Shostakovich Conference
Mannes College of Music
(New York, NY; 15 February 1999: Part 2)

Transcribed and edited by Allan B. Ho and Ian MacDonald

The panelists were: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Dmitry Feofanov, Allan Ho, and Solomon Volkov. Other speakers included Joel Lester and, in the audience, Martin Anderson, Louis Blois, Tim Bond, Antonina Bouis, John Deredita, Maya Pritsker, and Terry Teachout. "??" indicates that the speaker in the audience did not identify himself. (The verbatim text has been minimally edited to remove redundant repetitions and clarify grammar where the original construction obscured meaning. Nothing essential has been altered.)

Deredita: My name is John Deredita and I'm a future editor of a book to be published by Martin Anderson on Verdi's libretti. I wanted to ask about the word "revisionism", which has been used by the detractors of Testimony. In other words, Testimony is for them revisionism of the real Shostakovich, who, for them, is just what you've been saying in that quotation from Taruskin ["perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son"]. I think maestro Ashkenazy has already partly answered my question because he is representing these critics as culturally distant from the totalitarian aspect of the Soviet Union and unable to understand that atmosphere and that culture. I just wonder if you could address this: is Testimony a revisionist document conceived as such by Shostakovich, conceived as such by Mr. Volkov?

Feofanov: If I may start answering that question...

Deredita: By revisionism, obviously, what is being meant is that, [whereas] before, Shostakovich was the loyal son, [thereafter] he represents himself as the dissident.

Feofanov: Well, you know, when we went to Boston, I did a little paper there about Shostakovich the anti-communist. And I was able to trace his views, ambiguous as they may have been, throughout his years. And, granted, his views in later years clearly were different from the views of an eighteen-year-old youngster. That's probably true for everyone: views change as we age. But I was able to trace his attitude toward the Soviet regime to the time when he was sixteen and, at that time, he said to someone, "I am not a Red composer". Now, whether he really meant it and whether it was an internalized thing for him, a completely thought-out thing for him, I don't know. But I think it is important to know that that's what he said. It's kind of indicative as to his attitude towards the Soviet regime throughout the years, because later in the paper I went through pretty much what is available in terms of the evidence we have throughout the '20s and the '30s and the '50s. In the '50s he was talking to his friends and saying things for which he could have been shot if the authorities knew what he was saying. He was a very clear-sighted guy, who had access to privileged information through his high-placed friends, and he knew exactly what was going on. He was way, way above the informationally-challenged regular Soviet citizen. So, in answer to your question as to whether Testimony and [some of the] subsequent books [on Shostakovich] are revisionist, in a sense they are because they revise the false image of Shostakovich -- the Pravda image of Shostakovich, if you will -- which, of course, was an alternative reality created by the Soviet equivalent of the Ministry of Truth. [Our "revisionism"] merely sets the record straight.

Ashkenazy: I think it's a misnomer. I think to use the word "revisionist" is very dangerous, because what are we revising? The image that was presented to us by the Soviet Union. But how can you take that image as a genuine image? Therefore, what are you revising? I think it's a wrong word altogether.

Bouis: I also think that what we're talking about is a great resistance of people to see Shostakovich in a different light in general. I remember one of the reviews of the book [Testimony] complained about the slanginess of the tone. And the reviewer said "perhaps Shostakovich did speak this way, but I don't like to think of him speaking this way." [Laughter.] Now that's a perfect example of the resistance to seeing a person, whose image you have fixed very firmly and perhaps incorrectly, in a different light.

Ho: And the statement was made that Shostakovich wouldn't use profanity. What we document in our book is that he used it all the time. In letters and in conversations with friends. We like to put some of these people on pedestals and say, no, they never said anything negative -- about Prokofiev, for example. And then we document that the relationship was not that positive at all times. But I'd like to say something about the naïvety of some of the critics of Testimony -- and there's no better example than what Laurel Fay recently published about the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. She claims that Shostakovich was one of the bamboozled masses and didn't understand the dire circumstances in which Jews were living in the 1940s. And she says that he was trying to write socialist realist music to fulfill a quota and that it was "just his rotten luck" that of all the nationalities upon which he could base his work he chose the Jews.

Now, she was misleading us when she said that when Solomon Mikhoels, the great leader of the Jewish movement, died in January 1948, that the Mikhoels family did not know that he'd been murdered. In one of the sources that she cites in her article, she forgets to mention that Natal'ya Vovsi-Mikhoels, Mikhoels' daughter, said -- and this is a quote from her -- "Shostakovich appeared the day after my father died and he said this: 'This started with the Jews and will end with the entire intelligentsia.'" Now what was Shostakovich referring to when he said that "This started with the Jews"? Did Laurel Fay wish us to believe that Shostakovich meant "this random car accident began with the Jews and so everybody's going to get hit by cars"? [Laughter.] No, he was talking about murder. This is in an article she referred to. She referred to Joachim Braun, the great Israeli expert on the Jewish aspect of Shostakovich's music. I called up Joachim Braun because I couldn't believe that, as he was quoted in her article, that he supported her views. I spoke with him twice on the phone and he said when he read Fay's article originally he was outraged, but he was busy at the time and didn't have an opportunity to respond. So he asked me to fax him her entire article. He reread it. He read it again. And then he submitted a damning letter accusing her of distorting his views. And that's included in our book. Now, when the sources she cites in her own article say that she's distorted their views, what does that tell us about what she might have done with her 1980 article?

Ashkenazy: A comment just about From Jewish Folk Poetry. You have something else?

Feofanov: Well, I just wanted to say that I don't think it was Shostakovich's rotten luck that chose Jews as the "wrong folk" for his inspiration, it's his rotten luck that he has Laurel Fay as his officially designated biographer. [Laughter.]

Ashkenazy: Was it '52, Jewish Folk Poetry?

Ho: Well, it was begun in '48, but first showed at the Moscow Composers' Union in '53. Premiered in '55.

Ashkenazy: It's because I remember that I was asked to play. You see, I was there when the "Doctor's Plot" was "discovered" in '53. I was still in the Central Music School in Moscow. As you know, my name is Ashkenazy, but you didn't know that my mother was Russian. Plotnova her name was. And I, as one of the talented students of the Moscow Central Music School, I was usually chosen to participate in the school concerts, which usually were held in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. In '52 I was chosen again, and suddenly the director of the school calls me and says, "You know, Vladimir, I'm afraid that if you don't use your mother's name, hyphenated with your first known name, you can't play the concert." I said, "Okay, you print Ashkenazy-Plotnov. I don't mind. That's fine." So I played in that concert. This is just to demonstrate to what degree anti-Semitism was there, how people were afraid not to toe the Party line, etc., etc. etc.

Then, why I'm talking about this? Because I didn't know about the Jewish Folk Poetry cycle until -- you say it was first performed in '55? Probably at that time I just won a prize in the Chopin Competition and I became well known at that time. And I remember that Nina Dorliak, Richter's wife, suddenly summoned me: "Volodya, I would like you to play this cycle [by] Shostakovich." I didn't know about the cycle. I said, "What cycle?" "Jewish Folk Poetry." I said, "But why me?" I didn't realize that because Ashkenazy is a Jewish name -- I myself was actually brought up as a Russian because my mother had been christened and I was very much in the Russian frame of mind. I didn't feel myself Jewish -- but I realized, because my name is Jewish, she chose me to be the pianist in the performance of this Jewish Folk Poetry cycle. She got very famous singers -- I think Maslennikov it was, Dolukhanova -- and she asked me to play in the Moscow Conservatory, in the Small Hall. Probably wasn't the first performance. Probably the second, otherwise you would have known it was me. But I know I agreed because for a young boy to play with Dolukhanova and others in a public concert -- it wasn't a school concert anymore! I played it and ever since I was wondering why it was so important. Only many years later I realized how important it was: that, on the face of it, it was just another piece by Shostakovich -- but, in fact, it was another demonstration [protest]. Otherwise Nina Dorliak wouldn't have tried to get a well-known young pianist with a Jewish name to play this piece. I'll never forget this. Very interesting. -- That's the way we lived, you see. Everything was a grey area. We tried to do what we could... not too much because otherwise it would be very difficult. But what we could, we would do. You can't help imagine what Shostakovich had to do in order to save his creative position, his skin. Just... it's unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

Ho: If I might add one other thing to come full circle about the point of naivety that I was referring to earlier. Not only did Laurel Fay not mention what Shostakovich had said at the Mikhoels family home, but she presents the view that Shostakovich was not protesting or standing up for beleaguered Jews. One of the pieces of evidence that she mentions is a front-page editorial in Pravda, which touts the mutual respect with which all the nationalities are being treated. She's suggesting that Shostakovich read the editorial in Pravda and said "Well, there's no discrimination against Jews." I think that most of us would find that laughable, that anyone would accept what is in Pravda -- and then cite it as a source in a New York Times article! We've asked Fay to respond to our comments about From Jewish Folk Poetry, and I'd love to hear from her. Is she here today?

Ashkenazy: No. It's a pity because, after all, what are we for? To find the truth. And why can't we be in the same line with Fay, Mr. Taruskin, whatever? The main thing is to find out what was right, what was wrong. And why is it so difficult to lose face if you see that actually you might have made a mistake -- like this gentleman [Terry Teachout] actually was so nice to say that he's apologizing for something he had said that wasn't right. There's only one truth really. And we should face it in life.

Bond: My name's Tim Bond, and I don't have an affiliation. I'm simply an interested individual. Maestro Ashkenazy has referred to the complexity of the situation in the Soviet Union, which, of course, now has changed. And one of the things I would be very interested in is the extent to which you had access to what you might call the other side of the argument: establishment figures, the authorities who were responsible. I'm thinking particularly of people like Tikhon Khrennikov, for example, because I read an article, I think from The Times -- Martin [Anderson] would probably know the article that I'm thinking of -- a long article that included an interview with Khrennikov in maybe '95. He seemed to be suffering from very convenient lapses of memory over some of the things he had or hadn't said in 1948 and subsequently. Did you have access, did you get any joy, really believable feedback, from what you might call authority figures in your research?

Ho: Actually, we know what he's said on the record and we didn't find sources such as that useful or valuable because his views are so distorted. As one person remarked, "The wolf cannot understand the fear of the sheep." Khrennikov's view is that no Soviet composer suffered while he was the head of the Composers' Union. I think that is something that could be documented not to be true. But it's such an extreme view. Talk about revisionism! I think that's what's going on there.

Feofanov: I was involved in an internet exchange with a gentleman, speaking loosely, on that very subject. There is a story that goes around -- apparently it comes from Tikhon Nikolayevich Khrennikov himself -- claiming that, while under his chairmanship of the Union of Soviet Composers, nobody was arrested and sent to the camps. Through a little research, with the help of Mr. Volkov I must admit, but also by just looking at the Biographical Dictionary of Russian/Soviet Composers -- which was written by some Ho and Feofanov fellows, which we forgot -- we discovered that there was indeed one person who was sent to the camps. And after looking through the Dictionary some more, I sent the gentleman three more names. But he chose not to respond. And that's how the game is played. They throw an argument at you. You give them undeniable, hard, verifiable facts. Then they throw another argument about something else. It never ends and probably never will end. -- But, at a certain point, objective observers get the picture.

Volkov: In regard to Khrennikov, I would just like to add a few things. For me, he's a fascinating figure. I happened to know him personally. And he is a genius in his own field. No question about it, he is an administrative genius, who survived all the regimes and recently got his additional Orders and many others from Yeltsin, in the new "democratic" Russia -- he got his Order of Merit just recently, a few months ago. I always wonder about the fact that he hounded Shostakovich. He [Khrennikov] was once again chairman of the committee that was preparing the later Tchaikovsky Competitions, and a friend of mine told me that he walked into the room with the committee there and Khrennikov as the chairman -- and it was like 20 or 30 years ago: the committee sitting around Khrennikov, [who was] blabbering about the new successes of our Fatherland and of our glorious music and so on. Like in a time hole. He is there forever and he served every regime since Stalin. And he will die a celebrated person. Because he is useful. As I said, he is a genius...

Ashkenazy: Not so much as a composer. [Laughter.]

Volkov [smiling]: No, no, no. I said as an administrator.

Ashkenazy: I just wanted to make sure. [Laughter.]

Blois: I've read Shostakovich Reconsidered. It's a fascinating, compelling, very absorbing book, and an important piece of scholarship. I just wanted to ask another question for the record. Certain questions have to be asked. You mentioned that you had not received a response from Laurel Fay or Richard Taruskin. I wonder if they were invited to participate as contributors to the book -- and, if not, do you regret not having invited them?

Ho: The way we look at it is that, for twenty years, they've had the floor. Laurel Fay said at the national meeting of the American Musicological Society that she had not changed her views at all about Testimony. She said, "For the record, nothing that I have seen has made me change my views about the memoirs." We took her at her word. And we did investigate. I followed their papers around the country, whenever they gave a paper. They presented two Shostakovich sessions at national meetings of the American Musicological Society. They never invited a member of the opposition to be a part of their panels. So we thought the purpose of this book was to respond to twenty years of allegations against Testimony. Now if they want to respond to this book, we'll be happy to respond to them. As maestro Ashkenazy said, what we're interested in is the truth. And I want to make clear that we never started out in this book to praise Volkov. In fact, we wrote the complete article and then showed it to Solomon Volkov. Dmitry and I had an agreement from the start that whatever we found -- if we found conclusively that Testimony was a fraud -- that's what our book would be [about]. And, in fact, when Solomon Volkov first read the book, he made two comments. The first was "Do you have to repeat all those negative things that people have said about me?" [Laughter.] And it's quite overwhelming. No one can accuse us of leaving out very negative things that have been said about him.

Feofanov: We said, yes, we have to.

Ho: That was part of the official record. The other thing he said was that Fay, Taruskin, Brown, and even [he] himself are really insignificant in the big picture -- that what's important is the truth about Shostakovich. And that changed the thrust of our book. Initially we were just responding to the allegations. You know, it would have worked out better for me, as a card carrying musicologist, if I had attacked Solomon, because that's how Laurel Fay became known as a Shostakovich expert. I was very skeptical, and Dmitry can confirm this. In fact, you may be surprised to know that the first time I met Solomon in person was last night, because I did not want to be viewed as a friend of Solomon Volkov. We corresponded, we spoke on the phone, but it was important to me, as a musicologist with a reputation of my own to defend, that I had to look at this thing objectively. For six years, I worked on this [Shostakovich Reconsidered]. I was initially convinced by Laurel Fay's article, which I took at face value. I had to be persuaded, myself.

Ashkenazy: Bravo!

Ho: By the way, I met maestro Ashkenazy for the first time last night, too. So there's nothing in cahoots here...

Ashkenazy: No.

Ho: I did what I think any scholar that was interested in the truth would do. We contacted Volkov; we talked to people who knew Shostakovich, including the children; we talked to people who worked at Sovetskaya Muzyka at the time Testimony was in progress. Again, I ask you, why didn't Laurel Fay do any of this?

Feofanov: If I could follow up on that with several points. In researching this tome, we found many examples of concealment, omission, and suppression that I alluded to previously. One of the most interesting examples, which shocked me, was the statement of Shostakovich's close friend named Flora Litvinova, in her memoirs -- to which, by the way, we owe gratitude to maestro Ashkenazy, who provided us with the Russian version of those memoirs. I think it would be interesting for you to hear the story, understand how it all happened. The English version of Litvinova's memoirs was translated and published in Elizabeth Wilson's book. We read it and it was very interesting. I think we cited Wilson on just about every page of our book. It would not have been possible without Wilson's book. Then Allan received the actual Russian version which you [Ashkenazy] sent to us and he said "Dmitry, read it. Translate it and tell me what's in there." And I said "Why do I have to read it? We already have it translated in Wilson's book." "No," he said, "read it." So I'm reading it, you know, underlining stuff, with my significant other on a train. All of a sudden I jump and start screaming because I see something that is not in Wilson's book. Which is, for the lack of a better word, a "smoking gun" paragraph in which Litvinova quotes Shostakovich as saying, in the mid '70s, "You know, Flora, I've been meeting this wonderful Leningrad musicologist" -- whom, by the way, he does not name -- "and I've been telling him everything I remember about myself and my music. And he writes it all down and at the next meeting I check it over." I said "Gee, that sounds familiar." The question immediately arose: why is this paragraph, the smoking gun out of the horse's mouth, if I may mix my metaphors, not in Wilson's book? We're not about to ambush someone from round the corner, so we sent a letter to Elizabeth. And she sends us a response which basically says "Look, I had a 500-page book. I didn't have space."


Ho: Well, she also gave another answer -- which is she didn't want to get too involved in the vexed controversy about Testimony.

Feofanov: That's true. That was the second answer. So this is the suppression, omission, and concealment I'm talking about. She wrote a very important book -- which convinced a lot of people, by the way, without her probably realizing, that Testimony was completely authentic. But that was [the result of] fear -- and I don't blame her. I mean, she probably was afraid, for all I know. But that's the kind of attitude that's pervasive in the musicological field. If you go against Fay, Brown, and Taruskin, you will suffer consequences. I see that Mr. Teachout wants to interject. Yes?

Teachout: Have any of the scholars that continue to question the authenticity of Testimony responded specifically to the Litvinova paragraph that you have published for the first time in English?

Feofanov: No. In fact, these scholars have not responded to any pieces of evidence that we have presented. None. The best they could do is for Richard Taruskin to stand up in Boston and say "I was just kidding" and accuse us of using the technique of the Big Lie. Some of them, at least, have not read the book. In fact, I know for a fact that two out of three have not read the book. Malcolm Brown said that he's not buying the book and he won't read the book. And I suspect that Mr. Taruskin hasn't read the book either because, by the last count, out of some eighty university libraries that have Shostakovich Reconsidered, [University of California at] Berkeley's not one of them. And probably will remain that way. [Laughter.]

??: Did you give him a copy?

Feofanov: We figured: let him pay for his own. He asked for one, by the way, and I said to Martin, "Don't." -- But, in six years, Litvinova's testimony, though a very compelling piece of evidence, is just the tip of an iceberg. There are a great many other pieces of evidence which are interspersed in Shostakovich Reconsidered. Of course, the perplexing question, which you referred to, is the recycled passages at the beginning of chapters. Now, of course, Laurel Fay, in her piece, makes an inference that this is part of a kind of conspiracy to fool the poor old man, who was not quite himself at that time -- to make it into something which does not correspond with his views. Now, two points need to be made about that. After the publication of Letters to a Friend -- which unfortunately is not translated in English, but those of you who read either Russian or French, I strongly recommend that you acquaint yourself with that book, which consists of Shostakovich's letters to his friend Glikman -- there's no doubt, none whatsoever (in conjunction with Wilson, especially) that he was extremely anti-Soviet in kind of a sarcastic way. He did not hide, apparently, these feelings from a very few select friends whom he trusted. As I said when we spoke to the NPR people the other day, fortunately censors in every country, be they censors of the internet or music, are kind of stupid. If you do it with a straight face and use Aesopian language, usually you can get away with it. And he did, even though I'm sure they probably opened up his letters.

The second point I wanted to make, which is usually lost on people, is that the conspiracy theory is refuted by one single fact. Laurel Fay thought that Volkov fooled Shostakovich into signing non-controversial material. She forgets the first chapter, which opens with "I look back at my life and all I see is a mountain of corpses." That's not the usual Soviet style, you know, to start with a reference to "a mountain of corpses." That chapter doesn't [begin with] recycled material, it opens up with very -- for the lack of a better word -- anti-Soviet material. It's signed. There is no doubt it's an authentic signature. This whole thing is kind of silly because when Malcolm Brown started talking about signatures, his excuse was, "Indiana University Library doesn't have the Finnish and German editions, and so I didn't see the signatures; and I don't have to see the signatures because we don't have the book in the library" -- even though they've been available since '79. He was misrepresenting the true state of affairs since that time.

Volkov: I would like to add one thing that somehow got lost in these twenty years of controversy, which have [largely] focused on my position in my relationship with Shostakovich. I always wondered silently how the people who wrote about this process of our conversations and consequent doing of the book, how they imagined Shostakovich's frame of mind. The discussion of Shostakovich's frame of mind and position, in my opinion, somehow mysteriously gets completely lost. You should remember that he was, first, a genius; and, second, one of the most prominent people of the Soviet Union of the time. You can't fool a genius and a leading personality. Somehow people assume that I, a young journalist and writer, could fool this all-time genius into signing something which he wasn't aware of how it would be used. I don't know. For example, ask maestro Ashkenazy here to sign a bunch of papers for you. I really doubt that he will do it.

You should imagine the real situation. I was awed by this man. I never asked him to sign anything. It was his initiative to do so. In all this relationship, I always considered myself to be a vessel through which the thoughts and ideas of Shostakovich went through. Nothing less, but nothing more as well. And I still consider myself to be a vessel. I was young, as I said -- inexperienced, and insignificant in relation to Shostakovich. Still, after all these years, if we could meet again, I would feel the same awe and the same fear and the same nervousness. This whole process for me was one continuing catastrophy, so to speak, one continuing earthquake, emotional rollercoaster. I was doing his work, it was his idea to convey all these things from me. And it couldn't be the other way around. It's absolutely unrealistic. You should consider. You should place yourself in my position at the time. Imagine how unequal our positions were. I was approaching him tip-toeing -- in fear that every session might be the last one. I didn't know if I'd be invited the next time. I just don't understand how Shostakovich's position in all this, in my opinion, somehow gets lost. His authority -- and what he was thinking about about this whole process.

Mannes Conference continues... Back to Shostakovichiana.