The Turning Point
Thoughts on Ho and Feofanov's Shostakovich Reconsidered

Ian MacDonald


When I set about writing The New Shostakovich in 1988, Testimony was being routinely disparaged in English-text newspapers and magazines as a worthless fraud; indeed, my immediate impulse for starting on the book was a short concert review in The Independent which referred, dismissively, to "the spurious Testimony". It was evident that the author of this phrase, like every other critic then writing on Shostakovich in English, had no conception of Soviet history and was therefore hopelessly unqualified to pass such a judgement. (Apparently he was also unaware that, two years earlier, the composer's son Maxim had given his endorsement in principle to Testimony on BBC television: "It's true. It's accurate... The basis of the book is correct.") Clearly there was a need for someone with a knowledge both of Shostakovich and his socio-political context to say why the trend towards confident rejection of Testimony was superficial, misconceived, and seriously misleading.

Having spent the 1980s waiting for someone else to do this, I decided, after reading that concert review, that if there really was no other writer in English both capable of the task and willing to carry it out, it had finally fallen to me, if only by default. I took this decision reluctantly, inasmuch as I regarded myself (as I still do) as merely a rank-and-file admirer of Shostakovich's music. However, I was spurred on by the fact that most of the so-called "experts" on Shostakovich in the West were (as they still are) little more than functional technicians with no grasp of history or cultural context, let alone any insight into the crucial role which these and other elements play in the formation of musical expression. Because of this, their "interpretations" of the composer's music consisted then, as they do today, mainly of empty exercises in meaningless formal analysis - a kind of critical autism unworthy of an advanced civilisation. I wrote knowing that saying this would draw a barrage of hostile fire.

Once The New Shostakovich was published, the bullets duly started whizzing around my head, mostly fired by sheltered men and women sitting comfortably at their pianos in university music departments or other similarly secluded locations devoid of material on Soviet life and culture. At the same time, and certainly not by coincidence, The New Shostakovich won the approval of precisely those critics who possessed a basic familiarity with Soviet history and Soviet cultural politics (e.g., Harlow Robinson, Seppo Heikinheimo, Gunther Schuller, Norman Lebrecht), as well as from every Russian who either wrote about it or corresponded with me after having read it (e.g., Maxim Shostakovich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Semyon Bychkov, Andrei Navrozov). Around the time that the book appeared in 1990, several Russians who had formerly known Shostakovich (Rostislav Dubinsky, Daniil Zhitomirsky, Lev Lebedinsky, and Lev Mazel) published memoirs or articles which conveyed a portrait of Shostakovich congruent with that given ten years earlier in Testimony and supported, in considerable detail, by The New Shostakovich. A fair-minded person might have concluded that there was a consistent pattern in this.

In fact, while this may not have been immediately apparent to the layman, there was an equally consistent pattern of difference between those who approved of what I'd written and those who rejected it - which is: the former knew something about Soviet history, whereas the latter were almost entirely ignorant of it. If this was hard to discern during the early 1990s, it became obvious in 1996 when Richard Taruskin published a supposedly scholarly essay on the Soviet reception of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony which not only turned out to be a highly partial polemic ignoring crucial testimony already in the public domain, but which also depended on a view of Soviet history which even a first-year student of the subject could have identified as outlandishly ill-informed.[1] As if deliberately to confirm that Taruskin's fumbling misconstruction of the facts was a consistent trait of those "anti-revisionists" who rejected Testimony and The New Shostakovich, Laurel Fay followed her colleague soon afterwards with an article purporting to show that Shostakovich composed From Jewish Folk Poetry not as a protest against concerted Soviet anti-Semitism, but rather as a dim-witted attempt to placate the musical apparat with a harmless piece of Socialist Realist folk-nationalism: "It was [Shostakovich's] rotten luck that of all the available nationalities, great and small, he just happened to pick the wrong 'folk' as his inspiration."[2] Fay's contentions were based on an even grosser misconstruction of Soviet history than that of Taruskin - so gross, in fact, that two specialists on the Jewish aspect of Sovietology[3] to whom I showed her article were incredulous that it could have been published as serious work, while a third such authority, the musicologist Joachim Braun (who regards Shostakovich as a secret dissident) responded as follows: "The meaning of Shostakovich's music is disclosed to the 'aware listener'. It is his 'rotten luck' that among the unaware are also some musicologists."

For the convenience of those interested in the Shostakovich debate, my rebuttal of Fay's claims[4] has been combined with my earlier rebuttal of Taruskin's, along with other new material, as "Naive Anti-Revisionism: The Academic Misrepresentation of Dmitri Shostakovich" in Allan B. Ho and Dmitry Feofanov's Shostakovich Reconsidered. [5] I would submit that no one who reads this essay is likely to retain much faith in the historical competence of the anti-revisionist lobby in Shostakovich studies. Indeed, the assumptions of Taruskin, Fay, and others in their camp are so transparently silly that they could only have been got up in haste by pundits who, realising too late that they have fatally neglected an entire dimension of their subject, now frantically wish to give a contrary impression and as a result perpetrate the neophyte errors which those faking knowledge of a complex subject are bound to make. Were they to submit their contentions in general Sovietological circles, Fay and Taruskin would be met with derision and forfeit their reputations. Luckily for them, academic specialists in 20th century music tend not to know much history.

The Western academics who reject Testimony and The New Shostakovich possess no discernible historical basis for doing so for the very simple reason that they have never adequately considered the historical context of Shostakovich's music. In his foreword to Shostakovich Reconsidered, Vladimir Ashkenazy is rightly scathing about this; indeed, every Russian who ever suffered under Communist misrule has a right to be angry with the fraudulent nonsense pedalled as authoritative historical comment by Taruskin and Fay. Despite relativistic claims to the contrary, there is an objective core to history; this being so, a scholar is on his or her honour to respect the facts before launching into personal interpretations. In claiming that there was no contemporary intellectual resistance to Stalinism, Richard Taruskin shows only that he has done no reading on this subject. In claiming that there was no officially-coordinated Soviet anti-Semitism before the end of 1948, Laurel Fay comes close to committing some anti-Semitism of her own, albeit purely as a result of her amazing historical ignorance. Under normal circumstances, two academic reputations ought now to be hanging by a thread. However, this article is partly about predicting the near future in Shostakovich studies, and it is my guess that, given the historical naivety of most of the participating musicologists, Taruskin and Fay will be excused for blunders which in other academic fields would occasion the end of their careers.

Though woeful, the aforegoing tale is merely a sideshow and, given the outcome I have predicted, it would be futile to waste further time on it. The only significant question presently at hand is: Who was Dmitri Shostakovich? In Shostakovich Reconsidered the answers are clear and cohesive. He was the man whose cast of mind, private opinions, and personal style are faithfully embodied in Testimony. Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov's case for believing this to be so is too intricate and sustained to be adequately paraphrased; in any case, no one who has any interest in the Shostakovich debate can avoid scrupulously sifting this argument, set forth in the authors' paper "Shostakovich's Testimony: Reply To An Unjust Criticism". Having said this, it is worth pointing out that one of the findings made by Ho and Feofanov during their investigation of the Testimony question is that four separate witnesses (Galina Drubachevskya, Flora Litvinova, Rostislav Dubinsky, and Yury Korev) have independently testified to knowing during 1971-74 that Shostakovich was "talking" to Volkov, i.e., that work on Testimony was then in progress. Indeed, Central Committee documents prove that, despite her subsequent - stout and still continuing - repudiations of Testimony, Irina Shostakovich, the composer's third wife, was herself well aware of all this from the start. (In her own words to the board of the Soviet copyright agency VAAP in 1978: "Everyone whom this [Testimony] concerned knew about it. The journal Sovetskaya Muzyka knew about it as well."[6])

Overwhelmingly (by about ten to one), those with a respectable opinion about Testimony have endorsed it as accurate and convincing. These include Sviatoslav Richter, Kirill Kondrashin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kurt Sanderling, Emil Gilels, Rudolf Barshai, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yuri Temirkanov, Semyon Bychkov, Mark Lubotsky, Ilya Musin, Rostislav Dubinsky, Lev Lebedinsky, Ivan Martynov, Daniil Zhitomirsky, Rodion Shchedrin, Vera Volkova, Yuri Lyubimov, Andrey Bitov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Gerald Abraham, John Warrack, Yehudi Menuhin, Boris Schwarz, Harold Schonberg, Harrison Salisbury, Krzysztof Meyer, Detlef Gojowy, Seppo Heikinheimo, Torsten Ekbom, and, crucially, the composer's son Maxim. Not least among several major coups in Shostakovich Reconsidered is the addition to this already impressive list of the imprimatur of Shostakovich's other child, Galina: "This book represents, fairly and accurately, Shostakovich's political views... I am an admirer of Volkov. There is nothing false [in Testimony]. Definitely the style of speech is Shostakovich's - not only the choice of words, but also the way they are put together." Addressing the vexed question of whether the notorious "signed pages" can be said to represent subterfuge on Solomon Volkov's part, Galina is categorically dismissive: "Maxim has shown me parts of the manuscript. There is no question that the signatures are [my father's]. Shostakovich did sign some stupid articles about inconsequential subjects without reading them, but he would not have signed something this big and important without reading it." [My emphasis.]


Shostakovich Reconsidered marks a turning-point in the study of Shostakovich. One can only agree with Vladimir Ashkenazy that anyone who reads Ho and Feofanov's book yet still maintains that Testimony is a fraud, that Shostakovich was not a long-standing secret dissident, and that these facts do not bear directly and consistently on his work, must either be obtuse to the point of insanity or suffer from an obdurate allegiance to Communism (which amounts to the same thing). Again, a reasonable person might be forgiven for assuming that the controversy over who Shostakovich really was is finally over and that we can now get down to examining his works in proper context without ignorant barracking from those too unaware of the facts to offer a valid opinion and too lazy to change their ways. On the basis of events over the last seven years, I would doubt this. Those who have obtusely held up the advance of Shostakovich studies during that time are, despite the egg on their faces, unlikely take the honourable course and admit their faults.

For one thing, they are not, and have never been, on the level. That is: they are less concerned with truth than with the health of their reputations based on statements they have made in the past. Their egos, rather than their intellects, are in play, with the result that they do not fight fairly. Ho and Feofanov's paper on Testimony and my own essay "Naive Anti-Revisionism" have shown how unprincipled is much of the work of the anti-revisionists. Misrepresentations by omission and commission abound. Suppression, too, is not unknown. Solomon Volkov's brief written replies to unjust criticisms by Malcolm Brown in The New York Times (1979) and Richard Taruskin in Atlantic Monthly (1995) were spiked by these periodicals and appear in Shostakovich Reconsidered for the first time. Similarly, David Fanning, introducing his anthology Shostakovich Studies, [7] manages to mention Galina Drubachevskaya's 1991 interview with Solomon Volkov[8] without pointing out that Drubachevskaya corroborates Volkov's account of how the interviews for Testimony were arranged. Richard Taruskin, too, cites Drubachevskaya in his 1993 review of the facsimile of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony,[9] yet fails there, and indeed anywhere else in his subsequent writings on Shostakovich, to report that she confirms Volkov's claims.

Even Elizabeth Wilson, otherwise an honourable contributor to the cause of truth in Shostakovich studies, turns out to be, on the face of it, guilty of a comparable act of suppression. A 70-page memoir of Shostakovich, written at Wilson's request by the composer's friend Flora Litvinova, originally contained the following passage:

In the last years of [Shostakovich's] life we met rarely, and not for long, or accidentally. And once, at such a meeting, Dmitry Dmitriyevich said: "You know, Flora, I met a wonderful young man - a Leningrad musicologist [he did not tell me his name - F. L.]. This young man knows my music better than I do. Somewhere, he dug everything up, even my juvenilia." I saw that this thorough study of his music pleased Shostakovich immensely. "We now meet constantly, and I tell him everything I remember about my works and myself. He writes it down, and at a subsequent meeting I look it over."

Wilson warns her readers at the beginning of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered that, "for reasons of space", she has had to cut passages from some of the depositions made for her by her many witnesses. Since this passage from Litvinova's memoir did not appear in Wilson's book, Ho and Feofanov asked her for an explanation. (They also took the trouble of checking with Litvinova). Wilson replied as follows:

Excuse my delay in answering, but for a variety of reasons I have had little time available. I also wanted to think carefully about my reply... The passage in question about Volkov was indeed there in Litvinova's original... You ask why I omitted this passage. It may have been a mistaken decision on my part, but I did not want to get too involved in the whole vexed question about the authenticity of Volkov's Testimony, so I tended to omit references, as it seemed to me material that was irrelevant to my main subject.[10]

It should be observed that had not the whole of Litvinova's original text appeared in the December 1996 issue of Znamya (The Banner), no one would ever have known that she had made this crucial statement about the provenance of Testimony. As for Elizabeth Wilson's plea that she omitted the passage in question because Testimony (or the absolutely fundamental controversy surrounding it) was "irrelevant" to her "main subject", I leave it to others following this debate to pass their own verdicts.

Ho and Feofanov have not been afraid to describe some of the aforegoing examples, along with other anti-revisionist misrepresentations and suppressions (though not Wilson's) as amounting to "an academic cover-up". Faced with Wilson's omission of Litvinova's testimony pro Testimony, and replying to Ho and Feofanov's charges, Malcolm Hamrick Brown, a colleague of Taruskin and Fay, responded as follows:

Wilson's own explanation for the omission certainly strikes me as lame and self-serving... But to declare Wilson's omission to be an "academic cover-up" and to suggest that this is but one specific example of an implied "many", but without further supporting evidence, seems intemperate and not in the spirit of academic debate.[11]

Brown's description of Wilson's action as "self-serving" is inaccurate and grossly unfair. Perhaps academics are used, casually, to applying this epithet to each other, and for good reason - in which case, Brown has possibly used the insult reflexively, without thinking very deeply about what he meant by it; or perhaps he had other intentions. It is, in any case, exceedingly difficult to see how Elizabeth Wilson could fairly be said to have served herself by excluding Litvinova's testimony; indeed, as she is clearly aware, she has placed herself in an embarrassing position by doing so. Nor, had her suppression remained undetected, would it yet be accurate or fair to call her action "self-serving", since there could have been no conceivable personal advantage to her in doing so; indeed, by any normal criterion, the only personal advantage for her would have consisted in including Litvinova's testimony, for the reason that such revelations sell books. Only if Wilson should turn out to espouse some cause for which the omission of Litvinova's testimony is advantageous could her action be deemed to have been serving some purpose - whereupon Brown's charge that she had been "self-serving" in her action becomes not only inaccurate and unfair but redundant, in that it would have been the cause, rather than some purely personal interest, which Wilson would have been engaged in furthering.

What "cause" might have been involved? This is scarcely a question for Sherlock Holmes. The only cause for which the suppression of Litvinova's testimony could have been advantageous is that of anti-revisionism: those who reject Testimony. Yet Wilson begins her book by promising "a balanced reappraisal to discover where the truth lies". Can she, despite her assurances of impartiality, have been in cahoots with the anti-revisionists? On the face of it, this supposition is problematic, not least because her book amounts to a sustained rebuttal of the anti-revisionist position.

Defending herself, Wilson pleads that, in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, she tried to steer clear of the Testimony debate (despite evidently having studied the book closely and notwithstanding several references to it in her anthology, some implicitly sceptical).[12] Moreover, in her Preface, she implies that Testimony should be counted among the "extreme representations" which "cannot help to facilitate our understanding of Shostakovich's enormous range and depth of vision" - an inexplicable statement considering that the majority of the declarations in her book redound to the Testimony side of the debate rather than to the anti-revisionist side, while the historical narrative with which she links these declarations conforms in detail with that provided in The New Shostakovich. [13] Indeed, as I remarked in my review of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, "the full truth about Shostakovich, as revealed by Elizabeth Wilson's witnesses, is far worse than even Testimony suggests, and certainly exceeds the most pessimistic deductions made by me in The New Shostakovich".[14] If Wilson truly imagines that the picture she has assembled of the life and times of Shostakovich is, in some abstruse way, less "extreme" than those portrayed in Testimony and The New Shostakovich, one can only conclude that she is somehow bemused as to the gist of her own narrative and quoted materials. In fact, I do believe Elizabeth Wilson to be in some degree bemused in this way; yet she is an intelligent, informed, well-qualified writer. How can she be thus befuddled? I would suggest that Wilson's confusion stems from her friendship with Laurel Fay.

Having apparently accepted without question Fay's criticisms of Testimony, [15] it seems that Wilson finds it impossible, or at least very difficult, to recognise that Testimony is nonetheless authentic in fact and endorsed as a truthful representation of Shostakovich by almost everyone who knew him. Her ability to maintain an independent view on this is further compromised by her professional and personal closeness to Fay. In the Acknowledgements to Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Wilson writes as follows: "I wish to express my gratitude to Laurel Fay... Apart from allowing me to indulge in stimulating discussions, arguments and speculations with her, she kept me up to date with new publications when I was housebound in Italy." This is the warmest of Wilson's Acknowledgements (which include a "debt of deepest gratitude" conceded to Irina Shostakovich). That Fay reciprocates Wilson's feelings is confirmed by her reference (after her address to the American Musicological Society in New York on 3rd November 1995) to Wilson as her "close friend".[16]

It is reasonable to suppose that Elizabeth Wilson "did not want to get too involved in the whole vexed question about the authenticity of Volkov's Testimony" for reasons not unconnected with her close relationship with the leading enemy of "Volkov's Testimony", Laurel Fay. It is, of course, entirely possible that, during the "stimulating discussions, arguments and speculations" Wilson "indulged in" with Fay, the topic of Flora Litvinova's remarkable claim about the "wonderful young man - a Leningrad musicologist" simply never came up and was never considered. If this actually was the case, Elizabeth Wilson may care to confirm it. Perhaps given her faith in her colleague's infallibility, Wilson decided not to raise the issue with Fay for fear of distracting her from completing her long-awaited book on Shostakovich? On the other hand, such surprising first-hand evidence would surely have been of pressing interest to someone engaged in such a task? - particularly to one who has based her reputation in Shostakovich studies on a full-tilt attack on the probity of the very writer and the legitimacy of the very book to whom and to which Flora Litvinova may be reasonably supposed to be referring in this pregnant passage.

Is Elizabeth Wilson guilty of suppression of vital information? Objectively speaking, the answer can only be Yes. However, the extenuating circumstances are substantial and, I would argue, absolve her of anything amounting to deliberate suppression of evidence awkward to her case (unlike the cited examples involving Taruskin and Fanning). As she herself pleads, she was, when she cut the passage from Litvinova's memoir, engaged in making no case about Testimony. Although she implies in her book that Testimony is a discountable source, she mounts no direct attack on it. Does this, then, mean that she was not, after all, allying herself with the anti-revisionist "cause" by excluding the passage in question (and, presumably, by omitting to show it to her guru Laurel Fay)? I would suggest that she did, in fact, thereby ally herself with anti-revisionism - but passively rather than actively. Wilson is astute enough to recognise that there is an overwhelming consistency to the evidence presented in her book, and that this consistency redounds to the revisionist, rather than to the anti-revisionist, side. Her friendship with Fay, on the other hand, naturally pulled her the other way. Unable to resolve this, she ducked the issue by cutting the passage in question. Unfortunately for her, she in effect thereby suppressed crucial evidence.

Apart from the question of the evidence itself, why is it necessary to go so carefully through the issues involved in this case? Firstly, because Elizabeth Wilson has in no other respect shown herself to be a dishonourable person. To call her "self-serving", as Malcolm Hamrick Brown casually does, is contemptible. Secondly, because her invidious position vis-a-vis the Litvinova testimony has arisen, not from any willful attempt to pervert the course of the Shostakovich debate, but because, like others less honest than her, she has allowed herself to be browbeaten, or at least intellectually "leant on", by the leading anti-revisionists, whose use of bullying and insulting language towards their opponents and ostentatious parading of their alleged expertise has, I would submit, been designed to throw dust in the eyes of the general audience and to coerce less informed fellow pundits into their camp. The paranoiac malice with which the anti-revisionist campaign has been waged has been deliberately disconcerting to those whose views happen to be unsupported by a firm grasp of the relevant issues. In the matter of Flora Litvinova's testimony, Wilson, for all her knowledge, temporarily allowed herself to become one of these. Such are the pressures of this intense debate. Such is the debased level to which it often sinks.


Suppression - the sort of suppression (along with misrepresentation) which Ho and Feofanov adduce in their claims of an "academic cover-up" - may, as we have seen, take several forms, one being suppression through intellectual intimidation. By this I mean the use, in the absence of factual evidence and cogent argument, of coarse insults and the bullying adoption of (to borrow an ethological term) the dominant posture of the "alpha" animal. Ironically, it appears that some pundits on the anti-revisionist side have, from time to time, felt thus intimidated - presumably by me. David Fanning, in his introduction to Shostakovich Studies, seems to be expressing such a sentiment: "It is time," he declares, "to let all who care about Shostakovich's music speak for themselves and in their own way." Since what I have written on Shostakovich is either densely factual or carefully argued, I can only deplore what, in this case, seems to be no more than an expression of vague subjective dismay at finding one's views challenged in fact and thought. If one feels intimidated merely by the fact of being opposed, one is unwise to make contentious statements to begin with. There is a difference between reasoned remonstration and bullying bluster.

As for bullying bluster, let us examine a few examples. Addressing a meeting of the American Musicological Society in New York on 3rd November 1995 (long before I had ever written a critical word about her), Laurel Fay referred to my book The New Shostakovich as "a moronic tract". Fay's surprisingly broad insult, I would suggest, was coined less in the forlorn hope of intimidating me than of browbeating the members of her audience into banishing from their minds any suspicion that The New Shostakovich might be a book worthy of the attention of intelligent people. What Fay was attempting to do by using this epithet was to consign a fellow writer's work wholesale to oblivion rather than attempt to confront the material within its pages with which she disagreed. Conceivably many in her audience were coerced in the manner she intended and have never since been able to pick up a copy of The New Shostakovich for fear of Laurel Fay leaping out from behind the curtains and calling them morons for doing so. It is true that I find it piquantly amusing to be called a moron by someone whose knowledge of Soviet history is barely above the kindergarten level; yet I have taken the trouble to substantiate my counter-claims in this regard and so have earned the right to return her scorn with a little of my own. This does not alter the fact that her behaviour in this matter is utterly deplorable.

In his review of Richard Taruskin's recent book on Stravinsky in Tempo, Gerard McBurney, a sensible and informed commentator on Shostakovich, reported that "Taruskin writes (and indeed talks) with the unmistakably ungentlemanly air of a bully".[17] In his essay on Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in Fanning's Shostakovich Studies, Taruskin raises bullying bluster into a minor art form. He calls his enemies (i.e., those who take a different view from him) "egoistic trivialisers",[18] excoriates "their hypocrisy, their criminality",[19] and accuses me personally of dishonourable conduct, of having "resorted to the rank tactic of guilt by association", of committing acts of "vile trivialisation" and "McCarthyism", and of being "the very model of a Stalinist critic".[20] Were his historical knowledge and his arguments sound, I might have been more impressed by Taruskin's invective. Yet, as I have shown - without response from him since my reply to his essay was published two years ago - his account of the circumstances surrounding the early performances of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony is fundamentally awry, depends on the omission of testimony that contradicts it, and is advanced within the framework of a view of Shostakovich's intellectual position which is unsupported by any known account of the historical context of Soviet life and culture (upon which the bibliography is vast). Taruskin's essay on Shostakovich's Fifth is either dishonest or incompetent, or a blend of both.

The heated abuse which, from time to time, lunges like a brandished fist through the haze of Taruskin's befogged harangue seems to be partly an expression of its author's spleen; more reprehensibly, it appears, like Fay's outburst, to be designed to cow any possibility of dissent. While it would never occur to me to liken Richard Taruskin to Joseph Stalin in this respect - at the risk of losing my sense of humour, that really would be a piece of vile trivialisation - I would suggest that here, again, is the motif of suppression through intellectual intimidation. What, after all, are the readers of Taruskin's tirade likely to deduce from the tone in which it is prosecuted? - That, if for a moment they imagine Shostakovich to have been a secret dissident, they will be perpetrating "a self-gratifying anachronism", proving themselves to be "would-be romanticisers", and displaying "smug vulgarity, insipid pretension".[21] Taruskin's medley of bullying insults has, I would submit, nothing whatever in common with reasoned and scholarly persuasion. On the contrary, it amounts to a brutal attempt to extinguish objections or contradictory thoughts before they can so much as arise.

Such a strategy undoubtedly reaps rewards. Those who prefer not to tire themselves by going to the trouble of forming their own opinions are generally grateful to have a ready-made intellectual position handed to them on a plate (or, in this case, thrust upon them roughly with a menacing air). The lazy parroting of idle common-room rumour is a standard feature of life among second-rate academics and their media cousins, each of whom will deferentially swallow any amount of nonsense so long as it comes to them courtesy of a lady or gentleman with letters after their name.[22] First-rate academics - those who maintain scholastic integrity and hence never find themselves stooping in panic to hide historical solecisms behind falsehoods, or to conceal distortions under further distortions; those who weigh the evidence (all the evidence) without lapsing into prejudice, and use their own considered judgement to reach a measured conclusion - are thin on the ground in Shostakovich studies. Instead, we have Richard Taruskin and Laurel Fay. We also have Malcolm Brown.

In a passage quoted above, Malcolm Brown opines that to declare Elizabeth Wilson's omission of Flora Litvinova's testimony to be a species of "academic cover-up" - "and to suggest that this is but one specific example of an implied 'many', but without further supporting evidence" - seems (and I quote) "intemperate and not in the spirit of academic debate". Can this Malcolm Brown, now pleading for temperate debate, be the same gentleman who, four years ago, described my book The New Shostakovich as "nothing so much as Soviet hard-line criticism in reverse, but [sic] no less primitive and one-dimensional" and who responded to my careful rebuttal of his criticisms with the following unprovoked display of incoherent petulance?

Ian MacDonald just doesn't get the point that it makes ordinary commonsense not to trust someone you know to be a liar, and that's what we know Solomon Volkov to be. It doesn't really matter how many ex-Soviets believe that Testimony is "essentially accurate". MacDonald also doesn't get the point that... [and so on in this vein.][23]

Is this temperate? It is tropical. Does it even make sense? Scarcely. Solomon Volkov has not been shown to be a liar; Malcolm Brown sees fit to call him one - a different matter. Even if Volkov had been shown to have lied on a particular question, it would be neither logical nor sensible to assume that everything else he utters is a lie; as in every other walk of life, one must employ one's judgement in conjunction with the evidence (all the evidence). Brown himself has repeatedly misrepresented Maxim Shostakovich's view of Testimony by ignoring statements by Maxim which do not fit his thesis. To take one example, he disregards Maxim's 1986 declaration that he considers Testimony to be "true, accurate, basically correct" - a verdict cited prominently in The New Shostakovich and which we may therefore assume Brown to have encountered. To pretend, in effect, that Maxim Shostakovich never said this is tantamount to a lie. Does it follow that it is necessary to ignore everything else Brown says?[24] As for the extraordinary sentence "It doesn't really matter how many ex-Soviets believe that Testimony is 'essentially accurate'", it is astonishing to find such stuff emanating from a tenured academic. Brown's a priori dismissal of evidence inexpedient to his prejudices - not to mention his implied denigration of figures like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mstislav Rostropovich, Semyon Bychkov, Ilya Musin, Andrey Bitov, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko as (mere) "ex-Soviets" - is so far from "temperate debate" that it is incredible that an academic journal should have printed it. Yet Notes[25] not only printed it without scruple, but bestowed on Brown its Eva Judd O'Meara Award for the best review published in its pages. Behold the state of academic life in the American musical world of the 1990s. That there is an audience for this sort of thing seems to be confirmed by the flocks of hangers-on which Brown apparently leads around with him from debate to debate. But perhaps by now the reader is wise enough to the strategy of bullying bluster used by the anti-revisionists to demand the protective application of some ironic inverted commas, viz: "...which Brown apparently leads around with him from 'debate' to 'debate'." For, in truth, the routinely and calculatedly abusive "debating" style of the anti-revisionists is adopted expressly to discourage the growth of any real debate at all.


Can such naked attempts to suppress potential opposition by means of intellectual intimidation be described as an "academic cover-up"? Not on their own. But taken in conjunction with the direct suppressions of material mentioned earlier and the many, often gross, examples of anti-revisionist misrepresentation by commission and omission examined in the opening and closing essays of Ho and Feofanov's Shostakovich Reconsidered, the accusation of an academic cover-up becomes all too legitimate. Yet, while evidence of the crime is plentiful, the layman could be forgiven for wondering what conceivable motive there could be for committing it.

Why should several Western academics risk their reputations to enforce, chiefly by foul means, a view of Shostakovich and his work which is so sharply at variance with the views expressed by those Russians and East Europeans who actually knew and worked with the composer? The academics in question would have us believe that they are soldiers for truth - and that part of the truth is that Shostakovich's former associates are, by and large, either fibbing, mistaken, romanticising the past, or, for various reasons, to be discounted a priori as unreliable witnesses. If this were the case, it would certainly amount to a cover-up, albeit from the other side of the divide. Yet these academics have never formally made such a charge. Why not? It may, of course, never have occurred to them; or perhaps they are unable to establish that a concerted effort, such as would merit the accusation of a cover-up, operates behind the many Russian expressions of support for Testimony and its portrait of Shostakovich, or motivates other witnesses who have given their own independent portraits of Shostakovich which also happen closely to resemble that of Testimony. Indeed, such a concerted effort (conspiracy) would have been extremely difficult to initiate and coordinate over so many years and between so many people - not least because some of these people, when it comes to other subjects (and sometimes on points of detail regarding Shostakovich), often bitterly disagree with each other.

Turning, then, from fantastic speculation to something more down to earth, what is the rival truth about Shostakovich advocated by the anti-revisionists? - And is this truth of such a sort as to be plausibly implicated in a putative academic cover-up?

In 1993, Malcolm Brown hazarded that "as more of Shostakovich's contemporaries speak out and as reliable documentary information becomes available, the 'real' Shostakovich is likely to emerge as both a sometime closet dissident and a sometime collaborator".[26] This hostile verdict was based on statements by four former contemporaries of Shostakovich: Genrikh Orlov, Grigori Fried, Viktor Bobrovsky, and Edison Denisov. These statements (which offer no facts to substantiate Brown's claim that Shostakovich was "a sometime collaborator") are based on assumptions easily rebutted either by logic or by statements to the contrary made by those closer to the composer.[27] In the same context, Brown baldly asserted that "few former Soviet musicians who lived through that period believe that Shostakovich, in his position as leading Soviet composer, was compelled to apply for Party membership". I have twice asked Brown to justify this claim;[28] he has made no response. Nor has Brown ever confronted the statements from musicians and others who "lived through that time" yet believed precisely the opposite about Shostakovich's 1960 application for Party membership: Lev Lebedinsky,[29] Kirill Kondrashin,[30] Vladimir Ashkenazy,[31] Flora Litvinova,[32] Maxim Shostakovich,[33] and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.[34] Indeed one of Brown's four witnesses, Edison Denisov, contradicts Brown's general insinuation within the very statement Brown adduces from him: "They made [Shostakovich] secretary of the Russian Union of Composers because they needed his name for cover!" (My italics.) Worse still for Brown, Isaak Glikman - in Letters to a Friend, published in 1993: the year Brown made his assertions - gives an horrific account of Shostakovich's distress "brought on [in the words of Elizabeth Wilson] by his enforced enrollment into the detested Communist Party".[35] Glikman's evidence confirms Lebedinsky's contention that Shostakovich was wildly distraught over this affair[36] - a contention published three years before Brown called Shostakovich "a sometime collaborator" and claimed that "few former Soviet musicians believe that Shostakovich... was compelled to apply for Party membership". Such idly callous slanders constitute Brown's "rival truth" about Shostakovich. We have heard no more of these claims since he made them in 1993: no explanation, no apology. Perhaps he stands by them; or perhaps he blusters in an effort to make us forget them?

Laurel Fay's infantile suggestion, made in 1996, that Shostakovich, being somewhat spineless and stupid, wrote From Jewish Folk Poetry in a comically misconceived effort to curry favour with the Soviet authorities, but "just happened to pick the wrong 'folk' as his inspiration", is evidently cut from the same cloth as Brown's, i.e., Shostakovich was a craven mess whose greatest music (we are forced to assume) displays moral stature only by virtue of the same completely serendipitous process by which he blundered into choosing the Jews as his subject in summer 1948. In other words, Shostakovich, a sort of idiot savant whose intelligence was a figment of his friends' imaginations, composed great music purely by accident. This inane scenario recalls Richard Taruskin's description of Shostakovich's alleged bumbling attempts to tickle Stalin's fancy with Lady Macbeth: "What a dismal surprise awaited [him]! How completely [he] had misunderstood the nature of Stalinism!"[37] By now we are getting the picture: Shostakovich was a feeble-minded trimmer who spent half his career on his knees trying desperately to get accepted into the Communist Party by composing something which didn't misunderstand the nature of Stalinism or pick the wrong folk as its inspiration. This, broadly speaking (and that, one feels, is the appropriate dialect here), is the "rival truth" of anti-revisionism.

Those who have taken the trouble to read Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Shostakovich Reconsidered, and who are not so frightened by Laurel Fay as to have been entirely scared away from The New Shostakovich, will know this "rival truth" to be radically at variance with the overwhelming majority of Russian testimony on Shostakovich. There is no simpler way of putting this: you believe those who know the historical background because they personally lived through it and lack any rational motive for conspiring to misrepresent Shostakovich as a secret dissident or for characterising his music in that spirit; or you believe a tiny caucus of second-rate Western academics who, as the composer Rodion Shchedrin recently told Toccata Press's proprietor and editor-in-chief Martin Anderson, "know nothing about it".[38]


Under the circumstances, it would be strange indeed if the anti-revisionists had not started to suspect - or, perhaps (perish the thought) had known all along - that they were grotesquely wrong about Shostakovich and the significance of his work. Let us suppose that they have begun to realise this. They are unlikely to apologise for their past statements, since apologising would imply either that they had not understood the subject on which their reputations depend, or that they had "debated" unfairly by using intellectual intimidation and by suppressing or misrepresenting aspects of the record. As an alternative to making such apologies, the anti-revisionists would, it is safe to assume, be likely to pursue the following parallel courses of action:

(1) to quietly and gradually abandon their former posture and move closer to the revisionist position, declaring as they do so that they are assuming a notional "middle ground" - a supposed point of balance between "extremes" from which they may re-establish themselves as "temperate" arbiters of the real truth about Shostakovich: that he was a puzzling, inconsistent, essentially incalculable figure about whose life and work it is, conveniently, impossible to say anything definite at all;

(2) to cover up this intellectual relocation by emitting a smokescreen of theoretical obfuscations and sorrowfully "realistic" innuendoes against Shostakovich which, by cutting him down to size and making him seem inscrutably ambiguous, will serve quietly and gradually to move him from where he rightly belongs - on the revisionist side of the debate - towards the notional "middle ground" (where the formerly extreme, but now supposedly "central" and "balanced", anti-revisionists may meet their manufactured ghost-image of the composer floating over from the enemy position and embrace it as evidence of their own faked "truth").

Just such a dual course of action is already under way. Malcolm Brown, for instance, when challenged in the AMS discussion group by Ho and Feofanov, claimed:

Neither Laurel Fay, Richard Taruskin, or I have ever asserted that Testimony contains no words of Shostakovich exchanged with Solomon Volkov during the course of private meetings. Neither have we claimed that the image of Shostakovich that emerges from Testimony bears no relationship to the human being Shostakovich. Nowhere in the writings of any of the three of us can be found the assertion that "Shostakovich was Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son".[39]

When Ho and Feofanov pointed out that this last phrase was prominently displayed in two essays by Brown's colleague Richard Taruskin ("The Opera and the Dictator" and "A Martyred Opera Reflects Its Abominable Time"), Brown, predictably, did not apologise for his mistake, instead responding in a manner designed to relocate himself and Taruskin - after her New York Times blunder, Fay may have become a liability so far as Brown is concerned, as Elizabeth Wilson clearly is - into the notional middle ground from which all their earlier extreme statements may be disclaimed as misunderstandings on the part of their enemies, and Shostakovich may be subtly reshaped into a figure without stable form or substance: their new "puppet Mitya".[40]

To accomplish this stealthy manoeuvre, Brown appears to insinuate that Taruskin's description of Shostakovich as "perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son" applies only prior to the attacks on him in Pravda in 1936.[41] Yet were this to be so, Taruskin would have had to have written "till then perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son". In "The Opera and the Dictator", published in New Republic on 20th March 1989,[42] there is no such helpful qualification; the statement is categorical and can only reasonably be interpreted as a verdict on Shostakovich's entire career (or at least the majority of it).[43] Curiously, though, in "A Martyred Opera Reflects Its Abominable Time", published in The New York Times on 6th November 1994,[44] the words "till then" have been interpolated before the phrase "perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son". This mysterious rewrite logically implies that a change occurred in Shostakovich's situation thereafter - an intriguing development in Taruskin's conception of the composer. Unfortunately, Taruskin omits to tell us what he imagines Shostakovich changed into at that point. (Perhaps Soviet Russia's second most loyal musical son? Perhaps Soviet Russia's least loyal musical son?)

Those in the West who, in spite of all we now know, persist in clinging to the idea that Shostakovich was a straightforward lifelong Communist (e.g., Christopher Norris,[45] Robert Matthew-Walker[46]) must presumably have been taken aback by Taruskin's textual adjustment. But what can have happened between 1989 and 1994 to change Taruskin's mind, prompting him to interpolate this escape clause? It cannot have been any reconsideration of Testimony, which he refers to in 1994 as "Solomon Volkov's spurious book of Shostakovich 'memoirs'". Nor can it have had anything to do with the publication in 1990 of The New Shostakovich, which he describes as "Ian MacDonald's worthless ventriloquist's act on the music". Could his change of mind have been provoked by the appearance of the articles by Mazel, Lebedinsky, and Zhitomirsky, and the book by Dubinsky, mentioned above in my third paragraph? Perhaps. But it is more likely that he was moved to tone down his original charge against Shostakovich of lifelong loyalty to the USSR by encountering the many testimonies to the contrary in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, published two months before he quietly adopted his rewrite in 1994.

In his 1994 article, Taruskin refers to Wilson's "magnificent new oral history... the one indispensable book about the composer". While this establishes that he has at least glanced at Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, he cannot have read it very carefully or he would presumably have spotted the testimony of Mikhail Chulaki, first published in Zvezda, No. 7, 1987, and presented in English by Wilson on pages 132-8 of her book. (Chulaki's account of events attending the first months of Soviet performances of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony completely contradicts Taruskin's version, offered in his essay "Public lies and unspeakable truth" in Fanning's 1995 collection Shostakovich Studies, wherein he fails to mention it.) Notwithstanding this peculiar oversight, it is fair to assume that what caused Taruskin to adjust his 1989 statement in 1994 was the copious evidence in Wilson's book to the effect that, contrary to his original claim that Shostakovich had been "perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son", the composer was in fact a secret dissident of long standing. Terry Teachout spelled this out a few months after Taruskin's 1994 article appeared:

Testimony or no Testimony, it is no longer possible to regard Shostakovich as a faithful servant of the Communist party. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered leaves no doubt whatsoever that he hated Stalin, hated Communism, hated the apparatchiki and the nomenklatura, and that much of his music was in some meaningful sense intended to convey this hatred.[47]

Calum MacDonald wrote similarly of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered:

Here is copious confirmation that many of [Shostakovich's] works may be read as coded protest and denunciation of Soviet misrule, infusing the melodic commonplaces and rhetorical vocabulary of "Socialist Realism" with transcendent ambiguity.[48]

Supposing Taruskin to be bright enough to draw the same conclusions as Teachout and Calum MacDonald, it would be reasonable to expect his subsequent writings on Shostakovich to contain further surreptitious adjustments to his line on the composer. Indeed, Taruskin's article in the February 1995 edition of Atlantic Monthly, [49] shows signs of just such reconsideration, hasty or otherwise, in its title: "Who Was Shostakovich?". As for the theoretical obfuscations and sorrowfully "realistic" innuendoes which we might expect from Taruskin were he to be engaged in the sort of furtive intellectual relocation outlined above, these are present in such agitated profusion that it is difficult to read them without a cynical chuckle - and the occasional sigh.


So reflexively hyperbolic and hectoring is Taruskin's style - he appears to suffer from some cultural variety of Tourette's Syndrome which renders him unable to prevent himself from shouting both at his intellectual enemies and his deafened readers - that it requires a special persistence to keep track of his wandering, self-contradictory arguments. In "Who Was Shostakovich?", Taruskin tells us clearly who the composer was, then backtracks, informing us that such clarity is impossible; asserts that the condition of music is such that no verbally paraphrasable meanings can be assigned to it, then acknowledges such meanings in some of Shostakovich's most famous works; accuses Isaak Glikman of wanting to "foreclose interpretation" of Shostakovich's outlook and at the same time to render it inscrutably ambiguous.

Let us start with Isaak Glikman. In his commentary on his collection of letters from Shostakovich, Glikman makes it clear where he thinks the composer stood vis-à-vis the Soviet regime. His note to a letter from Shostakovich dated 29th December 1957 which satirises Soviet festivities in Odessa proves that he knew the composer held the regime in contempt;[50] his account of the circumstances surrounding the Eighth Quartet shows that he was aware that Shostakovich loathed and feared the Party.[51] Taruskin's remarks on the Eighth Quartet indicate that he accepts Glikman's view of it;[52] he has also indicated that he concedes the satirical irony of the Odessa letter.[53] Logically, then, Taruskin must share Glikman's opinion that Shostakovich held the Soviet regime in contempt and loathed and feared the Communist Party. Sadly, as in several of his contentions in his polemic on the Fifth Symphony, logic plays no part in Taruskin's assertions: "Glikman's reading... of the text... was an attempt to fight Soviet methods of appropriation with Soviet methods. What Glikman tried to do is to carry out a sort of pre-emptive strike not only against the old, opportunistic official view of Shostakovich, to which the reflexes of a lifetime had understandably rendered him permanently sensitive, but also against the equally opportunistic habits of nonconformist interpretation in which he knew his readers, in reaction to the very same coercive official construction, had been thoroughly trained."[54] That is to say: "Glikman believed that Shostakovich held the Soviet regime in contempt and loathed and feared the Communist Party, and I (Taruskin) agree with him; yet, for some unspecified reason, I insist that Glikman did not want his readers to believe this." I.e., while "attempting to take possession of the text",[55] Glikman tried to keep its meaning so equivocal that no one could say what it was. Does this make sense? In terms of logic, it is nonsense. As strategy, though, it is readily understandable - providing we are expecting Taruskin to attempt to establish the spurious 'central' position we have predicted. In effect, Taruskin reinterprets Glikman as a 'centrist' in order justify his own intellectual relocation.

It would be no surprise if, baffled by Taruskin's bizarre "pre-emptive strike" theory, his readers were confused as to Shostakovich's political stance in the Glikman letters and Glikman's comments on them. Yet Glikman, while discreet to the point of blandness (and, as such, untypical of fellow witnesses as to the composer's views) quite clearly stipulates that Shostakovich suffered long and horribly under the grim strictures of the Soviet regime and, as a result, hated any contact with officialdom.[56] It simply will not do to ascribe ambiguity or "centrality" to Glikman. Even if Shostakovich had not chosen nonconformism, as other witnesses insist he did, it would have been effectively forced on him by the way he was treated by the Soviet apparat in his last fifty years, to which Glikman was a confessedly horrified observer. The impression of confusion given by Taruskin is either in his own mind or is the result of an intent to bamboozle his readers with a smokescreen of non-sequiturs and illogicalities.

The same trail of smoke persists through Taruskin's preamble to the main body of his essay. Here he argues that the meaning of music is by nature insusceptible to verbal paraphrase and hence that its meaning can never be "owned", "limited", or "controlled". (One suppresses the mischievous impulse to add "except by Richard Taruskin".) "Music eludes conclusive paraphrase," he declares. "Meaning is never wholly immanent but arises out of a process of interaction between subject and object, so that interpretation is never subjective or objective to the total exclusion of the other." Moving from platitude to pretension, Taruskin goes post-structuralist: "Where latent musical meaning is neither negated nor successfully administered - where, in other words, it is acknowledged but contested - the value of the vessel is much enhanced." Fortunately he has lucid intervals: "Unlike the socialist-realist critics who tried to catalogue and thus circumscribe his 'imagery' and 'intonations'... Shostakovich insisted on keeping latent content latent - and keeping it labile... The fact is that no one owns the meaning of this music, which has always supported (nay, invited - nay, compelled) multiple opportunistic and contradictory readings."

Adducing Shostakovich's tendency to remain tight-lipped about the meaning of his music, Taruskin deduces that this silence represented a preference for "keeping latent content latent - and keeping it labile". To be as kind as one can be under the circumstances, this is fatuous. Shostakovich stayed mostly silent about what he was up to in his music because not to have done so would have invited disaster. For precisely the same reason, he did not object when Socialist Realist critics catalogued and circumscribed his music. When, very rarely, he touched upon its meaning, this invariably turned out to be of a dissident kind. Shostakovich was no free Western modernist able to indulge himself by secreting his aesthetic in a fashionable carapace of ambiguity; nor did he support, invite, or compel multiple "opportunistic" interpretations of his work (although he fatalistically accepted these as facts of life). Only in the way he talked did latency and lability perform a practical (protective) function.

Taruskin's discourse on meaning has at least three discernible motives: (1) to rebut the theoretical basis of the interpretations advanced in The New Shostakovich; (2) to suggest that, since meaning in music is irreducibly subjective, the meaning of Shostakovich's is beyond "final arbitration"; (3) to generalise the issue of meaning sufficiently that any sort of stable answer to the question "Who was Shostakovich?" becomes impossible. (I anticipated and critiqued these strategies six years ago.[57])

It appears that Taruskin is under the affronted impression that I wish to "fix" the meanings of various pieces of music by Shostakovich. With the exception of a few instances, such as the Eighth Quartet, for which we have confirmation and for which it would consequently be obtuse to suggest alternative readings, this is not so. Far from "fixing" meanings, my intention in The New Shostakovich was merely to point my readers' minds in the right direction. Although Taruskin does not use the word "universality", it appears that he sees any attempt to "arbitrate" or "limit" the meaning of a piece of music as automatically to incur the loss of this attribute: "The position that would eliminate a whole level of meaning from music impoverishes it literally and obviously." What, though, if a certain "level" of meaning is spurious or contingent? Are we "impoverished" by forfeiting something incongruous or misleading? To argue, vis-a-vis Shostakovich, that "musical genius [should] suggest an infinite number of meanings at once"[58] is to posit a nonsensical proposition in that any utterance which suggested an infinite number of meanings at once would be so "labile" as to be devoid of any meaning at all. Shostakovich did not compose in a conceptual infinity. He was a dry, ironic, down-to-earth person who composed in, and very often about, specific situations - a fact which no more annuls his claims to universality than it does those of any other artist who ever lived.[59] To suggest some flexible limits to the possible range of meanings he may have had in mind is only sensible. As in every situation in life, all that is at issue is where we draw the line.

It is precisely upon this point that Taruskin's furtive enterprise of intellectual self-relocation is at its most obvious - mainly because it is here that it begins to unravel. In fending off my interpretation of the Fourth Symphony, Taruskin lapses, all of a sudden, into a poignantly uncharacteristic uncertainty: "And yet, there is indeed something about the symphony that does seem naggingly to foreground the issue of individual integrity and social stress - namely, the extremes within it of inwardness and extroversion, and the manifestly ironic way in which these extremes are juxtaposed and even thematically interchanged." What, we wonder, has happened to the man who once confidently accused Shostakovich of being "perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son"? Stumblingly, Taruskin continues: "Of course I cannot say exactly what it is that this disquieting exchange of roles signifies." (Of course not.) "Unlike MacDonald, I have no ready verbal paraphrase with which to replace it... But my uncertainty may be one reason why the symphony haunts me the way it does. Maybe incertitude - irreducible multivalence - is essential to experiencing it as a work of art." (But an utterance suggesting an infinite number of meanings at once would be devoid of any meaning at all.) The confident tone has evaporated. It is as if, transfixed by the possibility that he might be catastrophically wrong, Taruskin is caught talking to himself in public: "Ultimately it is difficult - no, it is impossible - to know whether [Shostakovich] is forcing his autobiography on us [in his music] or we are forcing it on him." (Difficult or impossible? There is a crucial difference.)

Confronted, finally, with the Eighth Quartet, Taruskin attempts to stand up and dust himself off: "I'm pretty sure I do know exactly what the Eighth Quartet is about. Shostakovich has seen to that... This is the one composition of his that does ask expressly to be read as autobiography... Shostakovich was clearly identifying himself as a victim. In the final movement, when the DSCH motif is played in exquisitely wrought dissonant counterpoint against the main continuity motif from the last scene of Lady Macbeth, which depicts a convoy of prisoners en route to Siberia, things become almost too clear for political comfort... Shostakovich was being pressured to join the Communist Party as a trophy, and had not found within himself the fortitude to resist... The Eighth Quartet is thus a wrenching human document: wrenching the way Glikman's commentary to it is wrenching, or the way... well, the way a note in a bottle can be wrenching." So the meaning of music is not, after all, beyond "final arbitration"; nor is "irreducible multivalence" essential to experiencing it as a work of art. Taruskin swiftly wriggles out of this by proposing that what, in normal and respectable musical parlance, would be called the "programme" of the Eighth Quartet, vitiates its claim to greatness. (He does not go so far as to deny its claim to be regarded as a work of art.) Yet while the argument about the status and value of "programme" music, whether overt or covert, is venerable and honourable, it should not distract us from noting that Taruskin here, in effect, acknowledges Shostakovich, far from a loyal Soviet son, to have been a dissident.

Taruskin himself hammers this point home. Shostakovich's shift to quartet form, commenced six months after the apparat furore over his Fifth Symphony, "was manifestly an anti-Soviet move of a sort, for, as both the Soviet government and its citizens knew long before it became a trendy slogan in the West, the personal is political... Like the silenced Akhmatova and the martyred Mandelstam, Shostakovich, as the American Slavist Clare Cavanagh so movingly suggests, managed to bear witness 'against the state on behalf of its citizenry'." Taruskin, though, has another escape clause to hand: Shostakovich was not a dissident but an intelligent, "heir to a noble tradition of artistic and social thought, [whose] mature idea of art... was based not on alienation but on service".[60] That this image of Shostakovich does not square with what Taruskin himself finds in the Fourth Symphony and the Eighth Quartet is of small import. That it appears to be a total and abject retreat from his assertion that Shostakovich was "perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son" is welcome (although, we observe, no apology). What is more important than any of this is that Taruskin's new, hopefully manufactured "central" position on Shostakovich - that he was a noble servant rather than a loyal son - is based on an absolutely crass misconstruction of the history of the Russian intelligentsia, who resisted the Soviet regime from the outset and secretly continued to resist and dissent from Soviet misrule throughout the reigns of Stalin and his successors. I have set out the case for this at length in my essay "Naive Anti-Revisionism" in Ho and Feofanov's Shostakovich Reconsidered and have no room to retail it here.[61] The reader need only observe that Taruskin's last-ditch refusal to acknowledge Shostakovich's secret dissidence is spurious from top to bottom: a smokescreen: a cover-up. "Who was Shostakovich?" is, in effect, nothing more than a "pre-emptive strike" to cover his "opportunistic" intellectual exodus from his former position on Shostakovich (which, having read Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered in 1994, he has realised is no longer tenable).

The nature of the anti-revisionist cover-up - its motives, its methods, its present and future strategies - has been established. As to where these people will wander next, we have several depressing clues. Smart enough to realise that developments are trending in the direction of a more or less complete vindication of Testimony, Richard Taruskin has twice in print allowed for this possibility whilst at the same time declaring that such a vindication would nevertheless be worthless: "The 'Shostakovich' to whom ownership [of the meaning of his music] is returned [in the books of Volkov, MacDonald, and Glikman] is an ex-post-facto construction - as he would remain even if the authenticity of Testimony were confirmed"[62]; "It is also understandable, should it ever turn out that Shostakovich was in fact the author of Testimony, that he, who though mercilessly threatened never suffered a dissident's trials but ended his career a multiple Hero of Socialist Labour, should have wished, late in life, to portray himself in another light."[63] We may confidently predict that the first of these statements will provide one of Taruskin's future lines of defence: that ex-post-facto judgements (excluding his own) are somehow intrinsically invalid (goodbye, history) and that no one can ever be certain about anything at all really (hallo, deconstruction). Along with reiterations of Stravinsky's claim that music means nothing in itself, these motifs will, sadly, keep Taruskin in the Shostakovich debate for some time to come. [64] As for his disgusting assertion that Shostakovich did not suffer a dissident's trials and merely wished to exculpate himself at the end of his life by pretending that he had, this can only be said to represent the last refuge of a scoundrel. Elizabeth Wilson's witnesses are in formidable chorus against this viciously tawdry contention, as are Malcolm Brown's scorned "ex-Soviets". If Taruskin really does intend to use this slander as a secondary line of defence, he will lose the last rags of scholastic honour still adhering to what remains of his reputation. In the wake of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, the onus is on Taruskin and Brown to substantiate their charges that Shostakovich was in some way a "collaborator".[65] If they cannot do this, it will be only just to expect them to withdraw and apologise.


Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is a vital exhibition of evidence in favour of the "new" Shostakovich presented by Testimony in 1979 and set in provisional historical context by me ten years later. Yet Elizabeth Wilson's book, while benefiting from an accurate and sympathetic historical running commentary by the author, is poorly cross-referenced and leaves too much to the reader in terms of deciding what given testimonies are worth. Less rich in sheer diversity of testimony, Ho and Feofanov's book is more rigorously critical and, as such, deserves to become the pivot on which future discussion of Shostakovich will turn. All the significant evidence to date is assembled and evaluated here, and all the major issues are deployed and analysed. In time, past false images of Shostakovich will be disposed of, along with the many misconceptions of his music which arose from them. However, there remain some obsolete conceptual obstacles to this and it is important to identify these right away.

The first obstacle is the old premise of the "stupid Shostakovich" which I diagnosed and critiqued in The New Shostakovich, [66] but which still persists. The misconceived idea that Shostakovich was stupid, or at any rate not as clever as the musicologists commenting upon him, permeates Taruskin's approach - a fact which entails a nice irony, in that the confusion Taruskin sedulously sows in "Who Was Shostakovich?" (1995) stems partly from his own. This is clear from his polemic in Fanning's Shostakovich Studies (1996) wherein his version of Shostakovich reverts to type, obtusely refusing to entertain a critical thought in his Fifth Symphony and later pretending to be a dissident[67] - a travesty carried forward to 1948 by Laurel Fay with her claim that the composer then tried to come up with an acceptable piece of folk-nationalism but dimly picked "the wrong folk". This phantasm, which should have been ruled out many years ago, is the "stupid" Shostakovich, partly assumed from the undoubtedly idiotic articles which he signed but did not write, and partly inferred by musicologists from their analysis-bound inability to identify the tone of the music they claim to describe. Before it became accepted that part of Mahler's style entailed the juxtaposition of high and low forms and conventions in order to create alienation effects, musicologists routinely accused him of unintentional vulgarity or of being erratically uneven in taste. The superiority complex of their descendants vis-à-vis Shostakovich is virtually identical, although Shostakovich, it must be said, went considerably further than Mahler in using impersonated crudity and banality in order to create not only alienative but also satirical effects. In terms of generating misinterpretations of his music, untold damage has been done by the condescending academic fallacy that Shostakovich's "crudity" and "banality" (for example, in the finale of the Twelfth Symphony) were unintentional. The prejudice of the "stupid Shostakovich" is held by no one who knew him and must be rejected out of hand.

The second conceptual obstacle to any advance in understanding of Shostakovich's music is the delusion that to associate specific meanings with it as a result of placing it in historical context deprives it of essential alternative resonances or of cultural universality. This philosophical solecism (which I have addressed repeatedly in the past seven years and which is dealt with in my essay "Universal Because Specific" in Shostakovich Reconsidered), remains obstinately current. Here, reliably, is Richard Taruskin: "The present rash of opportunistic efforts - by Volkov, by MacDonald, even by Glikman - authoritatively to define the meaning of Shostakovich's work can only diminish that value. Definitive reading, especially biographical reading, locks the music in the past. Better let it remain supple, adaptable, ready to serve the future's needs." Leaving aside the weasel plea that it is "better" not to think too hard about any of this, it is evident that Taruskin is among those who cannot see that artistic universality is achieved by works of art which, far from meaning an infinite number of different things to different people, mean the same thing, or a cohesively limited number of things, to all of us. King Lear, for example, carries no meaning in respect of current developments in microbiology. Its range of possible meanings is thus "limited". Instead it conveys a cohesive complex of meanings concerned with certain human phenomena with which we can all identify and which are the basis of its universal resonance. What actually confers what we call the play's universality is the skill and intensity of Shakespeare's artistry - yet this universality arises from the behaviour of specific characters in specific situations. In this respect, Shostakovich, a very "literary" composer with a theatrical bent and a propensity for mimicry, strongly resembles Shakespeare, who was his favourite playwright. To point out that a piece of music has its context in totalitarian experience is not to define or limit the response of the listener, but to initiate a response which may, according to his or her sensibility, then develop and deepen through feeling. Moral and aesthetic responses are not static but developmental. Such deepening of response is bound, reciprocally, to enrich apprehension of the artist's skill and intensity - which, in turn, is certain further to subtilise the listener's inner experience. To claim that contextual specificity "impoverishes" the potential of Shostakovich's music is childish. The fact that modern musicologists can seriously argue in such primitive terms is in itself a measure of degraded critical standards. If anything impoverishes the modern musical response, it is the morally spineless relativism of contemporary musicology.

The third conceptual obstacle I wish to demolish is less tangible than the first two: that it is not enough merely to concede that context must be taken into account in coming to an understanding of Shostakovich's music. The research must be done, the knowledge acquired - a process which takes time. (It has taken me twenty years and I am still learning.) On the whole, musicians are a woolly lot, uninterested in, and therefore ignorant of, fields beyond their own. So central to them are aesthetic ideals of beauty that they tend to elevate personal intuition above the common coinage of knowledge and objective truth, either imagining themselves magically qualified to pronounce on issues arising in other fields by virtue of their finer sensibilities, or inclining to dismiss rival modes of expression as intrinsically inferior. Yet the fences dividing the adjoining fields of literature, art, theatre, philosophy, historiography (etc., etc.) are entirely notional. The earth they stand on - that of the expressive side of human culture - is one continuously evolving land; and the commerce between these fields proceeds now, as it always has, as if no divisions between them existed. When I call for Shostakovich's music to be placed in historical context, I ask for a more than a hasty consultation with some off-the-shelf "timetable of history" crib.

As a result of the empty ahistoricism of contemporary musicology, commentators whose knowledge of the Bolshevik revolution appears to have been obtained from the back of a cornflakes packet can be found confidently referring to Shostakovich's supposed "youthful revolutionary enthusiasm" (a hackneyed substance of almost certainly chimerical constitution).[68] Musical pundits referring to the Soviet scene during the 1920s routinely muddle chronology, misconstruing political and cultural developments, and feeding these misconstructions back into their "interpretations" of Shostakovich's music.[69] In 1991, one such, Robert Matthew-Walker, realising in a road-to-Damascus flash that the cornflake-packet version of Soviet socio-cultural history was inadequate, yet faced with the task of writing sleevenotes for a recording of Shostakovich's largest piano work, appears to have rushed off to his local library, snatched down a likely-looking history book, and hastily copied out swathes of facts from it as "background" to his orthodox musicological commentary. (Sadly none of what he copied was relevant to the music in hand.)[70] Matthew-Walker, currently one of the last people on the planet who believes that Shostakovich was ever a Communist, let alone a lifelong one, referred in a 1997 sleevenote to the link between the "release" of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony and the death of Stalin and execution of Beria in 1953: "To us, such events would hardly seem to have an artistic effect, but they impinged - as did others - on the overall social climate of Russia, including the cultural."[71] To make the miserly concession that the sudden absence of Stalin and Beria "impinged" on the climate of life in Russia in 1953-4 represents not merely a comical failure to come to grips with the reality of the background, but an active disregard for it. Matthew-Walker has had six years to do some historical research. He has either done none, or very little, or has simply been unable to understand it.

Like music, history - and all the other fields of human knowledge and endeavour which cluster under its auspices - is not just a complex of material facts but a system of signs indicating an "inner life" in which a historian must self-immerse or risk completely misunderstanding his or her subject. "I need hardly emphasise at this stage," writes Vladimir Ashkenazy, in his foreword to Shostakovich Reconsidered, "that, without profound (and, I repeat, profound) knowledge of what Shostakovich had to live through, it is virtually impossible to be a serious and credible analyst of his output." Since such profound engagement requires years of reading, thinking, and discussion to acquire, it is clearly impossible, here and now, to demonstrate conclusively what this entails with respect to the study of Shostakovich. Instead, a hopeful lightning-flash of local illumination is all I have space for. Everyone who has followed the Shostakovich debate is aware of the story that, expecting arrest in 1936-7, he took to sitting outside his apartment at night with a packed suitcase so that his family might not be disturbed and that he should have the minimum he would need for survival in the Gulag. The poet Daniil Kharms, for example, was "taken" in his shirt-sleeves and carpet slippers, while many arrested in Leningrad during the early stages of the Terror were picked up in summer clothes or evening dress and thus transported to labour camps within the Arctic circle where no other clothing was provided. Yet even these facts require deductive imagination on the part of the reader. Only something more vivid (more "artistic") can bring the reality into such immediate focus that one's understanding is qualitatively transformed. Here, then, is a short extract from a memoir, written in 1990, by Natalya Rapoport, daughter of Yakov Rapoport, one of the Jewish physicians arrested in connection with the notorious "Doctors' Plot" of early 1953. Natalya was 14 when "a gang of [MGB] thugs" burst into the family apartment and took both her parents away. Later her mother was released, but Natalya conceived an understandable morbid fear that the secret police would soon call again at night and take her mother away for ever:

The night-time fear began at eleven and lasted until five in the morning. For some reason, I was convinced she couldn't be arrested earlier or later. My fear was so strong that during those hours I trembled all over as if in a fit; I even slept in the hall on a cot rather than in my room, listening tensely the whole night to sounds and rustlings on the staircase; the slamming of the elevator door on the nearby floors made me cry out in terror.[72]

Sensitive readers will instantly have transferred the impression conveyed by the pen of Natalya Rapoport to their mental image of Shostakovich sitting outside his apartment at the height of the Terror; at the same time, perhaps, their understanding of his Fourth and Fifth symphonies will have leapt suddenly into sharper focus. Insensitive readers - those who have merely wandered into this discussion because they enjoy the noise Shostakovich's music makes or admire the shapes it cuts on paper - will, of course, be none the wiser. The fact remains that there can be no way of conceiving what Shostakovich was writing about without deliberately detaching oneself from the superficialities of Western everyday life and studying the subject. Those too lazy or self-satisfied to do this will, of course, continue to listen to, and write about, "their" Shostakovich, but that phantasm and those responses to it will likewise continue to be little more than an arbitrary fantasy with no cultural value. The real Shostakovich - a creative presence of enormous significance to human history - can only be approached (and this approach is not finite but an ongoing process) through emotional empathy with, and intellectual understanding of, his milieu.

The future in Shostakovich studies arguably depends more on the removal of this third obstacle - the failure to engage in depth with the background - than on any other single factor preventing comprehension in this subject. While every gain in understanding will expand apprehension of the music, such engagement requires time and effort. For this reason, the current generation of Western musicologists is unlikely ever to arrive at a full unfolding of Shostakovich's creativity. This, instead, will fall to others, just now becoming aware of the Shostakovich debate, who are prepared to devote themselves to the in-depth research and thought that form the indispensable foundation for authoritative conclusions in this subject. The future in Shostakovich studies will be in their hands. Yet among the coming generation there will also be the usual superficialists who prefer theory to thinking, preconception to human reality. I have been shocked by the spiritual and imaginative shallowness of many trained musicians, who often seem to regard technique as an end in itself. Likewise, some of the most emotionally stunted and arrogantly selfish people I've ever met happen to be classical music specialists. Such individuals are unlikely ever to say or write a sane, let alone a perceptive, word about Shostakovich's music. Consequently, the future in this subject (notwithstanding the advances in comprehension which we can expect to accumulate on the bedrock of Testimony, The New Shostakovich, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, and Shostakovich Reconsidered) will continue to be dogged by the dead cavils of the unthinking and the unfeeling.

I chose to enter this arena in 1988 because the public cannot be blamed for believing what the majority of pundits tell them and because, at that time, the majority of pundits on Shostakovich were talking dangerously ignorant nonsense about him. Quite simply, I felt under an obligation to help my fellow "ordinary listeners" to realise where, and how grievously, they were being misled. Ten years later, those same pundits persist in retailing very much the same sort of nonsense. Thankfully, this new book by Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov gives cause for hope that we have at last reached a turning point in this subject, after which the truth about Shostakovich, his music, and his extraordinary milieu, will finally be accepted in the West.

October 1997

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