Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life

A review by Ian MacDonald

Part 2: 1923-32

The significance of the Cultural Revolution

Fay's contention, more or less, is that an unadorned recital of the facts will provide us with a secure basis for making up our mind about who Shostakovich was. Yet in the case of the former Soviet Union, where appearance and reality were tenuously related, "facts" are rarely neutral and consequently demand a process of ordering and exegesis founded on a discriminating grasp of the wider background. In the case, for example, of Fay's fourth chapter (entitled, for some reason, "Pioneer", and dealing with 1929-32), the wider background to her narrative is that of the Soviet Cultural Revolution, a convulsive upheaval -- itself part of a larger cataclysm involving agricultural collectivisation and show-trial purges of the scientific-technological élite -- in which Stalin effectively mandated Leftwing art groups to cleanse Soviet culture of any remaining vestiges of "bourgeois individualism" by herding the country's creative minds into the service of the "superindustrialisation" of the USSR. Writing "brigades" were accordingly formed, composers were told to forget their "bourgeois" technical skills and churn out mass-songs for factory and field, while visual artists were instructed to glorify technology and depict humans as semi-mechanised "cogs" subordinate to the machine. A fundamental attack on individual consciousness, the Cultural Revolution raised the curtain on Stalin's era of totalitarianism; indeed, as we are now aware (Brovkin, Russia After Lenin, passim), this shattering epoch represented a second revolution -- a "revolution from above" enacted in order to secure the continuation in power of Bolshevism after Lenin's party had gradually lost social control during the mid-1920s.

While writing The New Shostakovich in 1988-89, I was amazed that nothing available about the composer acknowledged the Cultural Revolution as having any significant impact on him; in fact, till then, no writer on Shostakovich had mentioned the Cultural Revolution at all. I remedied this, as I hoped, in the long second chapter of my book, attempting to show that the ostensible contradictions in Shostakovich's career at this time could be reconciled only in the light of this wider background -- and that 1929-32 should therefore be added to 1936 and 1948 as the third of his major clashes with Soviet political power (which, being chronologically the first of these, would illuminate his conduct during the later ones). No reviewer ever addressed the issues raised in this chapter and it wasn't until the prologue of Richard Taruskin's essay-polemic on the reception of the Fifth Symphony (Fanning, Shostakovich Studies, pp. 17-56) that a mainstream musicologist formally recognised that the Cultural Revolution had even happened.

In her "Pioneer" chapter, Laurel Fay mentions the Cultural Revolution once -- in passing and in lower case, as if unworthy of any special focus. As for the rest, there are several isolated references to "proletarian" criticism of Shostakovich's music and one or two remarks on his controversial preferences for non-ideological literature. Apart from that, Fay's narrative is strictly foreground, as a result of which all the old ostensible contradictions are resurrected, to the complete mystification of the reader.

Shostakovich's apoliticism

So far as Shostakovich is concerned, the key question in elucidating his serpentine pathway through the perils of the Cultural Revolution is that of his political beliefs. The testimony of the witnesses assembled by Elizabeth Wilson in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is that, from his earliest years, Shostakovich was more or less completely apolitical, being instead absorbed in music, literature, and the arts (with a special character-defining focus on "grotesque" humour and debunking wit). Since Fay's anti-revisionism is based on the assumption that Shostakovich was politically orthodox (i.e., pro-Communist to the extent of faithfully serving the state wherever called to), her disinclination to deal with the testimonies of Wilson's witnesses is a revealing illustration of how selective her supposedly objective approach really is.

The evidence in support of the composer's apoliticism persistently leaks through despite Fay's subtle endeavours to slant her narrative wherever possible in order to justify her Faithful Servant hypothesis. We discover, for example, that the "October" sub-title of the First Piano Sonata wasn't Shostakovich's and that he repudiated it. We also discover that he confessed to Boleslav Yavorsky that he feared he'd fail his Conservatoire exam in Marxist methodology in December 1926 and thus be declared "politically unreliable". His initial term for "Marxist methodology", ostentatiously crossed through in his letter to Yavorsky, was "Scripture" -- a fact, among others, which obliges Fay to concede that "he did not take the matter very seriously" (p. 35). Indeed, in a subsequent letter to Yavorsky, Shostakovich describes his ideological examination in comic terms, recounting how he and a classmate had collapsed in hysterical laughter when the examining Marxist methodologist had asked a fellow student to outline the socio-economic differences between Chopin and Liszt. That Shostakovich, having been summarily failed, returned the next day and managed to pass the same exam troubles Fay not one whit. Why? As everyone in the Soviet university system was aware, such "political" questions were absurd. According to Malko, Shostakovich had failed all of the questions in a similar exam in 1923. How, then, in 1926, did he manage to pass his second exam in Marxist methodology within 24 hours of failing it? There are three obvious explanations: (1) he really knew all about Marxist theory on music and had simply been pretending not to; (2) he was adept in mimicking Soviet ideological formulae and managed to scrape by on the basis of a serious expression and a lot of likely-sounding waffle; (3) someone in the Conservatoire hierarchy realised that the world-famous composer of the First Symphony could not be officially represented as "politically unreliable" and so sent down instructions that the young man was to resit his exam and be allowed to pass. The commonsense deduction would be a mixture of the second and third options. (On the other hand, his failure thereafter to obtain a foreign travel grant shows that, as ever with the Soviet system, someone had noted his original examination failure and reported this to the appropriate authorities with the inevitable consequences.)

Attempting to deal with this blatant evidence of Shostakovich's laughingly sceptical apoliticism, Fay carefully concedes that he was "politically naive" and "not especially active politically" -- yet calls him "patriotic and civic-minded" and imputes to him "a supportive stance towards communism" in his contemporary letters to Tatyana Glivenko. In fact, there is no such stance, overt or implied, in the Glivenko letters. Shostakovich tells Tanya (24th January 1924) that he is "sad, very sad that V. I. Lenin has died" -- but, soon after, he is writing letters from "Saint Leninburg" and making sarcastic remarks about "Red" critics and the ineptitude of the collectivist orchestra Persimfans. Fay (having presumably read pp. 530-554 of Shostakovich Reconsidered) adds: "The possibility cannot be ruled out that [Shostakovich's] comments to Tanya were responsive to her own interests and convictions." Indeed not. His letters to his girlfriends, like those of any young man, are full of tragi-comic posturing, teasing, and attempts to make himself seem fascinating and experienced. For example, on 31st August 1925, he writes from Slovyansk, on the railway between Kharkov and Rostov, to tell Tanya of an exciting incident involving a pig which had knocked him over. Nine years later on 29th June 1934, he wrote to Yelena Konstantinovskaya about a similarly obstreperous porker. He seems to have interjected such tales -- irate pigs, rabid cats, and so forth -- to pique female interest, probably taking them from books. (Additional examples of Shostakovich's pose-striking as embodied in his letters to Glivenko are to be found in the pages of Shostakovich Reconsidered cited above.)

The Second Symphony

Fay is thus left with "patriotic and civic-minded", which she duly processes into her Faithful Servant hypothesis; yet Russian patriotism carried absolutely no logical association with belief in Bolshevik ideology, while "civic-mindedness" is a moral disposition only unequivocally expressible in political terms in a democracy. Shostakovich showed no positive interest in or allegiance to the Soviet Communist Party; insofar as his sentiments towards the Party were expressed, they were of the very opposite sort. Fay is on her best behaviour in Shostakovich: A Life; her own beliefs are rarely explicit. All the more revealing, then, that in her notes for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts of June 1999, she declares that "there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Shostakovich's political or aesthetic convictions [in 1927-36]. He was not an elitist composer. He was a patriot with a deep commitment to his people and culture[...] endeavouring to create a progressive new art necessary and appropriate to the new socialist reality." (The elementary mistake of confusing Russian patriotism with Soviet political orthodoxy is astonishing in 1999.) Fay goes on: "That art did not exclude overt propaganda; for the climaxes of his Second and Third symphonies, Shostakovich used a chorus to deliver stirring idealistic texts." Fay's claim that, in his Second Symphony (1927), Shostakovich, out of "sincere political convictions", used the "overtly propagandistic" verse of Alexander Bezymensky in the service of "a progressive new art necessary and appropriate to the new socialist reality" cannot easily be reconciled with Shostakovich's admission, in a letter of 28th May 1927 to Tanya Glivenko, that he wrote the Symphony in haste, became "tired of occupying [him]self" with it, and thought Bezymensky's (supposedly "stirring, idealistic") lines so "abominable" that he feared he'd be unable to set them. And there's more: not only did Glivenko tell Elizabeth Wilson in 1989 that Shostakovich had considered Bezymensky's poem "quite disgusting", but Nikolai Malko, who conducted the premiere, recalled that "Shostakovich did not like [Bezymensky's verses] and simply laughed at them; his setting did not take them seriously, and showed no enthusiasm whatever". Where is the stirring, idealistic political sincerity of which Fay speaks?

Wearing her "objective" hat in Shostakovich: A Life, Fay is obliged to acknowledge the aforegoing evidence ("a notable lack of enthusiasm... he had to keep prodding himself in order to meet the 1st August deadline") but, a few pages on, she subtly resurrects her credence in the Second Symphony's political sincerity. Quoting the composer in "a contemporary report" (collected by Manashir Yakubov in a book published in 1986), Fay presents Shostakovich as describing the work's polyphonic method as "dialectically linear". This curious locution might appear to make sense in terms of the requirements of Marxist methodology (which is what such a "report" would have been prepared in order to fulfill) but it sounds about as much like the real Shostakovich -- the one who failed two ideology exams -- as his epistolary pigs sound like real animals which he genuinely encountered on two separate but seemingly identical occasions.

Desperate to justify her faith in the Second Symphony's canonical Bolshevism, Fay goes on to quote a letter from Shostakovich to Yavorsky in which he claims to have tested the score on "four workers and one peasant". "Understandably," Fay reports, "they found the 'ultra-polyphony' tough going. But the composer claimed they went into ecstasies over the chorus[...] and attempted to sing it." If this is all that's left of Fay's belief in the Second Symphony's "sincere political conviction", one can only suggest that her lack of humour (the lack of humour which, for example, hides the Ninth Symphony's satire from her earnest ears) prevents her from identifying what is almost certainly another of the composer's po-faced shaggy-dog stories (cf. Shostakovich Reconsidered, p. 197). Whence, one wonders, did Shostakovich obtain his peasant? And did he stand dutifully in line with the four workers to listen to Shostakovich (and presumably at least one other pianist) play a reduction of this wildly modernist score? Or was he allowed to come by on his own on another occasion? The image is intrinsically so comically preposterous that it can only have sprung from the mind of a born connoisseur of absurdism: the mind of a composer so bored by his struggle with the Second Symphony that he began The Nose in the middle of it just to give himself something amusing to do -- and who, having vented his Gogolian absurdism with The Nose, intended his operatic follow-up to be based on the Dadaist absurdism of The Carp, a satirical poem by the elusive OBERIU parodist Nikolai Oleinikov.

Laurel Fay does not list in her bibliography Solomon Volkov's indispensable St Petersburg, A Cultural History -- which is a pity, since, had she been able to bring herself to read it, she would have found rather more to tell us about Oleinikov's Carp than she actually does (which is virtually nothing). For example, Volkov tells us that Oleinikov was a man "who possessed, according to some, a demonic charm":

Oleinikov, like Leningrad's other avant-gardists of the time, approved of Shostakovich's music, while Shostakovich was smitten by Oleinikov's absurdist poem The Carp, which, although unpublished, was nevertheless popular in Leningrad's elitist circles. It was a parody of a passionate Gypsy love song that recounted the tragic story of the unrequited love of a carp for the "marvelous madame", a smelt. The rejected carp throws himself into a net and ends up in a frying pan. The poem concludes with a requiem for the passionate lover: Roll on, murky / Waters of the Neva. / The little carp / Won't be swimming anymore.

The plots of The Carp and The Nose, for all their superficial dissimilarity, are united by the way a tragic theme is rendered as a parody. In Oleinikov's poems, Shostakovich saw parallels with Zoshchenko's prose. Both authors wrote in brief, intentionally primitive phrases, using and mocking the clumsy language of the urban masses. Both hid behind the mask of a frightened and almost retarded observer. Lydia Ginzburg, who knew Oleinikov well, wrote that he was "formed in the twenties, when there existed (along with others) the type of the shy man, who feared lofty phraseology, both official and vestigial-intelligentsia versions. Oleinikov was the expression of that consciousness. These people felt the inadequacy of 'high' values and 'big' words. They used jokes and irony as a defensive cover for their thoughts and feelings."

Oleinikov, Zoshchenko, and Shostakovich appropriated this specifically Petersburgian mask of the "shy man," who was simultaneously infantile and ironic. For Zoshchenko and Shostakovich it became a second face. Oleinikov used it in a more theatrical manner. He was helped by the tragically carnivalesque atmosphere of Leningrad in the mid-twenties, when the acute and tragic awareness of the disappearance of the old city and its values was transformed into a marked theatricality in the intellectual elite's daily life. [op. cit., pp. 390-391]

Compared with Volkov's analysis, steeped in the psychological subtlety of a native "Peterite" intelligent, Fay's wistfully ideological conception of Shostakovich seems almost childlike. Her absolute lack of interest in, or acquaintance with, the intricate intellectual life of those "Leningrad elitist circles" -- the individualists, Formalists, dadaists, and traditionalists whose world will open to anyone intrigued by the real story behind New Babylon -- deprives her narrative of a vital layer of perspective, in the absence of which her judgments sleepwalk from contradiction to contradiction, some of them real, some only apparent. Nor is Fay even remotely engaged with the political dimension. For example (speaking of children), she reports that, in a letter to Boleslav Yavorsky, Shostakovich refers to the episode just before the entry of the chorus in the Second Symphony as "Death of a Child". She continues (p. 40):

Offering no explanation, he plunges directly into a lengthy encomium for Pyotr Voykov -- the Soviet ambassador to Poland, assassinated there on 7th July 1927 -- expressing his deep distress and personal grief at the loss of someone who had gone above and beyond the call of duty looking after him during his stay in Warsaw [in February 1927].

Fay shows no curiosity about who Voykov was and why he was assassinated. As it happens, Voykov, as a former member of the Urals Executive Committee, took part in the bloodily horrible slaughter of the Imperial Family at Ekaterinburg on 17th July 1918 (for which action above and beyond the call of duty his emigré killer took vengeance a decade later). In other words, Voykov himself was a child-murderer. If Fay is looking for an explanation for Shostakovich's provocative segue from the "Death of a Child" episode in his Symphony to the episode of Pyotr Voykov's death, here it is. Such unannounced associative discourse was entirely typical of the milieu to which Volkov alludes in the passage quoted above. To use "the clumsy language of the urban masses", Zoshchenko and Oleinikov -- in the vulgar English phrasal equivalent -- were "piss takers". They kept their faces straight but almost everything they uttered was said in a spirit of near-innocent, yet knowing, irony. Shostakovich too, though some professors will blanch at the idea, spent much of his time "taking the piss" in exactly the same way. To put it, perhaps, in more academically acceptable style, Shostakovich, in Glikman's words, "always spoke with a nuance of irony". It is this aspect of Shostakovich which Laurel Fay entirely and calamitously overlooks.

New Babylon and The Bedbug

The questions about Marxist methodology which provoked the normally controlled Shostakovich into hysterical giggles in December 1926 were no laughing matter to the occupants of the Soviet Union's seats of higher learning two years later when the Cultural Revolution was approaching its malignant height. Here, Fay's belief that Shostakovich was politically orthodox begins to distort her declared objectivity. In an apparent attempt to play down the extent to which he, a satirical individualist, was at odds with the "proletarian" arts groups which Stalin was then allowing to run things in Soviet culture, Fay ignores the political furore over New Babylon, saying nothing about KIM's attack on the film (and specifically on Shostakovich) or the acrimonious controversy which followed this. Instead, she presents the "failure" of the film as merely a technical matter. She shows no inkling of the background to FEKS (Kozintsev and Trauberg's individualistic Factory of the Eccentric Actor); nor does she seem aware of the cultural events of 1928 which prepared the ground for what happened in 1929-32. (See New Babylon II and III.)

Likewise, she passes over the similar furore about The Bedbug, some of which was aimed at the play's author Mayakovsky, the rest coming the way of Meyerhold and Shostakovich. Seemingly oblivious of the actual content of The Bedbug, she describes it as a "scathing satire of the new bourgeois spirit" (i.e., Nepovshchina, the ethos of the New Economic Policy or NEP). In fact, it is standard in Mayakovsky studies that The Bedbug uses an apparent satire on NEP to express its author's alienation from the coercive collectivism of the Soviet regime. No one who went by Fay's account would guess that the Leftists, having begun to stalk Mayakovsky after The Bedbug, descended on him like wolves after his next play The Bathhouse (which satirised both RAPP, the proletarian literary group, and Glavlit, the literary censorship board) -- let alone that, driven to desperation, the poet shot himself only a year later. And where is there any suggestion of the Leftist attacks on Shostakovich's incidental music for Mayakovsky's play? "We must advise Comrade Shostakovich that he should reflect more seriously on questions of musical culture in the light of the development of our socialist society according to the principles of Marxism," warned Sovremennyi teatr, referring to The Bedbug soon after its premiere in 1929. Did Fay lack space to mention this?

The absence of any indication that, by early 1929, Shostakovich was in major trouble with the proletarian arts groups prosecuting the Cultural Revolution allows Fay to treat the composer's next big work, the Third Symphony, as if it is self-evidently a work of orthodox communist zeal. Whether the blandness of her accounts of New Babylon and The Bedbug is intentionally calculated to produce this effect is difficult to say. As we shall see, it is not the only instance of such arguable sleight of hand.

The Third Symphony

In The New Shostakovich (p. 61), I suggested that, by July 1929 (when he went away with Nina Varzar to the Georgian resort of Gudauta), Shostakovich had realised that "it was time to make himself scarce". This was because of the controversies over New Babylon and The Bedbug -- but also because, less than a month earlier, a public hearing of The Nose in Leningrad had resulted in RAPM delegates denouncing the composer for "formalism" and "anti-Soviet escapism". Rejecting the opera as "irrelevant to students, metal and textile workers", the (then-proletarian) Daniil Zhitomirsky warned: "If [Shostakovich] does not accept the falsity of his path, then his work will inevitably find itself at a dead end." Fay records this (p. 55), but out of chronological sequence so that this event appears to come after, rather than before, the composition of the Third Symphony.

In the absence of much documentary evidence of what Shostakovich was up to in this hectic piece (dashed off in the fastest burst of work on a symphony in his entire career), Fay falls back on reproducing the usual "statements for public consumption" made by the composer -- i.e., things he had no choice but to say at certain junctures under the circumstances in which he and his colleagues worked. Thus, we are regaled with a statement published in Smena on 21st January 1930 -- i.e., a little over a month after the megalomanic celebrations for Stalin's 50th birthday and about three weeks after the dictator had ordained what became the genocidal campaign to collectivise Soviet agriculture and "liquidate the kulaks as a class". Here, Shostakovich declares that his Third Symphony will be the second part of a projected cycle of symphonic works illustrating the Soviet revolutionary calendar. As with another similarly virtuous ideological composition which the composer announced around this time (1931) -- the "large symphony" From Karl Marx to Our Own Days -- nothing more was heard of this symphonic-calendrical cycle. Can it be that, like the later rumours of a Lenin Symphony and an opera based on The Quiet Don, this epic was a diversionary tactic intended to deter the proletarian hounds then snapping at his heels? If so, where is Fay's exegesis? Are "the facts" enough in this case? Plainly they are not.

Continuing in the same neglectful manner, she quotes Shostakovich from a letter to Yavorsky: "Whereas in the 'Dedication' [To October] the main content is struggle, the 'May First Symphony' expresses the festive spirit of peaceful reconstruction, if I may put it that way." Like all of the letters of public figures in the USSR, Shostakovich's were subject to routine interception and scrutiny. At this juncture in particular, he had to present a conformist face or risk the relentless persecution then being wreaked on Mayakovsky by RAPP. What is extraordinary (yet unremarked as such by Fay) is that Shostakovich originally included in the Symphony's score a part for "machine gun" -- a fact difficult to assimilate to "the festive spirit of peaceful reconstruction" but all too easily reconciled with the view (expressed in The New Shostakovich, pp. 61-64) that this febrile work is darkly ambiguous, ranging from hysteria to naked dread.

It is, of course robustly arguable that Shostakovich wrote his supposedly "festive" Third Symphony mainly to shield himself from the ideological gale of the Cultural Revolution (which overbearing background we glimpse in occasional snatches in Fay's narrative). Indeed, his brusquely utilitarian attitude to this calculated work is indicated by the fact that he copied its deus ex machina "positive coda" directly into his contemporary score for Golden Mountains -- instant rejoicing in seven bars. Fay usefully discloses that the Second Symphony did not become so designated until the publication of its successor, observing in the same note (p. 299) that "curiously, in this edition [1932] the author of the choral text was camouflaged as '* * *', an omission all the more conspicuous since the name of the translator into German is supplied". The camouflaged name was that of the poet Semyon Kirsanov who, as a colleague of the late Mayakovsky and a proponent of the pyrotechnical Futurist style so loathed by the proletarians, happened then not to be "acceptable". In his ugly verses for Shostakovich's Third Symphony, Kirsanov dutifully strove to conform to the prevailing proletarian model, but his LEF links (Left Front of Art: Mayakovsky's group, detested by RAPP) compromised him. Later, he came back into aesthetic vogue, but his own position was always ambiguous and, during the first "thaw" of the Fifties, he contributed a famous poem satirising the Soviet bureaucracy.

The original choice for the Third Symphony's choral text had been the proletarian poet Demian Bedny. Fay seems not to have looked into why he failed to come up with the goods; yet, behind the apparently simple facade, his position, too, was ambiguous. In private deploring the destruction of Russian literature carried out by the proletarian groups during the Cultural Revolution, Bedny assisted Osip Mandelstam during his first run-in with Stalin -- a striking measure of the human sympathies behind surface "oppositions" in the USSR. (During 1932, Bedny likewise fell from favour when his secretary betrayed him, recovering later only to lapse into deeper disgrace in 1936. Commenting on Bedny's first fall, Trotsky observed that he had been able to sell himself wholesale but found it hard to do so retail, i.e., Bedny could countenance serving the regime in a general sort of way, but couldn't stomach kowtowing to every tiny adjustment in "political reality" made by Stalin's Orwellian rewriters of history. The same was true of Mayakovsky in the final years of his life.)

Fay moves from the Third Symphony to an account of the vicissitudes of The Nose -- whereupon she can no longer avoid revealing the extent of the proletarian attacks on Shostakovich, and duly does so. Again, though, she presents his public face as if it were his real one, quoting him from an address made to an audience of workers at the Moscow-Narva House of Culture on 14th January 1930 (coincidentally the apex of the Cultural Revolution):

I live in the USSR, work actively and count naturally on the worker and peasant spectator. If I am not comprehensible to them I should be deported.
Apart from the manifest nonsense of the idea that workers and peasants would understand a note of The Nose (or of almost anything else he'd ever written which was not intended as a strategic sacrifice to the populist-political domain), Shostakovich was here speaking at a major Soviet cultural event of the epoch and, as he knew, on the record. After so much vilification by proletarian critics over the previous year, he had to present himself as plausibly orthodox. Probably, too, the occasion caused him (then only 24) to go over the top in his resounding demand to be deported in case of ideological failure -- something which he may secretly have wanted, since his inability to obtain a foreign visa prevented any other means of escaping to the West. (Mikhail Bulgakov made a similar request to Stalin in the same year, hoping to be sent into foreign exile.) As with all of Shostakovich's public declarations of this period, it is crucial to place them in the landslide context within which he and most of his colleagues were then forced to manoeuvre to stay upright.


Shostakovich's association with TRAM (Leningrad Theatre of Working Youth) allows Fay to develop her contention that he was, behind the contradictory facade, politically orthodox: "For Shostakovich, collaboration [sic] with TRAM undoubtedly represented something more positive than simply a defence against the onslaught of proletarian values, although to at least one other composer trying to camouflage his own allegiances, Andrey Balanchivadze, Shostakovich's example offered a model." In this judgment, Fay parts company with Elizabeth Wilson, who writes as follows:

No musician could afford to ignore the implications of RAPM's militancy. The need to protect himself from their attacks was a guiding factor in Shostakovich's decision to accept a position at TRAM in 1929, and also influenced his choice of themes in the Third Symphony and the ballet scores[...] Shostakovich worked at TRAM from 1929 to 1931. His position there shielded him from ideological attack at a time when the proletarian associations such as RAPM were at the height of their power. Shostakovich's Conservatoire report of October 1929 shows that he was aware of the ideological issues at stake. [Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, pp. 71, 78.]

Fay is entitled to take a different view from Wilson. Less legitimate is her insinuation that Balanchivadze's cynical attitude towards TRAM was not reciprocated by Shostakovich. Turning to Wilson (p. 79), we find Balanchivadze's statement:

As I remember, in the late 1920s Shostakovich started working at the Leningrad TRAM. At that time the young workers' theatre defended its position and artistic principles from the attacks of "proletarian" critics. I followed Shostakovich's example, and so as to avoid being hounded from all sides by the Georgian branch of [R]APM, I started to work at the equivalent TRAM theatre in Tbilisi as musical director. In that period I often met and corresponded with Shostakovich.

Balanchivadze clearly states that, in using TRAM as a shield, he was following Shostakovich's example. Fay's reference to Balanchivadze's memoir, which she is careful not to quote, is slanted to present a different reading: that Balanchivadze, in taking cognisance of Shostakovich's earnest decision to work for TRAM, realised that to do likewise, in the absence of any other compelling motive, would serve to "camouflage" him. In fact, Balanchivadze saw that TRAM offered Shostakovich a haven from attack by RAPM and emulated him for that very reason, presumably comparing notes at their meetings at this time. (As for the letter to Balanchivadze, quoted by Wilson, see the reference under his name in Witnesses for the Defence.) Why, though, would TRAM have provided shelter from RAPM and RAPP? The reader will glean no insight from Fay's account -- yet the explanation is crucial.

While -- like the "proletarians" of RAPM and RAPP (each covertly set up by Soviet agencies) -- TRAM was "close to the workers", its was nonetheless far enough from proletarian orthodoxy to be drawn into a savage turf-war with RAPM/RAPP during 1929-31. A genuine grass-roots theatre founded in 1925, TRAM was a heterogeneous company of proletarian amateurs celebrating the real life of local Russian workers in "pithy, rollicking and enormously popular productions" (Katerina Clark, Petersburg, p. 207). Following the Agitprop conference on theatre at the end of 1927, TRAM, as the only real workers' theatre company in the USSR, found itself ushered into the limelight and, with state support, soon had branches all over the Union. However, as TRAM's popularity spread, the real power-brokers of the Cultural Revolution -- the politically dogmatic "proletarian" arts groups, chief among them RAPP and RAPM -- began to campaign against TRAM's boisterously visceral lack of ideological orthodoxy. And there was reason to do so: Stalin, through his "proletarian" proxies, wished to bring about a cultural dictatorship in which all artists submitted to the "social command". The basis of TRAM's aesthetic from May 1928 onwards was quite different: a variant of the Formalists' subversive principles of "heteroglossia" and "defamiliarisation". Publicly stated to be based on Brecht's concept of "alienation", TRAM's theories were probably more local in origin, owing perhaps to the presence in their ranks of Adrian Piotrovsky, who had links with the Formalists. Not that TRAM's thrust was, from its own point of view, any less "Marxist" than that of its proletarian rivals. Katerina Clark:

TRAM wanted to transform not just the external behavioural patterns of the audience members but their mindsets as well. The first step towards this was, as with the Russian Futurists and Eisenstein, to shock the audience into paying attention by presenting all manner of contradictions, incongruities, radical "displacements" (sdvigi), and "montage"[...] The directors aimed to present a conflicted and multilayered account of reality such that no single and coherent account of anything should be presented; its opposite would always be there simultaneously. A TRAM script was to present no conclusions to its audience as a guarantee of true collectivity (no overriding voice). There should, the group maintained, be no finality, a characteristic they identified with a Marxist account of the dialectic whereby all would be in a state of contradiction, of becoming[...] Thus in a TRAM play[...] there was to be no explicit message. But how could such complex and confusing plays meet Agitprop's central stipulation in its decrees on drama of 1927 that plays be readily accessible to the masses and effective as propaganda? [op. cit., pp. 271-2]

By adopting an anarchic and essentially pluralistic line only a short distance to the left of FEKS and the Formalists, TRAM was bound to fall foul of Stalin's overriding totalitarianising agenda. It was inevitable that RAPP would be directed to engage in ideological warfare with TRAM; and inevitable that TRAM should, as a result, fall as swiftly as it rose. Struggling vainly with RAPP's state-backed might, TRAM was, by 1931, a spent force. (Less than a year later, having done its job, RAPP, like its fellow proletarian organisations, was likewise terminated by Stalin.) Fay does not say when Shostakovich became TRAM's musical director. (Wilson says 1929; others say 1927.) What is clear is that the composer enjoyed the sheer vivacity and street humour of the original TRAM productions enough to drop by and offer his musical advice from time to time. As the Cultural Revolution loomed and the battle for control of Soviet workers' theatre began between TRAM and RAPP/RAPM, Shostakovich's choice of the freewheeling TRAM, pseudo-Marxism included, against the oppressive vulgarity of the "proletarian" groups once again shows his anti-totalitarian instinct.

For a while, it was safe for him to rebut the proletarians at TRAM meetings (Wilson, pp. 78-9). Very quickly, though, things got more serious. Abandoning its amateur status, TRAM commissioned professionals like Alexander Bezymensky to write for them. The result -- The Shot, the first TRAM production for which Shostakovich belatedly set pen to paper, soon after the similarly calculated Third Symphony -- was attacked by RAPP but allowed to proceed by courtesy of the intervention of Stalin, who, as an innate voyeur, was at that stage still enjoying watching his puppets jerk. Shostakovich managed only two more brief scores for TRAM during the following two years. In a note on p. 299, Fay reveals that he retained his TRAM "sinecure" [sic] until at least autumn 1932, writing to Sollertinsky on 16th September that he'd taken an advance of 400 rubles from the company and promptly decamped to Gudauta -- an echo of his July 1929 flight there (funded by the advance for The Golden Age) to dash off the Third Symphony. He added that he was expecting trouble when he got back: "If TRAM kicks me out, I will seek another spot for myself." Again, one is at a loss to discern the "sincere political convictions" which Laurel Fay ascribes to him.

Shostakovich's survival tactics 1928-32

During the Cultural Revolution, Shostakovich ducked and dived like anyone else who wasn't a part of Stalin's domineering collectivist vision. He signed contracts for works he had no intention of writing -- Fay reveals yet another one in n. 48 on p. 300 -- and skedaddled to the Black Sea with the money, there writing sections of what he really wanted to compose: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. If he'd harboured any genuine political conviction, he would have written music that matched up to it; yet he despised most of what he wrote in his propagandist ballets and spent a lot of time pretending to compose politically orthodox works which were never even begun, let alone finished. If it were not already obvious that nearly everything Shostakovich committed to paper or said in public -- if not the opposite of what he really thought -- was meant in an ironically distanced or even a parodistic way, then the case of "his" 1930 article complaining stridently about light music (Fay, p. 59) should suffice as a demonstration.

Aware that she is writing about a composer who relished circus marches, New Orleans jazz, Gypsy and Jewish romances, and the skits of the music hall, Fay carefully describes this article as "published over Shostakovich's signature" -- yet, further down the page, discussing the same article, she rebukes him for ticking off Nikolai Malko for having played Tahiti Trot outside the context of The Golden Age. "Shostakovich's shifting of the blame for his popular arrangement," she tuts, "was neither honest nor fair." Either Shostakovich wrote this article or he didn't. Is it too much to ask Fay to make up her mind? If -- which is vanishingly unlikely -- he did write it, there is such a flagrant contradiction between what the Tahiti Trot article proclaims and what was then publicly very well known about Shostakovich's musical preferences that one can only conclude that, here writing in a proletarian journal, he was being ironic (or, to put it more sharply, "taking the piss"). In any case, as with the KIM attack on New Babylon, we are entitled to ask why Fay didn't think to pursue this during her fifteen years of sitting around in the Soviet archives.

Wooing his proletarian enemies of 1929-32 in his programme note to The Golden Age, Shostakovich excused the ballet's "jazz" dances -- including a reorchestration of Tahiti Trot, which RAPM puritanically loathed -- as satires on "the depraved eroticism typical of contemporary bourgeois culture" to be heard as a contrast with its assorted Communist dances exemplifying "the wholesome elements of sport and physical culture". To this last phrase, he added, ambiguously: "I cannot imagine Soviet ballet developing along any other line." It is clear from the mischievous sexual asides in his contemporary letters to Tanya Glivenko that "depraved eroticism" was no ideological bugbear to the 24-year-old Shostakovich, while his penchant for dance-band music was so far from being a secret that his barefaced cheek in purporting to pretend otherwise is, in itself, almost balletic in its extravagance. Like the half-naked tarts then parading up and down the stage in Bulgakov's bordello drama Zoya's Apartment (1926), the "depravedly erotic" Western dances of The Golden Age were, naturally, the main fun of going to see such shows in the first place. Laurel Fay may imagine that Soviet audiences sat in their theatre seats grimly hoping for an edifying Socialist Realist lecture rather than a ribald evening away from the grind of work and the creeping tide of fear -- but, if she does, she is hopelessly wrong. Russians of the 1920s wanted to be entertained as much as people anywhere before or since; only the demented political fanatics of the "proletarian" groups believed otherwise. (Stalin, though he approved of straight propaganda, personally preferred entertainment, too -- which is partly why he got rid of the "proletarians" as soon as they'd swept the scene clean.)

Fay mentions (p. 63) that Shostakovich "commented sardonically" in his letters to Ivan Sollertinsky about the contemporary RAPP campaign against cultural fellow travellers (i.e., those who declined to join either a proletarian art group or the Soviet Communist Party). Does she give us any examples of these sardonic comments? No -- because to do so would undermine her case for his "sincere political convictions". Instead, we are given an excerpt from Shostakovich's "Declarations of a Composer's Duties" (20th November 1931), in which, tired and besieged by theatres demanding the works for which he had taken advances, he took his fate in his hands by writing to the RAPP periodical The Worker and the Theatre to explain that he was pulling out of no less than four incidental music contracts. Pleading exhaustion, he argued that the demand for this instant art was "depersonalising" Soviet music and, in a transparent attempt to disarm his enemies, promised to start soon on the previously mentioned From Karl Marx To Our Own Days. Fay leaves Karl Marx until her next chapter, remarking that "no trace of this work seems to have survived" -- hardly surprising since it was obviously a scam designed to please the political activists and thereby provide the composer with an impregnable alibi for not fulfilling his theatre contracts. (A footnote to the "unreliable" Khentova confirms that Shostakovich did a little desultory work on it before he deemed it safe to drop the project; cf. The New Shostakovich, p. 78.)

As it happened, RAPM instantly smelt a rat in Shostakovich's pretence of selfless concern for the state of Soviet music, lambasting him afresh for "ideological wavering". Fay meanwhile muddles along, overlooking Shostakovich's desperate ruse to avoid having to write four scores for which he happened to have already pocketed the advances, and solemnly observing that for him to have strictly complied with his "high-minded" resolution not to do any more incidental music "would certainly have caused hardship to [his] family by eliminating [his] primary source of income" (p. 71). It certainly would -- but does she puzzle this out? No. Observing bemusedly that "during the next three years, Shostakovich's projects in the dramatic theater and movies hardly diminished at all", she moves on. Once again, her narrative can at best be described as irredeemably cockeyed and confusing -- at worst deliberately misrepresentative. Surely the reader deserves better?

Given her concern to convey the impression that Shostakovich was an orthodox adherent of Soviet ideology, it is odd that Fay does not quote his New York Times interview of 5th December 1931, which established his reputation in the West as "the Communist composer". Perhaps she belatedly realises that this can only have been a put-up job behind which the Soviet authorities had the young genius under close surveillance. The New York Times always had a curious "special relationship" with the USSR, most notoriously in the form of its Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty's reports of what was supposedly going on in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. In the dry judgment of Robert Conquest, Duranty "built a disgraceful career on consciously misleading an important section of American opinion". It would be going too far to say "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose", but Fay's supposedly factual and unprejudiced narrative of Shostakovich's career during the era of the Cultural Revolution is manifestly a blend of the obtuse and the frankly misleading.

Review Part 3. Back to Shostakovichiana.