"Papa, what if they hang you for this?"

Maxim Shostakovich to his father during rehearsals for the première of the Eleventh Symphony (according to Lev Lebedinsky)

Book review

Elizabeth Wilson. Shostakovich. A Life Remembered.

Elizabeth Wilson is reportedly worried that she hasn't produced the book she wanted to. She shouldn't be. This is a hugely important work and if any critics say otherwise, you can be sure that they don't know what they're talking about.

Having studied cello in the USSR in the Sixties, during which time she met Shostakovich, Ms Wilson amassed extensive musical contacts in Russia and found herself in an ideal position to write a major book on the composer. The exigencies of history prevented the undertaking of such a study until 1988, at which point she set out on a round of research and interviews in Russia with the aim of publishing them as a volume in Faber's "Composers Remembered" series. In the event, the material took two years to gather and a further four years to winnow and edit. Having accumulated too many contributions, she found herself in the invidious position of having to reject even material specially written for her. (One such contribution was by Moisei Vainberg.) Despite this, she has been unable to cut her book below 500 pages - a fact which may have annoyed Faber, since it drives a coach-and-horses through their series format guidelines, but for which Shostakovich devotees will be profoundly grateful, since there is relatively little amongst this flood of words which isn't of vital interest to them.

Granted, there is much here which DSCH readers will have seen before: extracts from well-known books by Serov, Malko, Nabokov, Yelagin, and Vishnevskaya; articles by Khentova, Zhitomirsky, and Lebedinsky, and so on. Those who have read Isaak Glikman's Letters to a Friend will likewise find many extracts from it in these pages. Nor is Ms Wilson's haul of interviewees as exhaustive as one might have hoped; among those who declined to be interviewed by her were Galina Ustvolskaya, Kurt Sanderling, Boris Tishchenko, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dmitri Frederiks, Boris Tchaikovsky, Leonid Trauberg, and Dmitri Tsyganov. Similarly there is nothing from Manashir Yakubov or the composer's last wife or his children (although Wilson did manage to talk to his sister Zoya before her death in 1990).

The book is a triumph nonetheless in that, despite its author's disingenuous pretence in her preface that her material is somehow mysteriously contradictory, the picture of Shostakovich which emerges from it is overwhelmingly consistent and coherent. This being so, it's a pity that she feels the need to cover herself against accusations of partiality by espousing, in her introductory remarks, a stance of virtuous detachment which, frankly, none of us is at present entitled to claim. To wit, she writes that "extreme representations of whatever kind cannot help to facilitate our understanding of Shostakovich's enormous range and depth of vision". This appears to be a sop to those Western critics who, knowing little about anything beyond musical technique, decline to accept that Shostakovich wasn't a Communist; or, if they do accept it, refuse to concede its relevance to understanding his art.

What is extreme to some is moderate to others, and to ordain a point of balance in the Shostakovich debate in 1994 is manifestly premature. After all, the idea that he was a Communist, with all that this entailed in terms of comprehension of his work, is itself almost certainly a complete chimaera, and thus a wild extreme. Yet nearly everyone who wrote about him prior to Testimony adhered to this extreme without any apparent qualms; indeed, some still do. It surely behoves all of us to shut up for a while about where we think the Golden Mean lies in Shostakovich's case, particularly since some of us have been so spectacularly inept in identifying it hitherto.

As it happens, Elizabeth Wilson's book so clearly belies her mask of academic caution that one can only assume she donned it in order to trick the diehard sceptics into blundering into these pages unawares. Since the fact will not, of course, occur to many of our learned colleagues, it's worth stressing right away that the reality evoked in this book is absolutely nightmareish: a homicidally insane culture in which the most sensitive and intelligent were completely at the mercy of the stupidest and most vicious. Anyone who seriously contends that a man like Shostakovich could have left this reality out of his art - or wanted to - is morally, psychologically, and aesthetically incompetent. (Which reminds me: I must warn certain parties that I violently object to being charged with an "ideologically" motivated approach to Shostakovich. The issues and motivations are ones of morality and decency, and of nothing else. The next scribbler to accuse me of being a rabid rightwinger will shortly thereafter encounter me on his doorstep with my social democratic fists arrayed in Marquis of Queensbury mode.)

My shelves are full of huge tomes detailing the horrors of Soviet Communism in the most compendiously appalling terms, yet I was amazed to discover myself still shockable by the full truth about Shostakovich. For, as revealed by Elizabeth Wilson's witnesses, it is far worse than even Testimony suggests, and certainly exceeds the most pessimistic deductions made by me in The New Shostakovich. Critics who have spent years claiming that the accounts given by Solomon Volkov and myself are Cold War caricatures will need all the evasiveness and dishonesty they can muster to wriggle out of this one.

Although by no means every depth is plumbed - there's nothing here, for instance, about the rumoured NKVD murder of Ivan Sollertinsky - there are eye-openers a-plenty, not the least startling of which is Nikolayeva's claim that the Tenth Symphony was written in 1951, two years earlier than previously supposed. While in no way discrediting the post-Testimony view of the work as a musical monument to Stalinism (Stalin's death having been fervently anticipated by the Russian liberal intelligentsia for several years), the contention is remarkable.

Aside from this, the revelations the book contains are unequivocally on the side of Testimony, the most notable examples being Veniamin Basner's disclosure that, in 1937 (shortly before writing the Fifth Symphony), Shostakovich was closely interrogated by the NKVD about Tukhachevsky's non-existent plot to kill Stalin, and Lyubov' Rudneva's deeply distressing account of the hostile reception given by the Composers' Union to the Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87. Taken together with Glikman's description of the official rejection meted out to Katerina Ismailova in 1956, it becomes easy to understand why, four years later, Shostakovich broke down in front of his friend, sobbing that "they" had hounded and pursued him. (This was just before the composer planned to kill himself with an overdose, Malcolm Hamrick Brown please note.)

Only a few trivial details can conceivably be said to redound to the opposing "anti-revisionist" view. In other words, Shostakovich's life was even more ghastly than some of us had already deduced, rendering his many supposedly enigmatic traits of behaviour only too understandable.

To be fair, a few of Wilson's witnesses remain genuinely puzzled by him, several reporting "inexplicable" changes of mood and sudden silences. These, though, are only mysterious if one possesses no psychological nous. Considering the standard of interlocution he was subjected to by even his close friends, it's hardly surprising if he occasionally sat back thinking 'What's the use?'.

During a conversation with Flora Litvinova in the Fifties (wherein he reveals a very shrewd grasp of politics), he vents a Testimony-like outburst about "that bastard Picasso" for praising communism while his fellow artists languished under the same system in the USSR. Astonishingly, Litvinova suggests that Shostakovich, too, is "for the ideas of communism". "No," replies the composer, "communism is impossible" - and thereupon understandably clams up. Litvinova is likewise extraordinarily dense about why Shostakovich was so helpless and shattered in the face of state menace. Perhaps if she'd been relentlessly persecuted by brutal idiots from 1929 onwards, she might have had less trouble comprehending him.

Other witnesses simply seem to be ill-informed. Sofia Gubaidulina, for instance, is baffled as to why Shostakovich joined the Party in 1960 and assumes that he was "unable to overcome the temptation of a 'carrot'". (I.e., that he sold himself out for an official stipend.) Elizabeth Wilson should have added a note at this point, cross-referring the reader to the contributions on the background to the Eighth Quartet by Glikman and Lebedinsky, where the truth is revealed.

Indeed, there are several places where such cross-references are vital and yet omitted. For example, Yevgeny Mravinsky is quoted on one page as follows: "I do not like to search for subjective, literary, and concrete images in music which is not by nature programmatic, whereas Shostakovich very often explained his intentions with very specific images and associations." On another page, Yakov Milkis, a violinist in the Leningrad Philharmonic, claims Mravinsky berated his strings for poor tremolo in the Largo of the Fifth Symphony: "Have you forgotten what this music is about and when it was born?" Or that the conductor criticised a timbre in the finale of the Ninth Symphony: "You have the wrong sound. I need the sound of the trampling of steel-shod boots" (adding: "We knew that he wasn't referring to ordinary soldiers, but to the KGB forces").

Ms Wilson seems to assume that her readers will notice the discrepancy and work it out for themselves. (Mravinsky's quote comes from an official Soviet book published in 1967, while Milkis talked to Ms Wilson in 1989 and so was free to speak his mind.) Unfortunately this just isn't good enough. Many Western readers don't understand the terms of the debate and haven't read enough background on Soviet Russia to know what to look for. The dates of each contribution are given at the back, whereas they should have been supplied beside the relevant portions of text so that browsing readers could easily decide for themselves what a given statement is worth.

Even this, though, is no safe insurance against misunderstanding, and the final condemnation of Elizabeth Wilson's declared intention to let her readers make up their own minds is her inexplicable inclusion of a piece of brazen propaganda purporting to have been written by Lev Arnshtam, in which Shostakovich is represented as being so full of Revolutionary enthusiasm at the Petrograd Conservatoire that he didn't notice he was hungry, ill, and freezing cold during the winter. If there is anyone still happy to accept that Shostakovich's rhythmic sense was "forged by the rhythm and pace of the Revolution", they'll doubtless enjoy this weird, alien ranting. Those familiar with the Martian traits of Soviet Realist officialese will recognise that this piece (published in 1976) is state-sponsored balderdash which Arnshtam, had he not died in 1980, would have witheringly repudiated. Not to point this out in a note is a dereliction of editorial duty. Unless she believes it to be genuine, which is hard to credit, Wilson can only have included this article to fill a gap - and it is noticeable that her coverage of events before 1950 is very much thinner than it is thereafter.

It is especially unfortunate that, for obvious reasons, Elizabeth Wilson was unable to interview many people who knew Shostakovich during the Twenties and Thirties, for the wealth of material she adduces from interviews relating to the post-1950 period suggest that a similar store of surprises remains to be unearthed from among the scores of the preceding quarter-century. Even so she presents more than enough material to prove - notwithstanding the spurious "Arnshtam" article - that Shostakovich was not only never a Communist, but almost certainly not even a Narodnik.

Speaking to Wilson some time between 1988 and 1990, his sister Zoya insists that the atmosphere in their house after the Revolution was "very free and liberal" with "no talk of politics". Boris Lossky, a pupil with Shostakovich at the Shidlovskaya School, opines, in an article written in 1989, that the Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution was linked to the massacre of those protesting against Lenin's dissolution of the Constituent Assembly at the beginning of 1918: "During the spring of 1918, Mitya never so much as hinted at any kind of sympathy with the 'existing regime', and I can vouch that this was the case until 1922." The Glivenko letters of 1923 to early 1924 contain a number of pro-Lenin statements which the anti-revisionists will seize on with relief - but the probability (as with the composer's letters to Isaak Glikman) is that Shostakovich was writing against the chance that the secret police might open his mail, which, on the face of it, was highly likely. (He destroyed most of his letters to his mother shortly after her death in 1955. Zoya recalls him "coming into the room, a bundle of nerves, and burning them all in the stove". Presumably they contained compromising passages.)

Apart from these almost certainly bogus references, the picture is one of an aesthetic, superhumanly gifted, and utterly apolitical boy for whom music (and literature) were the be-all-and-end-all. Writing to Boleslav Yavorsky in 1925, he confesses: "There are no other joys in life apart from music. For me, all of life is music." His fellow student Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, writing under constraint in 1976, lets the cat out of the bag: "An outstanding feature of the young Shostakovich was his early independence of thought and behaviour." (This is reliable Aesopian for "He wasn't a Communist.") Mikhail Druskin effectively confirms this, while elsewhere we learn that Shostakovich was contemptuous not only of Bezymensky's Lenin-lionising verses for the Second Symphony but also of the propagandist plots of all three of his ballets.

A letter to Andrei Balanchivadze, published in 1967, ostensibly indicates that he approved of music with an ideological thrust. However, this is not to be taken at face-value and contains an obvious Aesopian component, which I leave readers to identify for themselves. (Incidentally, the reason why Shostakovich tried to dissuade Valentin Berlinsky from playing a quartet by Luigi Nono is not so much that he disliked Nono's idiom as that Nono was a boorishly intolerant Euro-Communist. See Nikolai Karetnikov, 'The Visit of a Distinguished Musician', Tempo 173.)

According to Lev Lebedinsky, to whom Elizabeth Wilson gives great credence, he once said to Shostakovich: "You were the first to declare war against Stalin." The composer did not deny this - and Lebedinsky's attached comment that "already, from his early years, Shostakovich understood what was going on in our country and what was to come" is borne out by the witnesses mentioned above. "What did you go to the Finland Station for?" he asked Shostakovich. "I wanted to hear Lenin's speech," he replied. "I knew a dictator was arriving." If Harvey Pitcher's Witnesses of the Russian Revolution is anything to go by, the experience must have been quite a let-down since Lenin's reputation as a charismatic orator was a propaganda myth. (It should be said that Boris Lossky thinks the Finland Station story was another myth - yet here, again, Wilson misses the chance for a cross-reference.)

It's a shame that there's still virtually nothing available about Shostakovich during the period of the Cultural Revolution. It's also a pity - though hardly Ms Wilson's fault - that Isaak Glikman's characterisations of the symphonies are so jejune. (Lovely man, lousy critic.) Sad, too, to see so much squabbling between members of the composer's inner and next-to-inner circles. Bolshoi Theatre director Boris Pokrovsky may have got bad reviews from Glikman and Levitin for his production of Katerina Izmailova, but that doesn't excuse his biliously irresponsible statement that "the people who surrounded Shostakovich in his later years, who visited him in his home and today publish memoirs claiming the closeness of their relationship, these people are the enemies of Shostakovich, not Stalin and Zhdanov". It's motivated backbiting of this sort which makes it difficult to take certain testimonies at face value (notably the depositions of Edison Denisov).

On the other hand, there are some wonderful things here, not the least of which is a magnificent reflection on the Thirteenth Symphony by Grigori Kozintsev. And the musicians are absolutely at one on what Shostakovich's music meant, e.g., Fyodor Druzhinin: "People who lived in Shostakovich's epoch have no need to dig in the archives or to marvel at the evidence of repressions and executions and murders. It is all there in the music."

(Richard Taruskin, who scorns the idea that Shostakovich ever composed music with specific images in mind, will now have to deal not only with Yevgeny Mravinsky's contention to the contrary - Kirill Kondrashin's remarks to this effect are already well-known - but also several other similar testimonies in these pages, notably Flora Litvinova's account of Shostakovich's minutely detailed scheme for musically depicting a scene in Gogol's Dead Souls.)

This is not the definitive Shostakovich biography and musicological study we're all waiting for; the author herself acknowledges that we'll have to wait a long time for that. (One hopes somebody out there is writing it.) Instead it's a rich trove of reminiscences and evocations of a fascinating, funny, endearing, and altogether extraordinary man. It is also a damningly wholesale indictment of the murderous stupidity of Soviet Communism. We are in Elizabeth Wilson's debt.

This review originally appeared in the DSCH Journal (No. 2, Winter 1994).
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