Shostakovich at Oxford

Oxford Mail and Times/Newsquest Oxfordshire
From right, Harold Macmillan, Hugh Gaitskell, Alan Herbert, 
and Dmitry Shostakovich, Oxford, England, June 1958

The following letter from Isaiah Berlin to his friend Rowland Burdon-Muller about Dmitry Shostakovich’s visit to Oxford appears in Berlin’s Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960, to be published in the US in late July. The book marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1909.

Berlin and his wife Aline were hosts to Shostakovich when he came to Oxford to receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Music on June 26, 1958. Francis Poulenc, similarly honored, stayed with the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and his wife, whose house was the venue for a joint musical gathering.

—Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes

June 28, 1958

Dear Rowland,

…Poulenc and Shostakovich have come and gone. Goodness, but it was a business. First a great fuss about the British Council which had arranged elaborately for a musical party for S. on Monday night (we were to entertain him on Tuesday and he was to get his honorary degree with Macmillan and Gaitskell on Wednesday), but the Soviet Embassy appears to be engaged in some kind of warfare with the British Council and more or less forbade him to have anything to do with them. The result was that the party was held without him, much bad blood, general indignation, telegrams, anger, tears. He finally materialised on Tuesday, and it was a wonderful business.

First there arrived in our drawing room a very stiff and upright, rather handsome young Soviet official, who said: “I wish to introduce myself. My name is Loginov.1 The composer D.D. Shostakovich is in car outside. We were told you were expecting him at 4:00. It is now 3:00. Do you wish him to remain in car, or what?” We explained that we were expecting him at 3:00, and it would be perfectly permissible for him to enter straight away. Whereupon the car was ceremonially driven in, another Soviet official leapt out, and finally the composer himself appeared, small, shy, like a chemist from Canada (Western States), terribly nervous, with a twitch playing in his face almost perpetually—I have never seen anyone so frightened and crushed in all my life—he re-introduced the two Soviet officials as “my friends, my great friends,” but after he had been with us for a bit, and the Soviet officials were got out of the way, he never referred to them as that again, but only as “the diplomats.” Every time he mentioned them a curious expression of angst appeared on his face, rather like the expression which sometimes enters Aline’s face—indeed on the last morning of all when he was waiting for the two officials to appear and was in a state of utter panic and despair, I said in English (which he does not understand) to Aline, who was also looking rather distraught, that the…

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© The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust 2009

This letter is an extract from Isaiah Berlin, Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960, edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes, published by Chatto & Windus, and distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing, part of the Independent Publishers Group.