communist state. Though he varied his idioms and moods with virtuosity, he had little scope for indulging inconsistency in his formative outlook since the influences which shaped this were unbendingly hostile to him.

(2) Mr Berry writes:

'DSCH was the scion of a liberal Russian family, opposed to the Czar; one would expect that the family would greet the Revolution with at least guarded enthusiasm of not outright rejoicing. The privations endured directly after the Great War and the early 20's were usually blamed on the West and counter-revolutionaries - not wholly without cause. The onset of totalitarianism came very gradually during the last years of Lenin and the early, consolidating years of Stalin.'

All "liberal" families were opposed to the Tsar, this being the definition of their liberalism. Shostakovich's family were unusual neither in this nor in being "apolitical" (according to his sister Zoya) during the early years of a revolution hijacked by a band of extremists at war with every other political faction in Russia. However, if Shostakovich (as Boris Lossky claims) wrote a piece against the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, this sharpens his family's liberalism to something equivalent to Gorky's critical view of Lenin's regime as expressed in his Untimely Thoughts. (It also makes it likely, as I suggested in The New Shostakovich, that the composer, as a child of this kind of family, was infected with a certain amount of anti-Communism by the suppression - by his future ally Tukhachevsky - of the Kronstadt Uprising in 1921.)

As for greeting "the (October) Revolution" with "outright rejoicing", this will raise a smile from anyone who knows anything about 1917. The October coup, which ended a period of democratic freedom and plunged Russia into totalitarianism, was, at the time, a farcical scuffle applauded by nobody apart from Lenin's followers and the disaffected sailors and soldiers who sided with them.

The "privations" which Russia thereupon endured (including the loss of twenty-three million of its citizens between 1917 and 1922), far from imposed by the West, were mainly inflicted by Lenin in his zeal to enforce "the cruellest revolutionary terror" (sic). Bourgeois families who had the ill luck to encounter Lenin's Cheka had no illusions that the "privations" they suffered were wreaked on them by Western imperialists. Totalitarianism arrived with Lenin and was imposed by him immediately with all its trappings: suppression of opposition, concentration camps, the resumption at high intensity of capital punishment, a policy of "extermination" directed against the middleclass, and an astoundingly stupid civil war against the peasants which matched Stalin's in bloodiness.

I don't know where Mr Berry gets his history from (the back of a cornflakes packet?), but he really should try to catch up with contemporary scholarship. (He might care to begin with Richard Pipes' Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, Dmitri Volkogonov's Lenin: Life and Legacy, and Vladimir Zazubrin's story "The Chip", printed in Oleg Chukhontsev's Dissonant Voices.)

(3) Mr Berry writes:

'The relationship of DSCH to the Soviet state did not evolve as a continuum. There was a major break - the pre "Muddle Instead of Music" period and the post "Muddle Instead of Music" period. As difficult as it seems to imagine now, there was a day, as real as this one, when the editorial had not been written, when DSCH may even have looked forward to Stalin's reaction and built expectations upon it. (Consider how different his life would have been if Stalin had liked Lady Macbeth. But no such parallel universe exists in MacDonald's view. DSCH had been set on his course from day one.) What a fool he must have looked to himself afterward! What an idiot!'

More interesting than Mr Berry's surrealistic misrepresentation of my argument is his intriguingly private view of Soviet history, apparently dreamt up by him one afternoon in the bath. The idea that, by 1936, any artist, however stupid - and Shostakovich was, according to his closest friends, really rather clever - could possibly have looked forward to Stalin's reaction to anything, let alone built expectations upon it, is laughable. (Perhaps this is actually one of Mr Berry's jokes?)

The prevailing Western understanding of Shostakovich's life - based on an obsolete received idea of what was going on in the USSR in 1936 - is that everything changed for him overnight following the Pravda attacks. Before then (so it is vaguely assumed), he had been happily trolling along, either swallowing Communism without question or taking no notice of politics, being basically just a normal chap who happened to write symphonies and operas. One of my critics has accused me of ignoring the possibility that Shostakovich had a "real" life, distinct from his career as a persecuted genius. And of course he did. However, to understand what that might have been like, we need to get in closer and build a real, detailed, and practical understanding of Soviet society.

For example, it is commonplace in the West to speak of Russia in the '20s as a place where art flourished, fraternal freedom reigned, and people continually tossed their hats in the air singing "Ho!" for the revolution. But when we focus more closely - year by year, month by month - a different picture emerges: a society shaken by a political cataclysm that killed a third of its adult males in the three years after the Bolshevik coup; a middleclass so badly persecuted by Lenin that, whether or not it wished to co-operate with the new dispensation, it was fundamentally afraid to do so; a cultural scene more violently divided against itself than at any other time in Soviet history; a febrile economy in which interludes of ghastly hardship were punctuated by outbreaks of freemarket plenty accompanied by gangsterism of exactly the sort we currently see in Yeltsin's Russia; and, most disquieting of all, an intensifying and pervasive pressure from above to divest oneself of individuality (conscience and all) in the interests of the holy collective.

If we read the literature of this time, we discover that disenchantment, doubt, unrest, even at times rebellion, were endemic thoughout Soviet society. The image of hearty revolutionary unanimity projected on '20s Russia by Western Romantics was, from the beginning, a childish simplification, if not a downright lie. (Those looking for a clue to the flavour of late '20s life in urban Russia should ask their librarian to dig up Panteleimon Romanov's novel Three Pairs of Silk Stockings [Comrade Kislyakov]. Anatoli Rybakov's Children of the Arbat and Fear provide a similar - if deduced rather than lived - "street-level" guide to the same scene in the '30s.)

In Chapter 2 of The New Shostakovich, I went to some lengths to evoke the socio-cultural complexity of the late '20s and early '30s. Moreover, I introduced the subject of the Cultural Revolution of 1929-32, a tumultuous era of leftwing tyranny in which Stalin's proletkult proxies relentlessly persecuted (among many other leading cultural figures) Shostakovich, driving several of his major works out of the theatre and threatening him with dire consequences if he did not change his style and conform, as all of his colleagues had. Mr Berry is, sadly, not alone in ignoring this savage premonition of 1936 and the effect it is likely to have had in shaping Shostakovich's sentiments towards the political system of the country he was living in. I suppose it's easy to overlook events that took only two or three years to evolve in a foreign land a long time ago. Perhaps future generations will similarly forget what happened during 1966-68 in Mao's China.

Yet, in order to cling to the worn idea of the great 1936 watershed - prior to which Shostakovich was supposedly a merry innocent and after which he was apparently either traumatised or deeply confused - Mr Berry must studiously ignore not only the Cultural Revolution but also the attacks on Shostakovich at the Composers' Union in 1935 (which may have partially inspired the Fourth Symphony), not to mention the growing evidence that Shostakovich was politically independent (i.e., not a Communist) throughout the middle '20s.Yet to Mr Berry, it's a black and white issue. I can hear Solomon Volkov's voice: "Westerners are so naive." (He often includes me, btw.)

As for failing to consider a parallel universe in which Shostakovich was never censured in 1936 because, for some reason, Stalin turned out to be an awfully nice man, I can assure Mr Berry that I often brood on it with some feeling and have even written about it. The operas he might have given us! (The happiness he might have experienced.) Yes, it was a great pity. But it didn't happen.

(4) Mr Berry writes:

'In wondering about the truthfulness of his description of the meaning of the Fifth Symphony's finale, I am only suggesting that ordinary human motivation of day-to-day living by a man who was not blessed with precognition may have had more to do than he was willing to admit later. In 1937, he could hope to recover his artistic stature (and freedom) with one masterstroke. He could thereby protect himself personally, and provide for his child.'

Put yourself in Shostakovich's shoes, Mr Berry. It is 1937. You do not officially exist, have had an opera and a ballet banned, a symphony tacitly forbidden, and you're not being performed anywhere except by cinema orchestras. You live in daily dread of being executed, have just been interrogated by the secret police about your flagrant connection with an enemy of the people, and sit up all night beside a suitcase stuffed with clothes appropriate for wear in Siberia. A light goes on in your head: 'I shall write something that will recover my artistic stature and freedom with one masterstroke, thereby protecting myself personally and providing for my child.' What do you do?

It is all very simple, as the newspapers keep telling you. You must write a 'song-symphony', eulogising Lenin and Stalin (and perhaps the NKVD too, if you can manage to squeeze them in). This work should be in three movements of about twelve minutes each and, like Lev Knipper's Fourth Symphony, should feature a popular tune, suitable for mass-singing, which recurs as often as possible. The last five minutes should be choral, positive, and hugely heroic. You should on no account use minor keys and certainly not stray into a melancholy mood unless this is attached to some inscription lamenting the Illustrious Dead of Our Glorious Revolution. Should this be how you fill out your middle movement, be careful not to upset your audience too much. In particular do not make them cry, since, under Soviet rule, this is classified as the bourgeois indulgence of "tragic individualism". Nor should you make them applaud too long, since prolonged ovations are meant to be awarded only to Stalin and will tend to make the secret police in your audience suspicious.

In other words, the very last thing you should consider doing is to write Shostakovich's Fifth in D minor. Unless, of course, being in a strange mood of almost suicidal clarity, you absolutely have to. In which case, the audience's endless ovation (and possibly the will of God) will save you.

Does that get the point across, or does Mr Berry wish to view the signed execution orders?

(5) Mr Berry writes:

'One of the primary sources of the bitterness and depression of Shostakovich's last years, lived in the utter stagnation of the Brezhnev era, was the recognition that all this compromise was in vain.'

This curious sentence depends on the assumption that Shostakovich had any choice other than to "compromise". In fact, he did have another choice - the one made by Meyerhold, Tsvetayeva, and Mandelstam: naively place your principles before your life and the lives of those who love you, and be brutally done away with. If Shostakovich was bitter it wasn't about the "compromises" he had to make but about the scum who forced him to make them (and the obtuse foreigners who, from a safe distance, ticked him off for doing so). Quite simply, Mr Berry is wildly wrong in his interpretation.

(6) Mr Berry writes:

'If there is cause to wonder about Shostakovich's later interpretation of the Fifth, the recasting of the Seventh is a proposition so counterintuitive that it has to be treated with extreme skepticism.'

If there is a lesson from what has been said here so far, I would have thought that it would be something along the lines of "In the case of the Soviet Union, intuition, unsupported by any knowledge of context, should be treated with extreme scepticism". But be that as it may...

Mr Berry doesn't give the composer credit for what he thought he was doing in his Seventh Symphony, even in a private conversation only months after finishing it. I expected this, and, as I foresaw, there's nothing I can do about it. Semyon Bychkov may find "utterly convincing" the idea that the Seventh was anti-Stalinist before it became anti-Nazi; Mr Berry is just as convinced of the opposite. Is this a stand-off? Mr Bychkov is a Russian, a conductor, and a musician who knows the Leningrad scene well. I leave others to decide. Lev Lebedinsky, who was close to Shostakovich during the '50s and was first to reveal the background to the Eighth Quartet, holds that the Seventh Symphony was "planned and begun before Hitler's attack on Russia in 1941":

'The tune of the notorious march in the first movement was conceived by Shostakovich as the "Stalin" theme (all who were close to the composer knew this). After the war had started, Shostakovich declared it to be the "Hitler" theme. Later, when the work was published, he renamed it the "Evil" theme - justly, since both Hitler and Stalin met the specification.'

The leading musicologist Lev Mazel weighs the issue as follows:

'Naturally, until 1941, Shostakovich's notions concerning Stalin's criminality were far more complete, concrete, and personally experienced than any crimes committed by Hitler. However, by 1941, Hitler had had sufficient time to prove himself and, knowing Shostakovich's feelings about racism and anti-Semitism, it is more than probable that he came to think of the two dictators as "partners in evil" (even more so after they'd become allies in 1939). If, therefore, the invasion theme had initially been inspired by Stalin, the artist's subconscious can almost certainly be said to have harboured Hitler's image as well.'

Will Mr Berry settle for that? Or does intuition reign supreme, unguided by fact or probability? I imagine it probably it does...

(7) Mr Berry writes:

'I must comment on MacDonald's use of sources. One does not have to be a scholar to note that the present day situation of what used to be the Soviet Union is much like Nazi Germany in 1950 in one important respect. Now that the regime has collapsed, it turns out that not only aren't there any more Communists, there never were any to begin with. Disavowal is the order of the day, and everyone has his own story of private resistance... The point is that the non-contemporaneous statements collected by Wilson and others have to be examined very critically at this (1995) point in time. As the life of DSCH, recounted, is beginning to take on heroic aspects, the motivation to magnify that perspective grows as does the tendency to minimize the others. The provenance of statements that enhance the image of Shostakovich must be examined carefully, and particularly those that suggest some immunity of his to the prevailing temper of his times. This is the problem with using statements made decades after the fact, to "prove" that DSCH's also belated statements represent the one and only truth.'

This is the nub of it: where Frank Dudley Berry, eloquent as he is, reveals that, like every other Westerner who hasn't troubled to study this subject, he fundamentally fails to understand it.

He speaks of Shostakovich's alleged "immunity to the prevailing temper of his time". I will ask him bluntly: what prevailing temper was that, Frank? Are you aware of the way Soviet intellectuals talked to each other, how they wrote, the attitudes they held? Do you honestly believe that there was any such thing as a "prevailing temper" in a country like the Soviet Union (a place Ashkenazy - who only knew it in the '50s and '60s - describes as "a nightmare, really")? If you do believe in this great sentiment to which all acceded, then I sincerely urge you to cure yourself of this delusion by reading some of the books I list in the bibliography of The New Shostakovich. Spend some time with them; let it sink in. (Try The Gulag Archipelago - all three volumes. Read it twice, if you can spare the time. Take a look at Mikhail Heller's Cogs in the Soviet Wheel. Read, in particular, Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind. Ponder the Rumanian dissident saying: "One cannot be honest, intelligent, and a Communist. One may be any two of these, but not all three.")

It took me ten years of study to understand the Soviet background, but maybe you'll master it in five. When you begin to understand it, you'll realise that anything said or written by Russians since 1990 is immeasureably more dependable than anything they may have been obliged to say while the system was still in place. (Another aspect of The New Shostakovich I humbly put forward as important is that it was the first book to puncture the idea that we can take at face value anything about music said or written under official Soviet sponsorship. This, I hasten to add, wasn't news to students of Soviet literature, who remain decades ahead of musicologists in this respect.)

If Shostakovich is assuming heroic dimensions, that is probably because he WAS a hero in his way. Certainly those in the Russian musical community who, from the war onwards, clustered protectively around him, are unanimous in regarding him not only as a genius but as a moral giant and an instinctive resister of everything violating the canons of human decency. Mr Berry will wonder whether they always thought this or are now merely pretending to have done. He wonders this, I would like in all friendliness to suggest, because he lacks the feel for the subject that study and conversation with people from Russia and Eastern Europe would confer. There are no short cuts to this, but if he hasn't read Rostislav Dubinsky's Stormy Applause, a racy evocation of life as a musician under the former Soviet dispensation, he will, I'm sure, find it illuminating.

(8) Mr Berry concludes:

'Anything like a good Shostakovich biography has yet to be written. Perhaps Ian MacDonald will be the man to write it.'

I wrote The New Shostakovich as a study of what then was the problem of writing a Shostakovich biography. My publishers called it a biography; I didn't. Those who know enough to judge it are aware of its value; those who don't aren't. It is a flawed book, certainly, but I would submit that its flaws are enormously outweighed by its virtues. (I offer this opinion, you understand, in a spirit of magnificent objectivity.)

As for my ability to write the sort of Shostakovich biography we all now await, i.e., the real thing, I must be more realistic. I'm not qualified. In fact, I'm not sure any one human ever will be. Shostakovich's ideal biographer must thoroughly know not only classical music but also Russian popular, revolutionary, and folk music. (All the worthwhile Russian authorities insist that Shostakovich's music is a collage of quotation and cross-reference, much of this referring to specifically Russian sources.). In addition, this paragon will need to know Russian and Soviet literature and drama, be completely versed in Soviet politico-cultural history, and be blessed with both a supreme aesthetic sensitivity and the spiritual insight of an advanced yogi.

All non-Russian commentators can do at the moment is consolidate and publicise what we know (as I'm trying to do here) whilst waiting for new in-depth studies to emerge from Russia. This could take years. Meanwhile we tread water, bickering on the Internet... (But thanks for writing.)

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