Daniel Zhitomirsky

reminiscences, materials, comments

Part 1: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Daugava (1990, No. 3)
English version by Tatjana M. Norbury and Ian MacDonald

These days it's hard to imagine what Shostakovich's music must have meant to his contemporaries from the mid-'20s onwards - those for whom it embodied both the growth of the artist and the march of events in Soviet Russia in his time.

The context of life has changed. As ever, it falls to succeeding generations to interpret the past, and today's listeners have different criteria, needs, and expectations. Ideas about Shostakovich have become blurred - diluted in the endless stream of scientific and literary debate and academic study. Yet his music owes its origins to intense impressions and experiences far more dramatic and momentous than those of everyday life; in fact, such is the range of those influences that the styles, genres, and techniques he used in depicting them virtually defy analysis. Above all, it was by the light of Shostakovich's music that we, his contemporaries, survived our special and indescribable hell, through which he led us like some latterday Virgil. From Shostakovich and his music we learned the truth about our way of life - which, in that suffocating atmosphere, was equivalent to a steady supply of oxygen.

Miraculously, this relief was available to us even during the terrible decade of the '30s; indeed, it became available to such a degree (if only in music, especially "wordless" music) that it was inevitable that Zhdanov should eventually have put a stop to it in 1948. That it was possible at all was due to the fact that, in music, "ideology" is not spelt out in letters of the alphabet - also, and more crucially, because it was written by Shostakovich. I know of no other Russian artist who dared to make similar public statements in those years. Certainly, there were powerful voices in the literary world, but as a rule they did not reach our ears. Many poets and writers were arrested, eliminated, or gagged. Only much later did we come to know the power and significance of the magnificent works of Platonov, Akhmatova, and Bulgakov, while the era of Solzhenitsyn was still far in the future.

I've used the plural "we" several times because these were the impressions and experiences of millions. Here are some comments from a few of the composer's contemporaries: "Shostakovich doesn't try to keep his work balanced; instead he invariably draws us into the catastrophe of contemporary reality." (Maria Yudina) [1]; "His music shakes, staggers, overwhelms us; abruptly, with a single whispered note, it plunges us into a dreamlike world... An ominous rumble calmed by an unearthly voice; cracks of thunder between death-chants and hymns to life; the silence after the eruption of a volcano; tender reassurances amid the rumble of tanks; dreams of a brighter future under falling shells."(Jean-Richard Bloch) [2]; "I always feel he's saying exactly what I'd say, and in the way I'd say it, had I the magical gift of expressing myself in music." (A. G. Gabrichevsky) [3].

While many important facts about Shostakovich have emerged in the extensive literature on him, much remains obscured, disguised, or distorted. The reason: decades of censorship - restraints which became not merely imposed but innate, invading everyone's mind and breeding a habit of strict self-censorship. Such symptoms often appeared in reviews of Shostakovich's music. Not even the composer was free of it, as witness his comments on his own works in many of his official statements (which, alas, have duly found their way into biographies, dissertations, and commemorative articles). Now, however, it is not only feasible but essential that the whole truth about Shostakovich be disclosed - the truth about an artist, who, in a terror-stricken age and with unparalleled force and power, chronicled the Russian tragedy of the 20th century; who, by depicting the gigantic suffering of our people, challenged tyranny, making us see what life was really worth and where and how brightly the flame of humanity's hope still burned.

Of course, the West could have recognised Shostakovich's achievement long ago, since countries free of fascism had neither ideological police nor restrictions on information. Shostakovich's music was known and his talent not infrequently praised; at times he was treated sympathetically. However, the central aspects of his work were never addressed.[4] There were good reasons for this. The radical celebrities and free-thinkers of Western Europe had fooled themselves into believing fairy tales about Stalin's "socialism", their romantic idealism proving easy prey to the devious lies churned out by our propaganda machine. In the same way, the real facts about Shostakovich simply never reached the West. His Seventh Symphony became adopted by the entire civilised world solely because it was assumed to be an attack on Hitler. At the time, it was expedient to overlook other, equally serious, problems - such as those dealt with in all of Shostakovich's mature symphonies. Clearly, it would not have done to upset the fragile East-West accord by acknowledging any disturbing reports or expressions of dissent. Unfortunately these problems (such as Stalin's mass murders after the war) persisted. Furthermore, they were audible in Shostakovich's music, and this, starting with his Eighth Symphony, caused growing anger in government circles. The eventual consequence was the disastrous blow to Russian music dealt by the 1948 directive.

If Western critics misunderstood him, Shostakovich was no better comprehended by Western musicians. In the opinion of Schoenberg, "he had great talent, but let politics influence his style too much" [5]. The maturing of Shostakovich's style was heard as a renunciation of trailblazing and a return to traditionalism. Stravinsky: "Dmitri Shostakovich - a talented young composer. I know some fine works of his. However, Lady Macbeth has an abominable libretto. The spirit of the work comes from the past and the music itself from Mussorgsky." [6] This statement dates from the mid-'30s. The avant-garde of the post-war period would have used even harsher terms. Shostakovich's music was squarely against their interests.

In fact, his only aim was "to write about life" and, to do this, he subordinated all innovations in style. In other words, he wished to reach the people: the humble, the indifferent, the confused, the oppressed. During the years immediately after the war, the priority of the Western avant-garde was to create a "new world of sound": mathematical tone-structures, electro-acoustics, mechanistic music, micro-polyphony, serial pointillism, and so on - the art of an ultra-rational civilisation. In my view, the psychological driving force of this allegedly progressive idiom was post-war scepticism.

This scepticism - born of a life crippled by war, tragedy, pain, poverty, political tyranny, moral relativism, and limitless disillusionment - impelled the creative avant-garde into beguiling experiments with pure novelty, gymnastic exercises for the intellect, and extravagant fashions in taste. As time went on, this trend (along with the inevitable disorientation it precipitated) gradually broke down, forming a new layer of cultural sediment - and one can only hope that a renewed interest in one of the century's great composers will soon bloom from it. Recently, the ground has begun to be cleared both at home and abroad: humane principles and cultural values are beginning to be rediscovered. We already have a clearer picture of those minor prophets whose concept of contemporary music amounted to little more than a desert of naked rationalism, a pantomime of paradox and absurdity, a cathartic despotism of the unconscious, and a surrender to frankly primitive sensations - rudderless rafts in the maelstrom of modernity's frenzied hubbub.

It goes without saying that most of the good music lately produced in our country - what little there is of it - follows the precepts of Shostakovich. It is, therefore, crucial to understand his legacy by examining his life and work free of bias or "corrections". My contribution is the present essay, which I offer merely as food for thought.

"Only after my death"

At the end of the 1970s, there appeared in many countries, translated into various languages, a book entitled Testimony: the memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. To Russians, this book has, till now, remained a mystery - and not by accident. Soon after its publication, it became the target of a volley of abuse. "A wretched job", "a disgraceful concoction", "an attempt to blacken our country and Soviet culture" - these are some of the insults hurled at it in just one of the hostile articles which appeared in our national press. Vigorous measures were taken to ensure that this unique thing - a confession of Shostakovich's innermost thoughts, a painful, bitter, and provocative story of survival ranging over several decades - was immediately and absolutely discredited, and thus eradicated from our minds.

Encountering the above-mentioned "review" ten years ago, I was hardly surprised. After all, in 1948, similar torrents of abuse had been directed at Shostakovich and his colleagues - not to mention many of his followers, including myself - all of whom had subsequently been outlawed for the crime of "formalism". The review was even less of a surprise in that I knew that Solomon Volkov had emigrated to the United States in the mid-'70s, thereby classifying himself in Soviet terms as a "fugitive" and "deserter" - judgements against which there was no right of appeal in those days (excommunication and damnation followed automatically).

Now, at last, Volkov's book was in my hands. I quickly realised the two main reasons for the official hate campaign. First: the bile and sarcasm of the book's tales of dictatorship and victimisation, its exposure of the amorality of Stalin and Zhdanov, and its naming of various hypocrites and informers (whose machinations I, too, had had the opportunity of experiencing). Second: the caustic portraits of those who had helped to persecute the composer. It did not require great insight to see that these same villains would have had a vested interest in the official smearing of Testimony in 1980. (I recall a phrase from Galina Vishnevskaya's recent memoirs: "How quick the authorities are to cover up the tracks of a great man, gradually murdered!"[7] Just such a "covering-up of tracks" was used in the attempt to discredit Volkov's book - as was the immediate and world-wide publication of a collection of statements, articles and gramophone records, designed to re-establish the "official" Shostakovich.)

I read the book with excitement, unable to put it down. I reread it, reflected on it, compared it with my own materials (diaries, letters, and clippings). I checked it with statements made by Shostakovich's friends and, finally, with my own memories. From every angle, I found myself contemplating the same picture - exactly what I had seen happening around him, even inside him, at the beginning of the '60s. I wrote such details down whenever I had the chance of meeting or contacting Dmitri Dmitryevich. I got to know the workings of his mind: its sensitivity, its power. I was familiar with his tricks of speech: short sentences; apt, pithy replies; well-aimed witticisms; entire scenes of parody enacted for his closest friends (whenever he was in "good form").

The text and style of Testimony are discontinuous and barely sketched. Themes mingle and interrupt one another, often resurfacing or lapsing into further digressions. This is no considered history, but an often excited improvisation prompted by the rush of sudden ideas and memories. Devoid of conventional balance, it concentrates on experiences that left their mark on the narrator's soul; thus, facts jostle with gossip and hearsay, the latter obviously requiring further verification. In short, the book is not an analysis but a living story - and how fascinating to know what Shostakovich remembered and had always wanted to say! There are so many revelations - about the musical scene of his time, the Conservatoire, his plans and hopes, the crisis at the beginning of the '30s, the making of his major works from Lady Macbeth onwards; but above all, about those he knew - teachers, friends, contemporaries, influential acquaintances of all kinds: Glazunov, Kustodiev, Sologub, Meyerhold, Zhilayev, Stravinsky, Zoshchenko, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Myaskovsky, Sollertinsky, Yudina, Tukhachevsky...

There's an almost frightening dissatisfaction in many of these portraits, either in the form of personal grudges or in an intrinsic lack of rapport with many of his contemporaries. Indeed, the overall tone of the book is conspicuously dejected, especially in those pages dealing with the final years of his life. Testimony's critics accused Volkov of travestying Shostakovich's personality; he, they insisted, had always been so polite, tactful, and benevolent. And so, in fact, he was. But hadn't the same critics witnessed equally perfect manners in others who, from time to time, had also voiced rather shocking personal opinions? There's a book by Nicolas Slonimsky (already in several editions in the West) entitled The Lexicon of Musical Invective. It's a collection of critical opinions by composers like Beethoven, Chopin, Berlioz, Debussy, Mahler, Prokofiev, Strauss, Stravinsky, and others. Nobody would dream of calling this publication a fake - that, unfortunately, could only have happened in our country and in our sad times of bitter memory.

In August 1948, Shostakovich composed the song-cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. I looked up the entry in my diary: "18th October. Dress rehearsal of 'Jewish Folk Songs' at Dmitri Dmitryevich's place for a circle of close friends. Performers: Slava Richter, Nina Dorliak, Tamara Yanko, and the tenor Belugin. Both performers and audience greatly impressed. Author himself happily excited. The cycle is rehearsed twice. Première to take place in two days' time and all of us looking forward to it." But it was not to be. First came casual warnings, followed by unexplained delays - then, finally, explicit prohibition decreed from "above". In the end, the première actually took place seven years later (in Leningrad on 15th January 1955) - that is, when the Chief Director of Ideological Threats was no longer alive.

The end of the '40s signalled the emergence of Stalin's anti-Semitism. The Jewish Anti-Fascism Committee was broken up and its members arrested; Jewish poets were shot; the actor Solomon Mikhoëls was secretly murdered and his creation, the Jewish Theatre of Moscow, destroyed. There followed the affair of the so-called "Doctor's Plot" [in which Jewish physicians were accused of trying to poison Stalin - Ed.]. Finally, in 1956, came the "thaw". With the terror of recent years still fresh in everyone's mind, I remember how, during the first performances of Shostakovich's "Jewish" cycle, people exchanged frightened looks on hearing, in the final song, the line "Doctors, doctors are what our sons have become!". At about the same time I read in Novoe Vremya (New Times) a statement made in Shostakovich's name: "Reply to an American Music Critic". The tone was angrily, arrogantly didactic:

Even the title of the American review - Shostakovich Has Earned the Right to Greater Freedom - is objectionable. I want you to know, Mr. Taubman, that we in the USSR are used to greater freedom than people in any of the bourgeois countries: freedom from exploiters, from bribery, from bourgeois publishers, etc. I can assure Mr. Taubman that I've always heeded the voice of public opinion, so vital to me in my creative work. [8]
Is comment necessary? We have here a typical example of the "false personality" thrust upon the composer by official propaganda. Most of the objections to Volkov's memoirs were based on the complete failure of its Western accusers to distinguish the real Shostakovich from the prestigious official figure. (I'll return to the faking of Shostakovich's "statements" later, as I have some ideas of my own on this subject.)

The hideous conditions in which we were forced to live for seemingly endless decades, in perpetual fear of trespassing against anything "ordained", had inevitable psychological consequences. Shostakovich obviously found it somewhat strange to talk about himself without employing the usual stereotyped official phraseology. Volkov describes this aspect of the making of Testimony as follows:

I began by asking questions, which Shostakovich at first answered briefly and almost reluctantly. Occasionally, I had to repeat the same question, phrasing it in a different way. Shostakovich needed time to "come out", to warm up. Gradually his pale face would gain colour and he'd grow more animated. I, meanwhile, would go on with the questions, taking notes in a sort of shorthand I'd developed during my time as a journalist. The idea of recording on tapes was discarded mainly because Shostakovich would stiffen before a microphone, becoming transfixed like a rabbit before a snake-a reflex reaction caused by his "command performance" official radio speeches... It was clear to both of us that the text couldn't be published in the Soviet Union. Several enquiries made in that direction had resulted in failure. I therefore took the necessary steps to send the notes to the West. Shostakovich agreed to this; his only request was that the book be published after his death. "Only after my death, after my death," he would say again and again. In November 1974, Shostakovich invited me to his home. We talked for a while, then he asked me about the manuscript. "It's in the West," I replied, "and our agreement is in force." Shostakovich replied: "Good"... At the end of my visit, he gave me a photograph with the inscription "To dear Solomon Moiseyevich Volkov, in fond remembrance. D. Shostakovich. 16.11.1974." [9]

Volkov kept his word - Testimony was published abroad four years after the composer's death. But fate, having played so many cruel tricks on Shostakovich, had one more in store: no one in his homeland would admit its authenticity. The simplest and oldest method of mind-control - the notice "Forbidden!" - had been deployed... and duly obeyed.

There's much to be argued in Volkov's work; certain facts require analysis and verification. However, I'm convinced that no serious scholar of Shostakovich's work - and, in particular, of his life and times - should disregard this source.

Of hypocrites and manipulators

The attitude of our so-called higher authorities towards Shostakovich was always conditioned by two main impulses, at once diametrically opposed and interrelated. First: irritation with the spiritual independence of artists and their jealous conservation of personal privacy (which, apart from anything else, made them hard to keep tabs on). All artists were dangerous and insufferable! Second: their usefulness in contributing to the prestige of Soviet culture, in achieving better international relations, and as mouthpieces for various forms of disinformation and counter-propaganda. Shostakovich was of course completely opposed to any of this, chiefly because it went against every idea he was trying to convey in his main works, defenceless and traducible as they were. Such official statements had to be dragged out of him and, consequently, most of his creative life was conducted against the threat of "pressure". This took the form of strangely abrupt alterations in the critics' attitudes to his work; sudden bouts of delirious official approval (invariably accompanied by warning stares); off-the-record orders; even straightforward abuse - and then back to square one and the most extravagant praise. It is instructive briefly to examine the many ups and downs Shostakovich endured during those times, when to produce any music at all meant spending half one's time warding off the state.

The first half of the '30s witnessed the triumph of Lady Macbeth in both Leningrad and Moscow, bringing floods of critical acclaim. Then, on the 28th January 1936, came the infamous article "Chaos Instead of Music". (Unsigned, this Pravda piece was generally interpreted as yet another government directive. According to popular rumour at the time, later confirmed by Shostakovich, the author of the article was the journalist D. I. Zaslavsky - his co-author and sponsor: Stalin himself.)

Following the publication of the Pravda piece, articles viciously condemning Shostakovich appeared all over the country. It was this condemnation that sealed the fate of the Fourth Symphony, finished later that year and immediately put into rehearsal with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Fritz Stiedry. According to a friend of the composer, the atmosphere during these sessions was ominous: "A rumour had been spreading in musical and extra-musical circles that Shostakovich, ignoring his critics, had written a diabolically clever symphony crammed with formalisms. One day, during rehearsal, we received a visit from the Secretary of the Composers' Union, V. E. Iokhelson, accompanied by another important figure from the local Party HQ. Shortly afterwards, the director of the Philharmonic, I. M. Renzin, politely invited Dmitri Dmitryevich to his office. On the way home, Shostakovich was silent for a long while, finally saying in an even but toneless voice that the symphony would not be performed; it had been withdrawn on Renzin's recommendation."[10] (The première of the Fourth had to wait a further quarter of a century, eventually taking place in Moscow in 1961 under Kyrill Kondrashin.)

1937. Fifth Symphony. Again, despite the odds, this was an enormous success with both public and press.

1941. Seventh Symphony. Even greater recognition, this time worldwide.

1943. Eighth Symphony. In spite of Shostakovich's growing fame, the première of the Eighth - in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire under Yevgeny Mravinsky - was darkened by a cloud of suspicion emanating from the halls of higher authority. The first reviews were spiked and all comment postponed. Here is my diary for 4th November 1943: "Première of Shostakovich's Eighth. Leaving the Great Hall, I hurried to the editorial office of Komsomolskaya Pravda. My review was read, reread, corrected, re-typed, and sent to be typeset. During all this, the chief editor was on the phone to someone evidently very important and, rather oddly, waiting for special permission to print my article. Wherever this secret decision was being taken, it was obviously still in the making. But why? Hadn't Shostakovich's patriotic Seventh made him world-famous? Hadn't several Party newspapers printed favourable advance reactions to the Eighth in September? ...

"The clocks moved to 12, then l, then 2 a.m.; still no answer. From the editor's behaviour, I deduced serious trouble: someone at the top was angry. At 3 a.m., I decided to go home - not easy, since there was no public transport (it was wartime, we had a curfew). I walked and walked, peering anxiously about, listening for patrols, as I pondered what had happened. Actually it wasn't that strange. At the front, our troops were winning. In his radio communiqués, the voice of our Leader and Teacher was becoming increasingly confident and convincing. The predominant tone of newspaper coverage was of fanfare and rejoicing; each evening, the sky was lit by fireworks in popular celebration of victory. In the Eighth Symphony, though, everything was rather different. Who on earth could have doubted that Shostakovich approved of Hitler's defeat? But the fact remained that no rejoicing was audible in his Eighth Symphony at all... On arriving at the Komsomolka the following morning, I didn't find my review..." In a comment anticipating the Zhdanov era, one of Shostakovich's rival composers remarked of the Eighth: "It's so one-sided. It sees only the dark side of life. Its composer must be a poor-spirited sort not to share the joy of his people."[11] Other verdicts were even harsher: there was talk of the composer's "blindness", of his "withdrawal from reality". The tone of the following was typical: "Enough of these symphonic diaries - these pseudo-philosophic symphonies hiding behind their allegedly profound thoughts and tedious self-analysis."[12]

But on with our survey.

1945. Ninth Symphony. Understood by only a few within a small inner circle, its essential message was one of great dissatisfaction: "Was it this we hoped for after victory?" Critical reaction was cautious, reviewers hedging their bets by trying not take sides. (The success and prestige of the Seventh was, after all, hard to discount.) Perhaps, some suggested, the composer had intended his miniature, chamber-like Ninth as a sort of relaxation after such "difficult" affairs as the Seventh and Eighth? But the Ninth was by no means unequivocally "silly and gay". Leo Tolstoy once wrote of "perpetual anxiety" - a state in which one can never be free, not even for a second. "It's poignant to recall," he wrote, "how I used to think I could create a happy, honest little world for myself, in which I'd live quietly and peacefully without errors or regrets, free of confusion... But to lead an honest life one has to fight, meet strife and struggle head on, make mistakes, start and fail and start all over again, forever winning and losing. As for peace of mind - that's just a sour delusion of the soul."[13] These lines describe the mood of the Ninth perfectly. From the composer's futile attempts to create something ceremonial, there had emerged this "merry" symphonic score - yet, within it, Tolstoy's "perpetual anxiety" strives and struggles to find some way out. And struggle it does: in its searing sarcasm and sadness; in its moments of lyricism, whose pure humility repudiates everything that has trammelled and distorted it for so long.

In the years soon after the war, Shostakovich's official life became very intensive: speeches, articles, interviews, press-conferences, plenary sessions of the Union of Soviet Composers, congresses, jury-service for competitions... Dmitri Dmitryevich's friends were worried that he was dissipating his energies; anyone could do what he was doing, but only he could handle the main thing: his music. Marietta Shaginyan berated him: "I disapprove of your extracurricular activities as Secretary of the Union of Composers. All these endless official engagements and public appearances. Gracious, I hear you've even been indoctrinating school-children!"[14] However, official approval, as so often before, was hanging by a thread.

Finally, out of a clear sky came a thunderbolt.

10th February 1948: the All-Union Communist Party Central Committee's "Resolution on the opera The Great Friendship by V. Muradeli." Much ink has been spilled on this so I'll resume only the pertinent facts. On this occasion, Muradeli was merely an innocent fall-guy. Irredeemably mediocre, his opera could hardly have inspired the ensuing onslaught against "formalism". Another blameless victim was Aram Khachaturian - a talented composer who had committed no ideological heresies, being in all respects the happiest of the happy. It was clear to everyone that the main object of attack was Shostakovich. (Prokofiev, too, was suspect, despite the fulsome praise conferred on Romeo and Juliet and War and Peace.) In other words, the Resolution's blacklist was basically a tactical manoeuvre - standard practice in government directives of those days. The custom was that the real target had to be camouflaged, thereby arranging things so that the attack on the deserving and the famous would not immediately be noticed (especially not in the West). The fact that the name framed in the Resolution was Muradeli's testified only to the ignorance of its authors and their complete lack of acquaintance with the country's musical life.[15]

The Resolution and its ensuing events brought down a deluge of disapproval and abuse on Shostakovich. Some members of the Composers' Union, franticly trying to curry favour with the authorities, attempted to expunge from the record every official recognition the composer had ever received. One claimed that "had things happened in real life as they do in the Seventh Symphony, we would never have won the war!"[16] Particularly abrasive was the contribution of Vladimir Zakharov: "Why waste time arguing about this Eighth Symphony? From the popular point of view, it can hardly be considered a musical work at all!"[17] Speaking of the qualifications for being deemed worthy of membership of the Union of Composers, this same Zakharov declared: "It's vital that we quickly shed all our inherited, traditional, and corrupt ideas about the allegedly 'great' and 'super-great' luminaries of the Soviet musical scene. It's imperative to scrutinise and re-assess the complete works [My emphasis. - D. Zh.] of such composers from an up-to-date standpoint."[18]

Shostakovich repented publicly, thanking the comrades profusely for showing him the right path. Immediately after the Conference, however, he started working on Rayok, a vitriolic parody of the 1948 "anti-formalist" campaign itself. According to Manashir Yakubov, researcher of the Rayok manuscript, the names of the main characters - Yedinitsin and Dvoikin - leave no doubt as to who had inspired them: Stalin and Zhdanov. Later, the composer added a third character, Troikin, personifying the figure of Shepilov.[19]

The following is Shostakovich's view of the events of 1948:

They rounded up the composers who immediately began tearing each other's throats out - a deplorable spectacle and one I would rather forget. Actually there's little that can still surprise me, but this is the one occasion I really hate to recall. Stalin instructed Zhdanov to compile a list of the 'main offenders'. Zhdanov worked with the zeal of an experienced torturer, setting one composer against another... There followed meeting after meeting, conference upon conference. The whole country was in an uproar, the composers more than anyone: it was like a dam breaking with dirty, muddy water rushing in from all sides. Everyone seemed to have gone mad and suddenly to have an opinion on music... The papers published letters from grateful workers, unanimously thanking the Party for sparing them the torture of having to listen to Shostakovich's symphonies. The Committee 'responded to the wishes' of the workers and issued a blacklist naming the Shostakovich symphonies which were to be taken out of circulation. It contained most of them.[20]

For the composer, however, the new ethos of abuse and exclusion soon began to mingle with a modified resumption of his former fame and official standing. This happened within a relatively short period, with the minimum of ceremony, and according to the most time-honoured of Machiavellian principles: 1. The ruler must not bind himself to any promises, solutions, or opinions; 2. The power and perspective of authority is based on the fact that people possess a surprising capacity for forgetting what was said yesterday and rapidly adapting to what is being said today.

1949. Shostakovich got a phone call from Molotov with a request to travel to the United States to attend a Conference for World Peace. Shostakovich said he couldn't. Later, he recalled: "Obviously a worthy cause. Everyone knows peace is better than war, so struggling for peace is clearly noble. But I refused. After all, I was a formalist-a representative of everything anti-national in music. My music was banned, yet here I was being asked to trot off, pretending everything was fine!"[21]

There then followed a second telephone call - this time from Stalin himself. I've reconstructed the conversation from notes made by Nina Vassilyevna Shostakovich (who was on the party-line throughout) and from Dmitri Dmitryevich's own version, as related to Solomon Volkov.

"Good day, Dmitri Dmitryevich. Stalin here."

"Good day to you, Iosif Vissarionovich. I'm at your service."

"First of all, we'd like to know how you feel, how's your health?"

"Thank you very much, I feel very well, very well."

"We'd like to ask you a favour."

"I'll be happy to oblige, if it's within my powers."

"We're quite sure it will be. It's about your trip to the United States. Why don't you want to go? Are you ill?"

"That's right, I can't go. I'm ill. There's also the question of my colleagues' music not being played, and mine neither. I'd be asked about it in America - and what could I say?"

"What do you mean, it isn't being played? Why isn't it being played, for what reason?"

"Well, there's the decree by the Committee. Also the blacklist."

"On whose orders?"

"Most probably one of the leading comrades."

"No, we didn't give any such order. The Committee people must have made a mistake, given the wrong order. We'll look into the matter. The comrades will be hearing from me. We'll take care of that problem, Comrade Shostakovich."

"Thank you, thank you, Iosif Vissarionovich."

"What about your health?"

"I can't fly, I get airsick."

"Why? From what? We'll send you a doctor. He'll find out why you feel sick."

"Thank you, Iosif Vissarionovich."

"We wish you success and good health. If you need anything, don't hesitate to call us."

The aforegoing exchange may seem dry, stripped as it is of subtle nuances. In fact, according to Dmitri Dmitryevich's memoirs, Stalin's tone, though courteous, was nagging and persistent. The pressure proved irresistible. From 25th-28th March, Shostakovich attended the New York conference. His speech was published in all the Soviet newspapers and, in this speech, the chief perpetrator of "everything anti-national in music" declared: "Formalism is a type of art without love for the people, in which form overrules content. It is art resulting from a pathologically disturbed, pessimistic view of reality and from lack of faith in the powers and ideals of humanity. This reactionary and nihilistic world-view..."[22] After this, came the delegates' farewell party at Madison Square Garden when almost 30,000 people heard Shostakovich playhis piano arrangement of the scherzo from his Fifth Symphony. He later observed of this New York trip: "I answered all those stupid questions, worrying all the time about giving something away..."[23]

1962: the authorities at every level are pounding their heads over how to avoid getting burned with the Thirteenth Symphony, a situation made stickier on this occasion by the participation of another notorious recidivist: the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko... Why 'Babi Yar'? Why reopen the "European question"? - Especially since, as Literaturnaya Gazeta has obligingly pointed out, Russians and Ukrainians also died there. ("Couldn't the symphony be played without its first movement?" suggests the Minister of Culture of the R.S.F.S.R., brightly.) 'A Career', on the other hand, is quite incomprehensible. Whom exactly is it supposed to portray? High state officials? And really - why draw the world's attention to the state of our stores? ("I'm shivering as I queue up for the cash desk"; "There's a smell of onions, cucumbers, a smell of 'Kabul' sauce", and so forth!)

"Fears are dying in Russia," Yevtushenko had written - but fear was in the bones of everyone associated with the Thirteenth Symphony. The composer's long-time friend Yevgeny Mravinsky mysteriously declined the composer's invitation to conduct it (the première took place instead under Kyrill Kondrashin in Moscow). Pressed by the Party, the original candidate for soloist, B. Gmyrya, refused the part; on the day of the performance, the bass V. Nechipaylo also refused to sing. Official pressure was likewise applied to ensure the elimination of most of the Thirteenth's "offending" verses.[24] About this, Marietta Shaginyan wrote to the composer: "If I were you, I'd react differently, but then I'm a born fighter... How strange all this will seem to our distant descendants!... Will they still recognise you as the musical genius of the 20th century?"[25]

The fact is that many things will appear strange to Shostakovich's distant descendants - and not just to the distant ones; to those still living, too. A perfect illustration of this are the words that officially commemorated the end of Shostakovich's long-suffering existence in 1975 - by which I mean their pompous and peremptory tone (not to mention their shameless hypocrisy). Who was Shostakovich? Why - "a faithful son of the Communist Party; an eminent social and government figure; a citizen-artist who devoted his entire life to the development of Soviet music, to cementing the ideals of socialist humanism and internationalism, to the fight for peace and the future union of all countries..." Thus ran the official obituary, signed by Brezhnev, Suslov, Sherbitsky, Grishin, Rashidov, and Romanov; and also by many considerably more familiar with Shostakovich's fate: Kabalevsky, Karayev, Kondrashin, Mravinsky, Ordzhonikidze, Sviridov, Khachaturian, Khrennikov, Eshpay.

And what was Shostakovich's place in musical history? "Together with Sergei Prokofiev, he defined the course of modern art", having been "a model of a real, leading contemporary artist", his music "a hymn to man" helping people to "understand our times". (From official speeches at Shostakovich's funeral.) Plenty for our descendants to wonder about there, all right - especially if they overlook the rules of the game which one had to follow during the era of "true socialism". Very possibly our bemused descendants will ask themselves: what in God's name is the meaning of high-falutin stuff like "defined the course of modern art", "a model of a real, leading artist", etc.? And how come those mouthing and listening to this garbage didn't die of shame? After all, they knew, they had memories. Indeed, many of them had made a complete career out of maligning the deceased and wouldhave been perfectly happy to have seen his neck in a noose.

In 1936, official publications had savaged Shostakovich, saying his style was "topsy-turvy", his music "a muddle of sounds", insisting that he'd had fallen into "extreme alienation" with his "rough naturalism". Another twelve years on, the same rubbish was trundled out at the 1948 congress. A further decade later, Khrushchev's resolution, while "correcting" the resolution of 1948, nevertheless affirmed that Zhdanov had been "right in issuing this seminal directive on the development of Soviet art", approving the "just condemnation of mistaken 'tendencies'".[26]

What a job for our poor descendants, disentangling all these contradictory facts (supposing, of course, that truth retains any significance in their time). Maybe they'll wonder what Shostakovich really thought, did, and said when free of official pressure and the need to worry about the authorities. As a matter of fact, his true portrait can be discerned in his major works - and, while most of his official public statements were forgeries, I am glad to be able to offer here a few lines from his recently published memoir, the sincerity of which I have not the slightest doubt:

The Seventh Symphony became my most popular work. It saddens me, though, that people don't always understand what it's about; yet everything's so very clear in the music. Anna Akhmatova wrote her Requiem. The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are my 'Requiem'... I wrote my Seventh Symphony, the 'Leningrad', quickly. I simply had to write it. War was all around us. I was in the midst of the people, I wanted to capture in music the image of our country at war... I heard more nonsense about my Seventh and Eighth than about any of my other works. It's amazing how these stupidities survive. Sometimes I'm astounded how lazy people can be when it comes to thinking. Everything written about those symphonies in the first few days is still repeated without question, even though there's been more than enough time for a little cogitation. After all, the war ended a long time ago, nearly thirty years... The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and so can in no way be understood as a reaction to Hitler's attack. The 'invasion theme' has nothing at all to do with the German invasion. When I composed it, I was thinking of other enemies of humanity. It goes without saying that I abhor fascism, but not just German fascism - all forms of it. Nowadays, the pre - war period is recalled as idyllic. Everything was fine, people say, until Hitler came. Hitler was a criminal, there's no doubt of that - but so was Stalin. I feel eternal sorrow for those Hitler murdered, but I feel no less grief for those killed on Stalin's orders. I suffer for everyone who was tortured, torn to pieces, shot, or starved to death - and there were millions of them in our country before the war with Hitler even started. The war certainly brought endless new suffering and destruction, but I've never forgotten those terrible pre - war years. That's what all my symphonies, beginning with the Fourth, are about - including the Seventh and the Eighth.... I've nothing against calling the Seventh the 'Leningrad' Symphony. But it's nothing to do with the siege. It's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed... Most of my symphonies are tombstones. So many of our people died in unknown places. Nobody knows where they're buried - not even their relatives. Where do you put the tombstone for Meyerhold? For Tukhachevsky? Well - you can put it in music. I'd be willing to write a composition for every last one of the victims. But that's impossible - and that's why I dedicate my music to them all.[27]
These excerpts from the book Zeugenaussage (Testimony), may seem highly unusual to Russian readers. The book is a summary - a broken narrative of the composer's thoughts confided in the strictest secrecy, in great haste, and on the understanding that they be published only after his death. How many of his thoughts and ideas must still be living in the memories of his contemporaries! They shouldn't be allowed to disappear.

One would need to be made of stone to be impervious to all the dogmas force-fed to the generations of this century. Shostakovich pretended to think "correctly", to adopt text-book truths and time-serving traits (though note how he mocked the "irreproachably correct" Rimsky-Korsakov!). He behaved as if everything was in order and that he wasn't himself torn by fears, contradictions, and doubts. But the greatest debt his admirers owe Shostakovich is to relinquish this "official" image. It bears no resemblance to reality and to retain it is to perpetuate a calamitous error of judgement. Did not a similar case of mistaken identity once pull the deeply serious Gogol down from his pedestal and turn him into Gogol the trivial jester? Fortunately no one can ever thwart the justice of time, nor silence the voices of integrity and truth.

Part 2. Back to Contents. Back to Shostakovichiana.