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The Truth About Shostakovich

Dmitry Shostakovich is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. But he is also one of its most complex and elusive artists. Shy and reserved by nature, Shostakovich became even more withdrawn following the two great Stalinist assaults against his work (in 1936 and 1948), which bred in him an excessive fear and caution and made him raise his guard against the world. Like many people in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich developed a technique of conversation that revealed very little of himself to people he could not entirely trust. Scarcely anything he said or wrote for the public can be taken as a guide to his private thoughts.

It is clear that he never let himself forget the presence of the police state. Even in his letters to his closest friends he combined his considerable wit and irony with formulaic passages that would have been read with approval by the censor. Shostakovich perfected a similar ambivalence in his musical language, using one idiom to please his masters in the Kremlin, another to appease his own conscience as an artist and a citizen. Outwardly his music speaks in a triumphant public voice. Yet beneath the ritual sounds of Soviet rejoicing there is a softer, more melancholic voice, audible to those who shared the suffering his music expressed.

What exactly does his music say? And what does it tell us about Shostakovich as a man? It is hard to think of another composer (Richard Wagner included) whose music’s public meaning has been so closely bound to what we know (or think we know) about his life and moral character. His music draws so much from Soviet life, it is so overshadowed by the horrific experience of the Stalin era, that we seem to be almost incapable of judging it without deciding first where Shostakovich stood politically. Was Shostakovich a “loyal son” of the Communist Party, as Pravda claimed on the composer’s death in August 1975? Was he a coward and reluctant collaborator, forced to survive by making political compromises? Or was he a secret dissident, a heroic teller of the truth through art, a voice of moral protest and dissent? This is how he was portrayed in Testimony, controversially presented to the world as “The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich” by Solomon Volkov, a music journalist and recent émigré from the Soviet Union, in 1979.1


Volkov first met Shostakovich in the 1960s when he was working on a book about Leningrad’s young composers. They met again in the early 1970s, by which time Volkov had become a senior editor at Sovetskaya muzyka, the house journal of the Union of Composers, which was based in the same Moscow block where Shostakovich lived. According to Volkov, Shostakovich chose him as the person to record his private thoughts, and in a series of interviews he spoke about his recollections and opinions, which Volkov did not tape but wrote down in shorthand. These notes were then rearranged to form sections of unbroken prose, which “Shostakovich read and signed.” The Shostakovich that emerged from Testimony was an embittered dissident who engaged in spiteful gossip and had hardly a warm or generous word to say about anyone. His music was portrayed as a form of protest against the Stalinist regime:

The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. It happened to many of my friends. Where do you put the tombstones for Meyerhold or Tukhachevky? Only music can do that for them. I’m willing to write a composition for each of the victims, but that’s impossible, and that’s why I dedicate my music to them all.

In the West, to which the typescript had been smuggled, Testimony was greeted with enthusiasm. Writing in The New York Times, Harold C. Schoenberg raved about it as a “serious indictment of past and present Russia, as well as the recollections of a life apparently spent in fear and despair.” The book appeared at a new height of the cold war, shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the bankruptcy of the Brezhnevite regime was highlighted by a series of highly publicized defections to the West. For certain Western readers the “true Shostakovich” that was revealed appeared as a fallen hero of the moral crusade against the Soviet Union.

But from the start there were serious doubts about the book’s authenticity, which soon became the focus of a bitter struggle to “speak for” the private Shostakovich and fix the public meaning of his life and works. The “Shostakovich Wars” have rumbled on for a quarter of a century—and now they are bound to be rekindled by the appearance of the two new books under review, one on each side of the barricades.

A Shostakovich Casebook is an important and readable collection of previously published articles and interviews by musicologists, relatives, and friends of Shostakovich, many of them appearing for the first time in English. It presents a devastating critique of Volkov’s claims and scholarly practices in Testimony.

Serious questions were first raised in 1979 by Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s widow, who stated that Volkov had met her husband only

three or maybe four times…. I don’t see how he could have gathered enough material from Dmitrich for such a thick book.

Volkov later said that he had “dozens” of secret meetings with Shostakovich between 1971 and 1974; but since in these years the composer was in poor health and heavily dependent on his wife, this claim seems improbable.2 In an article first published in The New York Times in August 2000, Irina Shostakovich poured scorn on Volkov’s self-promotion as her husband’s secret confidant. She recounted a revealing incident during his interviews with Shostakovich, when Volkov arrived at their apartment with his wife, Marianna, a professional photographer, who took a photograph of Volkov with Dmitry and Irina Shostakovich, together with the young com-poser Boris Tishchenko, who was there at Shostakovich’s request. Volkov brought the photograph to the next interview and asked Shostakovich to sign it.

Shostakovich wrote his usual words: “To dear Solomon Maseyevich [sic] Volkov, in fond remembrance. D Shostakovich 13. XI.1974.” Then, as if sensing something amiss, he asked for the photograph back and, according to Mr. Volkov himself, added: “In memory of our talks on Glazunov, Zoshchenko and Meyerhold. D. Sh.”

That was a list of the topics covered during the interviews. It shows that the conversation was about music and literary life in prewar Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and nothing more.

Tishchenko was a close friend of Shostakovich. He arranged the Volkov interviews, for which he was thanked in Testimony as “my distant friend, who must remain nameless. Without your constant involvement and encouragement, this book would not exist.” Tishchenko has always insisted that Testimony is a “fabrication”—he was one of six Soviet composers who wrote to denounce it as “lie…piled upon lie” in a letter to Literaturnaya gazeta in 1979—and since he was present at the interviews his opinion cannot be easily dismissed. In The Letters of Dmitrievich Shostakovich to Boris Tishchenko,3 Tishchenko provides this commentary, reproduced in the Casebook, about Volkov and his working practices:

Removed to a safe distance, [Volkov] published notes made during conversations with Shostakovich, which, after numerous and insistent requests I had facilitated in due time, but not without resistance from D.D. [Shostakovich]. The latter agreed only on the condition that I be present during these conversations. And I agreed only on the condition that a copy of the notes be provided to me. Naturally I received no such copy. Meanwhile, the modest and reserved reminiscences about years of childhood and youth got puffed up into a very plump volume, padded with third-hand stories and shameless self-promotion. Dmitri Dmitrievich is represented as some sort of malicious dissident. I will never forget the author’s poorly concealed impatience for D.D.’s death.

One might dismiss this last sentence, were it not for other evidence that raises troubling questions about Volkov’s probity. For he has built his career on selling to the world the posthumous “memoirs” of famous Russians based on interviews he had with them before they died. In 1985 Volkov published Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine.4 Five years later Volkov brought out From Russia to the West: The Musical Memoirs and Reminiscences of Nathan Milstein.5 And then, in 1998, came the controversial Conversations with Joseph Brodsky: A Poet’s Journey Through the Twentieth Century, published two years after Brodsky’s death.6 Like Shostakovich, Brodsky expressed serious reservations about Volkov’s “little interviews,”7 and Volkov has not produced evidence that Brodsky gave approval for a book. Brodsky’s literary executor, Ann Kjellberg (an editor at The New York Review), has called on Volkov to deposit a copy of the tapes in the Brodsky Archive, now at the Beinecke Library at Yale, but Volkov has not complied (it is said that he plans to donate them to the Anna Akhmatova Museum in St. Petersburg).

Volkov did not make recordings of his conversations with Shostakovich, and he has not responded to numerous requests to make available his shorthand notes, so there is no way to verify the accuracy of the published words he has put into the composer’s mouth. His rejection of several proposals to publish a Russian edition of Testimony is highly suspicious. Shostakovich had a very idiosyncratic manner of talking—impossible to imitate but, if recorded faithfully, capable of being recognized immediately by anyone who often heard him speak. Volkov could have answered his critics by publishing Testimony in its original language, but he has grasped at any excuse, even claiming that there are no serious Russian publishers, to avoid this exposure.

Even in translation the entire tone of Shostakovich’s reported speech appeared out of character. To those who had known him, it seemed inconceivable that a devoted father and husband would knowingly endanger his own family by consenting to publish abroad a full-scale attack on the Soviet system. And while the book is full of anecdotes and bits of gossip which friends of the composer might have heard him tell when his tongue had been loosened by vodka, it seemed unimaginable that a sober Shostakovich, who was scrupulously tactful and polite in his dealings with people, would agree to the publication of such tales.8 Most of the composer’s friends and relatives have reached the same conclusion as the art historian Elena Basner, whose letter to Izvestiia in 1999 is reproduced in the Casebook. Speaking of her father, the composer Veniamin Basner, one of Shostakovich’s closest friends, she recalls:

What most aroused his indignation was that Volkov placed all sorts of anecdotes and tales that had made the rounds among musicians in the mouth of Shostakovich.

The most devastating critique of Volkov is contained in the scholarly research of Laurel Fay, whose findings make up the first part of the Casebook. Fay is the author of a recent and authoritative biography of Shostakovich which is distinguished by its careful scholarship.9 In November 1979 the critic Simon Karlinsky published a review of Testimony in The Nation, in which he pointed out that two long passages of Volkov’s book—which was said to derive entirely from interviews with the composer—had previously appeared in Soviet publications under Shostakovich’s name. Fay dug deeper and found five other paragraphs in Volkov’s book where, almost word for word, the reported speech of Shostakovich was identical to passages of previously published articles by the composer. She revealed her findings in an article in The Russian Review in 1980. Most disturbingly, all these “borrowed reminscences” appear at the start of the chapters in Volkov’s book—on the first and only page of each chapter which Shostakovich signed with the words “Have read [chital]. D. Shostakovich”—after which the text of Testimony begins to diverge, sometimes quite dramatically, from the tone and content of the first page. A striking example occurs in Chapter 5. On the first (signed) page Shostakovich says:

  1. 1

    Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, translated by Antonina W. Bouis (Harper and Row, 1979).

  2. 2

    In his book St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (translated by Antonina W. Bouis, Free Press, 1995, pp. 555, 571, 574), Volkov refers to several interviews whose subject matter is not found in Testimony, but he has not produced any documentary proof in the form of tapes or notes.

  3. 3

    Pis’ma Dmitriia Dmitrievicha Shostakovicha Borisu Tishchenko (St. Petersburg: Kompozitor, 1997).

  4. 4

    Translated by Antonina W. Bouis (Simon and Schuster).

  5. 5

    Translated by Antonina W. Bouis (Henry Holt).

  6. 6

    Translated by Marian Schwartz, with photographs by Marianna Volkov (Free Press).

  7. 7

    Postcard from Brodsky to Igor Efimov, November 1, 1987 (cited in Robin Milner-Gulland, “Russian Whispers,” The Times Literary Supplement, February 12, 1999).

  8. 8

    In this respect it is illuminating to recall Shostakovich’s hostile reaction to the publication of the correspondence between Chekhov and his wife (“much of it so intimate that one would rather not see it in printed form”) in a newspaper article that he wrote to mark the centenary of Chekhov’s birth in 1960 (“Samyi blizkii,” Literaturnaya gazeta, January 28, 1960, p. 3). Shostakovich was highly critical of Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s widow, for publishing the letters after Chekhov’s death, as revealed by his comments to Flora Lit-vinova: “Can you imagine what Chekhov’s reaction would have been had he known that his wife would expose him in front of honest people? She should be ashamed of herself, publishing all the intimate details of their life together” (Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, London: Faber and Faber, 1994, p. 165). Shostakovich, who shared Chekhov’s modesty, destroyed much of his own correspondence for fear that it would fall into the wrong hands (see Rosamund Bartlett, “Shostakovich and Chekhov,” in Shostakovich in Context, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 204).

  9. 9

    Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000).

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