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 Shy and reserved by nature, Shostakovich became even more withdrawn following the two great Stalinist assaults against his work (in 1936 and 1948), which bred in him an excessive fear and caution and made him raise his guard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

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.

This Issue

June 10, 2004