Ian MacDonald speaks (Summer 1998).
It's ten years since The New Shostakovich was published. What are your thoughts?
I hope we're all grown-up enough now to see things clearly for what they are. Of course, there'll always be diehards who refuse to face the truth and prefer their prejudice to the actualité about Shostakovich. The types who complain about "counter-intuitive" concepts but know nothing and won't educate themselves. The ones who invoke Shostakovich's alleged reverence for revolutionary myth and blather about Marxist principles as if they knew the faintest thing about them. Meanwhile the rest of us can get on with the fascinating task of documenting the "new" Shostakovich in detail. One thing we must start on is a Shostakovich Concordance: an index-database of all the musical cross-references, quotations, parodies, codes, and recurrent motifs--further cross-referencing that to the work of his contemporaries, such as Vainberg, and to Soviet history. That'll take another decade, as will the definitive biography.
Are you a candidate for that?
Well, I pointed out quite a few musical cross-references in The New Shostakovich which no one had noticed before and no one has looked at since. There are more like that. But as for a definitive biography, that's a committee job. There are so many specialisations involved. Shostakovich's work emerged from probably the most eventful period of history any composer ever had the misfortune to live through. The Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." He was involved in so many things, knew so many people from different occupational backgrounds, lived in a vast society with a huge historical dramatis personae. It's an epic, it really is. The New Shostakovich is just a preliminary sketch, although it's still the only game in town in the sense of both setting up a framework and getting in deep. Of course, some will balk at that statement, but the fact is that they really don't know what it is I'm claiming. I'd like to read you a couple of sentences from a review of The New Shostakovich by the emigré scholar Andrei Navrozov in July 1990: "Ian MacDonald is reckless enough to append a postscript to his book entitled 'Stalinism and Nineteen Eighty-four'. Such prodigality is evidence of total immersion in the subject, and without it any study of the artist's life under totalitarianism is hopelessly superficial and ultimately false. That The New Shostakovich is the best biography of the composer available is less important than the fact that Mr MacDonald has broken new ground by fusing biography with political analysis." That's an expert on Soviet culture speaking. What he's essentially saying is what Ashkenazy says in the "Overture" to Shostakovich Reconsidered: that just rushing in and learning a line of historical facts won't give you a reliable handle on the subject. You need to get down into it: live with it. I've often said that no one who hasn't read The Gulag Archipelago should write about Shostakovich, but even that's just a start. One can tell from the things even interested people say that they're on the surface of the subject, on the outside. To get a truly reliable line on his world, you have to really sink into it. You can't just read a couple of history books, that only gives the framework. You need to feel you're almost living in that world, to know it that intricately. So I'd now add that no one who hasn't read Nadezhda Mandelstam's books, too, and followed up all the clues and cross-references they contain, can truly claim to be "immersed" in this subject in the way that Navrozov and Ashkenazy urge.--And that really is crucial to understanding the tiniest thing about it. In short, the road to the definitive Shostakovich biography is as deep as it's broad and long.
But how can ordinary listeners be expected to cope with that depth of research?
I'm not talking about ordinary listeners. I'm talking about people who plan to write about Shostakovich--people who want to interpret Shostakovich for the rest of us. Though, of course, ordinary listeners can follow that road, too, if they wish. I did.
You've attacked Laurel Fay for her historical claims about From Jewish Folk Poetry, yet, in The New Shostakovich, you accepted her claims about Testimony--claims which Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov have since vigorously contested.
Someone else once put the same point to me. "Why," they asked me, "didn't you put a team of researchers onto this and solve the question before you wrote your book?" The answer is that I had a short deadline and an advance so tiny that I couldn't afford to stop doing journalism and other work while I was writing the book, let alone hire anyone else to work for me. In fact, I did my own picture research, paid the picture fees, and did the layout and captions for the book's picture section at the publisher. Plus I paid out of my own pocket for permissions to quote published materials. The book was a labour of love done in my spare time, often at weekends between sessions in a recording studio. It took Allan and Dmitry six years to research and compile their case against Fay. From commissioning to return of final proofs, my book took just eighteen months. I trust that answers the question.
How much have you co-operated with Solomon Volkov?
If you mean "connived" with, not at all. I didn't speak to him until after my book was published, and I can tell you he was not best pleased with my acceptance of Fay's "exposé". If you mean how much have I "communicated" with him, I can tell you that we write to each other a couple of times a year and have had two or three phone conversations. Solomon agrees with some parts of what I write, disagrees with other parts. The trouble is, he never tells me which is which! He's very cynical about the West's naivety towards the USSR. He even calls me "naive" from time to time. He's pretty tough--but he's had to be. By the way, there's lots more he knows concerning Shostakovich that isn't in Testimony, including things about certain stories in the book. One, in particular, is quite shocking, but I'm not going to tell you, so don't ask.
Talking of cryptic references, who is D. S. Korotchenko, the dedicatee of the piece you wrote with Dmitry Feofanov about anti-communism in the Glikman letters?
Look at the end of the second list of Soviet apparatchiki in the Odessa letter. Faceless yes-men like D. S. Korotchenko came and went regularly in the Soviet government, sometimes disappearing for reasons of state beyond the compass of ordinary mortals to comprehend, i.e., they were dragged off and shot. Korotchenko was promoted to the Politburo while Shostakovich was in Odessa, writing to Glikman. It's a typical touch of Shostakovichian verisimilitude. See? Universal because specific. [Laughs.]
How closely did you work with Ho and Feofanov on Shostakovich Reconsidered?
I helped. It's their book. Long, isn't it? Here and there, though, there are places that are a bit short. It would be very valuable to have the comrades' opinion on this.
Joking aside, are you pleased with it?
It does the job. Flattens the anti-revisionists. Drives a tank through Fay's "scholarship", exposes Taruskin for the blustering fraud he is, sticks up for the man they travesty. Yes, it worked out well. Hats off to Martin Anderson for rescuing it.
Didn't the original publisher bail out?
Bottled out. As did every other publisher Allan and Dmitry tried it on. Only Martin had the balls. He was a vital member of the team and I'm sure we're all grateful for his editorial tolerance and easygoing attitude. Just kidding.
The book extensively attacks academics like Richard Taruskin, Laurel Fay, Malcolm Hamrick Brown, Christopher Norris, David Fanning, and so forth, in connection with Testimony. And you personally have been attacking them for years in DSCH. Why? Surely the music is more important than pursuing these ad hominem tiffs?
Well, for a start they've attacked me extensively and continue to do so--and, what's more, often in very insulting ad hominem terms, if we must use that weaseling academic formula, which seems to be trundled out like a piece of stage scenery for them to hide behind whenever their own personal attacks get turned back at them. The situation is that, in my book, I threw down a gauntlet to the Western academic community by proposing a paradigm-shift in Shostakovich studies. They came back at me, as they're entitled to, and we've been at it ever since. It's not up to me to call a halt. Real issues are involved--and, besides, the paradigm-shift hasn't gone through yet for the simple reason that the other side is holding it back. In any case, others are now involved on "my" side of the debate, most notably Allan and Dmitry. And, of course, Solomon Volkov is still around and may yet come out and join in the fight. When perspectives in any given subject are shifting like this, individual viewpoints have to be voiced and voiced clearly--which usually means robustly. I don't mind Richard Taruskin calling me a Stalinist or a McCarthyite. It makes me laugh. He says more about himself there than about me. But ultimately neither of us matters. Only the truth matters, and the truth in this case logically entails a paradigm-shift.
Of course, the debate may never be resolved.
It's already resolved, actually. It's mainly a question of people waking up to that.
Assuming that's true, how long do you expect this process to take?
Another ten years at least. After all, at the moment most folk in the West who are interested in this subject still don't understand the issues. Even, or rather especially, the leading academic anti-revisionists don't understand the issues. And they're so egoistically committed to their positions that they'll never try to learn more about these issues, just go on defensively reiterating their prejudices. It'll take a whole new generation of musicologists to grow up and replace them before the new paradigm is finally established. That's always the way it is in situations like this, even in the hard sciences. The old guard can't adapt but won't abdicate, so much of the changeover process amounts to simply waiting for them to die out. The rest, though, consists of exposing the indefensibility of their position in order to hasten things through. This is what I do, and what Allan and Dmitry have done in their work on Testimony.
Isn't it arrogant to claim that your opponents don't understand the issues?
This affair entails historical facts. We've shown, over and over again, that the other side doesn't know the facts. But that's just the beginning. Even when they do know the facts, they're unable to interpret them correctly because they're unfamiliar with the background. Worse, some of the more self-admiring among them are under a delusion that, on the contrary, they are familiar with the background, which makes their pronouncements about it even more pernicious.
Your conviction about the importance of the Stalinist background isn't shared by many Shostakovich fans, who maintain that the music should speak for itself.
They don't understand the background either--but there's no reason to expect them to, so there's no blame. As for whether music should "speak for itself", as they say, that's another issue. But I want to go back to the academic anti-revisionists, who do have a responsibility to know the facts. When I think of these people, I get a Chagall-like image of men and women floating dreamily about, a few feet off the ground, in effect talking in their sleep. Though they're supposed to be experts in their subject, which one would have thought entailed being in touch with the realities of Soviet history and cultural life, they don't grasp the most basic things about it. Look at their assumptions. Laurel Fay thinks Pravda will tell her the truth about Stalin's policies on the Soviet nationalities. Eric Roseberry imagines that Shostakovich could have come out at the première of the Fifth Symphony and told his audience it contained a hidden agenda. They're intelligent people, but they're living in cloud cuckoo land. Unlike the usual figures in Chagall pictures, their feet aren't off the ground because they're dreaming but--how shall I put this?--because they're held up in mid-air by bunches of faded balloons they're clinging to. These are their tired illusions about the USSR. Until those illusions are punctured, they'll never get down to earth--and without getting down to earth they'll never begin to understand what Shostakovich and others like him had to live through. The only way to puncture those illusions is to set about disillusioning oneself, educating oneself--by reading, reflecting, talking to people who actually know something about it. In The New Shostakovich, I quote George Jonas's preface to Sandor Kopacsi's account of the Hungarian Uprising where he says that it's "next to fraudulent" to hold any opinions about the nature of the Soviet system without knowing certain facts--and that this knowledge can either be acquired through first-hand experience or, less painfully, by reading a dozen or so seminal books. That happens to be true and it's a pity that those who take so angrily against The New Shostakovich were unable to focus sufficiently on what it says to absorb that passage, among many other similar passages.
How can you be so sure your opponents haven't read these seminal books?
It's manifestly obvious they haven't. Taruskin alludes to a few of these titles in his usual dismissive way, but he clearly hasn't read any of them. If he had, his general tone would be very different--more chastened, more circumspect--and his grasp of the facts would be far tighter. And he'd never do anything as flagrantly daft as claim that revisionism is "as destructive of values" as Stalinism--which, among other things, is what he says in Fanning's Shostakovich Studies. That really is a give-away.
That's a very sweeping judgement, surely? Taruskin is an established authority.
Not on everything. Perhaps he's infallible on Glinka, Mussorgsky, and Stravinsky--I wouldn't know. But I do know about the Soviet context and take it from me: he doesn't. But don't take my word for it if you think I'm biased. Vladimir Ashkenazy not only thinks the anti-revisionists are ignorant about the Soviet background, but actually uses the phrase "agents of influence of the USSR". Solomon Volkov says the same about them--thinks they're more or less puppets of the KGB. Rodion Shchedrin told Martin Anderson [the publisher of Shostakovich Reconsidered] that the anti-revisionists "know nothing" about the Soviet background. I corresponded with Robert Conquest about this sort of Western academic ignorance. His exact words were: "idiocy and misrepresentation". Oh and he gave Shostakovich Reconsidered the thumbs-up: "I never doubted that Testimony was authentic." If you want an "established authority", who better than Robert Conquest? And Harold Shukman, head of the Russian and East European Centre in Oxford, was amazed at Laurel Fay's article on From Jewish Folk Poetry. It may be hard to accept, but it's true. The anti-revisionists just don't know. They simply make it up as they potter along.
But what difference does it make?
The obvious example is the Fifth Symphony. If you don't know anything about what was going on outside the concert hall in the USSR while it was being written--for example, Shaporina's diary--you won't have the option of deciding whether that background relates in some way to the music. While reading the Shostakovich literature in preparation for my book, I found not one statement that 1937, when the Fifth was written, was also the peak of the Great Terror.--Total silence about it. In fact, there was almost no correlation between Shostakovich's output and the Soviet background in anything published in English about him, either in book form or in reviews. Mostly it was just the usual tosh about him being "bewildered" at the 1948 congress--that was about it. Now if, on the other hand, you do know something about what was going on outside the concert hall at any given time, you gain all sorts of perceptions about the music. For instance, I saw that the Eighth Quartet was about Shostakovich being forced to become a communist. That was confirmed after my book came out. And there are other comparable "test-cases" in The New Shostakovich--the guess about the Twelfth Symphony, for instance. What sort of difference does it make? That sort.
If you had to defend The New Shostakovich, what would you pick out about it?
Well, it was the first book to set Shostakovich systematically in Soviet context. The historical narrative which Elizabeth Wilson uses to link her witnesses' testimonies in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is quite precisely prefigured in my book. If she worked that out without reading The New Shostakovich--and she told Allan Ho she hasn't--then that makes our concurrence on this narrative impressive. The New Shostakovich, though, goes a lot further than her in characterising the context and suggesting an intellectual apparatus for assessing it. That stuff was missed by hostile reviewers and was consequently overlooked even by friendly readers. Contemporary writers on Shostakovich would save themselves a lot of unnecessary blundering about if they read those passages with a little more care. And there are still swathes of factual material which no one else has taken on board, let alone looked at in a different way--the stuff about the Cultural Revolution in Chapter 2, for instance. But the most significant new thing The New Shostakovich did was to propose that Shostakovich's musical language, rather than representing his "traits" or nervous habits, is actually quite calculated and purposive: that intention has to be taken into consideration here, that his apparent simplicities and naiveties and crudities have to be heard as various sorts of assumed "tones of voice"--and that his more complex music is a guarantee of the controlled intelligence this would call for. This argument had to be set within a sustained case for his moral anti-communism, which was the final point of it all: the motive driving this very knowing, very calculated musical expression. And that in turn required provisionally vindicating Testimony. QED.
You say in The New Shostakovich that "Testimony is a realistic picture of Dmitri Shostakovich--it just isn't a genuine one". Do you stand by that?
No. Allan [Ho] and Dmitry [Feofanov] have blown that one to smithereens.
You accept their verdict that Testimony is authentic?
They've destroyed Fay's case against it. Many people have seen the manuscript. Nina Bouis confirms there's nothing suspect about it in terms of different typefaces. It's all one source--not a mixture of old pages and new ones. And Shostakovich signed it. As Galina says, he would never have signed anything that big without reading it.
You're convinced about their argument on the question of the signed pages?
Well, think it through. Suppose Volkov had wanted to cheat, he could have typed up copies of the eight articles, taken them to Shostakovich, and said "These are to be anthologised, I've retyped them, please check them and initial them". Shostakovich says "OK, I sign anything put in front of me, here's my signature". Leave aside what Irina and Tishchenko say about Volkov never being close to Shostakovich. Perhaps he didn't have to be close to Shostakovich to get away with it--just some guy from Sovetskaya Muzyka who Shostakovich wanted to get out of his hair. Leave aside Tishchenko's further claim that Shostakovich was so suspicious of Volkov that he asked him [Tishchenko] to be present at their meeting, their "one" meeting. Perhaps Shostakovich couldn't see, even though he suspected something, that there was an ulterior motive behind this guy asking him to sign these articles. It's stretching it to breaking point, but let's just suppose Shostakovich was suspicious yet also trusting enough to believe the cunning Volkov. Volkov goes away with the signed pages he needs, throws away the unsigned pages, and types in hundreds of pages he makes up himself. Meanwhile he's telling Drubachevskaya and Dubinsky and Lubotsky and Korev that he's interviewing Shostakovich who's "telling all". This is to lend an air of verisimilitude to his cunning forgery. Leave aside the risk of exposure this would entail--that, at any minute, Shostakovich might hear of this and say "What? This is a lie, Volkov must be faking my memoirs!" After all Volkov only has to keep this fiction going for four or five years. Leave aside, too, that Irina knew of the work on the memoirs, as she told VAAP in 1978. Perhaps she heard the story going around and she believed it, but luckily never asked her husband about it, thus alerting him to the forgery. Wildly unlikely? Leave it aside. Even leave aside Litvinova's story that Shostakovich told her that this young Leningrad musicologist was recording his memoirs. Perhaps she's in Volkov's pay--part of the plot. What I want to know is where Volkov got the signatures on the two signed pages that weren't from articles. In particular the one about the "mountains of corpses". Leave aside that it was, as Ho and Feofanov point out, too inflammatory to have escaped the Soviet censor. Where did Volkov get it? Shostakovich wrote "Read" on it. Did he sign it without looking at it? Well, perhaps he did--but what an insane risk Volkov must have run at that moment. What if Shostakovich had glanced at that first sentence: "These are not memoirs about myself." "Memoirs? Myself? What the hell is this, Mr Volkov?" I mean, it's like a scene from a Hitchcock thriller, isn't it? The suspense! If Solomon Volkov pulled that off, he deserves an Oscar, let alone the Nobel Prize for forgery. If, on the other hand, Shostakovich was engaged with Volkov specifically on a memoir project--and how else can one explain the signed frontispiece of Testimony?--then he would have read everything very carefully indeed before signing it, including the page with the "mountains of corpses". Here it is: "Others will write about us. And naturally they'll lie through their teeth--but that's their business. One must speak the truth about the past or not at all. It's very hard to reminisce and it's worth doing only in the name of truth. Looking back, I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses. And I do not wish to build new Potemkin villages on those ruins. Let's try to tell only the truth." He must have read that. It's radical stuff. In fact, it's exactly the sort of opening page one would expect for a radical book like Testimony--not for a few anodyne recollections of some famous people he'd once known, conveyed to a man he scarcely knew over the course of a couple of interviews.--And he signed it.
So you'll change what you originally wrote if you revise The New Shostakovich?
I say as much in Shostakovich Reconsidered. Yes, I will.
Change it to what?
Something similar to what I say in Shostakovich Reconsidered. I'll try to revise The New Shostakovich soon. My publisher, Cape, wants it but it needs a lot of updating.
What about the disputed musical codes--the two-versus-three stuff and so on?
I'll supply an annexe of musical examples this time. Stiffen it up. Make it clearer.
You've been severely criticised for all that.
Some say those codes are too simple. But they'd have to be in order to be audible to a lay audience. We know Shostakovich was no snob, wanted to reach ordinary people, be understood by them. Whenever possible, he preferred foreign language recitals of his vocal music to be done in translation so people could get it viscerally rather than sit there with their heads buried in the score or a lyric sheet. In any case, such very simple material was used in just this way by Soviet composers. Alexander Ivashkin says as much. I quote: "Symbolism of the simplest kind... An interval, sound, or rhythm became a symbol which the listener could identify." Not that different from Beethoven, is it? And then other critics say my way of talking about the music is too detailed. "Absurdly detailed", one or two have said. But that's silly for two reasons. First, musicologists habitually discuss music in even finer detail, the only difference being that their detail is usually purely formal, while mine includes meaning. All they're really saying is that they're used to listening to music as form rather than as meaning. It's never occurred to them to listen for meaning at that level of intensity because they've been educated to regard what they vaguely refer to as the "extra-musical" in very generalised terms--this movement is sombre in mood, this theme is the hero, and so on. Plus, of course, they accept all this passively from writers just like them. So meaning, for them, has to be advertised on the packet. If the composer didn't actually spell out the programme, there's no programme--that sort of thing.
And the second reason?
The second reason is that so many composers have written music with such highly detailed meaning. Most 20th century ballet scores, for example. Strauss's tone poems. Almost all of opera... I gather a leading St Petersburg musicologist called Rein Laul has written about the middle symphonies in a way quite similar to mine. I've yet to read this, but Dmitry [Feofanov] told me Solomon [Volkov] says "It's just like Ian!" See, Shostakovich wanted to get to his listeners directly. From the heart to the heart, as Beethoven said--who, please note, called himself a tone-poet. As Shostakovich puts it in Testimony: "So what if I inform you that in my Eighth Symphony, in the fourth movement, in the fourth variation, in measures four through seven, the theme is harmonized with seven descending minor triads? Who cares?" What he means is that, yes, he's in total technical control, but it's the meaning that matters.
Going back to The New Shostakovich, what about the musical judgements that annoyed some readers--the section on the Preludes and Fugues, for example?
I'll change what I wrote about Opus 87. That was the only thing I regretted about the book at the time--its miserly verdict on the Preludes and Fugues. The galling thing was that I'd been quite possessively into those pieces since 1980, having then bought Nikolayeva's 1962 set on Melodiya, the best of her three versions. And just after The New Shostakovich appeared, her third version, the one on Hyperion, came out and all these critics, who in my view knew nothing about Shostakovich, went ape about it when, in fact, it was relatively disappointing as a performance and rather poorly recorded. If they'd known about Nikolayeva's 1962 version, or even the second one she did in 1987, they wouldn't have gone over the top like that. But, of course, they didn't know about those recordings and thought the Hyperion set was the first time she'd ever done them all together. And that meant, of course, that they'd probably never heard Opus 87 before, so those rave reviews were as much for the music as for the playing. They discovered the Preludes and Fugues as a complete work through that issue. And there was I, who'd been listening to the complete cycle for ten years by then, saying in The New Shostakovich that it wasn't that great. Very annoying.
So why did you say that?
I had a sort of deal with myself to be authentic: to say what I thought at the time of writing. I was unwell while doing the book and was afraid I'd die before I finished it. You have to remember, too, that the USSR was still firmly in place then, so for all I knew, if I didn't weigh in on the side of Testimony no one else would and things would never change in terms of the way Westerners heard Shostakovich. So I was writing under a lot of personal pressure, worried every day that I wouldn't be there the next day to go on with it and that my mission wouldn't be accomplished. This put me into a very "existential" frame of mind and I decided I had to be true to my feelings about each piece of music as I reviewed it when it came to writing about it... and I guess I wasn't feeling too bright when it came to reviewing Opus 87. At any rate, it evidently didn't seem great to me that day, so that's what I said. Big mistake. There you go--how books get written. Or how books get written under pressure.
Was that pressure mainly intellectual or emotional? Were you out to prove a point or did you feel a need to say what you experienced in the music?
Both. Intellectually, I knew for certain that almost everything being written or said about Shostakovich during the late 1980s was hideously wrong. In particular, the disdainfully dismissive attitude to Testimony which was fashionable then. I knew someone had to weigh in and expose the twits who were coming out with this crap, and eventually I realised it would have to be me, since no one else seemed to have the combined interest in the music and the historical context. But the pressure was also emotional. Once I started to get to grips with what Shostakovich was really about--which was in 1978-9, after reading The Gulag Archipelago and before I'd even heard of Testimony--I began to find much of his music enormously upsetting. Before then, when I'd been listening only to the surface of the music without realising it, I'd been moved and thrilled by it, but never devastated, never broken up by it. Once the context began to come into focus behind the surface, I was regularly in tears listening to Shostakovich. I remember once being very distraught after a great performance of the Fourth Symphony at the Festival Hall--yet the audience was full of appalled Mozartians muttering "What is this awful chaotic racket?" Total incomprehension. They were on the outside, I was on the inside. I hope there are more "insiders" in the West nowadays. Because we should be shaken up by a piece like the Fourth Symphony, or we aren't truly alive.
How do you respond to anti-revisionist views of works like the Fourth Symphony?
Well, most anti-revisionists don't seem to feel that strongly about Shostakovich's music. In fact, some of them--Fay, Taruskin--actually seem to dislike it. Others, though, are, I'm sure, thrilled and moved by it in their private way. But not shattered by it, not changed by it. Not that I can detect, anyway.
You seem to have a chip on your shoulder about academics.
Not in the least. Most of the ones I know are genial types and interesting company. Some are very nice people indeed--fully-rounded human beings who just happen to spend their lives on campus, which is to say not quite in the real world. But there are also lots of emotionally stunted academics, extremely clever people who never really grew up--just went from being coddled children to being coddled professors, rarely if ever stepping outside some form of educational institution. And it's that sort that becomes the classic "gowned fool", as Norman Lebrecht recently referred to them vis-à-vis Shostakovich Reconsidered--the high-table prattler who thinks it vulgar to commit to a definite judgement. It reminds me of one of Ronald Searle's schoolmaster caricatures in Down With Skool! This character's chortling: "And when I asked him the supine stem of confiteor the fool didn't know!" Laughing aside, one might point out that it's one thing to know the supine stem of confiteor or, say, to be equipped to apply Schenkerian analytical marks to an orchestral score, but it's an entirely different matter to know how a police state works. The latter sort of knowledge depends at least as much on knowing life on the streets as of knowing certain books in the college library. What's more, there's a big difference between being cautious or sceptical because there's good reason to be, and being cautious or sceptical because you don't actually know much about a particular aspect of a subject.
You mean the academic reluctance to concede anything definite about Shostakovich beyond the music--
Beyond the score, I'd say. The music is more than the score.
OK, beyond the score. You're saying this reluctance is glorified incomprehension?
Precisely. But the strange thing is how incautious academic musicologists can be in venturing opinions on contextual issues--as if history can be understood in a glance and that their superficial views on it are somehow valid and to be taken seriously. Fay and Taruskin are obvious examples. Norris is another one, with his absolutely naive assertion that if Russia hadn't succumbed to the Bolsheviks, it would have reverted to a "minimally liberalised Tsarist autocracy". How can you write on the "politics of culture" if you don't know any political history? It's unreal, a lot of what goes on in academia. A game--and a jealous, mean-minded game at that. It's all about reputations and tenures and getting published and how many monographs one has on one's curriculum vitae. Not about truth.
Do you hate Taruskin?
Give me a break. I don't even hate Stalin, who was a mass-murdering sadist. Why waste one's spirit on hatred? If Taruskin turned round tomorrow and said "Okay, I admit it, I was wrong about Shostakovich, let's forget what I've said", I'd be the first to shake his hand. As I say, neither he nor I, nor any of the rest of us bickering here in the echo of Shostakovich's life, ultimately matter a damn. Only the truth matters. Hating people must be very tiring, very hard to keep up. Life's hard enough as it is.
So you don't write Taruskin off entirely? He could still redeem himself?
Well, I'm no great believer in porcine aviation, if that's what you're asking. But, in theory, yes. If he could ever come to distinguish the truth, let alone tell it, he's got all the technical qualifications. But that's not nearly enough. After all, he's hardly the world's most sympathetic man and you do need some insight, some delicacy, in this subject.--And, of course, some historical comprehension, some sort of basic feel for the background. For instance, David Fanning's always writing about Shostakovich's supposed iconoclastic delight in sabotaging musical conventions--sending things up, "circumventing Soviet taboos", and so on--in his music of the late Twenties and early Thirties. "Delight" is a word Fanning keeps returning to, as if Shostakovich never stopped laughing in those days. In fact, that time--the Soviet Cultural Revolution--was horribly oppressive and sinister. A lot of Shostakovich's works were banned then. Russian music was in deep crisis. Boris Pilnyak told Victor Serge around 1930 that there wasn't single thinking adult in the country who hadn't considered that he might get shot. I think we can call Shostakovich a thinking adult. See, it's that sort of thing--the seizing on contingent details or foreground elements at the expense of any grasp of the deeper background--that compromises everything the anti-revisionists write when they leave off talking purely about the scores. How can they change that? By stopping and doing the research. Yet even if they decided to do it, and I don't believe they will, it'll take them years, mainly because it's an extremely slippery subject. But without that research, all their "background" will be shallow, naive, or just plain wrong. They're in a serious fix.
So you think it's black and white--there's absolutely nothing of value the anti-revisionists can tell us about Shostakovich?
They can tell us things of value and have done so--but chiefly by accident, or when they're off their hobbyhorses about Testimony, or are temporarily conceding that Shostakovich might have had a bit of trouble with the Soviet authorities now and then. As for the rest, every tiny decision they make about how to "read" this bar or that motif is completely perverted and compromised by their ignorance of the context. I might add that, so far as I know, there are no anti-revisionists in mainland Europe. I guess they understand enough about living under totalitarianism to grasp the truth of the music. German musicology includes many academics who lived in the former DDR. Anti-revisionism is an Anglo-American problem--a problem of political naivety.
But elsewhere you've said that the issue is moral not political.
I mean that Anglo-American musicologists never lived in a politically repressive society, and that's the difference between them and their colleagues in continental Europe. In effect, they don't have the background to understand the background. But then many of them can't even think straight. Intellectual standards in academia are starting to disintegrate quite badly if Taruskin's peers can't discern the glaring logical inconsistencies in his writings on Shostakovich, let alone the misinterpretations and the general postmodern pretentiousness. They all talk like that now, of course.
You can't accuse Laurel Fay of that.
True. When she's operating as a nose-to-the-grindstone scholar, as in her piece on Lady Macbeth in Shostakovich Studies, she's thoroughly efficient, even if the results are innately dull. Away from the drudgery, though, she's hopelessly unreliable--and there she has lots in common with Taruskin, in that they're both effectively deaf. They can read the music, but they can't hear it.
Surely there's room for different ways of hearing the music?
That doesn't stop some of them being wrong. Fay's view of Shostakovich as a man is fundamentally wrong. And ultimately that must derive from the way she hears, or rather doesn't hear, the music. She's the classic "stupid Shostakovich" theorist. She hears the "crudity" as straightforward crudity. No irony--or at least nowhere near the amount of irony that's actually there in the music. Which is why, I suppose, she refuses to take any notice of what Shostakovich's friends say about him. Were they to tell her--as they almost all would--that Shostakovich was just about the most ironic man they ever met, it would blow her theory of him. She wouldn't be able to write articles claiming he was so stupid that he didn't notice official Soviet anti-semitism before November 1948, even though most of his close friends were Jewish and he had some of the best-placed politico-cultural contacts of anyone in the USSR.
Has Fay responded to your criticisms of her piece on From Jewish Folk Poetry?
No, and I can't see how she can. Look, I respect her "up close" scholarship. She does the work, even though her judgements about it are often skewed. What she has to understand is that, without a knowledge of the background which she plainly lacks, she has no right to move from the clerical level to making general deductions about Shostakovich and his relationship with the Soviet state. As that piece demonstrates, she doesn't have a clue beyond the immediate detail. There's no way to avoid this, it's a matter of record. All that matters now is that she's honest enough to take it on board. Is she? I doubt it. Her prejudices are too deeply rooted. She really does think Shostakovich was dumb--it's the only way to justify what she's written about him. So she spins things to fit. In her Lady Macbeth piece, she quotes Shostakovich from a letter he wrote to Balanchivadze in 1936: "I am slow-witted and very honest in my work." Certainly sounds dumb, doesn't it? But what Shostakovich wrote is: "Ya ved' tiazhelodum i ochen' chesten v svoem tvorchestve". Literally: "I'm a ponderous thinker and very honest in my art." It's a paraphrase of his motto "Thinking slowly, writing fast". In other words, he's concerned with the integrity--interesting word--of his music. But, given the Soviet context, where one often had to lie in order to survive, "honest" isn't a sharp enough translation. "Scrupulous" or "conscientious" would be more faithful to the sense. He means he wants his music to be completely under his control in terms not only of technique but also of meaning. Which is why the process of composition, which he mostly carried out in his head, was a slow, or "ponderous", one... followed by an unusually rapid process of simply writing it down, or, in effect, transcribing it. But Fay wants him to be a bewildered blunderer, so she makes him say he's "slow-witted and very honest"--insinuating "dumb and guileless". This is straightforward misrepresentation and it just won't wash. If we couldn't already tell this from Shostakovich's music, let alone from Testimony, we have all those witnesses in Elizabeth Wilson's book assuring us how extremely intelligent he was. It beats me why Wilson is so impressed by Fay. Like Taruskin, Fay goes out of her way to treat Shostakovich: A Life Remembered as if it doesn't exist.
But Fay's done a great deal of primary research of her own. It's a fair presumption that she must have good reasons for making these judgements about Shostakovich.
Presumably she imagines that the views of Shostakovich's friends are politically distorted--that they've all lied about him in order to make him retrospectively into something he wasn't. I guess that's Taruskin's justification, too. But even allowing for the social acceptability of lying in Russian culture, it's still a mad theory. It would also have to apply across the board to all other Soviet artists whose friends have said similar things of them--and there are stacks of these. In any other circumstance, Fay and Taruskin would be obliged to justify such a far-fetched assumption by proving their case witness by witness. But neither of them--and [Malcolm Hamrick] Brown's another--have ever offered such a justification. What's all the more outlandish in Fay's case is that she quite explicitly refuses to allow her preconception of Shostakovich to be affected by contrary evidence. She's actually said, of Shostakovich's friends, that she doesn't want "to become compromised by having them tell me their stories and then being obliged somehow to retell them". Not only does she take no notice of those who actually knew Shostakovich, but she won't condescend to tell us why she regards herself as more reliable than them. A unique biographical method, so far as I know.
Where does she say this?
AMS national meeting, 1995. The cite's given in Shostakovich Reconsidered. And her attitude to Testimony is almost pathological. She calls it "the deathbed memoirs of a sick and embittered old man which poses only a very slight impediment, really nothing more than a nuisance". An "impediment" to what? To her prejudices about Shostakovich. She actually regards Testimony as an ignorable minor inconvenience to her own, hopelessly misconceived, picture of Shostakovich.--Which begs the question: who the hell does she think she is? I suppose we could ask her friends.--Fay thinks Shostakovich was an innocent abroad, stumbling into situations he had no reason to anticipate and, in any case, lacked the brain-power to grasp--the "stupid Shostakovich". But he wasn't stupid and he wasn't innocent. The 1936 affair may have been a local shock to him--to be personally denounced in Pravda would have shaken anyone--but that doesn't mean he was surprised in a more general way. We know that Tukhachevsky wasn't surprised when they came for him in 1937. He knew what was going on--what had been going on for years. The same was true of Shostakovich. He'd gone through the Cultural Revolution when he was attacked by the Proletkult/RAPM axis. He lived in Leningrad which had been hit by huge waves of intelligentsia arrests throughout 1935. Yet Fay claims there was "no reason to anticipate the coming catastrophe"--that no "specifically political motives could have preoccupied him" prior to the 1936 denunciation. You only have to listen to the Fourth Symphony to know that's false. But Fay can't hear it. As for Shostakovich staying innocent after 1936-7--innocent enough to have been shocked again in 1948 (twice!)--how can that be reconciled with the colleagues he lost during the Terror, with his relations who were arrested?
He does sound innocent in some of his letters of the time.
You'd prefer him to have sounded guilty? You have to realise how careful people--particularly important people--had to be in what they said, even in what seemed like private communications. Solzhenitsyn was sent to the camps for something he wrote in a letter. When Tatiana Okunyevskaya was interrogated, she found they'd been reading her letters for years. It happened all the time. Nineteen Eighty-four...
Prokofiev was innocent.
No, he wasn't. Read Daniel Jaffé's book, or my article Prokofiev, Prisoner of the State. Nor was Myaskovsky innocent. And especially not the generation born around 1930--Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Shchedrin, Denisov, and so on. By 1950, any Soviet intellectual who was still innocent really would have been stupid. Was the man who composed the Preludes and Fugues Opus 87 stupid?
It's possible to be very clever at one thing--particularly an intensively technical task like composing--and yet remain unworldly in other ways. Bruckner, for instance.
But if Shostakovich had been a Soviet Bruckner, don't you think his friends would have told us? And how could a Soviet Bruckner write Rayok--or any of the many manifestly satirical passages he wrote before and after Rayok? These things have to be seen in perspective. If not, one risks arriving at ludicrous misjudgements. For instance, Fay tries to extend the innocent stupidity she sees in Shostakovich to 1955-6--the first attempt to get Lady Macbeth revived. She suggests that his motive for making changes to the opera arose more from private concerns than from external considerations. But it's obvious he hoped the relative relaxation after Stalin's death might allow his banned work back into the repertoire. This isn't just my opinion--Krzysztof Meyer thinks so too, not that it's a controversial view. Fay suggests that Shostakovich tried to avoid confronting the authorities because all he really wanted was to change the "tasteless" bits he'd let through when he'd been a 25-year-old bad boy--not to push the opera against the will of the apparat. But we know he always avoided those people. If he was loath to press his case, it would have been for fear of having to endure "a pleasant chat" with officials. His reaction to the committee review was despair, not shock. He must have expected it all along, which is why he didn't want to take it to them to start with. Yet the first time Fay allows "her" Shostakovich to express a non-innocent, non-stupid attitude toward the Soviet regime is in the last bars of the 1963 version of the opera--in other words after the Thirteenth Symphony, which she clearly can't get round. It's worth quoting: "What it suggests strongly is that Shostakovich is explicitly identifying here with the Old Convict, appropriating his voice to convey his own misgivings about the all-too-real adversity and tragedy that exists outside the confines of the theatre." Finally! But Fay still makes sure it's generalised stuff about "the universality of suffering", nothing too cynically specific. Because, otherwise, bang goes her prized prejudice about him. [For more on Fay's interpretation of Shostakovich, see the review of her biography.]
Some will say all this is too black and white.
No doubt. But those who now call revisionism "one-dimensional" used to subscribe to a truly crass one-dimensional view of Shostakovich from the opposite side. Once we realise the importance of the background--and the real nature of it--the logical course is to plot our way through the various possibilities, favouring the simplest, most commonsensical explanation for each set of events. If that story then makes sense overall, it's very likely to be the truth, especially if witnesses give accounts of Shostakovich which accord with it. The crucial point to grasp is that Shostakovich's actions and ostensible character only seem enigmatic when you don't understand the background. When you do understand that, he ceases to be an enigma.
Many DSCH readers still don't see what all this has to do with the music.
Well, both revisionists and anti-revisionists refer to context, so there's agreement that it bears on the music. Take David Fanning's interview with Rodion Shchedrin in Gramophone. Shchedrin got angry with Fanning for insinuating he has a "past" under the Soviet dispensation which he's anxious to deflect attention away from by justifying himself and talking up the horrors of Stalinism. Taruskin, Fay and Brown have made similar insinuations about Shostakovich. They think that's legitimate in theory, and I agree. It's how you do it in practice that counts. But those who see the music as identical with the score will regard all this, from either side, as irrelevant. What have the ethics, or the sex life, or the political beliefs of a composer to do with his scores? The answer is nothing, since nothing matters to the score but the score itself and other scores that bear on it in the same, limited, music-as-score way. But music is more than the score. The score is almost always only a detailed map of the music. It's the detail, the precision, the self-sufficient logic of the score which lead people to confuse the map with the landscape it represents. Neville Cardus said that to urge us to listen to music "qua music" is equivalent to urging a young lover "to look at a starlit sky qua astronomy, or at his beloved qua anatomy". In other words, music-as-score--or music-as-music, as the more confused would have it--omits the realm of expression. It's illogical to observe expression marks if you're a music-as-score buff because expression isn't there on paper like the notational hieroglyphs are. It's implied by the hieroglyphs. And the expression marks are there, as Mahler used to joke, only for those who need them: the literalists who find it hard to perceive that music is expression, not score--not formal relationship but implied meaning.
But some music--Bach, for instance--is pure formal relationship.
I'm afraid it isn't--for two linked reasons, one logical, the other contingent. The logical reason is that Bach designed his pieces. They didn't arise spontaneously from the laws of equal temperament. This process of design entailed many decisions--the decisions we call composition. And since these decisions were made by a human mind, the mathematical "purity" of those formal relationships is compromised. In fact, some would say it's this very violation of the purity of relationship in musical structure which makes it, as they would say, "interesting". Of course, this assumes a qualitative rather than a quantitative spin on purity, and the obvious riposte is that, mathematically, such violations are no less "pure" than the conformities. But that ignores the motives for the violations, which is where music gets more than just "interesting"--where it becomes moving, disturbing, exhilarating. And this links to the second reason why Bach's formal designs aren't pure: he was a feeling human being--in fact, a devout man. His music was designed to glorify God, which means, even when it appears to verge on pure form, it's always still "about" something.
Spiritual states. "Repentance", "the absence of God", "redemption", "joy"... that sort of thing. Bach's music is highly formalised but, like Shostakovich's Opus 87, it's also, and necessarily, expressive at the same time. It's actually impossible for it not to be.
So, in your view, all music is in some sense programme music?
All music not composed by robots is in some sense, from the obvious to the most refined, programme music, yes--in the sense of having an expressive scheme which may be explicitly illustrative or enigmatically allusive, and/or almost anything in between. On this argument, one sustainable definition of bad music would be music written by composers whose expressive schemes are superficial or incoherent. Or who may not even be aware of that inner dimension of composition, such as the Minimalists. Yet the programmatic dimension is always there, if only by default, by virtue of the very nature of artistic endeavour. It still can't be reduced to notes on paper. It's always more than that. But this is only the beginning of the argument. In the score-centred era, the post-Darmstadt era, the relationship of expression to form has got so thin as to virtually exclude expression as a factor at all. All that gets "expressed" is the artist's personal relationship to form. Ultimately this relates to the loss of the spiritual dimension which inspired men like Bach. Today's artists live in a scientific ethos ruled by theories of evolution and relativity and so forth, so they inevitably identify their activity as artists with natural processes. Thus you get Anthony Payne writing a piece on the Big Bang, or Robert Simpson's energy worship, or Birtwistle's pessimistic elementalism. You also get young composers talking about their music as if it's some organic entity with a life of its own which they relate to as scientists--experimenting on it, almost. They'll say the music "vegetates", "evolves", "takes on complexity". As it gets more independent of them, as they see it, it becomes active--it "pounces", it "pincers out", it "piles up", and so on. The language is materialistic, reductive. Fine. Form generates form in the natural world. But form in the artistic world, however logical, is generated by human minds--by human will. And will implies intention, which implies meaning. In the artistic world, meaning--through the agency of human will and intention--generates form. Intentionality is the key.
But why should musical value be conditional on anything other than itself?
Because, unlike "score", "music" has no precise boundary. Music exists, is formed, within the compass of meaning and intentionality. The material score indicates the music, stands for the music. But the actual music is immaterial--is in the mind. Look at Krzysztof Meyer's story about Shostakovich telling him that he should have "finished" his piano sonata somewhere in the blank pages at the end of the score. It's a yurodivy statement. It indicates the invisible, the supra-formal, realm of meaning.
But surely music is, or should be, sufficient unto itself--independent of motive?
The score is independent of motive, being inanimate. The music, being alive, isn't. OK, here's a way of thinking about it. Musicians are fond of saying that there's only good music and bad music. But this ignores--among many other things--irony. Which is to say: if there's good and bad music, there's also "good" and "bad" music. Take music which looks or sounds stupid. Say, the march-theme in the Seventh Symphony. Is it, as Bartok assumed, truly stupid--or actually ironically "stupid"? In other words, what's the intention behind it? If, for some reason, we were unable to take intention into account, we could only conclude that something like Mozart's Musical Joke is stupid music--instead of a joke about stupid music. A robot or a naive human would make the first conclusion. An intelligent human would make the second. We discern the joke through the medium of mind, not from the realm of form. Mozart is laughing at bad music by writing "bad" music. So one might say the score of A Musical Joke is "stupid", but the music is intelligent. What makes it different for Shostakovich is that, unlike Mozart, he can't say what he's doing in his title, which means the listener has to be more alert to the composer's intention. The march-theme in the Seventh Symphony is an ironic statement about stupid music, but here stupid music stands further for a stupid and evil social order. "Bad" music translates into "bad music" in an ethical sense. Stalin's society is Stalin's bad music. Shostakovich's whole thrust as a composer is to make us think and feel beyond our normal capacity--and if music was nothing more than the score he couldn't do that.
But what if music is genuinely banal and uninteresting?
"Banal and uninteresting" is an inert subjective judgement. Should composers wish to mimic uninteresting banality--which they've been doing for centuries, although it only becomes central in the Western tradition after Mahler--one has to take a step back and be aware of this "ironising" process. Which means placing the artwork in context and engaging with it in a way which outflanks one's initial inert subjective response. And that's equivalent to recognising that score and music aren't the same thing. To take another example, most Western critics regard the finale of Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony as a trivial travesty. But if one steps back, includes irony, and adds context to the equation, it becomes possible to see that this movement is actually "a trivial travesty". That is: the triviality is mimicked, the aim of the music is satirical, and the overall effect, in the context of the work as a whole, is wrenchingly tragic.
And if there's no contextual evidence?
The evidence can never be solely contextual. It must be justifiable by reference to the score. A composer has many ways of indicating irony. A common one is to write for instruments against the grain of the music or outside their natural tessitura. The famous example of the cello playing arco instead of pizzicato at the beginning of the Third Quartet. Shostakovich said "Pizzicato would be better, but please play arco", meaning "I want it to sound ugly and clumsy because I have an ulterior motive--a hidden intention". For a similar reason, Mahler uses a double-bass in the third movement of his First Symphony where a cello would be better. But he didn't want it "better", he wanted character: the ironic quality of using the wrong instrument for the tessitura. It has to sound effortful--like the bassoon at the beginning of The Rite of Spring. Benjamin Zander says that when Stravinsky conducted The Rite with the Eastman School Orchestra, he auditioned to find the worst bassoonist, someone who'd strain to make the high C, because that was the effect he wanted. He wanted it "bad" because that would make it atavistic. Speaking of which, I think Shostakovich must have found the trombone solo in the first movement of Mahler's Third meat-and-drink to his dramatic temperament, not to mention his sense of humour. It's music in inverted commas: "sentimentality", "self-pity", "pathos". It suggests some great lump of a troll discovering emotion: his tears roll down and plop onto the rock he's sitting on while he declaims grandiloquently like some primeval Bottom. It's many things at once: touching, ludicrous, funny, poignant, thought-provoking. And music can only do all this--let alone at once--because it's more than just the score.
That's just your own subjective interpretation.
Up to a point. Mahler's Third has a perfectly intelligible programmatic scheme based on Theosophical principles, which he'd studied. But, yes, the context isn't as precise as it is in Shostakovich's case. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we can't "hear" a given piece of music until we understand the context, or that we aren't free to use intuition and imagination to endow music with meaning. I'm saying that meaning should, wherever possible, be appropriate. That it should be justifiable by reference to the particular context of its formation. That we'll better understand a given piece of music if we stop regarding it as some sort of Platonic Ideal floating outside time and space. The truth is we're always in a developing relationship with music, with art, with life, with everything. The idea that we hold a definitive view of anything at any given time is an illusion. As we learn, our perspectives shift. What we know about a piece of music--about anything at all--changes the way we experience it. In the end, context is relevant to the extent that one can't judge a thing properly until one sees what it's for. Most critics of Nineteen Eighty-four, for example, misjudge it by mistaking it for a gloomy science-fictional prediction, whereas it's very largely a grimly funny satire on Stalinism in 1948 which merely happens to be couched in predictive terms. And if Shostakovich is sometimes ironically "crude" or "stupid" or "bad" in order to satirise, we'd better be aware of this or we'll make the sort of misjudgements Western critics have often made about his music... About him, too.
In "Naive Anti-Revisionism", you say Shostakovich's music "can fairly be said to be more universal than other great music". How can you possibly justify that?
The justification's in another piece called "Writing About Shostakovich", which is also in Shostakovich Reconsidered. Unfortunately the footnote cross-reference isn't correct. The passage is actually on page 582. Sorry--you'll have to go and buy a copy.
What, in your opinion, are the worthwhile books in English on Shostakovich?
Testimony is the only one you can't do without. If you haven't read that, you're completely in the dark. Then three commentary books: The New Shostakovich, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, and Shostakovich Reconsidered. Those are the essentials so far. Glikman's letters are an optional extra, as is Derek Hulme's book.
Maybe Dubinsky's Stormy Applause. Nothing else specifically on Shostakovich.
What about Shostakovich: The Man and His Music or Shostakovich Studies?
Low priorities. There's some decent stuff in amongst the tripe and the mediocrity, but Norris's editorial line is miles "off message" and Fanning's book doesn't justify its price. You know: solemn examinations of modal theory which end up admitting that modal theory is "too reductive and not sufficiently explanatory". Who needs it? As for earlier books, there's so much bewildered rubbish in them--writers doggedly quoting these dumb articles Shostakovich never wrote or buying Soviet propaganda about Stalin being a deep thinker, someone who actually gave a damn about Soviet culture. Primitive stuff. And the methodological assumptions are just hopeless. Eric Roseberry's claim that Shostakovich used dialectic in his symphonies, for example.
You sound angry about all this.
Occasionally. Because it travesties Shostakovich, stops us from seeing who he really was. Mostly I don't think about it. Thankfully I'll never have to read all that rubbish again. And most of it's truly awful phoney rubbish. Any Russian will tell you that.
OK, what about recordings?
That's more a matter of opinion. We hear things differently. Solomon Volkov, for example, respects Haitink in the symphonies. For me, Haitink's all right with some other composers, if a bit stolid, but I can't abide his Shostakovich, which smoothes over all the rough edges and solemnises the irony and takes what is often essentially theatrical music--"symphony-theatre", I've called it--and presents it instead as "symphonic architecture". Inanimate structure, in other words. I never trust critics who bang on about "architecture". Music is organic, alive, sensate... Another must-to-avoid is Eliahu Inbal, who does everything in soft focus and doesn't have a clue what's going on in the music. Same goes for Keith Jarrett in Opus 87. He boasted that he ignored contextual questions so as to avoid being influenced by them--shades of Laurel Fay. Not unconnected with the slick vacuity of his performances, I'd suggest. I like the composer's Russian and East European contemporaries. They knew him, he worked with them, their recordings have the smell and energy of the times. There's a dynamic there which isn't present in modern recordings, whether by Westerners or Easterners. You can almost feel Shostakovich's personal presence in, for example, Nikolayeva's 1962 Opus 87--and he was in the studio for those recordings, of course. But people must simply use their ears. Keeping the background in mind, though.
Must we always "keep the background in mind" when we listen to Shostakovich? Can't we just listen innocently sometimes?
We can hardly unlearn what we know. "Somehow I don't feel like a virgin," as Shostakovich says in Testimony vis-à-vis his "rehabilitation" in 1958. We can't just revert to innocence intacta. We're learning more and more of what the music is about, and what we know about music changes the way we hear it. There's no going back. As for whether we must now always think about Shostakovich being forced into the Communist Party when we listen to the Eighth Quartet, I'd say not. That's the background, that's what formed the music--its materials, their structures, and the overall expression of the piece--but we don't have to have a literal picture in our minds of the composer weeping or collecting sleeping pills to kill himself with. All that's vital is that those who perform the Eighth Quartet are aware of all of this and let it infuse their feeling when they play--produce the appropriate intensity, the right dynamics and relationships, the dramatic specificity that creates universality. They don't have to have particular images in mind whilst playing, although this is often a very good way of maintaining a line through a piece of music, as Nikolaus Harnoncourt has pointed out. Musicians do respond to imagery and find it much more useful as a guide to performance than a list of abstract markings which the conductor dictates to them without explaining why. But as soon as any performer gets hold of the music, however much they know about its background, it becomes theirs--they internalise it, relating it to what they know and feel, making it a part of them. Maybe a relation tried to kill themself, so one can identify with that. Or even something quite general, like a beloved pet dying. Whatever connects with intense feeling for you. That then becomes your personal means of getting in touch with the grief and anger in the music--although, it has to be said, understanding the wit and sarcasm, which in Shostakovich is primarily satirical, is a very different matter, far harder to relate to one's own experience, especially if one happens to be a soft-living Western democrat. Getting to grips with the satire makes knowledge of the context completely indispensable. The rest is a question of sympathy. Musical performance shouldn't be "singing like a nightingale" but more like acting: performing a role. Or, if a unit, performing like the cast of a play. Anyway, this is how the specifics ought to ramify naturally out into the universal, how universality is rooted in specifics. And there's room, if one's interested enough in history, to extrapolate quite literally. For example, in the march in the Seventh Symphony, it's legitimate to see, parading along behind the banners of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR, the flags of Red China, North Korea, Communist Ethiopia, the Khmer Rouge, Saddam's Ba'athists, Republika Serbska, the fascistic religious fundamentalists of East and West... and so forth. A "universal image of evil", as Mazel' says--a grotesque progression from the risible to the terrible which holds true, even if only potentially, for all societies at all times... But we can't go back to simply hearing the march as a propagandist portrayal of Operation Barbarossa. That sort of naive innocence is gone. And good riddance.