Shostakovich Conference
Mannes College of Music
(New York, NY; 15 February 1999: Part 3)

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.)

Anderson: Can you just identify yourself?

Lieber: Ernest Lieber. A lover of Shostakovich, who I met -- and I carry his picture with me eternally -- as a young man. Two questions: (1) why didn't Shostakovich emigrate? Is it perhaps because his family remained? I mean, a man like that could have lived in any country in the world and would have been loved in England, where he had Benjamin Britten as a friend. I think something that we don't understand in America -- perhaps, I think, the three Russians do -- is that there's a sense of patriotism which we can't understand. The United States had the HUAC committee (House Un-American Activities Committee) in the late '40s. I don't compare that in any way with what happened in the Soviet Union. But the people who were called before that committee remained patriots even though they went to jail, lost their rights. A lot of them had to write under different names, assumed names. It was a very difficult period, but they remained patriots. I think, perhaps -- and it's hard to say that in the face of three Russians -- perhaps we're missing what it meant to be a patriot for Shostakovich. I do not believe that the Seventh Symphony had anything to do with Stalin. And (2), if Stalin hadn't lived, or if he [Shostakovich] hadn't lived under an authoritarian, totalitarian state, it seems there would have been no music by Shostakovich. Because, from what I gather, every note is anti-Stalin and anti the regime. And there's no question that it was. I think of Akhmatova, who lived during the war -- I forget whether it was in Leningrad or Moscow -- but she contributed whatever money she had. I think every day on the radio she read poetry to the Russians -- something Americans couldn't begin to understand, I think. [Note 1.] What you seem to be saying is that if there hadn't been an authoritarian regime, he would have never written anything -- that, in everything he wrote, he was only interested in bringing down the Soviet system.

Incidentally, Rostropovich, who I got to know in my strange way, did a performance of the Seventh Symphony many, many years ago. And I went backstage and the manager, or whoever she was, she said "He's not receiving visitors today." So very gently I pushed her aside and I went in. I had the score of the Seventh Symphony. And I said "Maestro." And he thought I wanted him to write something for me. And I said, "No, no, for Shostakovich and Leningrad." Now Rostropovich must have read your book [Testimony], he knew Shostakovich, he was a student of Shostakovich -- why didn't he just say "Oh, the Leningrad Symphony, it's just a symphony, it has nothing to do with Leningrad or the war." There are contradictions here. There may be emotional... what we did is we clasped each other and started to cry, in private in this room. And then he wrote something, I don't know what he wrote, it was in Russian. But I think it said "for Leningrad and Shostakovich." What about that? You know, why didn't he emigrate? [Note 2.] And if there hadn't been an authoritarian regime, would Dmitry Shostakovich have been the genius that we're all -- and he is a genius, by God, he's a genius...

Ashkenazy: It's not so difficult to answer your questions, I think.

Lieber: It is difficult or it's not?

Ashkenazy: Not, not.

Lieber: Please answer it, maestro Ashkenazy.

Ashkenazy: Please contribute something if you think I neglected something. First of all, to emigrate from Russia was...

Lieber: Difficult.

Ashkenazy: No, not difficult, but impossible. You couldn't go to an office and say, "Look, I would like to go to Paris for a weekend" or "I want to emigrate." They'd say "What??" You'd go straight to a camp -- you're anti-Soviet. That would have been that.

Lieber: But, excuse me --

Ashkenazy: But he went to America once.

Lieber: I don't know whether he took his son. I doubt he took his son or daughter, but he did spend a lot of time with Benjamin Britten.

Ashkenazy: That was much later. Yes, that was later.

Lieber: In the '60s.

Ashkenazy: Yes, but then we have to enter his mind at that point and understand whether the composer who devoted all his life to his country in his music, whether he could really see himself living the last, whatever, thirteen, fourteen years of his life in the West. To emigrate in the '50s -- after giving all your life to one place, one country, one people -- is not so easy. I don't think he could do it. That's my speculation. Before, he was sent to America once in...

Lieber: '49.

Ashkenazy: He was a very nervous person at that time. There's a point: he could have stayed then. But I wouldn't know why he didn't stay then. About patriotism. Patriotism is a category that is not so easy to interpret -- in a way, especially in a totalitarian country. Because you're brainwashed into being patriotic from your childhood. I remember, myself. I think by the time I was in my late teens, only then I began to suddenly put two and two together and think "What's happening? Everything is a lie." But until then... Say I had a different type of intellect or emotional make-up, so to speak, I might have never thought about it. But people are brainwashed into being patriotic. They don't know the rest of the world, they can't travel, they are told from their early childhood this is the best country in the world, the only possible system for mankind, there is nothing better. And so...

Lieber: Excuse me, that's a different kind of patriotism, that's true. We have that in this country too. But I have not yet met a Russian who doesn't know Dostoyevsky. I work with a lot of Russians and every Russian I show that picture to [knows] Shostakovich; every Russian I met knows Chekhov backwards and... You see, that's a different... I'm not talking about the patriotism on the radio which we get here in this country too. But I'm talking about a cultural depth...

Anderson: Let them answer the question. You've asked it several times.

Lieber: Please, I'm sorry for the interruption.

Ashkenazy: Well... that is belonging to a certain culture. I don't know if it's necessarily patriotism. We have to define what we mean by patriotism. I think Shostakovich was a great patriot of his country -- with another sign in front of the word "patriot." He wasn't a patriot of the Soviet system; he was a citizen of his country, whatever system there was. And the system was despicable and he had tremendous contempt for it. So his patriotism was to do whatever he could to reveal what was happening in his country. To be the conveyor of truth, if you like. So that was his type of patriotism. And he couldn't exhibit it because it was extremely dangerous -- not only dangerous, but fatal for him to say anything about it. Is that a good enough basis for the answer to your question? Or is there anything else that I didn't cover?

??: What about whether there would have been any Shostakovich at all if he hadn't [lived in] the Soviet Union? Would there have been any music? That should be addressed.

Ashkenazy: Of course, of course. It's impossible to answer. We come [back] to what we started with today. In Shostakovich's case, the way he mirrored his experience and the experience of his people is essential to understanding what his music was about. Right? ...It's arguable that if the system was different, if the country was a democracy without that monumental problem of human rights -- the suffering of people, their inability to be free, as we all strive to be free -- I think his musical content would have been totally different. I'm absolutely sure of that. What is very interesting is to look at his music before his Fourth Symphony, say -- even the Fifth Symphony. The music was of a very talented person. I hate describing music because it's very dangerous when you get into generalities, but there was not yet a hint of embracing the situation of the country in general -- a country going into the black hole of totalitarianism and generating the suffering of millions, etc. He was not yet, maybe, aware of... maybe the Terror hadn't started yet. It was just the very clever music of a very talented composer -- but there was not yet such fantastic self-expression, such substance in the music of that time. It started later.

Lieber: I would agree with that to some degree. I think the third movement of the First Symphony is pretty powerful and not that distant. But I think he grew. I mean Beethoven also wrote very early light pieces and, if you look at Op. 132 and 130, there was a growth. I mean, after all, this man read... in the Fourteenth Symphony, he quotes from Lorca, he quotes from Rilke, "The Poet's Death". I mean, he was a truthsayer. I absolutely agree. And his truth was universal. What I'm saying is that... you can't say that... I think that if he lived in Chicago he would [still] have written that kind of music. He did live through the revolution, he lived through the war, he was imbued with the Russian spirit, whatever. And I think he would have written that music. But what you're saying, then, is that he's invalid as a composer.

Anderson: It's a pretty fruitless line of argument. We don't know what he would have written.

Ashkenazy: We don't know what would have come.

Lieber: That's true.

Ashkenazy: By the way, about the Seventh Symphony, actually, he said himself that the famous tune is not necessarily about the war, just against any oppressiveness. He said that himself, so you're not well informed about that point.

Lieber: That could be.

Ho: If I could say one word, Maxim Shostakovich is often asked the same question. And if you've read Shostakovich Reconsidered, Maxim's answer is "Of course, the question is absurd." All that we can do is speculate what might have happened. It's like asking what would have happened if Beethoven didn't go deaf?

Lieber: Exactly. It's speculation. That's what I'm saying...

Ho: And it becomes just a series of speculations...

[Ashkenazy rises.]

??: Are you leaving maestro?

Ashkenazy: I'm afraid I have a rehearsal in San Francisco this afternoon.

??: Would you sign my Testimony please?

[Ashkenazy signs autographs and leaves. Applause.]

Feofanov: Yes, sir?

Deredita: It is my opinion -- as, in this crowd, a relatively casual listener of Shostakovich and a great admirer of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, for example, the Fifth Symphony and other things -- it is my opinion that Shostakovich was primarily, fundamentally, and totally a musician and a great composer, and not an ideologue. Certainly ideology entered into his life, as it necessarily had to do. But I think that the implication that his creativity was based on the need to make ideological statements is misplaced. Do you agree with that or...?

Feofanov: Yeah, I don't think he felt the need to make ideological statements. But I have to explain to people here that, during our lives in what was then the Soviet Union, we were, by necessity, very politically sensitive. Because our survival depended on that. So ideology played probably a very important role in Shostakovich's life -- not because he wanted it to, but because that's the way it was. Now in answer to your question, sir -- if I could follow up to what maestro Ashkenazy said -- the other day on the radio, somebody asked me whether my understanding was that Shostakovich was free. At that time I gave kind of a paradoxical answer: that even though, externally, he probably clearly thought himself to be living in a prison, somehow that allowed him to express himself -- let him express everything that he wanted to express. So, paradoxically, he was free inside that prison in which he found himself. He was internally free, but externally not. And that's, I think, the best we can say. Of course, if you're externally not free, those [external] things affect you even while you're striving to maintain your internal creative freedom.

There's something else I want to add in reference to what was said before. Perhaps we should have started with this, since it's also in response to Mr. Blois' initial question. One of the purposes of this press conference was to finally provide answers to people who kept saying that Solomon Volkov never answered questions. That actually is not entirely correct. We want to make sure that the record is clear on that. Mr. Volkov participated in various symposia throughout the world in the [past] couple, five, six, or seven years, I suppose? [Volkov confirms.] He certainly answered all of our questions. I think it's important to disclose for the record how we put that book together. Because those of you who have that book know that about half of it deals with the controversies surrounding the memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich, Testimony. We were fortunate, because of our previous relationship with Mr. Volkov, to have his confidence in this project. Because of that, he answered literally hundreds of questions that we posed to him. My phone bill to him was quite substantial. He opened his archives for us. So, he, in fact, did answer questions, and he answered them on the record, so that the record is clear. This conference is kind of the concluding act in that process, because from this point on -- and we've attempted to publicize it the best we can -- people will not be able to say, "well, that Solomon Volkov is hiding and not answering questions." In fact, one commentator went so far as to question Solomon Volkov's existence. [Laughter.]

Folks, this is Solomon. He does exist. [Applause.]

Pritsker: I have a small addition to all this. I want to tell you that these days no one who lives in Russia and who can travel or who has wide access to media information -- and this has loosened up a lot in the past few years -- no one like this has any doubts about Testimony. So, the question isn't "Is this book truthful or not?" For musicians, for musicologists, there's no doubt. I'm very grateful to the authors of this book [Shostakovich Reconsidered]. I hope it will help now to bring the same kind of assurance to the public, to the people who go to concerts. When you attend concerts, you hear various interpretations. Actually, musicians like Mr. Ashkenazy or Kurt Masur and many others go to the core of Shostakovich's music in such a way that you can clearly hear what this music is about. But when one opens program notes, one can sometimes still be shocked to find absolutely irrelevant, stupid, obsolete information. Outrageous stuff, based on information which came from Soviet sources. Which is why this new generation of books is so necessary. What more can one do to convince the rest of the press corps, or anyone else, that there's no doubt in this case? Forget what was written in the past! It was simply because people were unable to relinquish their preconceptions. It's difficult for them to forget those false ideas, especially for those who thought they knew everything about the Soviet Union. Now that's over. So never, never recycle anything published in the Soviet Union before 1990. This should be the rule for the American press, for anybody who writes about music.

Feofanov: Mr. Teachout has a question?

Teachout: One of the points made by the opponents of Testimony is that there's been no Russian-language publication. The book [Shostakovich Reconsidered], of course, deals extensively with the question of why this has not been the case and I won't rehash that here. But I wonder if you have considered posting a Russian-language text on the internet so that it would then be available.

Feofanov: I think that question is better answered by Mr. Volkov.

Volkov: About the internet, I don't even have an answering machine. [Laughter.] I'm living in the pre-Gutenberg era, I guess. Second line, or fax, or email -- I don't know what it is. Second, about the possible publication in Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, I was approached by some people, and still am, from Russia, who identified themselves as publishers -- you know, I had to trust them -- who asked me about the possibility of publishing Testimony in Russian. The big problem here, as I have informed them, is that world rights to the book, including the Russian edition, belongs to the American publisher. [I] referred them to my American publisher, HarperCollins, [and] their interest disappears right before your ears. I could state that no Russian publisher ever approached my American publisher with an offer to do the book in Russian. And I doubt in the present situation, the present economic situation in Russia, that it will happen at any time soon.

Teachout: That's why I suggested, since it seems highly unlikely that there's going to be any commercial publication of it in Russia, that it might --

Volkov: But my publishing house is a commercial enterprise. It belongs, I believe, to [??]. The ownership changes so often that I lose track. It's a commercial enterprise and it's in their hands. I signed off all my rights when the book was first published. That's simple. Simple as that.

Ho: If I might just add something to Mr. Teachout's question. This thing of the Russian text not having been published has always been raised to cast doubt about the accuracy of the translation. I have two things to say about that: (1) the original Russian text has been seen by over fifty people, including the Shostakovich children. And since our book was published, people have contacted us and said "Yeah, we saw the Russian text of Testimony even in the 1970s, before Solomon Volkov emigrated." The other thing is, people forget that Seppo Heikinheimo translated the Finnish edition of Testimony from the original Russian manuscript. Anyone who wants to compare the accuracy of the English translation can just look at this [the English edition] and look at the Finnish: we have an A-B comparison from the Russian text. There are small differences, of course. Ms. Bouis probably could address the translation a little bit better than I could. But this happens whenever a book is published in a different language, if there are phrases that are more idiomatic in one language than another. Martin Anderson changed some of my phrases. I wasn't too happy with it, but the book was being published in London. If you compare the Bouis translation printed in England with the American publication you'll see small differences too that were not done by the translator.

Teachout: A point of information, by the way. Did Testimony ever circulate in samizdat? Do you know?

Volkov: Not to my knowledge and not with my participation. I wasn't a part of the samizdat movement, didn't have access to it, or wasn't interested at that time.

Feofanov: Well, since this is a subject that we actually discuss in the book and which is an important one, I think -- and we're very fortunate to be in the presence of the first translator of Testimony -- perhaps you would care to say a few words about it, how you did it?

Bouis: Well, I did it the way one translates any manuscript. As carefully and as scrupulously as one could, in consultation with the author -- I was very fortunate that the author [Volkov] was available -- and with the editor [Ann Harris of Harper and Row], who worked very closely and used a very strong editorial hand, I would say. We often had discussions, sometimes on the question of finding the more accurate phrase in English, rather than a merely literal translation. Of course, editorial changes were made, but none that detracted, in any way, from the accuracy and the truth of the manuscript. This is twenty years ago. Editors made more changes in translations than they dare do now.

Volkov: Another thing I would like to add [is] that, if somebody in Russia was really interested... Because they were really interested in publishing my book of conversations with Joseph Brodsky, so they did approach another American publisher, they negotiated a contract, they published the book, which appeared in Moscow in September of last year. I'm happy to tell you I received my first literary prize here in the United States for Testimony. And the second prize, I was just informed, I got for the Brodsky book in Russia. So that was a nice touch. But there is one thing for me at least that also helps explain something, and that is that -- contrary to maybe what people here in the West think about the mentality of Russian intellectuals, the Russian intellectual elite -- Russia is a very logocentric country that is primarily interested in literature. We all know the names of the great Russian composers and, say, ballet dancers. But in Russia itself music and ballet were comparatively marginal arts. For example, I have a lot of Russian friends who consider themselves very cultured persons -- they know Russian literature by heart -- but they have never heard a note of Shostakovich in all their lives. And they never went to the ballet. And Joseph Brodsky, by the way, wasn't interested in the ballet at all, and he was an extraordinarily educated person. He was never interested in ballet. And when he learned that in my book about the culture of St. Petersburg I was planning to devote a whole chapter to Shostakovich, he protested very much. He said that Shostakovich doesn't belong to St. Petersburg's culture at all. And this is not an unusual position for a Russian intellectual. [Note 3.]

It's an abberation to judge from "our" perspective -- now it's also mine after 23 years in New York -- to confuse our Western perspective with the Russian one. When I wrote [about] the history of culture at St. Petersburg [St. Petersburg: A Cultural History], I myself -- and it was my mistake -- I considered it to be a book written from a Russian perspective. Then I got the first reactions from very cultured Russians. For example, Mikhail Petrovsky. And his first question was "Why so much about music and ballet?" And then I realized for the first time that I have written actually the book from the Western perspective. Because if I had lived in Russia, there would not be a special chapter on Shostakovich and special chapter on Balanchine, who is an absolutely totally marginal figure in the Russian picture of the culture of this century and who is a semi-god here, in American culture, where we consider him to be a representative of the great Russian culture as well. But it's not the case for Russia. The composers are very seldom included in the usual recitation -- when they routinely speak of the greatest sons of Russian culture in the twentieth century. That's a simple statement of fact.

Deredita: I'm wondering [in] what languages Russian musicologists and intellectuals can read Testimony. It's been translated into Finnish, English, French, I assume?

Volkov: It's been translated into every major language. Practically everybody from Russia whom I met and who was interested in Shostakovich read the book in one or another of the languages. It started to be smuggled into Russia as soon as it appeared in '79. I know that many copies are over there. Later I was told, for example, how the people who knew German and English would translate it from the English copy to German and then read it in circles. So, in this way, yes, it circulated in samizdat, but when I was here. It was distributed, the text went by... you know, there are two different designations: samizdat and tamizdat. Samizat was published inside Russia and tamizdat was published abroad and then smuggled into Russia. As a tamizdat publication it circulated widely and was part of discussion inside the musical circles. But, once again, Shostakovich, unfortunately, was never in the center of the intellectual discourse in Russia. The one person who put him there, twice, was Joseph Stalin, first in '36, then in '48 -- by issuing first this infamous editorial ["Muddle Instead of Music"], then the Party Decree. Then Shostakovich's name became part of the discourse. And it's interesting to see that Shostakovich himself understood that. If you read his letters to Glikman, you'll find a letter in which he refers to this stuff specifically. He uses the word "reclama", which could be roughly translated "advertisement", which in this context means "promotion". "There was a big promotion for me twice," he says, of course, with a hint of irony and sarcasm, but also with understanding that all these misfortunes, his personal misfortunes, would also have cast him in the center of the intellectual debate. Not comparing, of course, in any sense, myself to Shostakovich, but I just want to tell you what maestro Ashkenazy told me before this panel opened. He said to me "Well, of course, you have suffered for twenty years. But probably it was a good thing because it drew attention to the book." For culture it was better; for you definitely it was not so good -- but, you know, you have to be happy that it was good for the culture. I accept this situation.

Feofanov: There is actually a theory that in order to write really, really, really great music a composer has to suffer a lot. You know, Beethoven, Schubert, Shostakovich.

Deredita: A very romantic theory.

Mannes Conference continues... Back to Shostakovichiana.