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Notes from the Composer

Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich

as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Harper & Row, 289 pp., $15.00

Prokofiev by Prokofiev: A Composer’s Memoir

edited by David H. Appel, translated by Guy Daniels
Doubleday, 370 pp., $14.00

O I.F. Stravinskom y ego Blizkikh

by Kseniya Iur’evna Stravinskaya
Leningrad: Muzyka, 232, illustrated pp.

The following comments on Testimony, Solomon Volkov’s presentation of some of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opinions, confessions, and recollections, were provoked by three events occurring within a week: the refusal of the Soviet Embassy in Berne to allow a microfilm of the 1917 manuscript of Les Noces to be sent from a Swiss library to a musician in the USSR for a concert that was to have taken place in Moscow on December 6; the publication in the November 14 issue of the Moscow weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta of a letter signed by six friends and pupils of Shostakovich denouncing Volkov’s text as a forgery; and the appearance, at last, of an informed criticism of the book, Simon Karlinsky’s, in The Nation, November 24. Professor Karlinsky has pinpointed the main shortcoming of Testimony, that first-person “memoirs” written by a second person must inevitably result in confusing obliquity.

The first of these provocations, the senseless banning of a musical score, merely serves as a reminder that the Stalin-period establishment still reigns over Soviet musical life. The second, the letter in the Gazeta, might seem to require no answer, since the reasons stated therein for condemning the book prove that the signatories have not even seen it; nor are they, or anyone else in the USSR, likely to be allowed to read so powerful an indictment of Soviet cultural tyranny. But the letter must be protested, if only for its argument that although the 1948 campaign against Shostakovich’s “formalism” was “unjustified,” he

courageously put up with the unfounded charge and in his music again and again showed his greatness. [Moreover], in 1958, the Communist Party’s Central Committee formally removed the accusation.

In other words, the official censure, the second of three, this one lasting a mere ten years, could not have been of any great consequence to Shostakovich, since he managed to stay alive and even to work! The question of possible damage to him is immaterial, therefore, and these brutal and humiliating assaults can hardly be blamed for the state of mind of a man who says:

I’m certain that everyone is staring at me, that they’re all whispering and watching me behind my back, and that they’re all waiting for me to fall, or at least to trip…. I’m drawn to people…yet if I were to become invisible, I’d be happier. I think that this is a recent problem. Once upon a time I derived pleasure from appearing in public…. [Now] I’m afraid to go out. I’m terrified to be seen. I feel fragile, breakable.

Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich is the most humanly likable of composers. And he is endowed with an insightful mind, which is by no means self-evident from his music:

Someone called up [the Komsomolskaya Pravda] once and wanted to know why that day’s paper didn’t have a poem by Mayakovsky. “He’s on vacation,” they explained. “All right, but who’s replacing him?”…The psychology is that every creative figure must have a replacement.

Volkov’s Shostakovich has an appealing wit, too, and this was not even suspected from his music, in which the playful passages are often the most painful:

Zhdanov announced, “The Central Committee of Bolsheviks demands beauty and refinement from music…,” [but] our music was crude and vulgar, and listening to it undoubtedly destroyed the psychological and physical balance of a man, for example a man like Zhdanov.

Lenin in his “political will” said that Stalin had only one fault—rudeness…. Everything else was in good shape.

Stalin could stand neither [Hamlet nor Macbeth]. Why? It seems fairly obvious. A criminal ruler—what could attract [Stalin] in that theme?…Pangs of conscience and guilt and all that. What guilty conscience?

Some of the drollest parts of the book are in Shostakovich’s account of plagiarism among Soviet composers. For example, he felt certain that if he had died before his Fourth Symphony had been played, it would have appeared as the Second Symphony of Tikhon Khrennikov, head of the Composers’ Union.

As a victim of a political and social system, Shostakovich cannot be compared to any artist of the past, for he was subject not only to the judgments and decrees of his inferiors, professional and otherwise, but also to their interference with the content of his music. His position was far worse than that of Mozart, whom the Archbishop could kick with impunity, but whose string quartets and symphonies were not “corrected” for their “ideology.” Since much of Testimony is concerned with the effects of state control of the arts on a creative individual, readers must constantly remind themselves that Shostakovich was the first artist of world reputation who spent his entire life on Animal Farm. But political wisdom and artistic achievement do not generally go together, and Shostakovich’s case is no exception. Understandably, he lacks a historical sense, as when he contends that art cannot flourish in tyrannies. But this is true only of modern brands, since many “enlightened” Renaissance princes, versed in Platonic ideas of freedom and justice, surrounded by buildings, sculpture, and paintings that express man’s highest concepts, nevertheless ruled despotically and with uncontested power of life and death over their subjects. Shostakovich’s social philosophy is moral rather than political. He believes that art should represent a people, and cannot represent a nation, which is simply an arbitrary political unit. A national art is a contradiction in terms.

As expected, the authenticity of Testimony has been challenged. Proof of Volkov’s veracity, however, surely lies in the very absence of endorsements by Rostropovich, Kondrashin, and other defectors in a position to confirm or deny episodes described in the book, but who may still fear reprisals. The genuineness of Volkov’s overall presentation will ultimately be shown by the inimitable character of his hero, whose voice, in Testimony, is that of a natural writer. If this is not Shostakovich speaking, then Volkov will soon have to produce other books. Volkov’s preface, introduction, and notes are the work of a different person, noticeable in the main text, perhaps, in certain axe-grinding passages. But then, the continuous narrative of this book could hardly have been stitched together out of verbatim quotations from Shostakovich.

Professor Karlinsky reasons that Volkov’s “musicological expertise and his well-documented closeness to Shostakovich” should give us confidence that “he actually wrote down what Shostakovich told him.” Karlinsky then cites two important sections that Shostakovich had already published in earlier books, which Volkov fails to acknowledge. And concerning Volkov’s “musicological expertise,” the less said the better, at least on the evidence of the present book. He claims that a piece by Shostakovich “harshly depicts the execution of defenseless people with naturalistic authenticity,” but does not explain how the music conveys so explicit a depiction. (“Do you see that cloud…in shape like a camel?”…”Methinks it is like a weazel.”…”It is very like a whale.”)

Volkov’s “closeness” to Shostakovich, moreover, is not really “well documented.” His widow, Irina, has testified that the two men saw each other “no more than three or four times.” Other observers assert that, in the last years, meetings were frequent, which is still no guarantee of “closeness.” Mme Shostakovich is also nonplussed by the possibility of Volkov having gathered material of book length from her husband. But much of the book’s substance was obviously obtained indirectly and at several removes—just as were many of Shostakovich’s own stories, for example the one about Prokofiev’s obnoxious behavior in a class of Rimsky-Korsakov’s. Undoubtedly the book owes much to Boris Tishchenko, Shostakovich’s favorite pupil, who introduced Volkov to the master, who signed the Gazeta letter, and who at this moment is probably being less than politely interrogated.

Unfortunately, Volkov is careless about factual matters. The chronology meanders, and he rarely gives precise times and dates. More seriously, he fails to note the discrepancies between Shostakovich’s and other people’s versions of events, as Soviet biographers will be quick to point out. But the book as a whole is inadequately annotated, while those footnotes which Volkov does provide are not free from mistakes. Worst of all, his parti pris is too apparent. If only for his own protection, he should have mentioned examples of Shostakovich’s music criticism in which his views obviously do conform to those of the Party line, such as the May 31, 1964, article in Pravda calling “dodecaphonic and serial music…one of the great evils of twentieth-century art.”

Volkov should also have tried to explain some of the text’s many mysterious absences. At one place, Shostakovich alludes to Mme Furtseva (the Minister of Culture), or so Volkov identifies the reference. But since she played a role of major importance in the composer’s life, he must have had some feelings as well as inside information about her fall from power and Romanstyle wrist-slashing death—announced in Pravda, with no details, on the same day as the obituary for David Oistrakh.

And in the summer of 1976, in New York, when Volkov called on Mrs. Igor Stravinsky, after publishers had requested her to read the manuscript, why did he not ask her to verify the story of the Moscow meeting between Stravinsky and the musicologist Boris Yarustovsky? According to Shostakovich,

Stravinsky offered his walking stick instead of his hand to one of these hypocrites [Yarustovsky], who was forced to shake it, proving that he was the real lackey.

But this is a gross misinterpretation. Stravinsky, extending his cane for help in climbing some stairs, was quite unaware that one of his Soviet biographers was on the other end of the stick. The composer often made this gesture—for example, in getting out of an automobile—but never insultingly. The truth is that he did not recognize Yarustovsky—and, incidentally, did not read his book, simply acknowledging its receipt on a calling card dated January 16, 1965.

Shostakovich “treats Solzhenitsyn with scorn because of his messianism and supposed religious fanaticism,” Professor Karlinsky writes, and it is true that Shostakovich disdains the religious beliefs of almost everyone. But it seems to me that the particular grievance here is the inflating of the writer to an—in the composer’s words—“overwhelming genius.” Professor Karlinsky is also troubled by Shostakovich’s incomprehensible reference to Glazunov as “a great musician.” What was meant, I think, is that Glazunov had a freakishly keen ear, a phenomenal memory, and exceptional skill in improvisation—all gifts of the virtuoso, perhaps more rarely of the composer. Shostakovich does not rank Glazunov’s music as more than second-rate, admitting, at one place, that his symphonies are boring. Shostakovich’s portrait of Glazunov, however, is the high point of Testimony, a character study that goes directly to the man’s unique and interesting qualities without overlooking or minimizing his weaknesses.

Shostakovich’s best anecdote involves Maria Yudina, a brilliant pianist, a scandalously outspoken “dissident,” and the composer’s school friend, of whom he says that “for her, the ocean was only knee-deep.” It seems that Stalin heard her broadcast performance of a Mozart piano concerto, and asked for her recording of it. Since none existed, one was made in a single day, a record in two senses. Stalin sent 20,000 rubles to her, and she responded in a letter, which said something like the following:

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