This obituary was first published in the Independent on 25 August 2003. It is here by permission of Ian's family.


What has been labelled “the Shostakovich debate” began in 1979, with the publication of Testimony, the memoirs of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, dictated to the musicologist Solomon Volkov shortly before Shostakovich’s death in 1975. Testimony, a bitter and brave book, revealed to a largely unsuspecting west that the Soviet Union’s most vaunted composer, far from being a hapless stooge of the regime, was in truth a passionate and courageous anti-Stalinist. But Testimony walked straight into the guns of the cold war. The KGB organised denunciations by Shostakovich’s relatives and colleagues, and the campaign of disinformation persuade several prominent musicologists, chiefly in the USA, that Volkov was a fabricator, that he had exploited his association with Shostakovich to pass off a money-earning fake. Writers on the right seized on Testimony with told-you-so glee; the left insisted it was a falsehood, one commentator even asserting it was the fruit of a CIA plot. The lines were drawn for musicology’s most passionate debate in decades, with the soul of the composer as the prize.

Into this febrile atmosphere stepped MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich, published in 1990, which demonstrated close parallels between the Shostakovich of Testimony and the music itself and thus called the composer to the support of the memoirist. The book also revealed MacDonald’s profound and detailed knowledge of the Soviet background against which, he argued, it was impossible to understand the music correctly.

The impact of The New Shostakovich was instantaneous. Norman Lebrecht described it as a “tour de force of musical and social analysis”. The composer’s son recommended it as “one of the best biographies of Dmitri Shostakovich I have read”. Vladimir Ashkenazy wrote a letter of appreciation, and Semyon Bychkov felt it “gets under the skin of Shostakovich and understands
the perversity of the Soviet system and what it has inflicted on humanity”. For Richard Dyer, writing in the Boston Sunday Globe, it was “most thorough study of this enigmatic figure yet undertaken in English (or Russian, for that matter)”. MacDonald changed the nature of Shostakovich studies for ever.

But it was his sometimes over-literal interpretations of the music, occasionally ascribing a film-music specificity to particular gestures, that aroused most excitement. Many of his admirers found in The New Shostakovich a Rosetta stone to “explain” the music, and his critics condemned him for reducing the universal message of the music to detailed specifics. MacDonald later [contended] that some of his images had been over-precise, and considered a revised edition to tone them down – but he stuck to his guns over the thrust of his argument, contending that it was the specific nature of Shostakovich’s inspiration that gave his music universal strength. Yet he never claimed to be an authority on the composer: I consider there are no experts on Shostakovich. The subject is too vast, our present knowledge too partial, and the requisite state of sympathetic insight into his life and work too underdeveloped for anyone to claim to be, or be regarded as, an expert on him …. I certainly wouldn’t, being at best an ephemeral agitator in the cause of truth....

Indeed, MacDonald had never been a conventional academic. He spent only a year (1968–69) at Cambridge University, of which he later wrote: “The stately air was fragrant with marijuana and no one seemed to be doing a stroke of work”. Nor MacDonald, either: he enjoyed the drugs culture, changed courses three times, largely to avoid exams, and left.
Having developed an enthusiasm both for popular and classical music while he was still a schoolboy at Dulwich College, he now began writing about music, and in 1972 was appointed Assistant Editor of The New Musical Express, then being heavily outsold by Melody Maker. In his three years with the magazine, he and the editor, Nick Logan, improved the sales by some 160%, from 90,000 to 220,000, comfortably overtaking their rival.

Ian MacDonald also wrote lyrics and songs. His younger brother, Bill, had played with Phil Manzanera (later of Roxy Music) in a group called Quiet Sun, and when Manzanera recorded some solo albums, Ian provided some of the material for them, and worked with Brian Eno, too. Sub Rosa, an album of his own songs – reflecting his fondness for groups like Steeley Dan – was released in 1990.
The book which brought MacDonald the widest acclaim was his Revolution in the Head, subtitled The Beatles’ Records and the 1960s and first published by Fourth Estate in 1994 (a second, enlarged edition appeared in 1997 and a paperback from Pimlico in 1998). In it he details every single Beatles’ track recorded, describing the instrumentation (and who played what), the details of the recording and first release, analysing the music and relating it to the text. It was the most thorough examination the songs had ever received, and the press showered it with thoroughly deserved praise.

“One of the most convincing cultural analyses of recent British musical history which you could ever hope to read”, reported Peter Aspden in The Financial Times. “A pinnacle of popular music criticism”, said The Independent; “In Ian MacDonald, The Beatles at last have a critic worthy of their oeuvre.” The Observer esteemed it “a dazzling piece of scholarship” – “Best of all, the book drives you back to the music itself with fresh ears and understanding”. Stuart Maconie, writing in Q, rated it “the most sustainedly brilliant piece of pop criticism and scholarship for years. An astonishing achievement”. The reviews must have exceeded his publisher’s wildest hopes and yet MacDonald, with typical modesty, inscribed the copy he sent me: “I suspect this may go under your head. (No need to read it, of course!)”.

Until the final depression began to sap his energy, it was always on call to serve his enthusiasms. When OUP published a study of Shostakovich by the American musicologist Laurel Fay which he felt was shamefully inadequate, his detailed and devastating review – posted at “Music under Soviet Rule”, the website he maintained ( – ran to over 50,000 words. And he corresponded regularly with scholars of Soviet music all around the world, usually giving generously of his time. He leaves unfinished a study of David Bowie and a book called Birds, Beasts & Fishes: A Guide to Animal Lore and Symbolism – he empathised deeply with animals and felt a direct line of communication with cats in particular.

MacDonald believed – passionately, of course – in an after-life, and the spur to write The New Shostakovich came one night when he felt a prod in the back and heard an instruction from Shostakovich to write the book. That belief must have helped reconcile him to the decision to commit suicide. He had suffered from acute depression from around 1976 and attempted suicide twice in 1978 and 1979 (mentioning the fact openly in his writings), and had spent the last three years in an ever-blacker depression from which death eventually seemed the only solution. Praise for his most recent book, The People’s Music, a collection of his writings on pop and rocks published six weeks ago, was not enough to revive his spirits. He was found dead at his Gloucestershire home on Thursday morning, having posted a note on the door to call the police.

Ian MacDonald (MacCormick), writer; born London, 3 October 1948; died Wotton under Edge, Gloucestershire, 20 or 21 August 2003.


Ian MacDonald

Ian MacDonald wrote about music with a passion that sparked reactions of almost equal intensity among his readers. Unusually, he was regarded as an authority both in popular and classical music, on two markedly dissimilar subjects: Shostakovich and The Beatles. He met controversy head on, bravely enduring the opprobrium of those whose work he questioned, while his books earned the kind of reviews that are the stuff of publishers’ dreams.