A Manual for Beginners
Since the English-language controversy about Shostakovich has recently won notoriety in the national presses of the USA, Canada, and Britain -- a notoriety often badly researched and faultily reported -- it seems timely to offer an introduction to the main lines of the debate.
The Shostakovich debate, which concerns the interpretation of the composer's life and music, is, broadly speaking, conducted between two opposing sides: revisionists and anti-revisionists. Anti-revisionists are sometimes referred to by revisionists as "Taruskinites", an allusion to leading anti-revisionist Richard Taruskin. Similarly, revisionists have been referred to by anti-revisionists as "Volkovists", an allusion to Solomon Volkov, whose book Testimony -- presented as Shostakovich's authentic memoirs but disputed as such by anti-revisionists -- constitutes one of the main bones of contention in the debate. (Revisionists see the question of Testimony as a sub-issue within the larger argument.) There are also shades of opinion between revisionism and anti-revisionism. Some participants argue for a "balanced" point of view between the opposing positions. Revisionists, though, maintain that such claims, far from balanced, are instead "pseudo-centric".
What do these terms mean and what do they stand for? Answering this requires a brief summary of the issues. A Chronology of the main events and statements in the evolution of the debate is provided for further clarification.
Shostakovich, as of 1975
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) lived for all but the first eleven years of his life under the communist system of the Soviet Union. As such, he was seen by the outside world as the regime's musical laureate -- a composer who wrote music for Soviet public celebrations and in honour of important events in Soviet history, as well as for films which conveyed a Soviet point of view (including depictions of Stalin in heroic terms). Lavishly honoured by the Soviet system, Shostakovich held several public offices and, in 1960, joined the Communist Party. Many articles expressing views commensurate with those of the Soviet state appeared over his signature in Soviet publications during his life. He often read official speeches at Soviet cultural occasions and never expressed public disagreement with the Soviet system. On two occasions, however -- in 1936 and in 1948 -- he was publicly, and severely, reprimanded for failing to supply what was demanded of him as a Soviet composer. Through collaboration with the anti-establishment poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko during the early 1960s, Shostakovich expressed a critical attitude towards some aspects of the Soviet system in his Thirteenth Symphony. It was also discovered in 1989 that he had composed a secret satire on the events surrounding his public censure in 1948: Rayok, subtitled "A Manual for Beginners". When Shostakovich died in 1975, he was hailed in both the USSR and the free world as a great Soviet composer, his belief in communism being scarcely doubted. His works were understood as written either in explicit solidarity with the Soviet system or as "pure music" (i.e., without symbolic ["extra-musical"] references, beyond the usual emotional and intellectual concerns routinely ascribed to less "political" composers).
The Testimony affair: a question of "authenticity"
Although it was possible to maintain a quite different view of Shostakovich even in 1975, a major shift in the Western view of the composer did not begin until four years later when Harper & Row published Testimony, the memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Shostakovich, it seemed, had dictated the contents of this book to Volkov, a young music journalist from Leningrad, during the early 1970s. The book was then smuggled out to the USA, translated into English, and published in 1979. Testimony was received with considerable excitement in both the West and the USSR. Depicting Shostakovich as scathing about Stalinism, as cynical about the Soviet system in general, and as claiming that many of his supposedly "pure" compositions contained covert musical symbols of dissent, the book revised his perceived image overnight. Some compared its impact on the musical world with that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago on the general audience. (Testimony has, till the present , not been published in Russian.)
A backlash followed. Within a month of publication (October 1979), Testimony was repudiated by the Soviet authorities as "a lie from beginning to end". This opened a sustained Soviet campaign against the book which included a denunciation of Testimony by the composer's son Maxim (then living with his family in the USSR). More damaging was an essay by New York musicologist Laurel Fay, "Shostakovich verses Volkov: Whose Testimony?", which appeared in The Russian Review a year later. As well as making a number of factual criticisms of Testimony, Fay identified eight passages in the book which she asserted had been "plagiarised" by Volkov from previously published articles by Shostakovich. These passages all occurred at the beginning of chapters in the book -- the pages on which Shostakovich's standard inscription ("Chital. [Read.] -- D. Shostakovich) appear. These discoveries indicated a hoax. Because Volkov made no response to Fay, it became generally assumed that Testimony was, partially or wholly, fraudulent. One American musicologist, Malcolm Hamrick Brown, has since called Volkov "a liar" (Notes, 1994); another, Richard Taruskin, wrote "as any proper scholar could plainly see, the book was a fraud" (The New Republic, 1989). Consequently, the popular perception among journalists has been that Testimony is riddled with errors and almost entirely unreliable (e.g., Vulliamy, The Observer, 12/3/2000: "for the most part, spurious and full of plagiarisms"). The book has also been spoken of as a characteristically "propagandist" document of the Cold War.
This situation persisted until 1990 when Ian MacDonald published The New Shostakovich, a reassessment of Shostakovich's life and work within the context of Soviet history and culture. The author pointed out that the composer's son Maxim, now living in the West and free of Soviet pressure to maintain otherwise, had, in 1986, endorsed Testimony: "It's true. It's accurate... The basis of the book is correct." MacDonald further argued that a contextual approach to Shostakovich (until then largely neglected in Western studies of the composer) emphatically supported the essential authenticity of Testimony. He conceded, however, that Laurel Fay's criticisms rendered the book's claim to literal authenticity impossible to sustain: "Testimony is a realistic picture of Dmitri Shostakovich. It just isn't a genuine one."
No further change occurred until 1998 with the publication of Shostakovich Reconsidered by American musicologist Allan B. Ho and Russian concert pianist Dmitry Feofanov. Ho and Feofanov's book opened with a 300-page analysis of the case against Testimony, repudiating all charges of unreliable information and challenging Laurel Fay's accusation that the signed passages represented "plagiarism" by Volkov with fraudulent intent. Marshalling evidence from six leading experts on "superior memory", each of whom were prepared to attest that Shostakovich could have recycled this material from memory, the authors further pointed out that the book's first page, which contains unrecycled controversial material, was also signed by the composer. Ho and Feofanov went on to charge certain academics with "covering up" evidence and statements which support Testimony's authenticity. Their "case for the defence" in respect of Testimony was widely accepted as substantial, even by those previously sceptical about the book (including the British musicologist David Fanning).
In April 2000, Laurel Fay responded to Ho and Feofanov's criticisms of her 1980 essay on Testimony. For details, see Chronology Part 4.
The scope of the Shostakovich debate
A common misconception, even among some participants in the discussion, is that its subject is identical with the controversy over the "authenticity" of Testimony (e.g., the epithet "Volkovist", recently coined by the Canadian broadcaster Tamara Bernstein). In fact, the wider Shostakovich debate involves a general discussion about the composer's creative intentions and the meaning, if any, of his music. In this connection, wide differences of opinion continue to be voiced concerning Shostakovich's orientation within the politico-cultural context of the Soviet Union -- e.g., was he an earnest communist, a cowardly trimmer, a naive blunderer, or a secret dissident? Attached to these differences of opinion are comparably diverse verdicts on his moral stature in relation to his musical creativity and personal conduct.
In these respects, a more vital source for revisionists than Testimony is Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994), a monumental collection of statements about the composer by his Russian and East European contemporaries: family, friends, and colleagues. No one has so far disputed that Shostakovich: A Life Remembered paints a picture of Shostakovich and his context nearly identical to that given in Testimony (and also in Rostislav Dubinsky's memoir Stormy Applause). For this reason, as Ian MacDonald has argued, Wilson's book currently forms the evidential backbone of the revisionist case -- yet, unlike Testimony, it has never become a subject of debate. (It may be significant that anti-revisionists scarcely mention, let alone address, either Wilson's material or her revisionist linking narrative.)
Within the debate, eye-witness material such as that marshalled by Elizabeth Wilson -- material of a kind which has also appeared in other books, articles, and interviews -- is referred to as "small 't' testimony" in order to distinguish it from Solomon Volkov's Testimony.
Revisionism versus anti-revisionism
At its simplest, revisionism consists of the view that Shostakovich was, for much of his life, in conflict with the Soviet regime; and that, as such, his actions, creative and personal, betoken a man of considerable moral stature whose associated thoughts and feelings are tangible in his music, in ways both general and particular. (The particular instances of this orientation consist of a language of musical codes, many of which are already known and others of which are in the process of being discovered.) In this view of Shostakovich, the composer is often said to have been a "secret (or hidden) dissident" - i.e., a moral dissenter who differed from the paradigmatic Soviet dissidents of the 1960s in refraining from public verbal expressions of his dissent, confining this to his music. (Exceptions -- more or less explicit expressions of dissent -- can be found in Shostakovich's letters to Isaak Glikman, in several of his reported statements to friends and colleagues, and in the disputed memoir Testimony.) Anti-revisionists often accuse revisionists of adopting an "ideological" line on Shostakovich which mirrors that of the Soviet Union. Revisionists argue, on the contrary, that the debate is a question not of ideology but of morality.
At its simplest, anti-revisionism takes the form of several, not necessarily mutually exclusive, views of Shostakovich which stand opposed to the idea of him as a "secret dissident" resistant to the Soviet regime. Anti-revisionists see Shostakovich as a morally flawed man for whom Testimony (insofar as any of it can be trusted) represented an attempt to rewrite, and hence justify, an inglorious life. This life was either that of an earnest communist who never seriously questioned the Soviet system; a cowardly trimmer who conformed out of fear and self-seeking cynicism; or a naive blunderer who took on the false appearance of a secret dissident through farcical coincidence or as a result of over-interpretation by his contemporaries or those who came after him. For most anti-revisionists, speculation on the composer's outlook is bogus or irrelevant (although some hardline anti-revisionists remain convinced that he was an orthodox Communist and that "his" public statements are dependable evidence of this). Suggestions that Shostakovich's music contains hidden meanings is, generally, anathema to anti-revisionists, who concede with reluctance and aesthetic distaste any instances of this which cannot be definitely rejected.
How did the terms "revisionism" and "anti-revisionism" come about?
The term "revisionism" in Shostakovich studies was introduced by Ian MacDonald in The New Shostakovich in 1990 and confirmed from the opposing point of view by Richard Taruskin in his article "A Martyred Opera Reflects Its Abominable Time" in The New York Times (6th November 1994) and by Laurel Fay in her book Shostakovich: A Life (1999). The concept, subscribed to by most writers in the debate, is that the views ascribed to revisionism, as defined above, constitute a revision of the image of Shostakovich promulgated by the Soviet authorities (an image largely accepted by Western critics prior to the publication of Testimony in 1979). Some revisionists object to the term on the grounds that truth needs no revising (the truth, in their opinion, being congruent with the "revisionist" view). There is also an unfortunate derogatory association with Holocaust studies whereby the Nazis' genocidal treatment of European Jews is challenged or even denied by "revisionists". Similarly, revisionism in general Soviet studies often takes the form of attempts to "revise" (by way of minimising) the crimes of Stalinism or the culpability of Stalin, thereby creating a use of the term almost exactly opposite to its use in the Shostakovich debate. There seems little possibility of replacing the term "revisionism" as it has come to be used in Shostakovich studies over the last ten years; like its corollary "anti-revisionism", it is essentially a convenient label by which to identify a point of view.
The tone of the debate
It has become gospel among journalists covering the debate (and among certain of its participants) that it is uniquely acrimonious -- a slanging match which has "raged for twenty years" and in which spectacular insults are incessantly hurled from one side to the other. The truth is not so garish. Other debates in the musical world have been equally, if not more, heated. Recent instances include the controversies surrounding Wagner's aesthetics and Herbert Von Karajan's political affiliations. (Countless other examples, far exceeding the asperity of these modern cases, may be found in Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective.) Compared with contemporary controversies in other fields -- e.g., the argument concerning German culpability for the Holocaust, the battle between Creationists and Evolutionists in biology, the bitter wrangles over the legacies of Freud and Jung -- the Shostakovich debate is relatively temperate and sporadic.
Little in the way of exchange between revisionism and anti-revisionism took place until 1995, when David Fanning published (in Shostakovich Studies) an essay by the leading anti-revisionist Richard Taruskin entitled "Public lies and unspeakable truth: interpreting Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony". Arguing that to claim Shostakovich to have been "a dissident" amounts to "a self-gratifying anachronism", Taruskin asserted that Ian MacDonald's commentary on the Symphony in The New Shostakovich was "no honourable error" but instead "a vile trivialisation". MacDonald, contended Taruskin, used the critical methods of McCarthyism, wrote like the Soviet state prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky, and was "the very model of a Stalinist critic". Later in the same year, Taruskin's colleague Laurel Fay referred to The New Shostakovich as "a moronic tract".
Although these insults raised the temperature considerably, they remain the high-point of direct personal invective in the debate so far. MacDonald responded to Taruskin, Fay, and other anti-revisionists with corresponding sarcasm, but without name-calling. The same method was adopted by Ho and Feofanov in their book (1998) and anti-revisionists have, in the main, reciprocated. Most of the exchanges in the debate are about averagely acidulous for this sort of controversy, as the correspondence pages of any academic journal will confirm. Contrary to Ed Vulliamy (Observer, 12th March 2000) and Tamara Bernstein (National Post, 15th March 2000), only Richard Taruskin has used the epithet "Stalinist" against a debating partner (against Ian MacDonald in 1995 and Terry Teachout in 1999). Most revisionists would suggest that the ratio of invective to argument is higher on the anti-revisionist side, but such judgements depend very largely on where one happens to stand and most anti-revisionists would no doubt strongly deny this, contending that the exact opposite is the case.
Shostakovich, as of 2000
Reduced to its simplest elements, the Shostakovich debate is about the sort of man he was, and the kind of music which that sort of man can be reasonably be assumed to have written. In this regard, direct personal invective has begun to emerge again in recent written and spoken statements. This time, though, the target is the composer himself. As will be seen from the accompanying Chronology, anti-revisionists have been effectively attacking Shostakovich as a man -- and revisionists seeking to defend him -- for the last ten years.
Recently, with the appearance of Laurel Fay's biography Shostakovich: A Life, these opposing verdicts on the composer have sharpened up. Writing in The New York Times (6th February 2000), the music critic Joseph Horowitz called Shostakovich "a moral beacon" -- an assessment seconded in the DSCH-L discussion group by, among many others, Ian MacDonald and Martin Anderson, publisher of Ho and Feofanov's Shostakovich Reconsidered. In the same newspaper (5th March 2000), Richard Taruskin mocked this concept of Shostakovich, calling him "a fictional hero". Also in The New York Times (9th March 2000), the opera critic Bernard Holland accused the composer of cowardice, calling him "a mediocre human being" who "toadied and cringed before his Soviet bosses". Interviewed by Tamara Bernstein (National Post, 15th March 2000), Laurel Fay added to this chorus by dubbing Shostakovich "a wuss" (slang: wimp, wet, gutless wonder).
"A cult of thought-control"
Another recent developmen has been Richard Taruskin's assertion (New York Times, 5th March 2000) that revisionism constitutes "a clamorous cult of personality" around Shostakovich comparable with that which adhered around Stalin: "Like any such cult, the one around Shostakovich is an instrument of thought control. It fosters orthodoxy, enforces conformism and breeds intolerance of critical thinking." Tamara Bernstein, whose connections with Taruskin are a matter of public record, has joined him (National Post, 15th March 2000) in likewise denouncing revisionism as "a cult of fanatics", adding that "If you think this sounds silly and sophomoric, you're right".
This new polarisation opens room for a more substantial centrist position on Shostakovich in which it may be argued that current terms and stances are "too black-and-white" and that the truth is to be sought in a "balanced" position in between. Revisionists, however, regard such a position as a false ("pseudo-centric") compromise based on a refusal to confront the circumstances of Shostakovich's life. He was, they concede, as fearful as the majority of Soviet citizens; however, he was also, unlike many Soviet citizens, courageous in sticking to his moral principles in his work wherever he could. Revisionists insist that only deep contextual understanding can allow us to appreciate Shostakovich's qualities of heroism, which are of a kind not readily understood by people raised in a free society.
The broader perspective
The Shostakovich debate is, of course, not as simple as this brief outline may suggest. Many intricate arguments are entailed, much of this discussion focusing on several key compositions in Shostakovich's output and involving a large quantity of background material. Since the content of the Shostakovich debate requires much time and thought to absorb, it is not surprising that there is disagreement about it -- especially in the English-speaking world which, lacking experience of totalitarian rule, is often unaware of its own inherent uncertainty in coming to terms with the products of a society as foreign to it as the former USSR.
In this perspective, it is worth pointing out that "the Shostakovich debate" is very much an English-language phenomenon. No such controversy, for example, exists in either France or Poland where, for many years, Shostakovich has been seen either as insignificant compared with Western modernists (Stravinsky, the Second Viennese School, and the serialists of the 1950s and 1960s) or as a "communist composer" whose music, through its apparent conformity with Soviet politico-aesthetic canons, is intrinsically shoddy. By challenging the second of these assumptions, the publication of Testimony in these countries reawoke interest in Shostakovich during the 1980s and 1990s; however, owing to the continuing national musicological preferences for Western modernism, this new interest failed to ignite a revival comparable to that seen in Britain and America in the same period. Doubts over the literal authenticity of Testimony do not, in France or Poland, outweigh the view that the image of Shostakovich conveyed in the book is true to life. In Poland, which shared the system under which Shostakovich lived, this image of the composer is regarded as unsurprising and is consequently not questioned in any fundamental way. Musicologists in France and Poland are more or less oblivious of the Testimony controversy as it exists in Britain and America.
In Germany, which has long held Shostakovich's music in respectful esteem, the contextual approach is well established in musicology, where the preponderance is decisively revisionist. Only one German musicologist (Friedbert Streller) can be described as anti-revisionist; the rest are either neutral specialists in technical and documentary analysis, or contextual scholars with revisionist views of Shostakovich (e.g., Detlef Gojowy, Sigrid Neef, Hilmar Schmalenberg, Frank Schneider, Michael Koball). As in France and Poland, the matter of the literal authenticity of Testimony counts for little in Germany, where the view of Shostakovich conveyed in its pages is consonant with the view of the composer held by most musicians and musicologists. Essentially pragmatically investigative, German Shostakovich scholarship eschews the questions at issue in the UK/USA debate, which, in effect, it regards as either already answered or of no serious significance.
No active equivalent of the Shostakovich debate exists in Russia. Aside from surving close members of the composer's inner circle (and even including some of these), Testimony is known in Russia almost entirely through hearsay. Among such close associates, the view of Shostakovich is generally commensurate with that given in Testimony, although a distinction is often made between the essential veracity of the picture of Shostakovich given in Testimony and the literal authenticity of the book as presented by Solomon Volkov. Aside from Tikhon Khrennikov, the only figure from Shostakovich's former circle to reject "the Testimony view" of Shostakovich was Yuri Levitin. Like the composer Boris Tishchenko and archivist Manashir Yakubov, the composer's third wife Irina is highly critical of both Volkov and Testimony, but does not on principle reject the book's dissident picture. (The International Shostakovich Association, of which Irina is Vice President, holds a view of Shostakovich practically indistinguishable from that conveyed in Testimony itself.) Sofiya Khentova stays aloof from any controversy, as does Galina Ustvolskaya. In the wider musical establishment, more diverse opinions hold sway, including a strain of denying conservatism which has yet to come to terms with the post-Soviet situation. Owing to the systematic Soviet suppression of independent research, knowledge of Soviet-era cultural history, especially among the young in Russia, tends to be superficial or anecdotal.
The challenge of revisionism
The revisionist view of Shostakovich poses several fundamental conceptual challenges to those who take a different view. Apart from the ongoing controversy surrounding Testimony, it is these conceptual challenges, and the various reactions to them, which fuel the debate.
The first such challenge is to classical music's sense of self-sufficiency. A view is often expressed that music should be detachable from history and fully understandable without contexual exegesis. The editor of a British review magazine recently put this position as follows: "Several of Shostakovich's works are brimming with musical codes and enigmas. But should we care? Shostakovich's genius is such that he communicates at all levels. Is our appreciation of Mozart or Shakespeare diminished by the fact that we know so little about their lives?" Many anti-revisionists would agree with this view; indeed, for some, it may be said to define the extent of their anti-revisionism.
Revisionists argue that such thinking is empty. What, they ask, does it mean to claim that Shostakovich communicates "at all levels" or (as BBC Radio 3 Controller Nicholas Kenyon puts it) "suggests an infinite number of possibilities at once"? Is any "statement" by Mozart and Shakespeare interpretable in an infinite number of different ways -- or is the possible range of meaning in such statements constrained by conventions of style and content? Revisionists argue that invocations of infinite levels of interpretation are mere intellectual evasions. As for whether our understanding of Mozart or Shakespeare is diminished by our lack of biographical data about them, we could only answer this question if we possessed the information we presently lack. Without this information, we cannot know what we are missing and thus cannot say whether its absence diminishes our understanding (of Mozart, Shakespeare, or anyone else). Only contextualism -- of the kind which, for the last thirty years, has been standard in all academic fields (except modern musicology) -- can offer appropriate answers.
The suggestion that we may fully appreciate Shostakovich without knowledge of his context carries two implications: (1) that artistic appreciation, contrary to the invocation of infinite "possibilities" or endless "levels", may be finite; (2) that context is a detachable adjunct to the work of art, which should be considered purely subjectively, as if beyond time and place. Revisionism argues that, since we grow and change (and since what we know about a work of art inescapably modifies our view of it), artistic appreciation can never be finite; instead, we are always in a developing relationship with any work of art, as we are with life. Since art is part of life, context cannot be detached from the art born within it (this being the theoretical basis of all contextual historical investigation into the intentions supposedly expressed by artists in their works, and the ways in which these intentions have been interpreted by their audiences ["reception theory"].)
The challenge posed to the individual's subjective response by contextualised art is especially sharp in Shostakovich's case, since, owing to the peculiarities of his context, his music is uniquely confrontational. Listeners preferring the subjective purview of infinite interpretive possibilities have an additional reason to ward off claims that Shostakovich's work contains messages of uncomfortable specificity: such messages, being upsetting, are disruptive to subjective pleasure. As Solomon Volkov has suggested, Shostakovich's music makes one think, not of oneself, but of other people -- and many resent this. Paul Epstein's revisionist booklet for the Emerson Quartet's Shostakovich cycle crystallises this challenge and it will be interesting to see how critics and listeners react to so explicitly "unsubjective" an interpretation.
Beyond these tough challenges to our listening habits, Shostakovich's music poses an equally stark challenge to modern musicology, which, since around 1950, has been more or less exclusively score-centred and structurally analytical. Much of the disquiet caused among Western musicologists by the Shostakovich debate appears to stem from resentment of resurgent contextual issues which mid-20th century musical developments sought to transcend. Few academic specialists in modern music find it easy to accept the possibility that questions of history, politics, biography, and ethics may have to be reintroduced into the study of music because of what we are discovering about Shostakovich.
Given the increasing polarisation of the debate (and the new developments in the rhetorical overtones of anti-revisionism noted above), there seems little prospect of any cessation in the English-language "war" over the interpretation of Shostakovich and his music. To the extent that this debate can be said to obscure understanding of his music, its continuation is regrettable; yet there are real issues at stake in this discussion, and the debate has shed far more light on the composer's life and work than heat or smoke. In order to get a clearer idea of these issues, newcomers are advised to consult the accompanying Chronology of the Debate, which contains much potted comment from statements made during the last twenty or so years, as well as links to over a dozen texts available at this site (and other websites as well).