Part Four: 2000 - ....

SR = Shostakovich Reconsidered
TNS = The New Shostakovich

2000 January 2nd. Harlow Robinson (The New York Times) reviews Fay's Shostakovich: A Life: "Mostly lifeless. Cautious, dutiful and choked with details, her book reads more like an extended encyclopedia entry than a biography... Like many scholars who attempt to write biographies, she seems to have fallen so deeply in love with her research that she became incapable of distinguishing between the trivial and the essential... Her exhaustive examination of all the available documents has failed to uncover any startling revelations... Reading [this book] is a bit like hearing only the second violin part of an epic symphony. Something is definitely missing... No one can accuse Laurel E. Fay of having an imagination, fertile or otherwise."
January 7th. Laurel Fay interviewed in The Guardian: "I don't have a view of Volkov as a person. I am a scholar and I am interested in posterity. I know Volkov had conversations with Shostakovich. I think there are parts of the book that reflect those conversations. But a lot of it is the musical gossip that was current at the time. Testimony does reflect the kinds of stories and anecdotes that were floating around the musical community in Russia. In the end, though, people must check what was correct and what was incorrect... [Revisionists] want to read [Shostakovich's] music as encoded dissidence. I don't. They start from the position of knowing the answers. I start from the position of asking the questions. I don't automatically assume that his 'Soviet' music is ironic. I allow that he might have been serious." Why has she never met her opponents in debate? "I don't have any reason not to, but not while they're defaming me, not while they're throwing mud at me. I'm not going to be told I'm a liar and unethical just because I think they are wrong. These people aren't interested in Shostakovich at all."
January. Krzysztof Meyer (DSCH Journal 12): "[Shostakovich] was never like the Communists. But of course I must remind you that his family came from generations with strong socialist backgrounds -- of course, Communism and Socialism are quite different phenomena. Soviet Communism was synonymous with tyranny."
January. Vladislav Uspensky interviewed by Pierre Vidal (DSCH Journal 12). Vidal: "We have always had the impression of a form of complicity between Shostakovich and the public which expected some message or other to be contained within each of his new works." Uspensky: "That was certainly the case. The Eighth, Tenth and Thirteenth symphonies, Stenka Razin... It was always in opposition to the [Soviet] regime... The Jewish songs and Babi Yar reflect a certain ideology. Or at least the contesting of the official ideology. Shostakovich entered into a dialogue with the people, opposing Party ideology." Vidal: "But why did he join the Party?" Uspensky: "Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the pressure the Party exerted remained very great. Shostakovich had to become a member of the Party in order to become President [sic] of the [RSFSR] Composers' Union. I was also a member of the Party. Being so meant absolutely nothing."
January 19th. Norman Lebrecht (The Daily Telegraph): "There is a striking symmetry between the Holocaust 'denial' issues that are being heard in the High Court and the publication of a purportedly authoritative biography of Dmitri Shostakovich which argues that he was essentially an obedient Soviet citizen. The historian David Irving, who has acknowledged that millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis, maintains that this cannot properly be attributed to Adolf Hitler's instigation since no one has ever seen a signed Führer order for the prosecution of genocide. The American musicologist Laurel Fay follows similar thinking in maintaining that Shostakovich came to terms with communism because nothing in his own hand suggests otherwise. She dismisses the composer's dissident memoirs and she discounts the oral evidence of musicians who worked closely with Shostakovich. No musician of consequence, apart from the Stalinist apparatchik Tikhon Khrennikov, ever regarded Shostakovich as a Soviet puppet. Yet Fay and her fellow revisionists generally accept only signed statements. Many of these will have been made under mortal pressure. Eye-witness accounts are all too often ruled out of court. Memoirs, sniffs Fay, 'furnish a treacherous resource to the historian'... Fay and her ilk give the impression of having appeared to have studied [Shostakovich's music] under sterile laboratory conditions. The greatness of Shostakovich, however, was that he did not shrink from infection. His music was a mirror of Soviet reality and a testimony to human endurance. It is profoundly a moral issue, an issue of truth versus contrivance."
February 6th. Joseph Horowitz, "Shostakovich: A Moral Beacon Amid the Darkness of a Tragic Era" (The New York Times): "The Soviet pressure cooker shattered Shostakovich's nerves and, doubtless, shortened his life. But Stalinism may be said to have more inflamed than suppressed his creative gift. With its mournful austerity, its vicious ferocity, its programmatic clues, his music conveyed his own denunciations: of state tyranny, of the persecution of Jews, of the suppression of the human spirit. He suffered and testified... Shostakovich was a moral bulwark or scourge. If this function was old-fashioned, so was his aesthetic. For decades, he was disparaged in the West as a sellout whose failure to challenge traditional means and forms signified a capitulation to retrograde party canons. Only belatedly did he emerge as the century's great political subversive among composers, a voice of conscience."
March. Composer Paul Epstein's booklet for the Emerson Quartet's set of Shostakovich's complete string quartets (Deutsche Grammophon 463284-2): "It is the tragic irony of Shostakovich's life that he lived in a country whose leaders took art seriously as a social force -- as a tool in a murderous program of suppression and brutal social engineering. Because his immense reputation allowed him to reach millions of minds, he was a tacit threat to the established power and was drawn into a terrifying dance with the State, with Stalin personally, and with the insane and sinister cast of characters that flourished during (and after) that awful era. His life literally hung on the notes he wrote. He chose to survive -- for his family and his music -- rather than actively oppose the regime, as the poet Osip Mandelshtam had done, inevitably to be destroyed by it. Shostakovich worked with the Party and tried to fight from inside. At the same time, he never abandoned his commitment to the Russian people, to express their common despair, anger, courage and desire for freedom. Out of these conflicting allegiances he developed a complex, multilevelled language, full of coded cultural and personal references -- a vehicle for expressing potentially subversive ideas in a style that, on the surface, was acceptable (often just barely) to the Party... To be understood fully, the drama of these quartets must be heard as not only musical, but also social, cultural and interpersonal. The music ceases to be just a vehicle for stimulation or relaxation, and becomes a kind of social contract between creator and listener, and listener and listener."
March 5th. Richard Taruskin, "Casting A Great Composer As A Fictional Hero" (The New York Times): "Many have disputed [the] authenticity [of Testimony]. In the interests of full disclosure, I had better acknowledge that I am one such, and that I have received in consequence much abuse from those whose views I am about to critique. But no matter how one feels about Mr. Volkov's methods, one must feel a certain gratitude for the role his book has played in the elevation of Shostakovich's stock. It portrayed the composer as embittered by the mistreatment he had suffered and vengeful toward the Soviet state, and toward the memory of Stalin in particular. Both in Mr. Volkov's annotations and in the text itself there were hints that Shostakovich's works contained veiled (or not so veiled) ironies, even outright messages of protest... The Testimony-inspired enthusiasm... has been magnified of late by the emergence of a clamorous cult around the person of the composer. Like the one around Stalin, like any such cult, the one around Shostakovich is an instrument of thought control. It fosters orthodoxy, enforces conformism and breeds intolerance of critical thinking... It is important to quash the fantasy image of Shostakovich as a dissident, no matter how much it feeds his popularity, because it dishonors actual dissidents like Mr. Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov, who took risks and suffered reprisals. Shostakovich did not take risks... The poet Osip Mandelstam, who by actually doing what Shostakovich is now fancied to have done, managed only to commit state-assisted suicide... In 1960, by which time his international fame offered him a shield, Shostakovich gave in to pressure and joined the Communist Party. The autobiographical Eighth Quartet was an act of atonement for this display of weakness. When, in 1973, Shostakovich was approached with the demand that he sign a circular letter denouncing Sakharov, he again gave in, with disastrous consequences for his reputation among his peers in the Soviet intelligentsia, including Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who despised him for it. Shostakovich's likely motive in dictating whatever portion of Testimony proves to be truly his was exculpation for these and similar failures of nerve... Officially dedicated to the memory of the suppressed Russian Revolution of 1905, [the Eleventh Symphony] was privately interpreted as a protest against the crushing by the Soviets of the recent Hungarian revolt. Whenever asked, Shostakovich denied it; but that made no difference. His audience never asked... Were the silly claims or rabid denunciations confined to cyberspace, there would be little need to cry them down, but they have had some alarming public repercussions in the wake of Ms. Fay's biography. Harlow Robinson, a contributor to Shostakovich Reconsidered, writing in The New York Times Book Review, derided it [Fay's biography] for its failure to support the myths inspired by Testimony, as did the reviewer for The Washington Post. The sentimental Mr. Horowitz faults the author [Fay] for being "inordinately dry-eyed." The nadir -- it has to be the nadir -- was reached in a column by the English music journalist Norman Lebrecht, which compared Ms. Fay's honorable scholarly skepticism with David Irving's notorious attempts at Holocaust denial. The atmosphere of hostility and organized slander that Ms. Fay has had to endure is more than a little reminiscent of the atmosphere in which Soviet dissidents -- and even Shostakovich, at times -- had to carry on. If we want Shostakovich's presence in the concert hall and on records to outlast it, let's begin by returning our attention from our cold-war bedtime stories to his music and recognizing that our interpretations, and the purposes they serve, are ours, not his. Encasing Shostakovich in a bubble of dramatic fiction is a fool's game. Bubbles burst." (Cf. Irina Shostakovich, interviewed by Margarite Mazo in DSCH Journal 12: "The Eleventh Symphony was written in 1957 when these events [the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956] occurred. What happened was viewed with great gravity by everyone. There are no direct references to the 1956 events in the symphony, but Shostakovich had them in mind.")
March 9th. Bernard Holland, "Great Music Isn't Necessarily Made By Great People" (The New York Times): "You can like the music; you don't have to like the man. Listeners have a hard time believing this. How, people ask, could the composer who toadied and cringed before his Soviet bosses have written such bravely beautiful music? In all those quartets and symphonies, weren't those secret messages he was sending? Do we read between the conformist lines and find rebellion? They weren't. We don't... Shostakovich was a mediocre human being possessed of staggering musical ability. After Stalin scared him almost to death in the mid-1930's, the composer did his duty: writing patriotic pieces, signing petitions on request (some of them damaging to his colleagues), rebuking what he was asked to rebuke, dispensing the government line as directed. He may not have liked some of it, but there is little evidence that he showed much hesitation when his own skin was in question. In other words, Shostakovich behaved just as most of us would have behaved in similar circumstances. Martyrs are few. Self-preservation is strong. Cowardice is a human concept. Animals run away without apology when they feel themselves threatened... It is hard to call Shostakovich's life tragic, at least any more tragic than your own. Terrifying and stressful a lot of it was, but tragedy requires an imposing person brought down by fate and bad decisions. Shostakovich was more a victim; I don't think he rises to the needed stature."
March 10th. Ian MacDonald (DSCH-L discussion group) responds to Bernard Holland: "...I'll refrain from insulting Bernard Holland in the manner in which he has so gratuitously insulted Shostakovich -- other than to say that people like him prospered very nicely under Soviet rule despite barely aspiring to the mediocrity which he falsely ascribes to Shostakovich. Mr Holland's comments are disgusting and The New York Times stands self-condemned by the conscienceless act of publishing them."
March 12th. Ed Vulliamy interviews Laurel Fay (The Observer): "'They're already calling me a Soviet stooge,' she sighs."
March 15th. Tamara Bernstein, "Shostakovich in shades of grey: have revisionists kidnapped the memory of the Russian composer?" (National Post): "You wouldn't think that the publication of the first meticulously researched, trustworthy biography of the Soviet composer -- and the first Western biography of him that draws on Russian language sources -- would inspire hysterical controversy. [Laurel Fay's] long-awaited Shostakovich: A Life has triggered drearily predictable howls of protest from a cult of fanatics who insist that Shostakovich was a lifelong dissident; that every note of his music expresses this in easily understood codes; and that anyone who denies this is an idiot, a Stalinist, or both. If you think this sounds silly and sophomoric, you're right... The Shostakovich-as-dissident cult began in 1979, when a Russian emigre named Solomon Volkov published Testimony, claiming it was Shostakovich's dictated memoirs... Testimony begat The New Shostakovich -- a trite, 1990 biography by British journalist Ian MacDonald, who conscripts all data into the service of his own anti-Stalinist agenda. Since then, MacDonald and other Volkov disciples have invested a staggering amount of energy -- not to mention ego -- in their cause. But as U.S. musicologist Richard Taruskin has argued, they're essentially using Shostakovich as a blank screen on which they can project their own fantasies of political and moral heroism. The 'Volkovists' declare intellectual war on anyone who disagrees with them -- I once had the honour of being lumped with Taruskin and Fay in an Internet diatribe by MacDonald that rivalled War and Peace in length (but not, alas, literary quality). But they have a particular phobia of Fay, principally because she has found serious cracks in Volkov's claims for the authenticity of Testimony, and because she didn't include the book as a reliable source in her new biography. Taruskin has earned the Volkovists' hatred because, among other things, he's pointed out that even if Testimony were authentic, memoirs are never infallible sources -- every human being to some extent rewrites his or her life in old age -- and anyone who survived a totalitarian regime will have plenty of reasons to do so. These are fascinating, complex questions; in a healthy intellectual environment they could be bandied about constructively. But the Volkovists will allow only for black and white; right and wrong; good guys and bad guys... 'The atmosphere of hostility and organized slander that Ms. Fay has had to endure,' Taruskin noted recently in The New York Times, 'is more than a little reminiscent of the atmosphere in which Soviet dissidents -- and even Shostakovich at times -- had to carry on.' Even more disturbingly, a number of influential journalists have jumped on the MacDonald-Volkov bandwagon. In a particularly odious column in The Daily Telegraph a few months ago, Norman Lebrecht compared Fay's refusal to accept Shostakovich's alleged dissidence to David Irving's Holocaust denial... Fay's sense of Shostakovich the man is 'a little hard to put into words. He was a brilliant, brilliant man -- talented beyond anything that most of us can imagine. And... he was a very conflicted person. On the one hand, he resisted and resented some of the things that happened to him [under the communist regime]. On the other hand, he was a wuss...'"
March 20th. Alex Ross, "Ruined Choirs: how did Shostakovich's music survive Stalin's Russia?" (The New Yorker). Ross offers an alleged "compromise" between revisionism and anti-revisionism, arguing that Shostakovich was not a dissident but a trimmer who wished chiefly for a quiet life: "The strong feeling in his music has led people to imagine a man who was engaged in a great battle with the system. But the hard facts reveal a smaller, weaker figure -- a man who strived at all costs to create conditions in which he could work in peace." On the subject of Testimony, Ross concurs with Richard Taruskin's view that the book represents at best a last-ditch attempt at self-justification: "The composer may have wished to improve his image in the eyes of the younger generation, of whom Volkov was a representative. So he went back over his published work and argued that what had seemed doctrinaire was in fact subversive." Quoting the passage in Testimony in which Shostakovich derides the idea that the ending of his Fifth Symphony is exultant, Ross comments: "It is strange for an artist to hector his audience in this fashion. Shostakovich was usually as vague as possible when he spoke about his music, and his belated, belligerent specificity about the meaning of the Fifth seems to protest too much. Nothing in the score supports such a reading... Shostakovich's revisionist account of the Fifth has caught on because the circumstances of its creation make us uncomfortable. It's hard to accept that a composer wrote his best-loved work under the gun of a totalitarian regime." Ross argues that the coda of the Fifth resembles that of Mahler's Third and that, like Mahler's ending, Shostakovich's represents "celebration". Ross continues: "After the war, [Shostakovich] failed to produce the Beethovenian 'Victory' symphony that Stalin had been expecting, issuing instead a largely frivolous Ninth Symphony with a vaudeville finale... At the 1948 proceedings against formalism, during which most of the accused composers avoided personal appearances, he read aloud a speech that was stultifying in its banality and disconcerting in its masochism." Ross describes Shostakovich's joining of the Communist Party in 1960 as "an unnecessary action, for which he gave conflicting explanations (one being that he was drunk)" and calls his later, openly dissident works "more the projection of a dissident career than the enactment of one". He concludes: "Shostakovich wrote agonized music from the beginning to the end of his career, no matter who was running the country."

Ian MacDonald comments: "Although Alex Ross announces his conception of Shostakovich as a 'compromise' between revisionism and anti-revisionism, his account is, in fact, indiluted anti-revisionism. Whether he deliberately meant to mislead his readers by purporting to do otherwise is hard to discern. Judging by his article, he is insufficiently experienced in the Shostakovich debate to understand where he actually stands in this discussion. In reality, he expresses an obsolete view of Shostakovich of c.1980 vintage. At most, he appears to have read Testimony, some of Shostakovich Reconsidered, and Laurel Fay's Shostakovich: A Life. Quoting from Shostakovich's letters to Isaak Glikman (as rendered by Fay) he concludes that these letters feature passages of 'artful mockery' of 'Soviet doublespeak' without any deeper significance. Ross does not seem to have come across Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and appears sturdily unaware of the overwhelming consensus among those who knew Shostakovich that he hated the Soviet system and had done for most of his adult life. A lack of contextual reading in this subject is apparent throughout Ross's article, which seems to have been put together somewhat languidly. Several of his assumptions about Shostakovich's motives and attitudes appear to be improvised without reference to fact (e.g., his suggestion that, with respect to Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich 'had been expecting the same reception that Stalin gave to Dzerzhinsky' and his assertion that 'Shostakovich lived the next two years of his life in a state of abject fear', neither of which claims are justifiable from evidence). Ross's uncritical acceptance of the 1937 interrogation story likewise indicates less than complete acquaintance with the material of the debate, as does his condemnatory adduction of Iosif Brodsky's attack on 'the effort to locate "nuances of virtue" in the gray expanses of Shostakovich's later life'. (Brodsky has also conceded that Shostakovich did much in an effort to assist him during his confrontation with the Soviet authorities in 1964, while Akhmatova's circle, of which Brodsky was a member, regarded Shostakovich's long-standing secret dissidence as self-evident.) Ross's musical judgements appear no more deeply informed than his attempts at moral and political ones. He does not, for example, appear to have persevered far enough into Shostakovich Reconsidered to stumble on Gerard McBurney's analysis of the 'Rebirth' code in the Fifth Symphony's finale. Similarly, Ross's claim that Shostakovich wrote 'ostensibly socialist realist symphonies' and that the Fifth Symphony 'passed muster with socialist-realist aesthetics' indicate that he has little idea what Socialist Realism was and how it manifested itself in musical form. (The closest Shostakovich approached to the recognised canons of Socialist Realism was in the choral works and cinema scores he was forced to specialise in during the late 1940s and early 1950s.) As for Ross's claim that Shostakovich was 'a man who strived at all costs to create conditions in which he could work in peace', it is hard to see how this can be reconciled with the composer's heroism in works like From Jewish Folk Poetry and the Thirteenth Symphony, let alone with the furious revulsion of Rayok. If -- as in a caption to the main illustration for Ross's article -- the question is to be 'Was Shostakovich a craven apparatchik or a secret dissident?', the answer on the basis of these three works alone is clear enough. Alex Ross's piece appears to be a predictable consequence of swallowing Laurel Fay's biography without chewing it. Certainly one might have expected him, in his quest for a 'compromise', to have made some mention of From Jewish Folk Poetry during his trip through Shostakovich's career of the late 1940s. Had he read my review of Fay's book, he would have been alerted to the controversy which surrounds her contested account of this work, as of much else, notably including her similarly controversial documentary methodology. Sadly, Alex Ross does not seem to have been troubled by the possibility that his conclusions might be hasty, superficial, and underinformed."

April 4th. Laurel Fay lectures at NYU on the Testimony controversy (paraphrased by Louis Blois for DSCH-L). Fay welcomes Ho and Feofanov's investigations (1998 [June]), but observes that they have not presented all available information fairly and fully. She asserts that Solomon Volkov claimed ignorance of previously published material attributed to Shostakovich; referring to the composer's article on Meyerhold in Sovetskaya muzika (1974, No. 3, p. 54), she suggests that the close proximity of an article by Volkov proves that he must have known of the Meyerhold article (third of the eight "plagiarised" passages). Fay compares the first of the recycled passages with the way it appeared in Sovetskii kompozitor in 1973, observing that every detail is identical. Fay goes on to question the significance of Shostakovich's signatures on the first pages of sections in Testimony, to point out that each interpolation of recycled material in the book is equal to the length of one typewritten page, and to question the extent of Shostakovich's alleged "superior memory". She further queries Ho and Feofanov's representation of Galina Vishnevskaya's and Mstislav Rostropovich's views on Testimony, doubts the extent of Vladimir Ashkenazy's personal knowledge of Shostakovich, and asks for proof that "dozens of meetings" took place between Volkov and Shostakovich. Other witnesses (Boris Tishchenko, Kara Karayev, Veniamin Basner's daughter) are adduced against Testimony. Fay concludes by giving notice of an "explosive" book on Shostakovich soon to be published in St Petersburg.
April 8th. Brian Hunt (National Post) reviews Fay's biography: "So intemperate was [Ho and Feofanov's] foaming at the mouth [in Shostakovich Reconsidered] that many readers may be favourably disposed to Fay's biography before reading a word of it." Hunt, however, deplores her "refusal to take a strong line on what the composer's ideology may have been", adding "Fay ducks every issue[...], gives scant idea of changes in the prevailing political climate in the Soviet Union, [and] seriously misleads the reader by giving the impression that oppression by the state died with Stalin." On Fay's account of From Jewish Folk Poetry, Hunt notes that because the work was "completed in October, 1948, and Joseph Stalin's campaign against Jewish institutions was not (in her phrase) 'gathering momentum' until December, she downgrades the work's status as protest against anti-Semitism. But anti-Semitism was not a fresh concept dreamed up by the Kremlin overnight."
April 11th. The NewsHour (PBS): "Showcasing Shostakovich". Senior producer Jeffrey Brown interviews the Emerson Quartet about their Shostakovich cycle [see March]. Brown: "Known more for his symphonies, Shostakovich also wrote fifteen quartets during his troubled life as both a hero and, as he's widely seen today, a victim of the Soviet totalitarian state." Concerning the Eighth Quartet, Eugene Drucker (violin) comments: "It is dedicated to the victims of fascism and war, and that gave him an opportunity to express great grief, violence, and sardonic humor in this work. But we feel that it is also about the situation in the Soviet Union itself, and he could always use the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis as a metaphor for something much more controversial that he was trying to express about his own country." Brown: "In 1936, the state-run press denounced Shostakovich's work as 'crude, muddled, vulgar', and warned that things 'could end very badly.' It was a time when millions were being imprisoned or executed. Do you get the sense that his life was literally hanging on the notes that he wrote?" Philip Setzer: "I think it definitely, I mean, literally, did. Art in this kind of totalitarian system takes on a tremendous importance, and it's fascinating to look at the fact that they were so obsessed -- that the powers that be were so obsessed with what Shostakovich was writing... But he took that and he made that into an art form." Brown: "The fourth movement of the [Eighth] quartet -- three loud knocks suggest the terror of the police state." Setzer: "At one point he knew he was in a lot of trouble, and he knew that one of his neighbors was in a lot of trouble, and in one of the letters he talked about hearing them come in the middle of the night, and not knowing which one they were coming for, and then hearing them go to the neighbor's door..."
April 13th. Swedish musicologist and Soviet music expert Per Skans writes in DSCH-L concerning the present Chronology: "Ich finde es lächerlich, über solche Dinge zu streiten. This line came to my mind when reading the new, extensive description of the Shostakovich debate at the website Music Under Soviet Rule. The line is sung by one of the two soldiers just about a minute from the beginning of Richard Strauss's Salome. 'I think it is ridiculous to dispute about such things' is the English equivalent, and the translation from the French original was done by Lord Alfred Douglas who, I have been given to understand, had an adequate experience of Oscar Wilde's ways of thinking. It is true that in Salome this line applies to the Jews' row over religious things, whilst the Shostakovich debate is anything but religious. But I nevertheless detect an almost religious fanaticism in some of the statements quoted from the debate. I am new to DSCH-L and so far never had any idea that grown-up persons are here more or less anathematising each other, that some apparently have not yet discovered that the Brezhnev commandments are hopelessly out of date except with some Old Believers at the former KGB, and that some Westerners incredibly behave as if an absolutely complete list of all former Soviet dissenters is available somewhere in Russia, not only in the old secret police archives. How bitterly would all my friends around the Soviet Empire -- from Tallinn to Khabarovsk, from Murmansk to Yerevan, from Odessa to Novosibirsk -- laugh, if only they knew! But above all I am deeply shocked by the lack of Western comprehension that Shostakovich was living in a society where one had to turn on the shower before even daring to discuss certain things. Compared to this, the USA of McCarthy was, in spite of its injustices, a Disneyland. I need only refer to the Soviet citizens who were tried and sentenced to death solely because of having met and been friendly with a certain Eric Blair during the Spanish civil war -- Blair later writing Nineteen Eighty-Four under the pseudonym George Orwell. Whilst respecting the intellect of my American friends very much, I frequently have the impression that they have difficulties in understanding societies very unlike their own. There is no shame in this: I have occasionally found the same phenomenon with Soviet citizens! Yet, under Soviet rule foreign students who spent years there were under careful surveillance and subject to cunning personal propaganda -- so that, short of making a superhuman effort, even people like this received an incorrect impression of the real life in the USSR. (A brilliant contrary example, showing that a really ambitious foreign student could discern a rather truthful picture of the Soviet Union, is Elizabeth Wilson.) Some Westerners apparently do not realise that it did not matter a damn what a person did, said or wrote, as long as he/she did not contact foreigners or stand up in Red Square shouting 'down with communism'. The only thing that mattered was whether the authorities had made up their minds to arrest and punish somebody. If they had, then they concocted accusations and proofs. In Shostakovich's case they knew very well that he was a dissenter (everybody did, except some benighted minds in the West), but they also knew that he was good propaganda, well worth preserving. Lavish information on KGB methods is to be found in numerous books by Arkady Vaksberg, the author of Stalin Against The Jews. In his book on the Soviet public prosecutor Vyshinsky, he chillingly illustrates the paranoiac Soviet ethos from his own personal experience. In Vaksberg's youth, a student 'friend' -- in fact, a provocateur of the kind mentioned by Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich in [Ian] MacDonald's chronology [1983] -- once asked him whether he did not agree that the new buildings along Gorky Street were dull and sterile. Arkady agreed, but when he told this to his mother, she understood what was happening and immediately pulled all possible strings to get into contact with the highest person she knew: Vyshinsky. She realised from experience that the provocateur would turn Arkady's words against him: 'Vaksberg claims that the Gorky Street architecture, outlined and approved by the Great Leader, the beloved Teacher of the Soviet people, is mediocre!' In other words, 'biting your tongue' in the USSR was crucial to survival. Incidentally, Vaksberg has told me (in writing) that he knows Solomon Volkov very well and is certain that the conversations with Shostakovich related in Testimony are authentic. I quote: 'He is a very honest man, and no falsified publication would be possible for him'! Quite apart from my numerous personal experiences from the Soviet era, this utterance makes any debate about Testimony's authenticity superfluous for me."
April 23rd-28th. The Borodin Quartet plays the complete Shostakovich quartets at Bantry House in West Cork, Ireland. From the Festival announcement: "The quartets... tell the searing story of one man's fight against tyranny, the voice of an artist, who stayed behind and spoke for his people. The first one, written in 1938 after his terrifying interview by the dreaded NKVD, is no youthful experiment. And the extraordinary 15th Quartet with its six Adagios was written in 1974 just over a year before he died. In those thirty six years he wrote a sequence of quartets full of inner strength, music not just of suffering but of the ability to come to terms with that suffering, music of purification, the distillation of one man's life and of the terrible century as a whole." Stuart Masterton of DSCH-L reports on an interview/Q&A conducted by Elizabeth Wilson with Valentin Berlinsky, the Borodins' oldest surviving member: "It did generally repeat most of the stuff from the interview with Berlinsky in A Life Remembered, with a couple of intriguing additions... When Shostakovich, Miaskovsky, and Shebalin were sacked from the Conservatoire in 1948, the students clubbed together to provide a support fund for them. During that period, much of their new music was played regularly (and apparently quite extensively) in private circles and student halls. This struck me as being the exact musical equivalent of underground publication. Perhaps works like the Fourth Quartet and From Jewish Folk Poetry would be better described as 'samizdat' works, rather than 'for the drawer'. [Berlinsky] spoke of Gavriil Popov as a 'very good friend' of Shostakovich, and having initially disparaged the number of people nowadays going round calling themselves 'close friends' of the composer, he must have meant it. Elizabeth Wilson [said], in answer to one question, that she felt no doubt Shostakovich despised the rulers of his country for most of his life, and that whilst he may have sympathised with the basic ideals behind Communism, he'd seen the results of implementation. She also seemed to agree with Ian MacDonald's assertion that the late 20's 'Cultural Revolution' was a crucial point in the composer's life, and spoke of the early music as being a musical parallel to the [satirical] literature of the likes of Zoshchenko, Zamyatin, and Bulgakov."
May. Richard Whitehouse (Gramophone) reviews Laurel Fay's biography: "The tone is, pace the dissenters, objectively neutral... Shostakovich comes across as a fallible but deeply sympathetic figure; from the beginning, playing out an internal creative conflict under the light of intense public and official scrutiny... The Lady Macbeth debacle and subsequent climbdown over the Fourth Symphony are calmly, effectively negotiated; though, not for the last time, Fay appears unsure of the degree to which compositional changes in emphasis are politically motivated... The tone of [Fay's] thinking, guardedly rather than radically neutral, is her greatest limitation. The primary reason for this lies in her unwavering intention to base her assertions only on verifiable evidence. In point of practice this is not wrong: too many opinions in this ongoing debate have taken as gospel the recollections, often contradictory, of those who 'knew' Shostakovich and claim a certain privileged insight into his character. Yet in focusing almost solely on extant documentation official or otherwise, Fay leaves the composer stranded in an intellectual and political vacuum, tangible neither as a covert dissident or as a figure who latterly used his official standing to promote incremental change, within a framework where even token liberalism was a threat to an ossifying and self-defeating power structure."
May/June. Paul Mitchinson, "The Shostakovich Variations: Was he a dissident? Were his memoirs genuine?" (Lingua franca). Mitchinson interviews Solomon Volkov by phone. Volkov insists that he had never seen the recycled material in Testimony before it was pointed out by Laurel Fay in 1980: "No, no, if I did I wouldn't have included it, of course." Mitchinson continues: "Asked about Shostakovich's article about Meyerhold [in Sovetskaya muzika, March 1974], for which Volkov apparently wrote the introduction, Volkov responds: 'I can assure you that there wasn't a single staffer who read the current issue of the magazine in its entirety. Material dealing with Shostakovich was appearing in almost every issue'... After Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son defected in 1981, he was reluctant to disavow Testimony, because of his hatred for the greater distortions imposed on his father's memory by official Soviet biographers such as Sophia Khentova. 'I hate, I khhhate her book,' he told David Fanning in a May 1991 Gramophone interview. 'She makes him look like a genuine son of the Communist party'... There is a piece of evidence [about Testimony] that [Allan] Ho calls 'a smoking gun'. In 1996 Shostakovich's close friend Flora Litvinova reported that the composer had once told her he had been meeting 'constantly' with an unnamed young Leningrad musicologist who had 'dug everything up, even my youthful compositions... I tell him everything I remember about my works and myself. He writes it down, and at a subsequent meeting I look it over.' Shostakovich may, however, have been telling Litvinova about the interviews he granted for the preface of Volkov's first book on Leningrad composers... Could an aural memory reproduce texts so exactly and at such length? And if it could, would a note taker punctuate it the same way twice? Even Ho recognizes the difficulty: 'I think I'll always have some doubt,' he reflects, 'because these recyclings are hard to explain with 100 percent certainty'... In Shostakovich: A Life, Fay coolly presents verifiable details about her subject in a manner that downplays his engagement with politics. Her Shostakovich is a man nearly broken by the political demands imposed on him, but he does not assume the heroic proportions of a Solzhenitsyn. Fay refuses to portray his compromises with authority as secret attempts at political subversion... In his recently published correspondence with Shostakovich, [Boris] Tishchenko condemns Testimony as 'not the memoirs of Shostakovich, not even a book by Volkov about Shostakovich, but a book by Volkov about Volkov'. Tishchenko was one of the six Soviet composers who denounced Testimony in Literaturnaya gazeta in 1979, in the letter that most Western observers then believed to have been coerced. Apparently it wasn't. In June 1999, the daughter of another signatory [Veniamin Basner] wrote to Izvestiya that her father had been familiar with Testimony and had firmly believed it was a fake. Ho and Feofanov claim that yet another signatory, the Azerbaijani composer Kara Karayev, had been 'undergoing treatment for a heart condition, [and] had been ordered to sign or be kicked out of the hospital'. Yet Karayev's son, Faradzh , has emphatically denied this account to Laurel Fay. Shostakovich's sixty-five-year-old widow, Irina Antonovna, also remains a skeptic about Testimony... Volkov met with her husband three times, she said, and the meetings lasted between ninety minutes and two hours. Since Shostakovich was ill and Irina was acting as his personal secretary and often his nurse, she rarely left him alone. The interviews were supposed to be published in Sovetskaya muzyka. 'The rest,' she insists, 'came from Volkov himself.'" Mitchinson discusses the recent controversy over Solomon Volkov's Conversations With Joseph Brodsky [1997]. He concludes that Testimony is "a book based on at least some face-to-face interviews with Shostakovich... a vivid portrait of a brilliant composer living in difficult times... a collection of rumours and anecdotes, many of which were such common currency in the Soviet Union of the 1970s that Fay and Taruskin heard them when they visited as exchange students. But can it be considered the authentic 'memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich'?"
May/June. Royal S. Brown reviews Laurel Fay's biography in Fanfare: "Fay offers an extremely smooth biographical narrative that seems all the more remarkable when one looks at the copious notes [...] to each of the book's 15 chapters (unlike many writers, Fay happily avoids using the footnotes as a locus for abundant parenthetical observations...). Indeed, Fay's writing makes one sense more the presence of a witness than a scholar... The picture definitely has its ugly side, one that all the attempts of the Volkov mafia to literalize musical meaning as political meaning will never be able to undo. That Shostakovich was more than willing to put his very life on the line for a cause that he believed in is borne out by the fact that, although his country wanted to protect him as a valuable artist, he had to be all but carried bodily out of Leningrad, where he served for a time as a fireman, when it was besieged by the Nazis in 1941. That he was equally unwilling to put his or his family's life on the line when besieged at various points by the Soviet Union's cultural gestapo is borne out by the fact that, throughout his life, whenever he was confronted on the 'pessimism,' 'formalism,' or any one of a number of other sins in his music perceived by the proponents of 'socialist realism,' the composer inevitably backed down, admitted the error of his ways, signed documents, participated on committees -- in short, anything he had to do to keep the commissars off his back... Continuing to sign official denunciations and to refuse to join in protests of ongoing abuse of Soviet artists by the government well past the point where he was in any great danger, Shostakovich by the last years of his life had managed to alienate more than a few friends and fellow countrymen, manifesting what Fay, whose love of her subject and his music is beyond question, describes as 'moral impotence and servile complicity' (p. 269)... It is precisely in taking Shostakovich's greatest creations and turning them into literal-minded polemics that the greatest disservice to Shostakovich has been done by Volkov and his followers, including Ian MacDonald in his abominable The New Shostakovich, which finds anti-Stalin 'motifs' everywhere in the works, and which describes the composer's most profound musical utterances in prose so purple and puerilely descriptive that, had it taken the opposite political point of view, it would have made the commissars ecstatic... As much of Fay's research suggests, Shostakovich expressed himself openly in words only in intimate forms of communication such as letters to long-established friends. Why, then, should we take as gospel the pronouncements of vague provenance compiled by an individual [Solomon Volkov] who came late into the composer's life, particularly when all of his other nonintimate pronouncements are peremptorily dismissed when not revealing the desired political stand? Shostakovich was a great composer, and he knew that he was a great composer. He also knew that great music, like any art worthy of that adjective, communicates on a multiplicity of levels that verbal language, in its linearity, and recreations of chronological history cannot begin to even suggest, and Fay offers more than a smattering of quotations from the composer throughout her biography that reveal this awareness. Had Fay more deeply examined, at least at certain crucial points, the musical nature of Shostakovich's works and their interrelationships, she might have been able to undo a bit more than she has the damage done by the simplistic programmaticism promulgated by the likes of Volkov and MacDonald. Still, Fay has happily presented us with neither a 'new' nor a 'reconsidered' Shostakovich but rather with the incomplete portrait of a brilliant, deeply introspective, often tortured, and forever enigmatic artist on whom, as Fay is the first to admit, the last word will never be written."
Ian MacDonald comments: "Royal S. Brown's lack of familiarity with the Soviet background was already clear in his review of The War Symphonies. He confirms it here in his effective recommendation that statements ascribed to Shostakovich by the Soviet authorities should be taken on an equal footing with anti-Soviet sentiments in the composer's private letters and conversations (overwhelmingly corroborated by Elizabeth Wilson's witnesses). Such elementary incomprehension robs his opinions of consequence. The prejudicial nature of Brown's anti-revisionism is illustrated by his remarkable accusation that the distinguished senior witnesses interviewed by Larry Weinstein in The War Symphonies (many of them also witnesses for Wilson) conspired 'to make their view of history fit the Volkov thesis', for which corrupt end they were allegedly prepared to 'go through great contortions' in their recollections (i.e., falsify their true memories in aid of Solomon Volkov's supposedly counterfeit representation of a man they all knew). A pundit prepared to accuse a dozen elderly but quite lucid ladies and gentlemen of conspiring to lie about Shostakovich (or of all independently lying about him in the same way) does not warrant a serious response."
May 21st. Paul Driver (The Sunday Times) reviews Fay's biography: "Fay's composer comes across as immaculately dull, a man almost without qualities, a bespectacled mask. The sheer dryness of the presentation is breathtaking. I cannot recall a biography that seeks so little inwardness with its subject, or is so abstemious with anecdotal detail... The book is an animated worklist rather than a portrait of one of the most tempestuous creative careers of modern times..."
July. David Gutman (Classic CD) reviews Fay's biography: "There is little in this modest volume to ruffle feathers... Fay's methodology is to exclude speculative commentary of the political or even musical variety, relying instead on what she perceives to be the facts. This makes for a dim, rather low-key piece of writing and a shorter book than one might expect... The reliable academic trappings and the comprehensive citations of source material cannot quite compensate for Fay's lack of crusading vigour and heart... If I were buying only one book on the composer, it would still be Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered."

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