We've not been short of TV and cinema films/documentaries about Shostakovich during the last decade or so. In Britain, the question of the composer's true moral-political orientation has been dealt with in BBC-2 programmes by Peter Maniura (Shostakovich: A Career, 1987) and Gerard McBurney and Barrie Gavin (Think Today, Speak Tomorrow, 1990), and also by Channel 4 in Soviet Echoes (1995). In addition, we've had Tony Palmer's film of Testimony (1987), plus several BBC Radio 3 talks and even a play or two. All have adopted much the same revisionist agenda, often including audio- or video-tape interviews with former Soviets who knew the composer and have vouched for either the literal or essential accuracy of Testimony. The degree of consensus from such sources, as well as in the editorial line taken by the programme-makers, is impressive in itself. Only one programme on this subject has so far taken an anti-revisionist tack: Tamara Bernstein's radio series In Search of Shostakovich, made for the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 1994. This follows the Fay-Taruskin-Brown thesis that the composer, far from a secret dissident, was an earnest civic artist genuinely striving to produce work acceptable to the Soviet state, and who only in his fifties began to resent its censorious reception of his music. (For a review, see "The CBC Shostakovich Documentary" in Centre and pseudo-centre.)
The War Symphonies, a 1997 Canadian-German coproduction with executive input from teams in Britain, Holland, and Finland, is the most recent, and in some ways the most impressive, of the sequence of revisionist programmes on Shostakovich. Produced for Rhombus Media by Niv Fichman, The War Symphonies is directed by the distinguished multiple award-winner Larry Weinstein, among whose previous films are Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), Shadows and Light: Joaquin Rodrigo at 90 (1994), and September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill (1995). Editor David New acts as co-writer with Weinstein and associate director Gemma Van Zeventer, and there are consultant credits for Yosif Feyginberg and Elizabeth Wilson (though not for Solomon Volkov, who also assisted and whose copyrighted Testimony is used, without acknowledgement, throughout the programme). Shot on location in St. Petersburg and Moscow, this 82-minute documentary includes excerpted performances by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, both conducted by Valery Gergiev, who in addition offers his views on the featured works: a scene from Lady Macbeth, symphonies 4 to 9, and the burlesque Rayok (given in tantalising glimpses of a sharp Mariinsky production).
Throughout the film, the editing together of music, image, and voice-over is often masterly (as, for example, in the sequence in which the "Song of the Counterplan" segues seamlessly from composer Dmitri Tolstoy playing it on the battered piano in his apartment to Flora Litvinova singing it, with apparent perfect pitch and tempo, in another location, before it's finally taken up, again seamlessly, by the soundtrack version as recorded for the film in 1932). Elsewhere, passages from the symphonies are adroitly matched with documentary footage of Soviet public events, the Fourth Symphony being used as the framing reference-point, starting the programme and recurring (the coda to III) as the underscore to its last ten minutes. Needless to say, not everyone will approve of this illustrative method; indeed, those diehards who refuse to admit Shostakovich's moral anti-communism, or even that his music is anything but purely abstract, may well squirm at Weinstein's approach. Let them. Their seemingly incurable historical ignorance is the cause of their discomfort: they deserve to be annoyed by this programme. Sensible viewers need have no qualms.
The tell-tale sign of the pundit who knows little of the Soviet background is his or her ritual plaint that to be explicit (whether by associative imagery or programmatic interpretation) about the totalitarian context in which Shostakovich worked, and against which his art was pitched, is automatically to perpetrate "propaganda". No one with any deep acquaintance with the subject would wave this term around so crudely, the readiness to do so betokening only the vague reflexes of the indignant cultural generalist. One such brandisher of crass placard-criticism is Royal S. Brown, whose review of The War Symphonies in Cineaste earlier this year trots out the usual untutored prejudices. The film, Brown asserts, turns "Shostakovich's great music into cheap vehicles for anti-Stalinist propaganda... In many ways, The War Symphonies out-agitprops the agitproppers. We needed more than propaganda." In fact, one may only distinguish between truth and propaganda with any accuracy if one has a basic grasp of the subject at hand -- in this case, the Soviet context. Brown, in several statements in his review, unwittingly betrays his lack of this basic grasp.
Aside from Shostakovich's music, the focus of interest of The War Symphonies lies in the testimonies of the twenty or so witnesses whose statements occur throughout the programme in standard documentary style, appropriately juxtaposed with music and image. These testimonies, insinuates Royal S. Brown (adopting the "blind eye" view of Laurel Fay, Richard Taruskin, and Malcolm Hamrick Brown), are to be seen as deliberately false or in other ways unreliable. "The various witnesses," he claims, "go through great contortions to make their view of history fit the Volkov thesis." It's unclear how many of Weinstein's witnesses have read Testimony, which still lacks Russian publication. In any case, the fact that all of them (except Tikhon Khrennikov) sing from the same hymn-sheet about Shostakovich must mean that they are either (1) mischievously pushing the same "propagandist" deception; (2) suffering from an identical hallucination; or (3), like the Kosovar Albanians whose reports to UNHCR of Serbian atrocities were so consistent because they were true, merely recording the facts of the matter as they saw them. It is hard to discern which of Options (1) and (2) Royal S. Brown takes to be the reason for the consistency of Weinstein's witnesses. Perhaps he supposes their testimonies were deviously coached from the mouths of these drily ironic Russian intellectuals by Weinstein, or by Solomon Volkov, or even by Elizabeth Wilson (around a dozen of whose interviewees reappear here to repeat what they told her in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered)? Perhaps he thinks they congregated together somewhere twenty years ago and agreed on an elaborately phoney version of events for the arcane pleasure of fooling Western film directors?
What, though, of the historical "contortions" allegedly committed by Weinstein's witnesses? Disappointingly, Brown manages only one example: "How about the fact that Shostakovich composed his Fourth Symphony before the Stalinist purges had begun? No problem [for] composer Dmitri Tolstoy [who declares that] the symphony tells us 'of the coming of the Stalinist tragedy'." Actually, the claim that the Fourth Symphony "prophesies" (sic) "the coming Stalinist tragedy" is made not by Dmitri Tolstoy (b. 1923) but by conductor Valery Gergiev, who is by some way the youngest speaker here, having been born in 1953, seventeen years after Shostakovich finished the Fourth Symphony in May 1936. Being a mere child compared to the composer's friend Natan Perelman (b. 1906), the conducting guru Ilya Musin (1904-1999), and the composer Vissarion Shebalin's dignified widow Alisa (b. 1901), Gergiev could be forgiven for misconstruing the chronology of their times. And, indeed, it might well appear -- particularly to the sort of irritably superficial attention which is all Royal S. Brown seems to have allowed himself ("irritating" is the fifth word in his review) -- that Gergiev credits Shostakovich with precognition. Yet such an impression is false. In 1936, avers Gergiev correctly, "it was already clear that the country was becoming one big concentration camp". In case one should miss this statement through a fit of irascible distraction, Shostakovich's friend, musicologist Abram Gozenpud (b. 1908) is on hand to restate it for us: "This  was a time when the concentration camps were full of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners." That Brown misattributes Gergiev's statement, misunderstands it, and fails to notice that Gozenpud confirms it, is evidence, at best, of an excess of zealous wrath. More to the point is that anyone writing on Shostakovich nowadays ought to be aware that, irrespective of any words of Valery Gergiev, Stalin began his repressions as soon as he became dictator in 1928.
The "Stalinist purges" -- which Royal S. Brown appears to imagine broke out quite unexpectedly months after Shostakovich finished his Fourth Symphony -- were, in fact, continuous throughout Stalin's 25-year reign. From time to time, these purges became excessive even by Stalin's standards, reaching frenzies which were popularly known by the names of the sub-dictators nominally in charge of their prosecution, such as the Yezhovshchina of 1936-38 and the Zhdanovshchina of 1946-48. What Brown understands by the phrase "the Stalinist purges" is what Gergiev calls "our famous year of 1937", when the Yezhovshchina was at its height. What Brown fails to grasp, having presumably read no Soviet history, is that the Yezhovshchina was itself part of something larger called the Great Terror, which brewed up after the Kirov murder in late 1934 and only simmered back down to normal levels in 1939. Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, then, was begun (in late 1935) not only within an ongoing culture of fear and purge, but nearly a year into the Great Terror itself. The claim that Shostakovich was "prophetic" in this work is erroneous -- the product of Valery Gergiev's misconception of chronology. The Fourth Symphony was as much a child of the Terror as were the Fifth and Sixth, as Royal S. Brown should be aware by now. If he has an alternative concept of this work, he's entitled to advance it, but he has no right to poohpooh Russians who demonstrably know more than he about the context and thus hold a weightier opinion -- people like Shostakovich's friend, the musicologist Marina Sabinina (b. 1917) who tells Larry Weinstein: "The Fourth Symphony was about the times, the cruel times, about the nightmare of repression."
From the Fourth Symphony, Weinstein's storyboard takes a brief backward turn to visit Lady Macbeth by way of the Pravda attack at the beginning of 1936. We see the poisoning scene sung by Irina Loskutova and Bulat Minzhilkiev at the Mariinsky Theatre, intercut with Gergiev suggesting that Katerina's murder of the tyrant Boris had subversive resonances in the USSR of the Thirties. It's true that resistance and hatred of Stalin were alive and bubbling in Soviet society at that time. Gergiev may be onto something. However, the majority opinion here is that the opera's famous fall in 1936 was due more to Stalin's philistine incomprehension of Shostakovich's idiom (cue a trio of soulful Russian street minstrels warbling "Suliko"). Annoyed by Gergiev's guess, Royal S. Brown ignores the idiomatic argument in order to revive the obsolete conjecture that Stalin, being a prude, disapproved of the sex scene. But the dictator, no sort of prude, was incapable of being shocked by anything on earth, let alone a detumescent trombone. What Stalin -- who walked out shortly before the Third Act (i.e., a minute or two after the episode at the police station) -- would have disliked was the opera's pulsing sense of independent life, its spontaneous vitality, its desperate consecration of love above all other ties and responsibilities, and its Politically Uncorrect emotional authenticity. In short, he sensed its innately counter-revolutionary individualism. That he also hated most of the music was no doubt the clincher, but, given contemporary developments in other walks of Soviet life, he must have been looking for an excuse to crack down on the intelligentsia, and Lady Macbeth offered the perfect opportunity. What tends to get missed in all this is that while Stalin may have preferred a sentimental folk-song, he was canny enough to detect from the young Shostakovich's opera that it was the work of a powerful artist: someone potentially useful to the state if he could be licked into shape (and not just for film music). As with Bulgakov and Pasternak, Stalin seems to have been a little intrigued by Shostakovich -- a more than usually engrossing puppet to play with.
Although Stalin is known to have kept a close eye on his puppet-victims, it's highly unlikely that he listened in on the rehearsals of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony in the way, for example, that he listened in (from the lighting booth) to the show-trials of 1936-8. On the other hand, it's conceivable that he ordered his underlings to report to him about the rehearsals and that the decision to forbid the symphony was taken at a high level. A couple of Weinstein's witnesses reiterate the long-standing official line that Shostakovich voluntarily withdrew the Symphony. However, it beggars belief that any Soviet composer could withdraw a work of this importance at the final stages of rehearsal solely on his own initiative. To do such an inconvenient thing without official directive, let alone official sanction, would have represented suicidally willful individualism. Shostakovich could only have "withdrawn" the Symphony because Stalin's apparat gave him to understand that such was the public form of what was required of him, i.e., it was a ban publicly presented as a voluntary surrender. (This is how Isaak Glikman, Daniel Zhitomirsky, and Evgeny Mravinsky saw it -- and, curiously, how Tamara Bernstein reports it in her CBC documentary.)
Why did Stalin's apparat ban the Fourth Symphony? Shostakovich's friend Mariya Konniskaya (b. 1905) hoods her eyes with patrician wryness: "The system suspected that something was wrong here. 'Life has become better, life has become merrier', said Stalin, but Shostakovich insisted on writing tragic themes. They sensed with their snouts that something was wrong." Marina Sabinina agrees: "Its tragedy was so sharp, so cutting that it was impossible not to notice." Testimony implies that Shostakovich had mapped out much of the Fourth Symphony in his mind before the Pravda attack on Lady Macbeth--a fact which, as we have seen, in no way affects the claim that the Symphony is "about" aspects of the Terror. However, it is hard to believe that the final stages of composition, which took place over the four months after the Pravda articles, left no additional mark on the work. As Dmitri Tolstoy observes: "The ban on Shostakovich was in force. And the whole population was so terrorised that they didn't know how to relate to him. Many thought he'd soon be in prison. Many betrayed him. Those in the Composers' Union who had once praised his music now began to denounce him." Larry Weinstein is quite right to make this vertiginous work the cornerstone of his film: it embodies the story he's telling with a quasi-cinematic precision which ideally suits his purpose. (Readers of The New Shostakovich will perhaps observe how closely Weinstein follows its suggestions.)
In stepping back barely an inch from what Gavriil Popov called the "very caustic, strong, and noble" outspokenness of the Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich's Fifth, composed about a year later at the height of the Terror, demanded an extraordinary courage (combined, perhaps, with a compulsion to tell the truth which, regardless of his fears for himself and his family, he was unable to evade). The design of the Fifth may be tauter and its tone more astringent than the free-ranging phantasmagorical Fourth, but the message it conveys is much the same. The reasons for these stylistic developments, however, were not, as Western musicologists have assumed, merely formal, as the composer's daughter Galina (b. 1936) is at pains to remind us: "Under Stalin, many people were repressed and imprisoned. Those arrested included friends and relatives of Shostakovich. For instance, his sister Mariya's husband was arrested and died in prison. My grandmother, that is my mother's mother, was also arrested and exiled." (Indeed, Shostakovich's elder sister Mariya was also internally exiled at this time.) The imprisonment or exile of four of the composer's relations probably followed the usual rationale in such cases: they were warnings, and those held in custody were understood as "hostages" (sic). Such a situation, Galina adds, "makes a profound impression. [My father] was very austere, very reticent about this subject."
The War Symphonies makes no expressive use of the Fifth Symphony's grieving slow movement in this connection; nor does the film broach the issue of the coda to the finale. That's been done before and, in any case, this is not that sort of film, being instead a broad-brush canvas designed to convey the continuity of Shostakovich's "compositional opposition" by juxtaposing music with historical footage in almost impressionistic ways. Weinstein's approach stresses the caricatural satire and sense of the monstrous in the composer's music. Its tragic aspects, well covered in earlier treatments, are correspondingly leant on less heavily than usual. (Royal S. Brown predictably objects to "the juxtaposition of parts of the Eighth Symphony, one of [Shostakovich's] most profound utterances as a composer, with an agitprop parade". In fact, the "part" in question, the trio from the third movement, is clearly sarcastic and legitimately juxtaposed as such. Brown is merely paying pompous lip-service to the "profundity" of a work whose tragi-satiric shifts he fails to hear or understand.)
The Fifth Symphony is, of course, a key work for revisionism -- a piece for decades praised as an abstract "neoclassical" meditation by Western critics who copied down its year of composition without comment, not realising that it was significant. The composer Vladimir Rubin (b. 1924) is explicit: "It was written during a very difficult time, a time of terror in our country. Many people close to Shostakovich were swept away by this bloody meat-grinder. This symphony was crucial for his destiny because his very life was at the brink of extinction." Ilya Musin elaborates: "With the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich expressed allegorically everything he had endured -- all those persecutions." Marina Sabinina, who was at the Leningrad premiere, sums up the feeling behind the half-hour of tumultuous applause with which the audience greeted the work: "Finally we have heard the music which we wanted to hear!" (For the sake of bemused Western musicologists, it should perhaps be explained that this sentiment referred to the expressive directness and emotional authenticity of the Symphony rather than its formal-stylistic niche in the canon of Western classicism.)
One might ask: if Stalin's apparat took sufficient interest in Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony to ensure that it was effectively forbidden, why did they not do the same with his Fifth? It's a fair question since, despite certain claims to the contrary, there was no official apparat position on the Fifth until two months after it had begun to be performed in the Soviet Union. The probable explanation is manifold. Stalin and his henchmen maintained the impetus and thoroughness of the Terror by moving from one area of concern to another, leaving each situation alone for a while after the necessary alterations had been put into effect (for example: the progress, month by month, through the fields of Soviet culture during 1936, following the inaugural attack on Shostakovich and his fellow "formalists"). By the time Shostakovich came to write his Fifth Symphony, the main focus of the Terror had shifted to the Party and the armed forces, for the moment leaving the cultural intelligentsia untouched. Complicating matters, Stalin's multi-centred power-structure produced, during 1937, a species of mutual cannibalism by which one political sub-organisation hastened to denounce its nearest rival before it was itself denounced. This, too, happened inside the musical apparat, with the probable result that many of the local officials who had overseen the quashing of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony were no longer in place, or had lost immediate touch with their central command, when the Fifth came into rehearsal in September 1937. In effect, the overworked Stalinist system took its eye off the ball during a time of intense organisational convulsion, thereby allowing the Fifth Symphony, every bit as subversively critical as its predecessor, to slip through into the public arena and become a de facto popular success before it could be halted.
One of the strengths of Weinstein's film is that, through well-selected documentary footage, it conveys some of the atmosphere of apocalyptic hysteria attendant upon the prosecution of the Terror at its height. Thus, over the sinister build-up to the grotesque march in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, we are given show-trial footage of public prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky demanding that "the disgusting Trotskyite agents of international Fascism be shot like filthy dogs". This, in turn, is intercut with horrible film of such filthy dogs being shot, as recommended, before being kicked casually into open graves -- followed by marching "angry workers" and (for the edification of Royal S. Brown) some real propaganda drumming home Stalin's surrealistic assertions that all his erstwhile Bolshevik colleagues (rivals) had been spies, saboteurs, and would-be assassins on the payroll of America and Japan.
In keeping with his apparent policy of not milking the pathos (and thereby allowing pompous advocates of profundity to overlook the attacking satire in Shostakovich's music), Weinstein segues from the Terror to an extended evocation of the siege of Leningrad via the drained desolation of the Sixth Symphony's Largo. Here -- while quoting the passage in Testimony in which Shostakovich describes the Seventh Symphony as "not about Leningrad under siege [but] about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off" -- the main emphasis among the witnesses is on the traditional anti-Nazi interpretation of the work. Isaak Glikman (1911-1996), for example, is clear that the march in the first movement of the Seventh represents the "Fascist invaders". We are offered moving firsthand accounts of the legendary Leningrad premiere, as well as film of Shostakovich playing the first movement of Seventh Symphony in a piano reduction, and reading -- with vehemence -- an anti-Nazi speech at a broadcast public meeting. Though she contributes elsewhere, Flora Litvinova (b. 1920) is not asked about her war-time conversation with the composer in which he told her the Seventh was "not just about fascism, but also about our system, about any tyranny and totalitarianism in general". (Perhaps she was asked about this during the making of the programme, but it was dropped for reasons of structure. Since so many of those witnesses who took part are now dead or nearly so, it is to be hoped that outtakes, or at least unedited transcripts of the interviews, have been preserved by Weinstein as vital historical documents.) As for the substantial evidence in support of Litvinova's report, readers are directed to pages 150 to 159 of Allan B. Ho and Dmitry Feofanov's monumental Shostakovich Reconsidered.
Shostakovich, of course, was in Leningrad for only a few months of the siege, being (on Stalin's personal order) flown out to Moscow and sent thence to Kuibyshev. The film's long Leningrad meditation is, however, justifiable as conveying a properly sombre impression of the Soviet experience of the war. This is thrown into relief by the equally emphatic identification of the Eighth Symphony as very far from the war-dominated work which anti-revisionists take it to be. Dmitri Tolstoy: "In plain language we can say that it is about totalitarianism -- this horrible reality, and the pitiable human soul which is looking for a place to hide from it." From a similar perspective, Vladimir Rubin characterises the work as a synoptic contemplation of the horrors of our time, these being more moral and political than merely military. As for the pokerfaced satire of the Ninth Symphony, Tolstoy drolly describes it as "what is called giving the finger in the pocket". Glikman adds a codicil: "When the war ended, I was in Moscow. Dmitri did not come out to the square that day because his joy over the victory was mixed with a feeling of bitterness. He hid this feeling. He told only me about it. He was afraid that on the crest of this victory, Stalin would consolidate his tyranny, consolidate his despotism and his inhumanity." (The lame pretence, in certain quarters, that Glikman was a fence-sitter hereby bites the dust.)
The tribulations of 1948, and Shostakovich's scabrous satirical riposte Rayok (here accepted as originating within months of Zhdanov's attack), occasion a contribution from St Tikhon Khrennikov (b. 1913), who opines that the fear which Shostakovich lived in "has been terribly exaggerated". "There was nothing," insists the old rogue, silkily, "for him to be afraid of." Vladimir Rubin is sardonic: "The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep. Shostakovich was subordinate to Khrennikov, and Khrennikov was Shostakovich's curator from the Party. Khrennikov has said that he himself had nothing to be afraid of, but I doubt this statement. All were afraid. Khrennikov had his fear, Shostakovich his. We were programmed with it -- it infiltrated our innermost life." Understandably so, for death or the Gulag awaited any dissenting voice. Alisa Shebalina confirms that Shostakovich played Rayok to her husband Vissarion, who urged him: "Destroy it immediately -- or hide it well!"
Elsewhere, Veniamin Basner (1925-1997) tells the 1937 interrogation story, as he did in Channel 4's Soviet Echoes, calling the interrogating officer Zakovsky, as distinct from Zanchevsky in his alternative version for Elizabeth Wilson (and Zakrevsky in the same story retold by Krzysztof Meyer). Karen Khachaturian (b. 1920) likewise re-runs Shostakovich's joke-toast "Here's to things not getting any better!", as he told it to Wilson. He adds that Stalin personally ordered Shostakovich to write the score for his autohagiographical film The Fall of Berlin, from which we see extended clips.
Flora Litvinova summarises: "Shostakovich embodied our epoch. He portrayed its controversy and its tragedy." Gozenpud is more specific: "Shostakovich juxtaposed the individual and subjective to the collective and the national. He spoke about the tragedy of the self in a cruel world, a world which threatens the very existence of mankind." As for whether the composer had any illusions, political or artistic, about the cause of this cruel tragedy, Gozenpud firmly shakes his elderly head: "He was too sober and wise an artist to depict heaven on earth at a time when hell was on earth."
Royal S. Brown has the nerve to tick off senior musicologists like Gozenpud and Sabinina (and, by logical extension, also Mazel', Lebedinsky, Aranovsky, and Laul, not to mention half a dozen eminent Russian conductors) for what he calls "purely programmatic readings [which] would get a student in Music Appreciation 101 an F for the course". It seems not to have occurred to him that the case of Shostakovich implies that there's something wrong with Music Appreciation 101. And, of course, his accusation entails blatant sleight of hand. These are not "purely" programmatic readings, but secure contextual indications from professional analysts, formerly close to the composer, as to the underlying meaning of his music. The fact that very little is said about the technical details of Shostakovich's music reflects the structure of the film rather than any alleged inadequacy among the participating musicologists.
The same sleight of hand, or contortion of thought, is evident in Brown's suggestion that Shostakovich's venerable friends and colleagues claim "the turn toward the tragic in his music was caused by the advent of Stalin and the Soviet state". In the first place, no such claim is made or implied; Brown has misunderstood the script. In the second place, the fact that Shostakovich wrote tragic music long before Stalin took power (for example, the Suite for two pianos, Op. 6) has no logical bearing on the claim that his later tragic music often stemmed from aspects of life in the society Stalin created. Deriding the respectable testimony aired in The War Symphonies as "propaganda", Brown complains that "we needed more". Indeed, we always do; but not more lying obfuscation and pseudo-centric flannel. Larry Weinstein makes no pretence at a plodding survey of every quaver Shostakovich wrote. Anyone in his job must be selective, and he has taken a conceptual line which is coherent in its own terms and firmly defensible in its contentions. The subtleties it misses are not those appertaining to a composer who changed his thoughts every second of the day, or who ignored his world in favour of inner exploration of his own psyche, or who worked philosophically in a mood of exalted abstraction. Such fancies are merely a Western cultural delusion imposed on the reality of Shostakovich's life and art.
Brown rebukes The War Symphonies for evoking "very little of the real horrors imposed by Stalin on at least thirty million of his countrymen. Where, for instance, is a witness to tell of the hideous torture inflicted on Shostakovich's fellow artist, the brilliant theoretician and theatrical director Vsevolod Meyerhold, before he was finally executed, two years after his arrest, in 1940?" We are entitled to respond by asking which is the real Royal S. Brown: the one who pretends Testimony told us nothing we didn't already know, or the one who rejects it as a "decidedly slanted presentation"? The one for whom the Stalinist background is overrated as a source for Shostakovich's inspiration, or the one who insists that this background should be stressed by detailing the fate of Meyerhold? And why Meyerhold, in particular? Can Brown supply the name of anyone else tortured by the NKVD -- or is he just quoting the only one he's heard of? "We still have a very incomplete picture of the horrors of Stalinism," he declares, having presumably read no Soviet history during the last twenty years. (He certainly can't have read much about Meyerhold, who was arrested, not in 1938 as he appears to think, but on 20th June 1939, being shot eight months later on 2nd February 1940.) The War Symphonies has its limitations but they don't detract from its impact and are, in any case, minor compared to those of Royal S. Brown.
No one really interested in Shostakovich will be disappointed by this film, which contains much valuable footage of the man himself and conveys an important part of the truth about his life and times with considerable visual and sonic verve.
Copyright (c) Ian MacDonald 1999
The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin is available on colour VHS from Bullfrog Films, Box 149, Oley PA 19547, USA. [(610) 779-8226; firstname.lastname@example.org]
Interviewees:- Veniamin Basner, Valery Gergiev, Isaac Glikman, Abram Gozenpud, Karen Khachaturian, Tikhon Khrennikov, Mariya Konniskaya, Flora Litvinova, Ksenia Matia, Ilya Musin, Maria Novikova, Natan Perelman, Tatiana Petrova, Vladimir Rubin, Maria Sabinina, Nikanor Shabanov, Alisa Shebalina, Galina Shostakovich, Yelena Sonina, Dmitri Tolstoy.