Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev; drawing by David Levine

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:

I thank you Iosif Vissarionovich…. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your sins…. I gave the money to the church….

Nothing happened to Yudina, and it is reported that her Mozart was on a turntable in Stalin’s dacha when he was found dead. (More than anyone else, this valiant old lady was responsible for Stravinsky’s 1962 visit to the USSR. In March of that year, undecided about the trip, he wrote to a friend: “But if I do not go, I shall hurt many people for whom my presence there is not just a wish but vital—especially Yudina.”)

Volkov has not been well served by his translator. The book contains wildly incorrect meanings and it is largely written in American slang. Thus Shostakovich refers to a Hamlet “screwing [Ophelia]. And she, pregnant, got drunk and drowned herself”; mentions someone whose “popularity peaked”; uses such expressions as “come off it,” “phony,” “con man,” and “brouhaha”—all of which, needless to say, clash with our conception of the composer’s dignity. The Russian and American languages are equally rich in slang, but slang is always local, temporary, untranslatable. A more formal, even if stilted, vocabulary would have been preferable.

Was Shostakovich a great composer? Not by any criteria of innovation in the language and style of music, nor by virtue of extraordinary powers of invention. But the question that readers really want to ask is whether Shostakovich was potentially a great composer, stifled by a political system. The First Symphony, written at age nineteen (1926), seemed to hold some such promise, and, retrospectively, the transcendent final pages of the Fourth Symphony (1936), the opus that had to be withheld for twenty-five years.

The answer, of course, is that the history of what did happen is sufficiently difficult to understand, let alone adding the history of what might have been. The music that Shostakovich wrote does not exhibit a wide range of emotions, but depends on simple contrasts of the lyrical and the dramatic, the elegiac and the grotesque, the solemn and the “impudent.” In some of the early postwar works, such as the Eighth Quartet and the Adagio of the Ninth, an intensity of feeling and concentration are evident, but not a strong shaping hand. The ideas are worked to death, the forms, with their clichés of crescendo and climax, tend to sprawl, and the substance is thin, maddeningly so in, for instance, the dialogue between bassoon and bass voice in the fourth movement of “Babi Yar.” Finally, the music lacks rhythmic invention—the repetition of snare-drum patterns is excruciating—and the harmonic palette, though not closed to experiment, is conventional. Novelty occurs only in sonority and instrumentation, and the best of this may be in the first movement of the First Symphony.

If Shostakovich’s memoirs are a document of importance in modern Russian history, those of Prokofiev are a contribution of comparable value to Russian literature. Prokofiev’s autobiography of his early years is far the best that I know of by any composer, and the book unexpectedly changes the stature of the man. Some parallels between the two composers may be worth noting: both were pupils of Glazunov, prodigies who never surpassed their spectacular beginnings, and victims of exploitation and control by the autocratic system. Above all, the musical styles of both contain numerous resemblances, but this is a subject in itself. As for opposites, Prokofiev very unwisely believed that “politics do not concern me.”* But the chief difference is that the personality of Shostakovich was heretofore completely closed, that of Prokofiev wide open—for which reason the discovery of so engaging a narrator in this book is such a surprise.

Prokofiev by Prokofiev has not received due attention, no doubt for the reason that the story breaks off in 1909 at exactly the point when the career of the mature composer begins. But he is a prose writer of astonishing skill, whose picture of his boyhood and education in a Ukrainian village, and in the two great cities, can stand comparison with Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. It is regrettable that Prokofiev did not continue his chronicle to include his experiences during the Revolution and in the Diaghilev years, as well as explain his disillusionment with the West and the return to Russia—where the book was written, just before and after World War II.

Music is at the center of Prokofiev by Prokofiev, which is not the case with Testimony, and quite literally, in numerous examples in music type that comprise valuable lessons about the development of the fledgling composer. Prokofiev’s domineering and ambitious mother evidently preserved every scrap that the child wrote, and the book contains many amusing excerpts from his attempts to evoke scenes and moods in operas that he began even before his tenth year. His mother did not regard his talents as those of a “genius,” and she deliberated at length before allowing him to risk a career as a composer, meanwhile providing the best teachers for him. One of these, Reinhold Glière, came from Moscow in the summers to give the boy lessons in composition, and to live with the upper-middle-class, liberal, and intellectual Prokofievs.

Sergei’s mother oversaw Glière’s methods in order to continue with them during the winters. With the intelligence of observation displayed on every page of this book, Prokofiev says that “her attitude toward Glière’s teaching was respectful, critical—and a bit jealous.” The resourcefulness of her own teaching is shown by her requirement that her son transpose any classic that he played to several keys, then obliging him to name the one in which it “sounded best”—which usually elicited the answer, “the key in which it had been written.” Also at an early age, Prokofiev acquired the unsympathetic habit of grading everything that he played or heard. The Egmont Overture received a C-minus.

Parents of musical children should read these memoirs, if only because Prokofiev makes the points that many teachers overlook. For instance, he conceives a theme, devises a simple harmonic accompaniment for it, but does not know how to fit the music into a meter. Then, after choosing one, he is uncertain about the beat on which the music should begin, or where to place the emphasis. (Prokofiev was always troubled by this problem, however, and his opera, Love for Three Oranges, contains a dozen instances of set pieces that end wrongly, on the weak part of the bar.) Another valuable lesson is offered in Prokofiev’s description of his reluctance to fulfill assignments from Arensky’s famous textbook. After a rule had been explained, the pupil was required to invent an example employing it. He found this difficult to do, simply because the result was “of no use to anyone.” Wanting to write operas with marches, storms, and complicated situations, he felt that he was “being held back.”

Prokofiev can bring his governesses and teachers to life in a few phrases, or even in a single one, as in this comment on the widow of the composer Serov: “She sang her own compositions in a low tenor.” And here is a picture vivified by a few memorable details:

Before class I liked to go down to the cloakroom, which had a window looking out on the square, and watch as the figure of Rimsky-Korsakov, on his way to the Conservatory, emerged from Glinka Street at the end of the square. When the weather began to get cold, he would wear a raccoon coat—very short and not at all right for his tall figure—belted in tightly, and his beard would stick out over the high, turned-up collar of the coat…. When he was correcting work he would first write the note and then put a sharp or flat in front of it. (I was used to writing the sharp or flat first, then the note.)

In a sentence or two, Prokofiev relates and disposes of incidents that would lead to pages of self-analysis from anyone else. “Until I was three, I was kept in a little dress: a reminder of my dead sister,” he writes. When the infant was taken near the altar in the church, a forbidden area for girls, his mother “whispered to Father Andrei, “A boy, a boy….’ ” And there the matter is dropped.

He tells us that in his teens he was

generally secretive in matters close to the heart, and…I waged my whole struggle for religion internally, letting no one know about it and not discussing the subject with anyone…. At home we never talked about religion, so that gradually the question faded away and ceased to be of importance. When my father died—I was nineteen at the time—my attitude toward his death was atheistic. And the same thing was true when, at the age of twenty-two, I lost a close friend who had written me a note saying “Farewell” before his death. I was especially grief-stricken by the “Farewell” as coming from a human consciousness which had departed once and for all time.

One of our received notions about Prokofiev is that his intellectual versatility may be in part responsible for a lack of depth in his music. He could have been outstanding as a chess player, mathematician, physicist, engineer, or anything else requiring brains and control. (He used to write amusing letters—according to Stravinsky—leaving out all vowels, and at age thirteen he invented an alphabet that looks Hittite.) But whether he might have become a greater composer is not worth the speculation. One may regret that he abandoned the radical style of the first movement of the Second Symphony, some pages of which suggest the Varèse of Arcana. But when the public rejected this piece, Prokofiev’s response was to give the audience what it wanted. Did the cocksure, head-of-the-class, always superior person lack conviction in his art? More certainly, Prokofiev realized that a composition by a compatriot ten years older—who was still unknown while the teenager was being viewed as something of a new Mozart—outstripped anything that he could do: Le Sacre du printemps.

The late Kseniya Stravinsky’s long-awaited book about her uncle is a disappointment. In the title, the word blizkikh, an adjective used as a noun, means “intimates,” or “those close to.” But this describes neither the people featured in the book nor the author, who saw her uncle on only two occasions, both of them when he was in his eighties. The title, moreover, leads us to expect some information about Stravinsky’s university friends—such as Ivan Pokrovsky—that could exist only in libraries and collections in the USSR. But instead of filling this gap, the book provides an official version of Stravinsky’s 1962 visit to Moscow and Leningrad, and includes photographs of him with Shostakovich’s boss, Tikhon Khrennikov, who cannot, by any stretch of the word, be described as Stravinsky’s blizkii. If a Red Russian composer had to be shown together with the White one, Shostakovich should have been chosen, for though Stravinsky called the eleventh symphony “esthetically and technically primitive” (letter of June 11, 1959), he had a far lower opinion of Khrennikov, dismissing his Violin Concerto as “unbelievable rubbish” (letter of June 1961).

Interest in Kseniya’s book centers in the section on her sister Tatiana’s sojourn in France, March 1925 to August 1926, time spent largely with the Stravinsky family in Nice. The composer was in America when she arrived from Leningrad, but in one of her letters home she writes about the return on

a fantastically energetic man, very small, very chic—with a monocle, a new sweater almost every day, and gloves stitched on the outside…. He tells dirty stories, which disgusts his mother, but, then, he spends more time in Paris than in Nice.

In the summer of 1970, Kseniya came to France to see the Stravinskys to obtain the agreement of the composer’s wife that, at his death, he would be interred with his Leningrad blizkii. In the meantime, Stravinsky had written to a friend:

So the Zhdanovian prohibition of Shostakovich has started up again…. [This is] because Yevtushenko’s words [Babi Yar] are anti-antisemitic. Alexander the Third was a socialist in comparison [to the Soviet government]. [January 19, 1963]

For whatever reasons, a photograph of Yevtushenko with Stravinsky was scissored out of the book Bravo Stravinsky that he sent to Kseniya. By chance, seeing an unmutilated copy of it during her French visit, she puzzled over this picture, but revealed no other reaction to this blatant proof of censorship.

This Issue

January 24, 1980