Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life

A review by Ian MacDonald

Part 6: Summary

"There is not," declares Laurel Fay in her Introduction, "a single even remotely reliable resource in Russian, English, or any other language for the basic facts about Shostakovich's life and works." The previous parts of this in-depth review have endeavoured to demonstrate that the "basic facts" about Shostakovich cannot be "laid out", as Fay puts it, without interpretation; indeed that each separate claim that a given fact is "basic" or not is in itself interpretive, rendering every act of selection potentially controversial. Illustrations of this principle in action occur on almost every page of her book and several dozen of these have been analysed at length.

Fay's claim to have produced "a resource" which "lay[s] out the circumstances of Shostakovich's life in as balanced and objective a manner as possible" is sustainable in neither theory nor practice. Worse, her "objective" resource embraces hidden judgmental biases, prejudicial distortions of chronology, misleading quotations, and many tendentious assessments. Some of the latter (e.g., her coverage of From Jewish Folk Poetry and the Eighth Quartet) entail suppression of material contrary to her view, thereby compounding covert interpretation with outright misrepresentation.

I will return to these points later in this Summary. Before that, I would like to draw the reader's attention back to Fay's statement at the head of this section; specifically, to its peremptory absolutism, sweeping aside everything written about Shostakovich prior to her book as "not even remotely reliable". -- Everything, that is, but her own essay "Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?" published in 1980. If logic alone did not already suggest such a conclusion, we have it from the author herself. Interviewed by Martin Kettle in The Guardian (Friday Review, 7th January 2000), Fay summarised the Testimony controversy as follows: "The basic point is the same now as it was in 1980. We haven't been given adequate evidence that this is authentic."

"Adequate" evidence

Without knowing her criteria, it is hard to deduce how Fay distinguishes between adequate and inadequate evidence in the matter of the authenticity of Testimony. So far, it seems, no adequate evidence has emerged; although, clearly, some evidence, at least, has emerged: inadequate evidence. How stringent are Fay's standards? It is, after all, perfectly possible that she might accept nothing less than a video-tape of Shostakovich confirming that he dictated his memoirs to Solomon Volkov. But, of course, video-tape, too, can be altered nowadays -- and even an unedited, face-to-face verbal confirmation from Shostakovich would arguably fail to constitute adequate evidence for the authenticity of Testimony insofar as he never saw the book itself and all sorts of things might have happened to it between him signing some pages from it in Moscow during 1971-4 and its appearance in English in New York in 1979.

Judged by such standards, there can never be adequate evidence in this matter. If Fay takes such a purely logical view, her reference to "adequate evidence" is either loose thinking or a form of deception. If, though, her criteria are tied to principles less exacting than pure logic -- suggested by her statement to Kettle that Shostakovich's life and work is "not a black-and-white subject" -- then she is working, like the rest of us, within the domain of probability. If so, her criteria must apply to the real world. Specifically: they must entail a set of assumptions about things said and done within the sphere of Soviet Communism, in Russia thereafter, and among Russians abroad throughout this period (1917 to the present day). This review has analysed Fay's criteria, and underlying assumptions, through their manifestations in her narrative, with its selective use of facts and quotations, its undeclared interpretations, and its reliance on a body of primary material (Soviet-published articles, interviews, and books) which is fundamentally tainted to a degree far in excess of Testimony itself.

Three considerations arise from this: (1) the question of the dependability of Soviet-published material; (2) the fact that, whether "adequate" or not, evidence relating to the authenticity of Testimony most certainly has emerged since 1980 and in substantial quantity; (3) the fact that not all of this evidence bears on the restricted issue of the authenticity of Testimony, instead serving to corroborate the quite independent contention that the official image of Shostakovich purveyed in Soviet-published material is spurious.

A false methodology

Turning to the first of these considerations, I have commented (in the first section of Part 4 of this review) on Fay's way of dealing with the issue of the dependability of Soviet-published material (pp. 173-4). In this special instance, her rationale is argued on purely logical grounds: "While it would be foolish to accept at face value all the statements and writings ascribed to Shostakovich, it does not follow that he shared none of the sentiments or opinions expressed in this way." In any normal scholarly enterprise, such a suggestion would require an argument proving not only that such exceptions exist, but that they exist in sufficient quantity to justify citing the material in question (i.e., the statements ascribed to Shostakovich in Soviet publications). Far from offering such a case-based argument, Fay simply moves on. That this section of her book occurs two-thirds through a text which depends so massively on citations from so dubious a source is extraordinary enough in itself. That she fails to justify her logical excuse for relying on this shoddy material is egregiously unscholarly.

By comparison, Elizabeth Wilson in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is for the most part careful to distinguish between the personal Testimony of those who knew the composer and the official material purveyed about him, or in his name, through official Soviet sources. While she leaves her readers to make their own assessments about the worth, or truth, of this or that statement (based on publication dates and correlation with other statements [see my review of her book for examples]), she is irreproachably candid in her linking narrative as to how she views the context in which Shostakovich (along with his relatives, friends, and colleagues) lived. For the purposes of the present argument, I would refer readers to her section "'Yurodivy' or cynic?" (op. cit., pp. 428-430), with its balanced assessment of Shostakovich's motives and predicament, its adduction of his supposed signing of a letter demanding the release of the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, and its illustrative testimonies from Galina Vishnevskaya, Sergei Slonimsky, Edison Denisov, and Yuri Lyubimov.

Fay must have read this section of Wilson's text (apparently one of the "not even remotely reliable" rivals to her own book). She has presumably, too, come across the similar attestations of Daniel Zhitomirsky, Isaak Glikman, Venyamin Basner, Flora Litvinova, Maxim Shostakovich, and many others. However, this chorus of caution, sometimes amounting to outright contempt, concerning Soviet-published materials seems to have counted for nothing with her. In her concern to turn back the clock twenty years in Shostakovich studies, she has instead resurrected the sort of grossly compromised material published by Progress in 1981 under the title Shostakovich: About Himself and His Times as part of the KGB campaign to discredit Testimony. Among the titles included in Fay's Select Bibliography is Galina Vishnevskaya's autobiography. Speaking to Martin Kettle, Fay cites Vishnevskaya as saying that the Shostakovich of Testimony is not the man she knew. Fay fails, however, to mention Vishnevskaya's reference (op. cit., pp. 399-400) to the aforesaid KGB compilation of Soviet-published material About Himself and His Times ("Shostakovich Speaks"):

How the authorities hastened to cover up the traces of the gradual murder of that great man! But they deluded themselves if they thought that by presenting Shostakovich in their package, by palming a Party card off on him, they had made him the very image of a loyal communist. Those [Soviet-published] statements, which run counter to his art and life , constitute nothing more than a damning document -- a searing Testimony to the communist regime's perversion and suppression of the individual... In his symphonies, those wordless monologues, there is protest and tragedy, pain and humiliation. If music can be called anti-communist, I think Shostakovich's music should be called by that name. [My italics -- I. M.]

This omission constitutes blatant misrepresentation. Moreover, even if Fay had been unable, on her own account, to deduce that the Soviet-published material relating to Shostakovich, far from reliable, was "a searing testimony to the communist regime's perversion and suppression of the individual", she would have found this spelled out for her in the Prelude to my book The New Shostakovich, written a year before the Communist house of cards collapsed across Eastern Europe during autumn 1989:

What of the many articles and speeches attributed to Shostakovich in the USSR? Are they all bogus? Is there anything at all in them we can trust?

The first rule for anyone wishing to gauge statements emanating from a totalitarian society is to remember that almost nothing spontaneous happens under totalitarianism. Everything -- from squads of flagwaving infants at airports to collectively-signed expressions of righteous indignation in the national press -- is planned. Shostakovich's announcements for Soviet consumption need to be understood as products of this obsessively overseen system. What is required from Soviet artists in the way of statements to the media is not so much free opinions on whatever pops into their heads as "correct" rehearsal of the official line on whichever subject happens to be under review. Since the official line may alter from week to week -- so that no artist can be relied on to know what, at a given time, is the "correct" thing to say -- controls on the public voicing of even the most narrowly aesthetic views will always be tight. In other words, anything attributed by Soviet sources to Shostakovich must be presumed to be in reality the work of an officially-sponsored journalist who may or may not have gone to the trouble of interviewing him before concocting it.

The fact that Shostakovich's name was regularly requisitioned for propaganda purposes seems to have been widely known in Soviet music circles. Maxim Shostakovich has more than once confirmed this, while Galina Vishnevskaya records it as common knowledge that Shostakovich signed letters of protest without looking at them, read prepared statements to the press without a pretense of sincerity, and generally allowed his reputation to be used by the state in any way it liked[...] To the average Western democrat, the composer's attitude in "allowing" this misuse of his name and reputation may appear to be alarmingly cynical and cowardly but, like so much that seems enigmatic about him, the mystery owes less to Shostakovich than it does to Soviet Russia itself as seen, through a perpetual fog of disinformation, from outside. Indeed, Western failure to arrive at anything remotely approaching an understanding of Shostakovich's music has less to do with the Machiavellian deviousness of its composer than with the political naivety of Western music critics.

A subject in themselves, the peculiarities of intellectual life in Communist Russia and Eastern Europe have never been analysed more penetratingly than by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in his study The Captive Mind. On the question of the signing of articles and reading of speeches with which one privately disagrees, Milosz speaks of "Ketman", a form of pretense resorted to by anyone who, whilst harbouring thoughts of his own, wishes nevertheless to remain alive and, relatively speaking, unimprisoned. According to the poet, Ketman, an Iranian word, stood for the practice of Sufi mystics under orthodox Islam of at once hiding their heresy and mocking the establishment by professing orthodoxy in the most pedantically elaborate detail (and, where it was safe to do so, carrying their show of solemn conformism to the point of absurdity). In Milosz's view, Westerners, by ignoring the ever-present element of Ketman in Communist life, persistently stop at the latter's moribund appearance, missing its vital undercurrents:

"Whoever would take the measure of intellectual life in the countries of Central or Eastern Europe from the monotonous articles appearing in the press or the stereotyped speeches pronounced there, would be making a grave error. Just as theologians in periods of strict orthodoxy expressed their views in the rigorous language of the Church, so the writers of the people's democracies make use of an accepted special style, terminology, and linguistic ritual. What is important is not what someone said but what he wanted to say, disguising his thought by removing a comma, inserting an 'and', establishing this rather than another sequence in the problems discussed."

As for why this game is necessary, that, says Milosz, is a long story -- and one which its protagonists find somewhat exasperating to explain to a layman (particularly when, as is usually the case, the said layman has arrived on a high horse):

"Unless one has lived there one cannot know how many titanic battles are being fought, how the heroes of Ketman are falling, what this warfare is being waged over... A Pole, Czech or Hungarian practiced in the art of dissimulation smiles when he learns that someone in the emigration has called him a traitor (or a swine) at the very moment when this traitor (or swine) is engaged in a match of philosophical chess on whose outcome the fate of fifteen laboratories or twenty ateliers depends. They do not know how one pays --those abroad do not know. They do not know what one buys, and at what price."

As a senior cog in the Soviet musical machine, Shostakovich cannot have helped being constantly involved in games of the kind outlined by Czeslaw Milosz and seems often to have traded his autograph in return for dispensations to those in his care (witnesses to his concern for colleagues and pupils are plentiful in Soviet biographies). Passages of Ketman occur in Testimony and it is clear enough from his music that he was capable of simulating conformity with as much deadpan irony as the next citizen. But what is unusual about Shostakovich is that, especially in his later years, he mostly didn't bother -- and it is precisely in this publicly expressed indifference that it becomes possible to understand why Solomon Volkov calls the composer a yurodivy.

As a private act, signing a letter of "protest" (i.e., condemnation) without reading it is a gesture of cynicism or despair. Doing the same thing in public --for everyone knew that this was what Shostakovich did -- is, on the other hand, profoundly subversive, in that it not only implies contempt for the powers that be, but also satirises their totalitarian bureaucracy (i.e., "this is what we do: sign away our consciences, our memories, our souls, to keep the machine running"). Though to a Westerner this analysis of the composer's motives may smack of special pleading, Russians, well schooled in the subtleties of self-expression under authoritarian conditions, would instantly recognise the yurodivy technique of "taking the blame" (mimicking the foolish or reprehensible behaviour of others) described, for example, by Solzhenitsyn as being part of the repertoire of the extraordinary convict Petya Kishkin.

The roots of Shostakovich's yurodstvo, if that is what it was, lay in both the extreme experiences to which he was frequently exposed and their routine misrepresentation in both Russia and the West. For example, twice in his life -- in 1936 and 1948 -- he was publicly pilloried and temporarily "unpersoned" for alleged musical crimes against the People which only the credulous or half-witted in his country ever took seriously. At these times, foreign misunderstanding of what was going on merely compounded his isolation. The many bitter diatribes against Western opinion in Testimony (apart from scuttling charges that the book is anti-Soviet propaganda) owe much to the readiness of Western musicologists not only to accept Soviet accounts of these ugly debacles, but also to go along with the official view that they had somehow done him good as a man and an artist. These ordeals, humiliating and frightening in a way entirely obscure to people used to the concept of being able to answer back, marked the composer for life. In Vishnevskaya's words, he "reacted in an agonising, physical way, as if his skin were searing from the brand that had been put on him". During these episodes, Shostakovich experienced total ostracism, lost both face and livelihood, and confronted the real prospect of imprisonment or even execution. Not surprisingly, he came to the conclusion that, since he had no alternative but to live in Russia and no mission in life beyond that of addressing his fellow citizens through his music, his only course was to avoid direct conflict with the authorities, however much the resulting damage to his good name should hurt him.

That Shostakovich was genuinely terrified at certain times in his life is almost certainly true and, in any case, hardly a matter for shame or rebuke. At these times, almost the entire population of Russia was in the same condition[...] The truth is that, at certain periods in Soviet history, not to have abandoned one's principles would have amounted to a request to be done away with by the secret police. In 1937, millions of Russian were being shot or packed off to concentration camps for offenses which[...] amounted to little more than a slight hesitation to cheer when told to. Shostakovich's behaviour in the face of all this was no different from anyone else's. Even the bold Solzhenitsyn (who referred to the composer as "that shackled genius... that pitiful wreck" and disapproved of his refusal to advertise his dissidence) was himself daunted enough to have kept his own head well down during the earlier part of the post-Stalin "thaw".

As did hundreds of others in positions comparable to his, Shostakovich allowed articles and speeches, the content of which he despised, to be dignified with his name in order to survive. Most of what appears in a collection of these like About Himself and His Times is, therefore, at best unreliable and at worst flatly mendacious. Some isolated clues can be disentangled from this material (chiefly from those passages disfigured, from the Soviet point of view, by remnants of the composer's personal style), but as any kind of guide to the thoughts of Shostakovich or the meaning of his music, it is useless.

Since Fay has dismissed The New Shostakovich as "a moronic tract", it is reasonable to presume that she has read it, just as it is reasonable to presume that she has read Elizabeth Wilson's book. But if she is thus aware of the arguments and testimonies against treating Soviet-published material as reliable in the absence of confirmation from more reliable sources, why has she not acknowledged this, let alone stated her case for using such material? It seems that she ignores whatever does not suit her.

This "blind eye" methodology has the further advantage, so far as Fay is concerned, of allowing her to imply that nothing of significance has appeared in the last twenty years with regard to the issue of who Shostakovich was. Whether this is the stance of a respectable scholar is doubtful, although another supposedly respectable scholar, Richard Taruskin, displays no qualms in applauding her procedural vagaries. "At last," he declares on the dust-jacket of her book, "readers interested in Shostakovich have a reliable source to consult for the facts of his life, meticulously set against the background of his, alas, all-too-interesting times. Laurel Fay has erected a platform upon which truly informed interpretation and debate concerning Shostakovich's works and legacy can now take place." As a commentator who deems Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to be an apologia for Stalin's genocide in the Ukraine, whose account of the Soviet reception of the Fifth Symphony is (as Fay's narrative confirms) not so much misleading as fraudulent, and who claims he was being "ironic" by describing Shostakovich as "perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son", Taruskin is a less than dependable authority. In reality, Fay's reliance on intrinsically corrupt Soviet sources has merely ensured that the majority of planks in her "platform" are rotten.

The "blind eye" method

Through her foundational recourse to the bowdlerised, falsified, and ghost-written ethos of About Himself and His Times, Fay resurrects the embalmed Shostakovich of Soviet myth. Perhaps one day she will defend this methodology, although on the basis of her response to criticism of her interpretation of From Jewish Folk Poetry (reiterate with minimal alterations, otherwise ignoring all counter-arguments) we would be wise not to expect too much -- or, should such a defence appear, to find it not in the West but in Russia, where she has recently taken to publishing her pieces.

This leads us to our second consideration: the fact that, "adequate" or not, evidence relating to Testimony's authenticity has emerged since 1980 -- and in substantial quantity. Martin Kettle reports Fay as claiming that she can counter the arguments made by Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov in Shostakovich Reconsidered and will do so shortly in a volume on Shostakovich to be published in St Petersburg, in Russian. This tactic, preventing 99% of Western readers from reading her riposte at first hand, is consistent with her disinclination to translate the transliterated titles of books and articles in her Notes, thereby preventing most of her non-Russian readership from seeing what she is quoting from. Since Fay tells Kettle that "these people" (those who don't share her views) "aren't interested in Shostakovich at all", there may be, in her mind, no compelling need to address anyone on this subject beyond her own circle.

Until her Petersburg riposte appears, Fay's philosophy of "ignore and reiterate" must be presumed to apply to Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov's detailed exposition on the evidence relating to the authenticity of Testimony. After all, she has had time at least to explain her criteria for adequacy vis-à-vis Testimony (which appears in her book when she wishes to criticise it, but is otherwise ignored). As for her attitude to Ho and Feofanov, it is remarkable that so basic a challenge to a writer's conception of her subject is dismissed by her with so offhand an authorial wave of the hand: "The attempt[...] to 'authenticate' Testimony by means of third-party endorsements and circumstantial evidence raises as many new questions as it purports to answer." Fay's disdain for "third-party endorsements" (those who knew Shostakovich) and "circumstantial evidence" (evidence) should be set beside the memorable fact that, in all, she quotes Pravda and Izvestiya forty times -- never with a word of caution.

The issue of the authenticity of Testimony is a special area of Shostakovich studies. Here, the case for the prosecution is made mainly by Laurel Fay, that for the defence by Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, with a cast of witnesses from Russia and Eastern Europe as to the book's factual and stylistic credibility (the majority of the latter, in a ratio of around 10:1, appearing for the defence). Since Fay makes no case against Ho and Feofanov in her book, simply preferring Pravda to Testimony as her paradigm, there is no need to pursue these issues in this review. As it happens, far from the sole basis of revisionism, Testimony is merely one of several sources of information by which, through cross-comparison, we may reconstruct a self-consistent picture of Shostakovich distinct from the embalmed official image so sedulously presented in Soviet-published material, Soviet-managed events, and Western anti-revisionism.

The most salient of these additional sources of information are: the general Soviet background (including material relating to the USSR's political and social history, the other Soviet arts, and Russian and Soviet popular culture); classical music in general, as used by Shostakovich as a ready source of Aesopian expression through quotation, misquotation, juxtaposition, parody, and pastiche; Shostakovich's music itself, with its array of internal "signs" (e.g., DSCH); and the "small 't' testimony" of those in the Soviet bloc who, in various ways, knew Shostakovich and have given their memories or impressions of him either by writing or through interviews. This diverse body of evidence -- whereby musical and other artistic facts may be correlated across works and genres, and in which the experiences of hundreds of citizens of the Soviet imperium, high or low, are brought into relationship, direct or indirect, with Shostakovich's life and work -- constitutes our third consideration: material which amounts to corroboration that the official Soviet image of the composer is spurious.

Fay's reference to material relating to the USSR's political and social history is scant. At certain junctures (such as the "Patriotic War"), she cannot avoid referring to this context; more often she all but ignores it (e.g., the Cultural Revolution) and lists no sources on these subjects in her Bibliography. In the main, she restricts the narrative of Shostakovich's life and career to a recital of "facts" and "circumstances" effectively circumscribed by the narrow limits of the world of Soviet music and musicology. As a result, her references to the other Soviet arts (literature, drama, dance, architecture, painting, cinema) are negligible. The interrelationship of the Russian arts, innate in normal circumstances and artificially intensified by political repression during three major periods of Soviet history (1928-32, 1936-9, 1946-9), accordingly recedes in her narrative (rather than, through cross-comparison, conferring mutual illumination).

And the music?

Anyone reading Shostakovich: A Life in the expectation of musical insights will be bewildered to find almost no authorial opinions on the composer's works, which trundle by like cardboard boxes on a conveyor-belt, accompanied only by selections from Soviet commentary and the occasional private memoir. Thus, rather than an authorial view on the cryptic Sixth Symphony, we get the following (pp. 115-6): "A [Leningrad] critic quickly hailed the work, confirming that since his previous symphony Shostakovich had made further progress in freeing himself from formalistic tendencies, and pronounced it to have been written in a clear language accessible to every listener of symphony concerts. He predicted a bright future for the work."

If, in itself, this passage is vacuous, it nevertheless conveys something about the dreary state of affairs in contemporary Soviet music and thus has a legitimate claim, however wan and woeful, to be included on the historical record for the benefit of future commentators. This, though, suggests that Fay's aim would have been more appropriately served by a simple compendium of raw Soviet documents relating to Shostakovich, supplemented by a list of dated facts and statements, with citations, arranged chronologically. Such a volume would have been neither much longer than the book she has written nor noticeably more lacklustre. (It would also have been easier to refer to, as those trying to locate Hans Stuckenschmidt or From Karl Marx to Our Own Days will discover.) On the other hand, this compendium would have looked even more like a revamp of About Himself and His Times. Only if Fay had included commentary of a more personal kind from Shostakovich's intimates would such an impression have been dispelled (although this would have infringed on the memoir material deployed in Elizabeth Wilson's book, which Fay distrusts).

The dullness of Shostakovich: A Life -- serving as a preventive against too wide a dissemination of its author's surreptitious agenda (and her not-so-surreptitious history-bending in respect of From Jewish Folk Poetry), results partly from trying to make a continuous narrative out of what, logically, ought to have been a synoptic collection of documents. Once set on her narrative, Fay could not afford to be too interesting in case her "resource" started to resemble a conventional biography in which the author's subjectivity is as candidly in play as the material she or he deals with. She wants her subjectivity -- her inescapable interpretation of "circumstances", which she could only have avoided by means of a documentary compendium -- to seem objective. To this end, she voluntarily guts her own book of almost anything resembling style or character, for the most part eschewing adverbs and adjectives.

Perhaps one day Fay will publish a companion volume to Shostakovich: A Life in which she makes her own readings of the music clear. That these interpretations will be worth waiting for, however, appears unlikely on the basis of the few descriptive passages she has allowed into her present volume. For example, Shostakovich's Suite for two pianos, Opus 6, is described as "a memorial of affecting dignity and solemnity" (p. 21), as if all emotion had been excluded by its composer before he wrote it; whereas, the piece is actually a Rachmaninovian outpouring of a tragic intensity extraordinary for a 15-year-old. In a similar vein, the Cello Sonata -- a work of manifest unease which I summarised in The New Shostakovich as "strained, sardonic, and distinctly bitter" -- is reported as "a work of classical dimensions that scarcely hints at the turmoil in his personal life" (p. 80). From the point of view of classical rhetorical construction, this paragraph would be better were there more such instances to report; or even one more. It is a measure of the paradoxical lifelessness of Shostakovich: A Life that it contains no other comparable descriptive passages -- unless we include its author's statement that, musically, the Thirteenth Symphony "defied no stylistic taboos and was hardly controversial", an opinion seemingly based on the assumption that only technical daring could have offended the expectations of Socialist Realism after Stalin. In reality, the post-Stalin "New Class" aesthetic was built on the usual kitsch, consonant, major-key optimism -- a style arguably satirised in the perfect cadences which end all four movements of the Sixth Quartet and which can be heard in the saccharine waltz-theme for two flutes in the Thirteenth Symphony's finale. In terms of this middlebrow aesthetic, almost nothing in the rest of the Thirteenth Symphony -- from the blunt violence of the central section of "Babi Yar", via the jeering bitonalities of "Humour", to the nightmareishly disturbing orchestration of "Fears" -- can be said to skirt aesthetic taboos or avoid controversy. On the contrary, this is a furious work -- out-and-out "in your face" dissidence in every word and note from a pair of artists working in full-scale collaboration. To pretend otherwise in a study of Shostakovich is to insult the reader's intelligence.

An unreliable "resource"

An account of Shostakovich's career which gives no descriptions of his major works, instead offering resumés of what was said about them in Soviet arenas and publications, is, if nothing else, undeniably academic in scope and style. However, since we already have in English around two-thirds of the Soviet material which Fay uses in lieu of an imaginative response, even the academic point of her self-contradictory and occasionally frankly devious muddle of a book remains moot.

To have functioned as a documentary "resource", every statement -- indeed, every sentence -- in Shostakovich: A Life should have been footnoted to at least one piece of primary material, while any suspicion of authorial "interpretation" should have been signalled as such. Neither qualification is fulfilled; indeed, there are instances where statements not only fail to be attached to primary sources but turn out to be authorial guesses (e.g., Fay's observations on the mysteriously delayed premiere of the song-cycle Loyalty). Some of these uncited assertions are mindboggling. Take, for example, the casual reference at the bottom of page 215 to "long missives of sardonic political commentary to friends" penned during February 1960. What is the nature of this commentary? After all, Shostakovich's attitudes to politics are a central bone of contention. Which friends? He wrote three, not especially long, letters to Isaak Glikman at this time. These contain some jibes at Socialist Realism; the remark "Of course, 'modesty is the foremost virtue of the Bolshevik', as we saw in the case of Comrade Stalin"; and an approving allusion to Sergei Semyonov's Natalia Tarpova, the (obscure) "period novel of the 1920s" mentioned by Fay, which, Shostakovich dryly observes, was attacked for the crimes of focusing on the non-Party intelligenty and for placing "physiology" (personal love) above "Party loyalty" (Shostakovich's inverted commas). Such sarcastic comments are sufficiently significant in terms of forming a full picture of Shostakovich's outlook that we are within our rights to ask why Fay does not quote, let alone cite, them -- especially as this passage in her book is rich with main-text verbatim quotations from the fake Shostakovich of Pravda. But who are the other epistolary "friends" to whom Fay vaguely refers -- and why is the composer's "sardonic political commentary" to them neither quoted nor cited? Her failure to produce, at the very least, bibliographical references is extraordinary.

Had Fay been genuinely interested in producing a "balanced and objective resource", she would have offset her incessant quotations from Soviet newspapers, journals, and speeches with equal-time quotations from sources like Shostakovich's letters to Glikman or Sollertinsky (cf. the similarly uncited and unquoted reference to other "sardonic" political commentary on p. 63). Such sources, it seems, are too personal to be allowed -- much like the sort of "third-party" material assembled by Elizabeth Wilson in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Of this large category of witness, Fay, before repairing to the library to consult Pravda, observes: "Reminiscences can be self-serving, vengeful, and distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking, and exaggeration." Almost every failing with which she prejudicially slurs other people's testimonies about Shostakovich can be said to apply to her own book.

The way Shostakovich really spoke

Shostakovich's letters to Isaak Glikman abound with the sort of "sardonic political commentary" which Fay declines even to cite in the examples given above. Giving Letters to a Friend as first in a list of letter-collections "of exceptional significance", she cites this source 114 times (referring to pages in the Russian edition rather than to the dates of the letters cited). However, almost all of these citations refer to facts rather than to the expressive aspects of Shostakovich's style. A man who, Glikman recalls, "always spoke with a nuance of irony", Shostakovich sowed these missives with endless sarcasm, often of a nature so fleeting and secretive that an inattentive reader can easily miss it. For example, on 29th July 1949, he tells Glikman that he is writing an oratorio "on the forests" to words by Dolmatovsky, "a poet of talent". The sarcasm (which Glikman feels obliged to point out in his commentary) is, much like Shostakovich's public ironies, light enough to be interpreted seriously; only context -- the fact that it appears in a private letter to friend accustomed to his style -- makes it inarguable. The composer's use of standard phrases from official Soviet discourse could be comparably fugitive. In a letter of 21st December 1949, he tells Glikman of continuing symptoms of illness: "Pardon this gross naturalism: I sweat constantly." The effect depends on knowing that the phrase "gross naturalism" was a formula used in Socialist Realism to deplore anything it considered sordid; which is to say: too unedifyingly redolent of the real world (such as the sex scene in Lady Macbeth).

But the Glikman letters also contain passages far more obvious and sustained. In our brief article on this, Dmitry Feofanov and I give ten such examples, beginning with the remarkable letter mocking the Politburo which Shostakovich wrote from Odessa on 29th December 1957 (a letter even Richard Taruskin has been obliged to concede as satirical). Fay quotes only two of these passages (not including the Odessa letter), observing the "characteristic touch of irony" in one (p. 140), but missing the same touch in the other (p. 138). This raises the rather fundamental question of her sensitivity to irony. In the case of the passage quoted on page 140, Glikman helps his readers by stressing Shostakovich's deadpan appropriation of the Pravda cliché "the sun of the Stalinist constitution" -- i.e., Fay has it spelled out for her. In the case of the passage quoted on page 138, Glikman offers no such assistance -- and Fay misses it. Conceivably the reason why she uses Letters to a Friend (Pis'ma k drugu) almost exclusively as a factual rather than as an expressive source, is because she cannot detect its subtle current of anti-Communist satire. Or perhaps she does detect this -- after all, the Odessa letter is impossible to ignore (even though she manages to omit it) -- in which case, the slant in her use of the Glikman letters is more premeditated.

An ear for satire

Shostakovich's satirical impulse is barely touched on by Fay, perhaps because she is unequipped to identify it, perhaps because she prefers not to recognise it. Thus, the composer's youthful penchant for Russian satirists like Ilf and Petrov and Saltykov-Shchedrin (mentioned several times by Wilson's witnesses) goes unreferred to in Shostakovich: A Life; nor does Fay deal with the provocative mismatch between, on the one hand, his verbatim knowledge of vast tracts of Russian literature and "large vocabulary" (Wilson, p. 15) and, on the other, his later pathetic claims of inarticulacy and stammeringly repetitious style of speech. Volkov's suggestion that the latter was a mask of yurodstvo (which may or may not have gradually stuck to Shostakovich's face, rather than remaining a device he could put on or take off at will) is ignored by her. She likewise completely misses the possibility of satire in works by Shostakovich which don't, as it were, have the ingredient "satire" listed on the can. Indeed the satirical aspect of his art is scarcely touched on until, commenting on Rayok on page 165, she observes, quite out of the blue: "Shostakovich was an entertainer. Satire was his natural expressive outlet." Apart from disregarding the equally important tragic component of his music, this curious announcement seems to have the undeclared purpose of trying to persuade the reader that Rayok was little more than an amusing act of revenge against some clodhopping apparatchiki -- rather than a safety-valve for discharging its composer's scatological revulsion against the entire Soviet system.

Fay's use of Soviet sources comes into sharper contrast when we see what she omits in the way of balancing memoir material. Since she makes only a passing allusion to the Cultural Revolution, there is no cause for her to quote Isaak Schwartz's account of his father's fate at that time, let alone to refer to Shostakovich's role in looking after Schwartz's career or to remind us of the realities of Soviet cultural politics in 1948 as they affected Schwartz and Shostakovich together (Wilson, pp. 219-21). Nor, speaking of 1948, are we directed to, let alone given anything to read from, Marina Sabinina's account of the Moscow faculty reaction to contemporary condemnation of Shostakovich and Prokofiev -- an extraordinary glimpse of the seething resentment felt by non-Party intelligenty against Soviet cultural dictatorship (Wilson, pp. 222-4). As for Rostislav Dubinsky's comparably vehement Stormy Applause: making music in a worker's state (1989), it is listed in the Bibliography but nothing from it is cited, despite its status as a prime source for Shostakovich's stand on Soviet anti-Semitism.

Referring to Shostakovich's quotation of the Odessa street-song "Bubliki, Kupitye Bubliki" during New Year at Zhukovka in 1966, Fay hazards that he was "in the grip of youthful nostalgia". Four months later, the tune turned up, grotesquely distorted, in the second movement of the Second Cello Concerto, being sinisterly recapitulated in the finale. In a letter to Glikman of April 1966, Shostakovich pleaded ignorance of why he had used the song. Khentova, though, points out that he knew it from "the hungry years of his youth" when his mother sang it while selling bread rolls to feed her children on Nikolayevsky Street ("Shostakovich and Rostropovich", DSCH Newsletter, XVIII, May 1991, p. 21). New Year 1966 was seven weeks after the tenth anniversary of the death of Shostakovich's mother. For him, the original context of the song accounts for the black irony with which it is treated in the Concerto. Clearly "youthful nostalgia" is too bland an interpretation to be appropriate. Why does Fay not give the full story? Similarly, she accepts (p. 240) Shostakovich's statement that his orchestration of two choruses by RAPM composer Alexander Davidenko in 1963 was inspired by a "revived sense of nostalgia for the revolutionary romanticism of his youth when he had heard them performed in 1959" (citing Khentova, In the World of Shostakovich, 1996). Fay's belief that Shostakovich was genuinely imbued by "revolutionary romanticism" in his youth explains her willingness to accept this. But surely she is aware of her own note 64 on page 301 recording that Shostakovich chastised Shebalin in 1931 for appeasing RAPM? And what of note 392 on page 221 of Shostakovich Reconsidered where Shostakovich tells Shebalin that "[The] Bolt is shit, but compared to Davidenko it is Beethoven"? Why no mention of the fact that the tune parodied by the flute in the Vakhtangov's Hamlet (1932) was Davidenko's "They Wanted To Beat Us" (mentioned contemptuously in Testimony)? Is what Fay has given us adequate scholarship? Surely this calls for research? Apparently not.

Dull or devious?

Although Fay's colleague Royal S. Brown has praised the dramatic vividness of her style -- "Fay's writing makes one sense more the presence of a witness than a scholar" (Fanfare, May/June 2000) -- most critics have found her book deadly dull (e.g., Harlow Robinson in The New York Times: "No one can accuse Laurel E. Fay of having an imagination, fertile or otherwise"; Paul Driver in The Sunday Times: "An animated worklist -- I cannot recall a biography that seeks so little inwardness with its subject"). This is partly a result of her misplaced -- indeed fundamentally incoherent and at times dishonest -- intent to present a neutral "source". The rest seems to be a matter of simple lack of sensibility.

Fay's Chapter 6 (Crisis: 1936-7) may be, relatively speaking, the closest thing to a truly balanced narrative in Shostakovich: A Life -- perhaps because here she finds herself, at last, forced to confront contextual reality in the raw. Nevertheless the effect on her perspective is subliminal and she makes no attempt, with description or eye-witness accounts, to convey the intensity of the background against which Shostakovich was then working. On page 100, she quotes a description of the Leningrad premiere of the Fifth Symphony from the diary of Lyubov Shaporina (as published in Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, edited by Véronique Garros for The New Press in 1995). Apart from Robert Conquest's Stalin: Breaker of Nations, this is the only non-musical source Fay cites. (Neither appears in her Bibliography.) The excerpt she gives is fair enough, albeit that it breaks off before this illuminating sentence: "I ran into [Shostakovich's colleague, the composer Gavriil] Popov. [He said,] 'You know, I've turned into a coward, I'm a coward. I'm afraid of everything, I even burned your letters'." Popov's fear was representative of the general dread disseminated during the Terror, a time when all the rules of normal behaviour were either suspended or inverted. Only a month earlier, Shaporina had confided the following to her diary:

The nausea rises to my throat when I hear how calmly people can say it: He was shot, someone else was shot, shot, shot. The word is always in the air, it resonates through the air. People pronounce the words completely calmly, as though they are saying, "He went to the theater". I think that the real meaning of the word doesn't reach our consciousness -- all we hear is the sound. We don't have a mental image of those people actually dying under the bullets[...] What I can't understand is the cruelty of exiling the wives of people who are arrested. A physicist [Vsevolod Frederiks] is exiled to Vladimir, to a concentration camp, and his wife, Marusya Shostakovich [the composer's elder sister], to Alma-Ata[...] From there they [the wives] are sent out to "the regions", i.e., into the bare desert. [op. cit., p. 352]

Shaporina's diary, with its prevailing tone of traditional intelligentsia resistance to dictatorship and frequent references to brushes with the NKVD, is highly relevant to understanding Shostakovich's life at this time, not least because her own husband was himself an eminent composer: Yuri Shaporin, an enthusiast of Lady Macbeth. In normal circumstances, such testimony would be meat and drink to a biographer; not, though for Fay, who is intent on draining all such "third-party" subjectivity out of her narrative, the better to include largely empty selections from Soviet periodicals. Likewise inexplicably missing (even as a citation) from Fay's survey of the evidence regarding the banning/withdrawing of the Fourth Symphony is Venyamin Basner's statement to Elizabeth Wilson (p. 123) concerning Shostakovich's then state of mind:

It is difficult to imagine with what fear and trembling we lived through the Stalinist reign of terror. Dmitri Dmitriyevich was in some ways broken by this terror. The events of 1936 and, in particular, the 1948 Decree took a heavy toll on him. One should therefore discount the articles and statements that Dmitri Dmitriyevich "signed"; we knew that they were meaningless to him, but served as a public shield. His many courageous actions were taken in private. But Shostakovich did also show great courage, particularly during 1936. He would never have cancelled the performance of the Fourth Symphony if it had not been for the heavy-handed hints that were dropped by "the bosses". He had no choice in the matter. After all it wasn't only Dmitri Dmitriyevich that was threatened; it was insinuated that all the performers would live to regret the day if the performance of the symphony went ahead.

Could it be that Fay not only declines to quote this passage but leaves it out of her citations regarding the Fourth Symphony because its references to Shostakovich's by-no-means-exceptional fear -- and certainly exceptional courage -- would have chimed discordantly with her unsympathetic remarks on his moral fibre during his old age? Was Basner's reference to "the bosses" too overt an expression of the intelligentsia's scorn for the Soviet authorities? Or was he disqualified because of his dismissal of the "signed" articles and statements upon which Fay bases so much of her narrative? There is good reason to believe the latter explanation. After all, she neither quotes nor cites Galina Vishnevskaya's comparable remarks about the Fifth Symphony:

Before the Fifth Symphony was allowed to be performed, it was heard by the Party aktiv in Leningrad. A few dozen nincompoops together to judge a genius: to make objections, to lecture him, and in general to teach him how to write music. He had to save his newborn from their talons. But how? He tried to deceive them in the most rudimentary way, and succeeded! All he had to do was use other words to describe the huge complex of human passions and suffering that is so apparent in his music -- he described his music to the Party as joyous and optimistic -- and the entire pack dashed off, satisfied. [Galina, p. 212]

Quoting this in Shostakovich Reconsidered (p. 166), Ho and Feofanov cross-refer to Inna Barsova's observation that Shostakovich would "defend the truth of [his] music with untruthful words about it". Clearly such comments -- puncturing the credibility of everything the composer was presented by the Soviet state as saying or "writing" -- call into question the entire basis of Fay's methodology. Her disinclination to dwell on such scepticism would be defensible had she written a book which frankly set out her personal point of view, but Shostakovich: A Life is advanced as a "balanced and objective resource". If she had legitimate reasons to omit such testimony, she should have offered explanations, case by case, in a properly argued foreword (instead of the brief litany of preference and prejudice which constitutes her Introduction). Perhaps she will plead limitations of space. Yet, if she has room to refer to the "chilling new significance" acquired by From Jewish Folk Poetry in January 1953 (as a result of the "Doctors' Plot"), why does she neglect to take this opportunity to mention Abraam Gozenpud's claim that Shostakovich tried to get the song-cycle sanctioned for public performance via a Composers' Union audition two months before Stalin's death?:

Shostakovich first showed his cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry at the Moscow Union of Composers early in 1953, just after the news bulletin in the press had appeared denouncing the Doctors. This provoked immediate reaction from many well-known and famous persons demanding punishment of the "murderers in white coats" (who were mostly Jews). Therefore, the performance of this cycle at that time was an act of great civic courage. Shostakovich had to overcome much resistance from the officials responsible for the arts eventually to get permission for a public performance. [Wilson, op. cit., p. 238]

Gozenpud, a friend of Shostakovich's colleague Vissarion Shebalin, was introduced to Shostakovich in 1934 by another close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky. How "close" to Shostakovich could a witness be? Yet he is entirely absent from Fay's book, as is any reference to the Composers' Union audition of From Jewish Folk Poetry in January 1953. (Abraam Gozenpud appears in Larry Weinstein's film The War Symphonies.)

Ignoring the witnesses

We have seen that Fay's rejection of any link between the Eleventh Symphony and the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 depends on squarely ignoring testimony to the contrary. In DSCH 12, the composer's third wife Irina adds her voice to what, for Fay, is the opposition on this issue; yet she also disregards relevant material from another source which she cites elsewhere. In her diary for 27th October 1956 (Wilson, p. 269), Flora Litvinova records that Shostakovich quickly asked for the latest BBC news: "What's happening in Budapest? And Poland? The empire is falling apart at the seams. It always happens -- the fist must be tightly clenched -- it's enough for it to relax just a little for the empire to crack. And only Stalin was capable of that." Does this not bear on the issue of Shostakovich's intentions in the Eleventh Symphony? Similarly, it appears that, four years before he was finally "blackmailed" into joining the Communist Party (Fay, p. 218), Shostakovich was already having his arm twisted to this end. Litvinova's same diary entry for 27th October 1956 continues: "Knowing his views, I could not bear to hear that he intended to join the Party... We had been told how pressure had been exerted on him from certain quarters, but we did not know if this was so for sure, and we hardly dared to ask him outright." Litvinova goes on to recount the Picasso anecdote (Wilson, pp. 271-2), leading to Shostakovich's outburst "No, communism is impossible". Despite the relevance of these utterances to her consideration of Shostakovich's supposedly "puzzling" enrollment into the Communist Party, Fay quotes only this final phrase.

Again and again, "third-party" testimony is either ignored, not quoted in verbatim extracts, or admitted only as citations in Fay's Notes. Yevgeny Mravinsky's revealing remarks on the Fifth and Ninth symphonies (preserved by Yakov Milkis; cf. Wilson, p. 315), remain unrevealed by Fay. Grigori Kozintsev's essential "Reflections on the Thirteenth Symphony" (Wilson, pp. 372-4) is not even cited. (This is excerpted from Volume II of Kozintsev's Complete Works, published in 1982; Fay's Bibliography lists only a short article by him from a 1990 issue of Sovetskaya Muzika.) Fyodor Druzhinin's comparably insightful -- and often scathing -- observations in his piece written for Elizabeth Wilson's book are ignored, possibly because Fay feels that they are unreliable due to elapsed time (see note 91 on p. 346), though there is no obvious reason for her to assume this. The fascinating series of "short stories" which Marina Sabinina likewise wrote for Wilson go barely acknowledged, let alone quoted, and do not appear under the author's entry in Fay's Bibliography. (In particular, one notes the absence of reference to Sabinina's story of Shostakovich's mockery of careerist musicologists, given by Wilson on her pages 225-6.) Nikolai Karetnikov's similar "novellas", two of which were translated by Rosamund Bartlett for Tempo in 1990 (No. 173), are cited but not listed in the Bibliography; nor, it seems, has Fay's research extended to learning anything more about the approximately 100 other such sardonic vignettes of Soviet musical life which Karetnikov had written by his death in 1994.

In the same way, very little from Daniel Zhitomirsky's articles in Daugava (1990) or Muzikal'naya Akademiya (1993) is cited, even though what he has to say about the Eighth and Ninth symphonies and Shostakovich's practice of subcontracting articles is of more than peripheral interest. None of the three documents involving Kyrill Kondrashin reproduced in Shostakovich Reconsidered (pp. 507-520) is even listed in Fay's Bibliography, let alone quoted, despite the fact that one of these texts offers a detailed account of the trials attending the premiere of the Thirteenth Symphony. The same goes for Maxim Shostakovich's interviews since defecting, all of which are germane to the Testimony issue and none of which is listed. One, though, is quoted in note 14 on page 327: an article by Chris Pasles in the Los Angeles Times in which Maxim comments on the statement in Testimony about the scherzo in the Tenth Symphony: "Father never said it was a portrait of Stalin." The motive for quoting this (and none of Maxim's many openly favourable statements about Testimony and Solomon Volkov) is clear enough. For the sake of balance, though, we might have expected a quotation from, or reference to, a DSCH interview with Kurt Sanderling:

[Maxim] would know less than the others. To him, [Shostakovich] said the least, for a very simple reason. You see, the education of children under a dictatorship is a very complicated affair. On the one hand, you have to teach them to be critical of what is happening, politically speaking, and on the other hand you have to make them understand that one has to be careful when discussing such matters. And I think that he told him a lot less than he told, for example, his friends, because quite simply he didn't want to put him in any danger. [DSCH Journal No. 6 (Winter 1996)]

Neither Sanderling, a conductor who worked with Mravinsky and Kondrashin, nor his conductor son Thomas (who contributes to Elizabeth Wilson's book), appear in Fay's Index, while DSCH Journal is listed only generically in her Bibliography, none of its individual articles being mentioned. From the strictly musicological point of view, Fay's Bibliography is one of the more serviceable parts of her book, especially for Russian-language publications. She omits Frans C. Lemaire's La musique du XXe siècle en Russie (Fayard, 1994) and gives an incorrect date for Hilmar Schmalenberg's Schostakowitsch in Deutschland (1998, rather than 1988), but, apart from the other omissions listed earlier, her list will be useful to future researchers. The only puzzle is why, since she lists separately the articles from the 1997 all-Shostakovich issue of Muzikal'naya Akademiya, she fails to list the introductory piece by Mark Aranovsky, "The Dissident". Or perhaps this is not so puzzling. Fay, after all, has no truck with the revisionist view of Shostakovich as a long-term "secret dissident". Speaking to Martin Kettle in The Guardian, she referred to the proponents of this view (which, to date, includes around fifty Russians who knew Shostakovich) in scornful terms: "They want to read his music as encoded dissidence. I don't[...] I don't automatically assume that his 'Soviet' music is ironic. I allow that he might have been serious."

Naturally, Shostakovich was serious about a great many things in his music; indeed, it would be bizarre to suggest that he was not also serious in most of his ironies. Fay's distinction between "serious" and "ironic" is extraordinarily unsophisticated -- yet we must bear in mind that this is a commentator who fails to detect the satire in the Ninth Symphony and (apparently) in large tracts of Shostakovich's letters to Isaak Glikman. Possibly Fay's own "seriousness" prevents her from accurately hearing most of Shostakovich's music, wherein tragic-satiric ambiguity is virtually incessant. Such solemnity might dispose her to ignore those aspects of Shostakovich's character of which she does not approve, such as his brilliant gift for mimicry, attested to by Marina Sabinina (Wilson, p. 225), Krzysztof Meyer (ibid, p. 463) and Flora Litvinova (ibid, p. 166). Needless to say, none of these passages is referred to in Shostakovich: A Life -- which rather calls into question the title of the book. Perhaps more accurate would have been Shostakovich: A Dead Assemblage of "Facts" and "Circumstances" Unreliably Deployed, Punctuated by Significant Omissions, and Padded with Material Spuriously Attributed to the Composer by Unscrupulous Soviet Propagandists. For if a book is subtitled "A Life", indicating biographical aspirations of some kind, we are within our rights to expect to acquire from its pages a living impression of its subject, rather than a sort of cardboard cut-out which mysteriously swings this way and that according to which category of source is being cited. A biography demands witnesses: people who knew the subject and, with their memories, can bring him or her alive.

Irony not admitted

For example, Fay, relating the "atmosphere of uncertainty following Khrushchev's ouster [sic] from power in mid-December 1964", adds that "Shostakovich's reported reaction to this news was the rhetorical question: 'Now we will most certainly enjoy an even better life?'" Her citation is to Sergei Slonimsky as given by Wilson (p. 381):

It was an autumn day in 1964. In the morning it was broadcast on the radio that Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev had been dismissed from all his posts and duties. Later on that day I met Shostakovich on Sofiya Perovskaya Street, where his sister lived, almost next door to my home. His lips were pursed in a barely discernible ironic smile. "Well, Sergei Mikhailovich, now we will most certainly enjoy an even better life?" I chuckled out loud, and Dmitri Dmitriyevich's smile broke into a broad grin, virtually baring his teeth.

Which conveys more of the living Shostakovich: Slonimsky's "barely discernible ironic smile" breaking into "a broad grin, virtually baring his teeth" -- or Fay's blank "rhetorical question"? Her footnote convolutedly alludes to "the composer's almost identical response to the same question posed by someone else" (?), but fails to assist the reader by explaining that Shostakovich was referring to Stalin's infamous slogan of the 1930s, "Life has become better, life has become happier" -- or that this was one of his most frequent "serious ironies", as, for example, his pupil Karen Khachaturian records on page 185 of Elizabeth Wilson's book. Iosif Stalin, however, is a remotely enigmatic presence in Fay's book, while Karen Khachaturian does not even make it into her Index. Does she genuinely imagine that her précis tells us as much about her subject as Slonimsky's anecdote? Was she trying to avoid verbatim quotation so as not to incur permission fees? They can, after all, mount up. Or was she attempting to conceal the real -- satirical, ironic, bitingly disaffected -- Shostakovich from our view?

Although nearly everyone who encountered Shostakovich was impressed by both his singular intelligence and his "barely discernible" irony, Fay quotes nobody to this effect, seemingly going out of her way not to recognise these qualities in her subject. Thus, while she cites Robert Craft's account of the meeting between Shostakovich and Stravinsky in 1962, she does not refer to, let alone quote, Craft's incisive portrait of Shostakovich (Wilson, p. 376). On the contrary, she seizes every chance to play on the composer's "contradictions", "cowardice", and alleged intellectual blunders (such as "favoring the folklore of the 'wrong' ethnic group" in From Jewish Folk Poetry). Her readers could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that this author does not like Shostakovich very much. Indeed, he does come across as unpleasant at certain points, if only by omission of compensatory factors. Hence, mention is made of his work for the NKVD Song and Dance Ensemble (pp. 134, 140), but no word is reported of Yuri Lyubimov's explanation for the composer's proximity to the antics of this company of thugs (Wilson, pp. 181-2). Why? Perhaps because doing so might lead Fay's readers to another story which Lyubimov relates (and which she also omits):

People close to him told me that he used to carry a briefcase with a change of underwear and a toothbrush in constant expectation of arrest. Many people did that. It is also recounted how he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn't be disturbed if they came to get him. Many people went into hiding and survived, but Shostakovich never got over the trauma of those days. [Wilson, op. cit., p. 183.]

To refer to this anecdote would, in turn, bring the reader to Lyubimov's analysis of Shostakovich's mind -- far from that of the unfathomable trimmer Fay envisages:

For all his nervousness and defencelessness, Shostakovich was a caustic man. His table talk was full of sarcasm. He liked his drink and, when in his cups, revealed his wit and irony. His mind was similar to Zoshchenko's. It's not for nothing that he counted Zoshchenko, Sollertinsky and Erdman amongst his friends. His letters were written with "English humour", but in the style of "a Soviet communal apartment" [probably a reference to Zoshchenko's story Nervous People -- I.M.]. Later on his nervousness assumed the character of panic, a kind of conditioned reflex. He used to say: "I'd sign anything even if they hand it to me upside down. All I want is to be left alone." I think he was only pretending he didn't care. He knew what it implied when he signed such letters and deep down he suffered. Perhaps he was afraid for his family, especially for his son whom he dearly loved. He was always ready to admit his "mistakes" ("Yes, yes, yes, I've been wrong. Of course, I'll write an operetta which the People will easily understand."), but I think that this was done cynically and in cold blood. Akhmatova took the same line when talking to foreigners [and] was able to keep going after a fashion. Shostakovich, however, was a man with exposed nerves and a keen perception. The fact that he was more vulnerable and receptive than other people was no doubt an important feature of his genius. [Wilson, op. cit., p. 183.]

We need rehearse no more "small 't' testimony" from Elizabeth Wilson's book to remind us how formidably consistent is the cumulative picture of Shostakovich conveyed in it. With its verbatim interview and memoir material, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered offers us an incomparably more three-dimensional image of its hero than the paraphrases, citations, and quotations from Soviet sources given in Shostakovich: A Life. Moreover, Wilson's linking narrative essentially follows the revisionist line set out in The New Shostakovich and confirmed in Shostakovich Reconsidered. (It's also worth noting that, in a Radio 3 discussion of Shostakovich Reconsidered, Anthony Briggs referred to Testimony as "written right in the mode of the great Russian satirists of the 20th century: Zoshchenko, and Ilf and Petrov".)

Blurring the picture

The coherent consistency of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered flies in the face of anti-revisionist and pseudo-centric suggestions that the composer is an insoluble enigma whose words and actions must always remain beyond final interpretation, or that the nature of the Soviet context makes it innately impossible to judge with any certainty anything or anyone involved with it. Shostakovich: A Life, on the other hand, blurs the picture by trying to rewind our knowledge of this subject back to the days of About Himself and His Times, before all the post-1990 memoir and interview material began to pour out of Russia. Of such testimony from friends and acquaintances of Shostakovich, Fay has frankly admitted that she doesn't want "to become compromised by having them tell me their stories and then being obliged somehow to retell them" (AMS national meeting, 1995). Has a biographer ever made a stranger statement? What would be "compromised" by considering what she calls "third-party" statements or by doing some original interviews of her own? The answer is simple: her own preconceptions -- were these to be thereby revealed as unjustified or inappropriate. Yet this biographer will not have her preconceptions confounded -- to the extent of ignoring everything and everyone that contradicts them. Hence (at the same AMS national meeting) she dismissed Testimony as "the deathbed memoirs of a sick and embittered old man which poses only a very slight impediment, really nothing more than a nuisance". Are the people she disagrees with -- the ones who "aren't really interested in Shostakovich" -- also nuisances and impediments to the ideas she formed twenty years ago and will not now relinquish?

What are Fay's "ideas", her preconceptions? At least some of them appear to be left-wing in cast. In order to answer charges of right-wing prejudice, the present writer has, on more than one occasion, placed his left-of-centre social democratic leanings on record. Although we know nothing of Fay's politics, it is reasonable to assume that she is, at least, not a Republican; or, at any rate, was not of that persuasion when she was given access to the Soviet archives, since her political background would certainly have been vetted for any "hostile" tendencies. There are one or two telltale signs of a pro-communist attitude in Shostakovich: A Life. For example, there is the straightfaced reference on page 97 to "the laxness of the security service in exposing the Trotskyite-Zinovyevite conspiracy" -- a passage which might have been copied out of a Stalinist history book (or perhaps a contemporary edition of Pravda). Even more curious is Fay's description (p. 62) of the Polka from The Golden Age as "a satirical vignette of Western bourgeois prattle about disarmament and world peace". The phrase "Western bourgeois prattle" comes directly from the Communist Party lexicon. In 1928-32, Stalin, newly engaged in his policy of Socialism in One Country, was intent on building up the USSR's military might. Having used a non-existent war-scare in 1927 to oust his internationalist rivals (Trotsky, Zinoviev), he focused his European policy on a grass-roots "peace conspiracy" organised by Soviet agents abroad, whilst at home cultivating anti-Western suspicion and fostering popular cynicism towards "bourgeois" (government-level) peace initiatives at the Geneva Conference. (As soon as Hitler's accession made it prudent to do so, Stalin reversed his policy and joined the League of Nations in 1934.) The Polka in The Golden Age authentically reflects this state-cultivated cynicism. However, "bourgeois prattle" is scarcely the sort of phrase one would anticipate from a soberly detached academic.

Fay's concept of Shostakovich as a Faithful Servant of the state, while seemingly somewhat dented by post-1990 testimony to the contrary, nonetheless survives both implicitly and explicitly in her narrative -- receding during her effective admissions that Shostakovich's "offstage" behaviour and opinions are of a kind which (to put it mildly) fails to accord with such a theory, but returning elsewhere in the form of deviously weighted assessments and uncritical recourse to Soviet documentation. On the question of its subject's orientation towards the Soviet Communist regime, Shostakovich: A Life is so muddled and contradictory that readers can be forgiven for wondering where the author stands. In one paragraph, Shostakovich behaves like a secret dissident, in the next he appears as a dutiful conformist (the difference consisting in the sources cited: in the former, the "small 't' testimony" of his friends, in the latter the embalmed image offered in official Soviet sources). What is clear is that Fay has little sympathy for Shostakovich's predicament and seeks to paint him in an unfavourable light whenever this can be brought off. One is left wondering if, by any chance, the cause of this is his failure to live up to her political expectations?

A dim view of Shostakovich

Fay's account (pp. 204-5) of the manoeuvres in 1958 regarding the 1948 Resolution on "Formalism in Music" refers to Sabinina's memoir (Wilson, pp. 293-5), but with a curious laconicism: "Shostakovich told [Sabinina] that he had been approached by a high official exploring the possibility of 'correcting' the 1948 resolution (she vividly describes the composer's incensed response to the very notion)." A minor ambiguity arises here in that Fay fails to make clear that Shostakovich wanted the Resolution revoked rather than corrected. More pointedly, by merely citing Wilson, she avoids having to refer to Sabinina's shocking account of Shostakovich "shrieking" about his humiliation at being forced to read a piece of "disgusting, idiotic nonsense concocted by some nobody" at the Composers' Union in 1948. Instead, Fay draws our attention to his public response to the debate on the Resolution on 11th June 1958, which she describes as "stiff and strangely impersonal". Since almost all of his speeches, being written by apparatchiki, were impersonal, the point of this aside is obscure. Referring to Vishnevskaya's account of Shostakovich's reaction to the subsequent Resolution on "Correcting Mistakes Made in Evaluating the Work of Leading Composers", Fay describes him as "imperiously" summoning Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich to his apartment to celebrate with drinks. Here is the passage in Vishnevskaya's book:

Dmitri Dmitriyevich called us at home. "Galya, Slava! Come right away! Right away!" We rushed to his place on Kutuzovsky Prospekt. He was incredibly overwrought and ran about the apartment. We had scarcely managed to take off our coats as he ushered us into the dining room. "You read it?" we asked. "I read it. Oh yes, I read it... I've been waiting and waiting for you so we can have a drink. I want to drink, to drink!" He poured vodka into the tumblers, and all but shouted, "Well, Slava and Galya, let's drink to the great historical decree 'On Abrogating the Great Historical Decree'." [Galina, p. 244]

Clearly Shostakovich was beside himself at the news, virtually out of control with discharging tension and urgently in need of close friends to be with him. Why then does Fay describe his invitation to Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich as "imperious"? Is she unaware that the word is pejorative -- or is this merely a dig against a man she basically dislikes? This impression grows with her account of the events following Rostropovich's letter (Vishnevskaya, Galina, pp. 488-91) about Solzhenitsyn in 1970:

In a letter reporting the reaction of prominent musicians to Rostropovich's deed, an official of the Ministry of Culture advised the Central Committee that, in conversation, Shostakovich had denounced Rostropovich's act in no uncertain terms, taking particular exception to the latter's invocation of his own name and the criticism his music had been subjected to in years past. His words were quoted: "We must do everything possible to save Slava, he is our pride, our country made his name and his world fame." Shostakovich even volunteered to go to West Germany, where Rostropovich was then on tour, to talk to him, but quickly retracted the offer on account of his ill health. His views were deemed to be in complete accord with the "correct, Party position" on the matter. [p. 269]

In quoting this document (given in Alla Bogdanova's Muzika i vlast': poststalinskiy period [Music and Power in the Post-Stalinist Period], 1995), Fay adds a footnote:

To the same official, Shostakovich also implicated Vishnevskaya for having attempted to drag him, at one time, into the scandal over "hitches" with the performance of the Satires on texts of Chyorny. Precisely which "hitches" are not identified. In her memoirs, Vishnevskaya accentuates the seditious aspect of the Satires, claiming that Shostakovich worried initially that the authorities would not permit the work to be performed and that, following the premiere, a planned television transmission of the cycle did not take place because Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich refused to sanction cuts in the cycle. [p. 342, no. 20]

As we have seen, Shostakovich composed Satires at a time (Spring 1960) when he ought really to have been writing the Twelfth Symphony for the 90th anniversary of Lenin's birth that April (or, if not, then for the October celebrations later in the year). This was the period in which he was being "blackmailed" to join the Party. He seems then to have been in a variable mood, swinging between self-assertion (Satires) and self-destruction (his next work was his "musical suicide note": the Eighth Quartet). (Cf Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 710-720.) Having finished the cycle, he appears to have decided that the dissent in parts of it was too obvious to be allowable. In other words (perhaps as a means of releasing inner tension brought on by his reluctance to start on his Lenin piece), he may have given himself licence to express his feelings in Satires to a degree that overstepped the mark (much like the first draft of the Twelfth Symphony, begun thereafter using material from the cycle). Vishnevskaya describes getting around this by suggesting the title Pictures of the Past in order to imply -- as with Lady Macbeth -- that the song-cycle referred to what Soviet phraseology referred to as "the nightmare world of Tsarist Russia". According to Vishnevskaya, those in the audience at the premiere of Satires (22nd February 1961) greeted it with expectant tension followed by such vociferous applause that the work had to be repeated twice.

In claiming that Vishnevskaya "accentuates the seditious aspect of the Satires", Fay insinuates that this aspect might otherwise be difficult to detect. This is false. When it came to performing the cycle on Moscow television -- presumably the apparat hadn't vetted what must have sounded, from its title, like a harmless enough work -- the producer read the text of "Our Posterity" ("Descendants"), panicked, and asked Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich if the song could be cut. They bluffed that this was impossible. The producer "ran off", didn't come back and, after a while, they put on their coats and went home. Thereafter, Satires remained unpublished till 1964 and unperformed till the 1970s. This comic non-event amounts to the aforesaid "scandal over 'hitches' with the performance" of the work. If Shostakovich was annoyed with Vishnevskaya for having attempted to "drag" him into this "scandal", he showed no sign of it at the time. On the contrary, having finally flogged himself into writing an "allowable" version of the Twelfth Symphony, he turned to Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, despatching his orchestration straight to its dedicatee: Vishnevskaya.

Friends and foes

If dedications are anything to go by, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich were dearer to Shostakovich than anyone after his first wife Nina. She received four dedications: Six Romances on Japanese Poems, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, "O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast" (the second of the Six Romances on Verses by British Poets), and the Seventh Quartet. Vishnevskaya received three: Satires, Songs and Dances of Death, and the Blok cycle of 1967. Rostropovich also received three: the two cello concertos and the reorchestration of Schuman's Cello Concerto. Shostakovich remained in close contact with Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya until their forced departure from the USSR in 1974, living next door to them at Zhukovka and swapping hospitality at every opportunity. When the couple left the country (officially on a two-year concert tour of the West), he supposedly wept, asking them "In whose hands are you leaving me to die?" What, then, are we to make of Shostakovich's ostensible betrayal of his friends in 1970? Was he really the duplicitous coward Fay appears to think he was?

What Fay quotes is a letter to the Central Committee from an official of the Ministry of Culture reporting the "reaction" of prominent musicians to Rostropovich's letter. The name of the official is not given. Conceivably, it is irrelevant. Rostropovich's letter -- posted to Pravda, Izvestiya, Liternaturnaya gazeta, and Sovetskaya kultura (none of which accepted it) -- is extremely outspoken: the most explicit criticism of the repression of Soviet artists made in the USSR until this date. As such, it was a sharp blow to Soviet prestige when it leaked to the West and was published by The New York Times and by The Times in London. As a result of Rostropovich's "anti-Soviet" letter, a Moscow studio film on Vishnevskaya was cancelled, her name and Rostropovich's were removed from concert posters and record credits, and the KGB began a frightening campaign of harassment, just as she had warned her husband. If anyone is in doubt as to how extreme the couple's predicament became or how much fear there was abroad at that time (even among mid-level apparatchiki), they should read Vishnevskaya's account of what followed (Galina, pp. 394ff). In this taut context, the Ministry of Culture apparatchik who reported to the Central Committee would have been left in no doubt that he was expected to obtain material for a denunciation.

Soviet reality

Based on typical KGB transcripts published in the West, it is possible to make a fair deduction of what happened when the apparatchik visited Shostakovich late in 1970. Because Rostropovich, ignoring his wife's entreaties that he destroy his letter, had posted it impulsively en route to the airport for a tour of West Germany, it is highly unlikely that Shostakovich had read it until his visitor handed it to him. His discomfort at finding his own confrontations with the Soviet state described therein at greater length than those of the letter's subject, Solzhenitsyn, must have been considerable. Certainly, had Rostropovich shown him the letter before posting it, Shostakovich would have asked him to leave him out of it, or at least tone the whole thing down. He therefore doubtless reacted with alarm. The apparatchik's first question would have been: "Did you sanction this?" Shostakovich -- facing a situation which had caused Vishnevskaya to blanch and try by every means she could think of to talk her husband out of it -- had only one choice: plead that he hadn't given permission for these controversial references to his career and would not have done so if asked.

The apparatchik, probably well known to him, may then have resorted to cunning rather than threat, shaking his head over the deep trouble Rostropovich was now in. Already stricken with anxiety, Shostakovich would have replied, partly to his visitor, partly to Irina, "We must do everything possible to save Slava, he is our pride", and other words in this vein (no doubt including "and, besides, a dear friend"). The more orthodox phrase "our country made his name and his world fame" would have been added by the apparatchik in his report to the Central Committee, following the usual form. As for his impromptu offer to go to West Germany and talk to Rostropovich, this merely attests to the warmth which Shostakovich, then far too ill to travel, felt towards his friend. The fact that his views were deemed to be "in complete accord with the 'correct, Party position' on the matter" need have been nothing more than coincidental, and in all probability constituted a gloss added by the apparatchik, who knew he was expected to come up with such stuff or suffer a reprimand for failure.

As for "implicating" Vishnevskaya, this must represent a desperate attempt by the apparatchik to find something to smear her with too, since this was surely part of his mandated mission. There is no sign whatever that Shostakovich bore any animosity towards her over the question of the television broadcast of Satires; on the contrary, he stayed close friends with her and kept writing and dedicating music to her. Only if official "requirements" had been in deadly earnest would such a rank lie about her have been wrung out of Shostakovich. Almost certainly the apparatchik made this up, knowing that, if obliged to go back to Shostakovich and get it in writing, he could either try to frighten the composer into complying or, if that didn't work, report to his masters that Shostakovich now denied ever having said it. But he didn't have to go back to obtain a signed statement. He didn't even have to take a prepared letter of denunciation to Shostakovich and get him to sign that. No denunciation appeared. Instead, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya simply began to find their work outlets and privileges dwindling in inverse proportion to the increase in overt surveillance by the KGB. Evidently "the bosses" decided that the answer in this case was revenge by stealth, rather than adding to an international controversy over the USSR's reaction to Solzhenitsyn's award of the Nobel Prize and Rostropovich's rash letter about this.

And this is the inevitable nadir of Fay's indefensible methodology. To offer the letter of an anonymous apparatchik as evidence of Shostakovich's pusillanimity -- without an attempt at exegesis or a simple exposition of obvious extenuating circumstances such as is set out here -- is grotesquely irresponsible pseudo-scholarship. She may defend herself by claiming that she is simply providing an objective record of "the circumstances of Shostakovich's life" -- but, as has been shown over and over again in this review, such a claim is hopelessly hollow. Western readers, by and large, are virgins when it comes to intercourse with "Soviet reality": they need experienced guidance in distinguishing the harmless from the predatory. Fay's habit of strewing her pages with unchaperoned quotations from innately unwholesome Soviet sources makes the reader's progress all the more perilous. Ten pages before her passage on the apparatchik's letter, she tells us that Shostakovich "continued to lecture[...] on the dangers of 'avant-gardism', identified as an anti-humanistic, anti-realistic direction promoted by a narrow clique of Western musicians". The citation is to Pravda, 14th May 1968. Perhaps Fay sincerely believes that Shostakovich was capable of thundering out such recitals of clunking Soviet invective. If she does, it is her duty as a biographer to make some minimal attempt to reconcile this with the extensive evidence in his own hand that he also constantly derided such official verbiage. To stand aside will not do -- and, in any case, to describe Shostakovich as "lecturing" on "anti-humanistic, anti-realistic cliques" can hardly be called standing aside. And precisely the same applies to her slanted presentation of Shostakovich's relationship with Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich. To offer the apparatchik's letter without authorial comment and then to report Shostakovich weeping at his friends' departure from the USSR in 1974 (p. 279) is to bequeath readers a prejudicial botch.

Shostakovich as anti-hero

By contrast with her blatantly biased coverage of the "Rostropovich letter" affair, Fay seems, at first glance, to be fair in her account of events surrounding Shostakovich's signing of a letter against the physicist Andrey Sakharov in Pravda, 3rd September 1973. Portentously entitled "He Disgraces the Calling of a Citizen", this notorious missive was presented as emanating from "twelve musicians", among whom, apart from Shostakovich, were his former students Georgiy Sviridov and Kara Karayev, his friend Aram Khachaturian and Khachaturian's former student Andrey Eshpai, Rodion Shchedrin, and the inevitable Dmitri Kabalevsky -- which is to say: every leading composer of the time was rounded up to sign. Shostakovich, however, was the important one so far as the Soviet audience was concerned, being the country's senior musical figure. Ignoring the fact that his colleagues had knuckled under just as ignominiously, many intelligenty considered Shostakovich's failure to make a stand either inexplicable or self-evidently despicable. Fay notes that Irina Antonovna has called into question whether her husband physically signed the letter; apart from that, she accurately reports the tenor of intelligenty sentiment about Shostakovich's "denunciation" of Sakharov. However, her summing-up is unbalanced; indeed, it is so fatally insensitive as to undermine her right to represent herself as a biographer:

A few months after the Sakharov incident, Shostakovich directed Tishchenko to reread Chekhov's "Ward No. 6" in order to get a clear sense of his self-image: "When I read in that story about Andrey Yefimovich Ragin, it seems to me I am reading memoirs about myself. This especially concerns the description of the receiving of patients, or when he signs 'blatantly falsified accounts', or when he 'thinks'... and to a great deal else." Shostakovich's identification with Chekhov's Dr Ragin, an anti-hero, a non-resister to evil by constitution and conviction was far from flattering.

Fay's final sentence calls into doubt whether she has actually read Chekhov's story; if she had, one must assume that she would have spotted the misprint(?) "receiving" in her translation of Shostakovich's letter. What Ragin does is deceive his patients, not "receive" them (his deception consisting of benignly pretending that any doctor could adequately treat forty patients in one day). But what is quite astounding is that any biographer of Shostakovich could read "Ward No. 6" and accept, without query, that he could have considered himself akin to the facile bourgeois quietist Dr Ragin.

The complacent Dr Ragin

Symbolic on several levels, Chekhov's tale contrasts Ragin, a passively introspective small-town doctor with a high-minded philosophy of tepid indifference, against the paranoiac Ivan Dmitrich, an inmate of his hospital's mental ward (No. 6). Dmitrich informs Ragin that his lofty allusions to Marcus Aurelius mask a sheltered lack of experience: "No one has laid a finger on you all your life, no one has scared you nor beaten you." Ragin complacently responds: "The wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing." Dmitrich snaps back: "Then I am an idiot, since I suffer and am discontented and surprised at the baseness of mankind." It is fair to ask which, if either, of these characters resembles the Shostakovich of Testimony -- or, indeed, the Shostakovich of the letters to Glikman and so much of the "small 't' testimony" of Wilson's book. The Shostakovich revealed in these sources is all too aware of "the baseness of mankind" and, while cynical about it in one part of him, nonetheless still "surprised" about it in another, enduringly idealistic, part. As for being scared and coerced by force, Shostakovich had more in common with Dmitrich than Ragin.

The qualities in himself which Shostakovich felt resembled those of Dr Ragin are clear (and, again, confirmed in the sources mentioned above): his prevarication, his solitary brooding on mortality, his guilty inability to refuse any request or demand:

Andrey Yefimitch loved intelligence and honesty intensely, but he had no strength of will nor belief in his right to organize an intelligent and honest life about him. He was absolutely unable to give orders, to forbid things, and to insist. It seemed as though he had taken a vow never to raise his voice and never to make use of the imperative. It was difficult for him to say "Fetch" or "Bring"; when he wanted his meals he would cough hesitatingly and say to the cook, "How about tea?..." or "How about dinner?..." [...] When Andrey Yefimitch was deceived or flattered, or accounts he knew to be cooked were brought him to sign, he would turn as red as a crab and feel guilty, but yet he would sign the accounts. When the patients complained to him of being hungry or of the roughness of the nurses, he would be confused and mutter guiltily: "Very well, very well, I will go into it later... Most likely there is some misunderstanding..." [translated by Constance Garnett]

The rest of Ragin's qualities -- his bland lack of empathy with the suffering of others, his cultured but shallow reflections on existence, his etiolated conscience, his absence of irony -- bear no resemblance whatever to Shostakovich as we know him from his music alone, let alone from the sources aforementioned. As to Fay's description of Ragin/Shostakovich as "a non-resister to evil by constitution and conviction", there is no reference to this in Chekhov's character who, as a dreamy man living in the prototypical boring town of 19th-century Russian literature, never encounters evil (unless at the end of the story when he ends up in his own mental ward). More to the point, how can such an image of limp quietism be considered a just summary of a composer whose music is one sustained expression of tormented moral resistance to an evil which never ceased to surround him throughout his life? The truth is that Shostakovich resembles Chekhov's Dr Ragin in some ways; in others, not at all. And the answer to the question of why he should have identified himself so wholly with Ragin in his letter to Tishchenko is simple: it represented what he happened to feel at that moment, having been manipulated into allowing his name to be added to the letter denouncing Andrey Sakharov. Driven in on himself, convulsed with guilt and horror at the reactions of those who (undistinguished by genius and therefore safe in their lack of comparable cultural prominence) despised him for his weakness, he had retreated to his inner world of 19th-century literature, chanced to reread "Ward No. 6" and, determined to do self-flagellatory penance, decided, absurdly, that he was Dr Andrey Yefimitch Ragin. Russians would recognise this as a "Dostoyevskyian" reflex. (Posing as an expert in these matters, Alex Ross naively swallows the "Ragin theory" of Shostakovich in his article in The New Yorker, 20th March 2000.)

The basic biographical requirement: empathy

During periods like the months following the Sakharov letter, Shostakovich was all alone; and, when we are all alone, our sense of proportion and perspective begins to shrink. In a discussion of Shostakovich's mood-swings and suicidal tendencies (Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 710-714), I point out that when he was low and isolated, he seemed to himself to be a despicable coward; whereas, energised by interaction with others in a cause he believed in, he could just as easily act with extraordinary bravery. As for the opinion of others concerning his "cowardice" (an opinion which Fay appears to share), there is but one honest reply: judge not that ye be not judged. Only one man Shostakovich ever knew had the right to call him a coward, even if that right was vitiated by an iron indifference to what the composer had suffered in his life. That man was Alexander Solzhenitsyn; and, to someone as tough as him, anyone who hadn't been in the Gulag must have seemed like a child. As Fay observes, Solzhenitsyn called Shostakovich "a shackled genius... a wounded thing" when the latter failed to sign his letter of protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But Shostakovich was not alone in shying away from such confrontational boldness: no one else signed Solzhenitsyn's letter and he had to drop the plan. Then 50, he led the lean life of a literary guerrilla. Vishnevskaya's account (pp. 414-20) of his grimly brutal sangfroid over the Alekseyeva affair gives an idea of how forceful a presence he was around that time. By contrast, Shostakovich, then 62, was a nerve-shredded chain-smoker, already terminally ill.

Fay quotes Rostropovich's report of Shostakovich in conversation about signing the Sakharov letter: "I'm very weak, ... the only place where I can still take a stroll is around my country house. Unfortunately, that's where Sakharov sometimes walks. How could I look him in the eye if my signature is put at the bottom of this letter?" The original passage (from Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya: Russia, Music, and Liberty: Conversations with Claude Samuel, Amadeus, 1995) is as follows:

Rostropovich: I'll never forget the time Shostakovich was forced, really forced, to sign a letter against Sakharov. Shostakovich tried to explain why he didn't want to sign: "I'm very weak" -- and he really was ill at the time -- "the only place where I can still take a stroll is around my country house. Unfortunately, that's where Sakharov sometimes walks. How could I look him in the eye if my signature is put at the bottom of this letter?" He was forced to sign, however. He really agonized over it, and he stopped taking walks.

Samuel: Would you have signed that letter if pressured?

Rostropovich: No. Absolutely not. Galina and I have refused to sign a number of letters, even very brief letters.

Samuel: So Shostakovich could have refused?

Rostropovich: I don't blame him. He was very ill with cancer.

Fay's expurgated version, apart from omitting Rostropovich's extenuating plea (not to mention his assertion that Shostakovich was "forced, really forced" to sign), gives the unfortunate impression that the composer was confessing to moral, rather than physical, weakness. Yet, as her own account makes clear, he was then very ill and in constant pain -- indeed, had been for nearly a decade. Furthermore, his imagination far outstripped the relentless recording-machine of Solzhenitsyn's mind, however illumined the latter was by piercing literary power. Shostakovich had the empathy of a Dostoyevsky or a Mahler. To identify with the suffering of others was a capacity his conscience could never shut off and something his imagination instantly amplified.

Even a dullard would have been marked for life by sitting outside his apartment at night, waiting for the secret police; how much worse it must have been for someone as hypersensitive as Shostakovich. He was mortally afraid of the apparat and certain apparatchiki in particular. He was aware of the methods used by the NKVD/KGB; of what the likes of Kaganovich and Beria did; of what had happened to Meyerhold. He knew enough about the Gulag from those who returned from it during the 1950s to tell Denisov (correctly) that "the truth was ten times worse" than what Solzhenitsyn had revealed in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He feared obsessively for his children, whose careers could have been ruined had he indulged in any serious non-cooperation. (Lidiya Chukovskaya, who wrote in Sakharov's defence, lost her living as a result.) But despite these very real causes to be afraid and the deterioration which such fears had wreaked on his physical being over nearly fifty years, he nevertheless (as Elizabeth Wilson scrupulously acknowledges) signed a public letter in 1966 asking that Solzhenitsyn be awarded adequate living quarters, and wrote so many private letters in defence of the helpless that, as Oleg Prokofiev notes, the apparat gradually came to discount them "as an expression of his 'artistic eccentricity'" (Wilson, p. 401).

Fear... and courage

Quite apart from his manifest courage as an artist -- and any Western commentator who does not understand what is meant by this is unqualified to participate in this discussion -- Shostakovich became, through the refining fire of life in the USSR, a deeply moral man; indeed, a beacon of morality for many who knew him. Wilson supplies many testimonies on this theme, notably the vignettes preserved by Edison Denisov and Nikolai Karetnikov, but especially the statements by Kurt Sanderling's son Thomas (op. cit., pp. 232-4, 419-21), the second of which is worth quoting here:

The first thing that struck me about Dmitri Dmitriyevich was the immense power which emanated from him. I remembered this quality from my childhood, and it is something I have never encountered before or since. Anyone who came into contact with Shostakovich, whoever he might be, could not but be intensely aware of being in the presence of a person of great spiritual purity and moral fibre. Shostakovich had an almost hypnotic effect on people. I myself felt virtually paralyzed during the first hour of that visit. There was nothing imposing about his exterior, and no affectation in the way he was dressed. But a sort of magical stillness surrounded him.

Of course, Sanderling's impression was -- exactly like Shostakovich's own passing impression that he resembled Dr Ragin -- a momentary thing. At certain times, the composer could radiate this power, as others have confirmed; at other times, he was gripped by nervous tension or reduced to hysteria. What is crucial (and what Fay is content to ignore) is that Shostakovich was a singularly mercurial man living in a social context which would strike most Westerners, were they to be plunged into it without warning, as close to a madhouse. Sofiya Gubaidulina speaks on this theme:

At the time our life was a nightmare, and many people went mad. I also went mad at the time -- clinically mad. So did the composers Roman Ledenyov [b. 1930] and Hermann Galynin [1922-60, a pupil of Shostakovich]. Russia underwent a kind of psychological catastrophe, which particularly affected the young[...] Shostakovich, with his youthful vulnerability, experienced things in the same way as we did[...] I now realize that the circumstances he lived under were unbearably cruel, more than anyone should have to endure[...] I see him as pain personified, the epitome of the tragedy and terror of our times. [Wilson, pp. 306-7]

It seems probable that Shostakovich returned to stories like Chekhov's "Ward No. 6" and "The Black Monk" precisely because they dealt with degeneration into madness; the strain on him at certain times was so intense that he may well have feared for his sanity. But there was probably a more sinister reason for him to reread "Ward No. 6", in particular. Like Orwell (whose experiences have been suggested as the basis for the torture of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-four), Shostakovich was hospitalised often in his final years, enduring unpleasant and painful medical tests. At such times -- away from his own bed and apartment, at the impersonal mercy of doctors and nurses -- he must have felt more vulnerable than at any time since Stalin's death. If we are seeking a method of exerting (as Rostropovich insists) "real force" against the composer over the Sakharov letter, we need only consider the possibility that some apparatchik -- it need not even have been one of those who particularly frightened Shostakovich -- visited him in hospital around this time and, as Stalin did in 1949, asked him about his health. It would have sufficed to enquire "Are they taking good care of you, Dmitri Dmitriyevich?", accompanied by a meaningful smile, to make the point. Helpless, Shostakovich would have been left to imagine the worst, inferring anything from more painful tests to the possibility that premium treatment might be withdrawn or that he would be discharged forthwith and left to fend for himself (all of which adds further poignancy to his wail of "In whose hands are you leaving me to die?").

The dread of madness

Were the Soviet authorities capable of such baseness? Indeed, they were. And there were even nastier possibilities -- possibilities which Shostakovich, with his extensive contacts and conscientious compulsion to be aware of the worst, is certain to have known about. Nominally a late-1960s development, the dissident movement in the USSR had, in fact, been under way in various guises since Khrushchev's "secret speech" in 1956; and, under Khrushchev's rule during the early 1960s, a new method was found of suppressing such public dissent. People questioning "Soviet reality" or particular state policies were (as Orwell prophesied in Nineteen Eighty-four) classified as insane for doing so and, with a doctor's certificate alone, could be confined without time-limit in mental wards. There, strait-jacketed, they were pumped with hallucinatory drugs and left to go genuinely mad, unless, by sheer will-power, they could endure. Under Khrushchev, this disgusting treatment was inflicted on the leader of the civil rights movement Alexander Esenin-Volpin, on the pioneering dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, and (most notoriously) on General Petr Grigorenko, who spent most of the decade 1963-74 in Soviet mental institutions. Hundreds of other, less famous, proto-dissidents suffered the same horrifying fate.

Isolated in various hospitals during his final decade, Shostakovich is likely to have imagined the possibility of something similar happening to him. After all, his public persona (which had increasingly absorbed his private persona) was one of yurodivy "eccentricity". A short, salutary spell in a mental ward -- even merely to witness what might happen to him -- could easily have been presented in the Soviet press as benign care for a temporarily exhausted "faithful son of the Communist Party". At the time of the Sakharov letter, the KGB was moving quickly to crush the dissident movement. In the very month (August 1973) in which the letter was published, the newspapers reported the show-trial of Petr Yakir and Viktor Krasin, the first political arraignment since the Stalin era in which the accused, broken under interrogation, not only pleaded guilty but repented. (First arrested in 1937, Yakir had been a leading light in the campaign against the Soviet abuse of psychiatry. He was released in 1974 but, cold-shouldered by his fellow dissidents, died six years later in isolation.) Again, Shostakovich would have known about this. Again, it must be taken into account.

Behind the facade

Of course, we hear nothing of these matters in Fay's biography and she would almost certainly dismiss conjectures based on them as speculation. Likewise, the testimony of people like Sofiya Gubaidulina and Thomas Sanderling, neither of whom appear in her Index, must be presumed to fall into the category of "self-serving, vengeful" reminiscences "distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking, and exaggeration" (Fay, p. 2). All in all, very little is allowed to disturb the bland surface of Fay's narrative, which, in itself, indicates a smug lack of acquaintance with the dark truth behind the micro-managed facade of Soviet life. Describing the events attending the premiere of the Thirteenth Symphony as a "flap", she fails to realise how serious were the potential consequences of sustainedly opposing the regime in this way. Time alone saved the composer's co-"conspirators" (led by Vainberg) from the fate which, two years later, befell the poet Iosif Brodsky. (Akhmatova personally appealed to Shostakovich on her friend's behalf, but Brodsky -- given five years in the northern Gulag for the catch-all crime of being a "social parasite" -- is yet another figure absent from the Index of Shostakovich: A Life.) Elsewhere (p. 164) Fay reports, as though surprised, that, in 1948, Shostakovich and his family were under NKVD surveillance. It is, however, a cast-iron certainty that, like every other prominent figure in the USSR, Party or non-Party, Shostakovich was always under surveillance of one sort or another. Similarly unreliable is Fay's suggestion that the composer's orthodoxy can be measured by the quantity of civic work he put in. In the USSR, one did as the apparat directed or suffered the consequences. As for the amount of time Shostakovich devoted to "social" functions after 1960, that came with his (imposed) official posts. Alexander Nekrich recalls that, as a member of the Party committee in the Institute of History, he had to spend 40 per cent of his time on such stuff to the detriment of research and publication (Hosking, History of the Soviet Union, p. 406).

Under normal circumstances, Shostakovich's later official positions, together with his concomitant membership of the Communist Party, would have qualified him as a member of the nomenklatura: the most privileged segment of Soviet society and the corrupt heart of the Soviet system. Based on lists of strategic social positions and adjunct lists of those in line for appointment to them, the nomenklatura system was equivalent to what Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-four, called the "Inner Party". One did not need to be an earnestly believing Communist to rise into the preferential world of the nomenklatura; indeed, earnestness was no more a quality appreciated at this level than it is in any other of the world's invariably urbane and cynical power élites. What was required was discretion, smooth compliance with directives from above, and the ability to exercise Orwellian double-think, whether ostensibly or genuinely, at the drop of a hat. Shostakovich's manifest "unreliability", demonstrated at many public functions (not least his embarrassing failure to show up at his enrollment as a candidate member of the Party in 1960), naturally excluded him from this society-within-a-society. Vishnevskaya's description of his situation at Zhukovka, where, like him, she and Rostropovich owned a dacha close to the Moscow nomenklatura compounds, makes it clear that Shostakovich lived, at most, on the fringe of Soviet privilege. This is confirmed by his wildly variable income, the fact that lobbying was necessary to get him into Dr Ilizarov's clinic, that he was not sent abroad for specialist treatment, and that his family were not granted foreign travel visas or given access to the "special" stores. (Quite possibly, Shostakovich would have declined such perks as morally distasteful -- much as he returned to the state the dacha at Bolshevo which Stalin gave him in 1950, rather than selling it to help to buy his dacha at Zhukovka.)

In other words, Shostakovich did not shy away from becoming a dissident (public dissenter) because he wished to protect the sort of privileges which Erich Honecker and his cronies amassed for themselves in the German "Democratic" Republic. By the normal standards of his official position, he was poor. On the other hand, he had his children and grandchildren to protect and his other dependents to maintain. He also had his ongoing maladies to consider. In short -- and even without taking into consideration the probability that he was, in some ways, "broken" by his experiences in 1936 and 1948, and hence cowed by fear -- he had very little room to manoeuvre, apart from by writing letters and pulling strings on others' behalf wherever he could. The only domain in which he had a perceptible degree of freedom of action was his music. It is there that we should expect to find the hero in Shostakovich -- and, in the end, the only reason for this biographical dispute is the music and its meaning.

A reductive vision

Shostakovich: A Life represents a view of Shostakovich which reduces the scope of the music to an amalgam of earnest dutifulness and muddled personal agonising. Fay's methodology -- rely on Soviet sources, distrust those who knew Shostakovich -- is blatantly indefensible and, if attempted in any other field of Soviet study, would result in such basic attacks from fellow academics as to prejudice her continuance as a scholar. The approval expressed on her book's dust-jacket by Richard Taruskin and Malcolm Hamrick Brown reveals a major academic scandal: endorsement of a false methodology from the leading figures at America's two main centres for the study of Russian music (respectively, Berkeley and Indiana). As is shown by her misleadingly selective quotations from Rostropovich on Shostakovich's signing of the Sakharov letter and from Joachim Braun on the "'secret language' of dissent" in From Jewish Folk Poetry, we cannot even be sure that the sources which Fay arbitrarily admits as legitimate are dependably used by her -- and nor is her way with facts more reliable.

The Cultural Revolution, the overbearing context to Shostakovich's life and work in 1928-32, is all but ignored. Seemingly in order to present the Third Symphony as ideologically orthodox, Fay likewise ignores the preceding political furores over New Babylon, The Bedbug, and the concert audition of The Nose. Little is said, let alone further discovered, about the "large symphony" From Karl Marx to Our Own Days. The nature of Shostakovich's relationship with TRAM is inadequately explained. His "sardonic commentary" to Sollertinsky on the RAPP campaign against cultural fellow travellers is mentioned, but no quotes are supplied. Yakubov's revelation of Shostakovich's satirical songs of the 1930s -- "Going Along With Kaganovich" and "The Song of the People's Iron Commissar Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov" -- go totally unnoticed. Nothing new seems to have been discovered, supposing such research attempts were made, about early alternative drafts of the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Twelfth symphonies. (Fay's apparent failure even to inspect the surviving draft of the "satirical" first version of Shostakovich's Twelfth Symphony is astonishing.)

Contrary to assurances of balance and objectivity, the account of From Jewish Folk Poetry is tendentious and flies in the face of any sensible deduction. Much the same goes for Fay's conclusions regarding the Eleventh Symphony's relationship with the Hungarian Uprising, a verdict which ignores testimony already published in English in Elizabeth Wilson's book. In her coverage of the post-Stalin period, Fay persists in presenting Shostakovich as authentically making statements in Pravda, Izvestiya, and other Soviet publications and arenas (statements which around a dozen of those who knew him insist were ghostwritten on his behalf and merely attributed to him); in doing so, she falsely describes him as "allowing" this, as if he had any say in the matter. Attempting to prove his political orthodoxy, she falsely claims that, after the Tenth Symphony, Shostakovich devoted "a disproportionately large portion of his music to the greater glory of Socialist Realism". As with her account of From Jewish Folk Poetry, Fay's account of the circumstances surrounding Shostakovich's joining of the Communist Party in 1960 is blatantly unbalanced, downplaying the testimony of those closest to him at the time. Similarly, her descriptions of three "Lenin" pieces -- the "Lenin Symphony" of the period 1938-41, the Twelfth Symphony of the period 1959-61, and the song-cycle Loyalty of the period 1968-70 -- fail to come to the obvious conclusion that he had no enthusiasm for writing music about Lenin. Her account of Loyalty includes statements for which she has no citations and which seem to have been interjected, without authority, in order to cover a telltale chronological hiatus.

Neglect and omission

Malcolm Hamrick Brown describes Shostakovich: A Life as "copiously researched" -- yet, apart from a few corrected dates, there seem to be no cases of original research in this book at all. Certainly there is no fresh interview material. Instances abound of cases where such original research is clearly demanded but not fulfilled. For example, we need to know far more about Shostakovich's friend Mikhail Kvadri, the original dedicatee of no less a work than the First Symphony and the person who introduced its composer to Marshal Tukhachevsky (before being arrested and shot in 1929!). Fay supplies no more data about this seemingly key figure in Shostakovich's early life than she offers about the "internal political intrigues" which came close to barring him from his graduate course in 1924. Indeed, the entire period 1923-32 remains in urgent need of original research, Fay's coverage of it being noticeably spotty. Likewise she discovers nothing new about Popov, Dolmatovsky, Serebryakova, or Kainova, and offers very little information on two major figures in Shostakovich's life during the 1930s: his friend Ivan Sollertinsky and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold. The question of the "satirical" version of the Twelfth Symphony is the most glaring instance of Fay's failure to venture out of the music and newspaper libraries and see for herself. All she had to do was ask Irina Antonovna to show the manuscript score to her. Why, too, did Shostakovich set the choruses by Davidenko, a composer he despised? And is it not possible that the Glinka Prize belatedly bestowed on Loyalty in 1974 (about which delay Fay tells us nothing) may have constituted a "reward" for Shostakovich's signing of the Sakharov letter? Again research is called for. Surely the Composer's Union archive has the answers?

Brown praises Fay's "factual accuracy". In mundanely literal terms -- dates, places, quantities -- Shostakovich: A Life is certainly more dependable than it is in terms of judgment. Yet, as we have seen, facts are sometimes presented out of chronological order with the effect of distorting comprehension of the composer's motives. And even at current, purely factual, levels, Shostakovich: A Life is not secure. For this to be so, every statement would need to be cited to an authoritative source; two-thirds of the sentences in this book remain uncited in this way.

Richard Taruskin -- in any other circumstance willing to push the case for irreducible subjectivity to absurdity -- is, it transpires, willing to describe Shostakovich: A Life as "a reliable book to consult for the facts of [the composer's] life". Were a revisionist to make the claims for objectivity advanced by Fay, Taruskin would respond with his familiar "no one can be sure of anything whatever about Shostakovich" disquisition. Indeed, those who prefer to believe that Shostakovich and the Soviet background are innately impenetrable -- such, invariably, being people who know little about these issues and do not intend to remedy this -- will probably enjoy being confused by Fay. The fact remains that those who give a good review to this dismal, devious, and at times dishonest book are merely signing a certificate of their incompetence as judges.

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