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 Shy and reserved by nature, Shostakovich became even more withdrawn following the two great Stalinist assaults against his work (in 1936 and 1948), which bred in him an excessive fear and caution and made him raise his guard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.

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 …

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