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The Truth About Shostakovich

I wrote my Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad,” very quickly. I couldn’t not write it. War was all around. I had to be together with the people. I wanted to create the image of our country at war, to engrave it in music. From the first days of the war I sat down at the piano and began to work. I worked intensely. I wanted to write a work about our days, about my contemporaries who spared neither strength nor life in the name of victory over the enemy.

This statement, as Fay shows, is identical to a passage of Shostakovich’s article “Kak rozhdaetsia muzyka” (How a Musical Concept Is Born), published in Literaturnaya gazeta in 1965. There is nothing anti-Soviet in it—indeed it testifies to the composer’s Soviet patriotism. But on the next (unsigned) page of Testimony Volkov quotes the composer saying something radically different (which could be understood as anti-Soviet):

The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The “invasion theme” has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme.

Volkov has always insisted that he never knew about the previously published sources reproduced in Testimony —even though he wrote the introduction to one of these articles himself (about the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold) for Sovetskaya muzyka. He has received some vehement support from Alan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, who published a 787-page book, Shostakovich Reconsidered, in 1998, mainly to refute the ten-page article by Laurel Fay.10 But in the Casebook Fay presents some damning new discoveries. From a photocopy of the Russian typescript of Testimony that somehow found its way to the Shostakovich family archive in Moscow, and was made available to her in 2000, Fay has been able to confirm that all the pages signed by the composer consist of “verbatim transcripts of previously published texts,” even retaining the original punctuation and layout, except that in certain instances a sentence that contains a temporal reference (which would allow the reader to ascertain when the reminscences were originally produced) has been “pasted over with some sort of correction tape.” Conclusive evidence of a forgery, at least in concealing the time of the original publication.


There is barely a mention of Testimony in Volkov’s latest book, though much of its material and its view of the composer as a dissident are reproduced in Shostakovich and Stalin. Volkov’s aim in his new book, it seems, is to buttress the basic position of Testimony using evidence that has come to light in recent years. To some extent this is not an unreasonable objective: for even Volkov’s harshest critics have come to recognize that Shostakovich was very far from a Party loyalist and that, to quote Volkov’s most outspoken critic, the distinguished musicologist Richard Taruskin, there may indeed have been an element of protest in “the uncontrollable play of subtexts” which characterizes his music.11 But Volkov’s interpretative categories are too simplistic to reflect the full complexity of Shostakovich’s identity, either as an artist or as a Soviet citizen.

Volkov became acquainted with the composer in the 1960s and the 1970s. By this time it is believable that Shostakovich had become embittered, perhaps even hostile in some ways to the Soviet regime. Perhaps indeed he had come to see himself as a victim. But the way people recollect and understand their lives alters radically over time, and what Shostakovich remembered in the last years of his bitter life was likely to be different from the way he saw himself in earlier periods. This distortion is clearly evident in Shostakovich and Stalin. One gets the sense that Volkov has imposed the consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s onto a man whose life was shaped by the events of the 1930s and 1940s. By viewing the composer as a lifelong “dissident,” Volkov denies the possibility that Shostakovich’s perceptions might have evolved; he strips him of his Soviet identity.

Shostakovich and Stalin is organized around a single concept (or zamysl‘, as the Russians say). Volkov depicts Shostakovich as a “holy fool” (yurodivy)—as the spokesman of the suffering people who dares to speak the truth to the cruel tsar. For Volkov’s Shostakovich, the yurodivy was exemplified by the fictional figure of the holy fool, who represents the artist’s role to speak “dangerous but necessary truths,” in Pushkin’s play and Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. This is an idea which Volkov first advanced in his introduction to Testimony, but he elaborates on it at greater length in the prologue to Shostakovich and Stalin, where he suggests that “Shostakovich placed himself as a true successor to Pushkin’s and Mussorgsky’s Russian tradition of artistic dialogue and confrontation with the tsar.” It is a fanciful idea. For there is no evidence that Shostakovich saw himself in this way.

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906 into an intelligentsia family with strong connections to the revolutionary underground. As Volkov emphasizes, his basic values were defined by the ideals of the intelligentsia: “public service; concern for the people’s welfare; honesty, decency, and modesty.” As a boy he showed no sympathy for the Bolsheviks. One of his first works was a funeral march for the liberal politicians Fyodor Kokoshkin and Andrei Shingarev, who were brutally murdered by a group of Bolshevized sailors in January 1918. Artistically, Shostakovich always signaled his connections to the classical traditions of St. Petersburg, even if he was forced to live in Leningrad. Like many people of his class and generation, he was obliged to fashion for himself a Soviet identity in order to advance his career. His Second Symphony (“Dedication to October”: 1927), commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, is evidence of this, though Volkov argues that it was his need for cash, following the death of his father in 1922, that forced Shostakovich to accept “artistic compromise.” It is probable that Shostakovich saw the Second Symphony as “work for hire.” We know that he had trouble composing the chorus for the dreadful verses by the poet Alexander Bezymensky. The final words—

Here is the banner,
Here is the name of living generations:
October, Commune and Lenin!

—are not even given a melodic line; the chorus just chants them. But Volkov’s implication—that Shostakovich never wrote a “Soviet” composition from artistic commitment—is far from convincing. What about his work for TRAM (the Theater of Working-Class Youth), for which Shostakovich wrote the music to The Shot (1929), again to words by Bezymensky; and Virgin Soil (1930), a play extolling Stalinist collectivization? And his Third Symphony (“The First of May,” 1930), an optimistic work, clearly influenced by the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which Shostakovich himself once described as expressing the “festive spirit of peaceful construction” in the Soviet Union?12

Volkov makes a great deal of the link between Shostakovich and the Russian Dadaists and other exponents of the literary absurd, whom he describes misleadingly as “the yurodivye.” Shostakovich certainly moved in these circles in the late 1920s and early 1930s: the writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was a close friend, as was the brilliant musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky. Sollertinsky was also well acquainted with the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose ideas about the subversive role of laughter and the “carnival” may have been communicated to the composer.13 Burlesque laughter and grotesque parody can certainly be heard in many Shostakovich compositions during the 1920s, from his opera The Nose (1927), based on Gogol’s story, to the film score for New Babylon (1929), a cinematic reconstruction of the revolutionary events in the Paris Commune in 1871. In the final scene the Communards are shot by a firing squad to the Offenbach-like sounds of a cancan. But how far was this consciously intended by Shostakovich to challenge and subvert the revolutionary tradition, and how far just a search for striking new artistic forms?

Interpreting the composer’s letters to his friends raises similar problems.14 For example, in a 1935 letter to Sollertinsky, which Volkov cites, Shostakovich mocks the language of the Stalin cult when he describes (partly for the censor) a high-level meeting of Sta-khanovite workers which he was invited to attend:

I saw in the presidium Comrade Stalin, Comrades Molotov, Ka-ganovich, Voroshilov, Ordzhonikidze, Kalinin, Kosior, Mikoyan, Postyshev, Chubar, Andreyev, and Zhdanov. I heard speeches by Comrades Stalin, Voroshilov, and Shvernik. I was captivated by Voroshilov’s speech, but after listening to Stalin, I completely lost all sense of measure and shouted “Hurrah!” with the rest of the audience and applauded endlessly. … Of course today is the happiest day of my life: I saw and heard Stalin.

With hindsight we can tell (even if the censor could not at the time) that Shostakovich harbored no illusions about Stalin. But irony and sarcasm are not the same as dissidence; nor can they be taken as a sign of general disenchantment with the Soviet regime. There were many educated people in the 1930s who thought poorly of Stalin and ridiculed the cult of his personality in their private conversations, in letters and diaries, but who were firm believers in the Soviet Union and the vision of industrialization advanced by the Soviet leadership. Every Soviet citizen was obliged to wear a mask and shout “Hurrah!” to Stalin yet keep his real thoughts to himself (for what the Soviet system demanded was the display of loyalty). But even if they harbored inner doubts, or, like Shostakovich, resented the pretense of public life, it does not necessarily mean that they were oppositionists. Indeed it was not unknown to voice contempt for the Soviet regime, and yet, by living and working within it, to adopt its values and its goals.15 Such is the nature of dictatorships.

The problem of interpretation becomes more acute when we follow Shostakovich after 1936. That was the year of the Stalinist attack on his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Pravda published a vicious article criticizing it (“Muddle Instead of Music”) which Stalin obviously engineered. Shostakovich was denounced as an “enemy of the people”—in those days a warning sign of imminent arrest (which Volkov says did not take place only because Stalin valued his film scores). Fear drove Shostakovich to withdraw into himself, to the inner sphere of freedom of his art, where he began to express himself in a highly coded language of ambivalence.

The shock of 1936 forced Shostakovich to break abruptly from his modernist style of the 1920s (the “formalism” of which he stood accused by the Stalinists) and to adopt the “heroic classicism” of the “Soviet symphony,” incorporating simple melodies that could be hummed by the masses. But in this style, ironically, he was better able to express his private emotions and encode messages—of grief and anguish, torment, terror, protest, and dissent—that could be felt by the Soviet public. Volkov rightly points to the finale of the Fifth Symphony (Shostakovich’s “Socialist Realist” rejoinder to the critics of Lady Macbeth), which received a half-hour ovation of electrifying force when it was first performed in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic in November 1937. Beneath the forced rejoicing of the finale’s endless fanfares trumpeting the triumph of the Soviet state, music scholars have discerned echoes of Mahler (the First and Third Symphonies), Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique), and Richard Strauss (Till Eulenspiegel)—all suggesting a death march. Whether they recognized the march or not, the audience must have felt the music’s sadness—for nearly everyone would have lost someone in the Terror of 1937—and they responded to it as a spiritual release.

The Fifth Symphony is a good example because it reminds us that all “meaning” in music is constructed socially, and hence is never stable, because it depends on the historical experience and associations of its listeners. What made the Fifth so highly charged with subversive meaning was not so much the coded messages (which no doubt went by largely unnoticed) as the public’s awareness that, in composing that symphony after the Pravda attack, Shostakovich was fighting for his life. But if this is the case, if there is no innate meaning in music itelf, then there is a fundamental problem with the assumption of Volkov’s musicology: that one can decode the hidden messages of Shostakovich’s music to reveal his thoughts and intentions.

Shostakovich did not like to discuss or analyze music (there is more about soccer in his letters to his friends). Even after Stalin’s death, in 1953, when he might have been expected to drop his guard, Shostakovich remained highly secretive about his work. From the 1950s, he turned away from the public form of the symphony and wrote mainly chamber music of an intensely private kind. To find hidden signs of protest in this music is a dubious task. For there are only a few works where we have evidence that Shostakovich meant his music to convey a personal or political message. His cantata Anti-Formalist Rayok was obviously a satire against the political and cultural clampdown of the post-war years (the “Zhdanovshchina”), which led to the virtual banning of Shostakovich’s music from the Soviet repertoire until Stalin’s death, although just when he composed the cantata, its music set to the pompous speeches of the Soviet leaders, remains something of a mystery, because it was written for the drawer.

No doubt there was a moral statement too in his decision to compose a good deal of his postwar music in a Jewish idiom—precisely at a time when the Stalinist regime was persecuting Soviet Jews in the “anticosmopolitan” campaign between 1948 and 1953. And we know from the composer’s words that the Eighth Quartet (1960), officially dedicated “To the Victims of Fascism,” is in fact about himself. Throughout this very personal work, full of self-quotation, the same four notes recur (D–E flat–C– B), which in the German system of musical notation make up four letters of the composer’s name (D-S-C-H). The four notes are like a dirge; the quartet like a requiem. In the final movement the four notes are symbolically combined with the workers’ revolutionary funeral lament, “Tortured by a Cruel Bondage,” which Shostakovich here sings for himself.

According to his old friend Isaak Glikman, Shostakovich composed the Eighth Quartet in a crisis of conscience after he had joined the Communist Party in 1960. From what he told Glikman, it cannot be concluded that he was coerced by the Party bureaucrats (this was the height of the Khrushchev thaw): he was simply badgered with a series of “requests.”16 This was not the final compromise that Shostakovich made. In 1973 his name appeared in Pravda beneath a letter denouncing Andrei Sakharov. “No one forced him to do it,” recalled his friend Lev Lebedinsky.17 These are not the actions of a dissident, a heroic teller of moral truths, a yurodivy who confronts the tsar. They are the actions of a person worn down by years of living in a state of fear, a fear that did not go away even twenty years after Stalin’s death; a person worn out by ill health who would have put his name to practically anything, even Volkov’s typescript of his reminiscences, just to be left on his own. Shostakovich was a complex and contradictory personality: in this sense he was typical of the Soviet intelligentsia. He was capable of courage and of cowardice—the two faces of every human being—and for that reason his music speaks the truth.

  1. 10

    Shostakovich Reconsidered (Toccata).

  2. 11

    Richard Taruskin, “Shostakovich and Us,” in Shostakovich in Context, p. 5.

  3. 12

    Cited in Fay, Shostakovich, p. 52.

  4. 13

    On Shostakovich and Bakhtin see Esti Sheinberg’s fascinating study, Irony, Satire, Parody and the Grotesque in the Music of Shostakovich (Ashgate, 2000).

  5. 14

    See, for example, Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941–1975, with a commentary by Isaak Glikman, translated by Anthony Phillips (Cornell University Press, 2001).

  6. 15

    On this see the revealing comments in Alex Inkeles and Raymond A. Bauer, The Soviet Citizen: Daily Life in a Totalitarian Society (Harvard University Press, 1959), pp. 289–290.

  7. 16

    Glikman, Story of a Friendship, pp. 91–93.

  8. 17

    Wilson, Shostakovich, p. 338.

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