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The Real Shostakovich Comes to Long Beach

Dmitri Shostakovich

This article appeared in the April 1996 issue of 20th-Century Music.

Shostakovich Festival: On the 90th Anniversary of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Birth, February 16-18, Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall and Richard & Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, California State University, Long Beach.

It was a shrewd idea for Cal State Long Beach to put on a mini-Shostakovich Festival honoring the 90th anniversary of the composer’s birth. In ten years, no doubt, his centennial will be overshadowed by Mozart’s 250th birthday party -- it was that same wiley Amadeus and the fanfare surrounding the 200th anniversary of his death that spoiled all hope for a Prokofiev centennial celebration in 1991.

This festival -- brainchild of CSULB professor emeritus Julien Musafia -- featured master classes; a lecture by Russian music scholar Malcolm Hamrick Brown, professor emeritus at Indiana University; a concert of Shostakovich’s music, including the New World premiere of the Opus 8 Piano Trio; and the attendance of the composer’s widow, Irina Shostakovich.

Naturally, the highlight of the weekend was Mme. Shostakovich’s rare presence -- this was her first ever visit to the West Coast and only her second time in the United States (she and her husband came here in 1973 when he received an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University). In an hourlong pre-concert session on Sunday, during which she fielded a wide array of questions from the audience, she wasted no time in putting Solomon Volkov’s “Testimony” into perspective.

“I think that book belongs to yesterday,” she said. Referring to the book’s frontispiece photograph showing Volkov and the Shostakovich’s seated together on a couch -- a snapshot used to vouch the memoir’s legitimacy -- Mme. Shostakovich said, “There are some words at the bottom of this picture written by Dmitri Dmitrievitch in which he enumerated a list of topics he and Volkov discussed. From this list, you can see it only included topics from pre-war life in Leningrad.” The rest of the book, she said, is a recounting of stories and hearsay written by Volkov in the first person as though they were being related by the composer. “In this Shostakovich’s narration, you hear the voice of a stranger.”

When asked if she planned to write her own memoir, her immediate reply was no. However, as an aid to musical scholarship, she said she would like to compile a chronicle of her husband’s musical life modeled after those of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Already, a new spate of recent Shostakovich biographies have either been published or are on the way. She also noted the valuable publication of Shostakovich’s personal correspondence to his friend Isaak Glikmann (currently available in Russian, German and French with translations soon to be printed in English, Japanese and Dutch). “There,” she says, “you can hear the live voice of Dmitri Dmitrievitch.”

She surprised the audience by reporting that Shostakovich himself was considering writing a personal memoir near the end of his life. He even chose a fitting epigram to be published alongside it, a moving commentary by novelist Honore Balzac about the artistic integrity. She produced a note with the passage, inscribed in her husband’s hand, which ended with the lines: “. . . These artists can never be bought or sold. . . They will be true to their art unto the scaffold.”

Mme. Shostakovich first met the composer while she was working as an editor for a music publisher (preparing the release of “Moscow Cheryomushki” and the reissue of “Katerina Izmailova”). He was 55 and had been married twice before; she was just 27. They married in 1962, a year that can be said to mark the beginning of his last creative phase -- one that included his final three symphonies and and his last seven string quartets. At his death, she reports, he left very little unfinished or unpublished music, though some of his earliest works are being republished after a lapse of many years. These include his “three little ballets” -- “The Golden Age,” “Bolt,” and “The Limpid Brook” -- which were taken out of publication soon after his official censure in Pravda in the mid-1930s.

Asked about his method of composing away from the piano, she said that “he believed a composer should play with his head and not his hands. He would only play at the piano once he had an impression in his head. Then he would start to write the score.” He also had strong preferences as to how his music should be played. “Dmitri Dmitrievitch tried not to suppress a performer’s initiative,” she said, “but he preferred that they follow his directions. Performers like Mravinsky, Oistrakh, and Rostropovich all shared his vision.”

At regular intervals during the question and answer period, some fascinating video clips of Shostakovich were screened overhead. One piece of ancient footage showed the young composer in concert, furiously banging away in the finale of his first piano concerto. In another shot, a mature Shostakovich sat at the keyboard playing for a private audience that included Aram Khachaturian, Tikhon Khrennikov and other members of the Composer’s Union. But the most revealing clip was a simple head shot of the aging Shostakovich apparently transfixed while witnessing a performance of “The Nose,” his head bobbing to the music, his lips subvocalizing with the singers.

Near the end of the hour, someone asked about her husband’s feelings toward communism (and, by logical extension, Communism). She framed her answer to this large and complicated issue in terms as manageably concise as possible. “The ideal of communism as universal happiness has always been attractive to many people,” she began. “The attitude of his generation was quite complex. Dmitri Dmitrievitch originated from the democratic intelligentsia. From the first days of the October Revolution, in the name of great changes, [many] people were shot down. . . and those bright ideals were subjugated by methods of terror. Civil war went hand in hand with the destruction and suppression of the cultural legacy. This couldn’t help but influence the attitudes of intellectuals. Dmitri Dmitrievitch loved Russia dearly and suffered greatly with the people.”

The Saturday afternoon lecture by Prof. Brown, entitled “Shostakovich: Expropriated and Exploited,” concerned the historical changes of public attitude toward Shostakovich and his music and how those shifts have been brought about by those who would turn his music to their own purposes, be they political, academic or financial. While he touched briefly on the Soviet Union’s political machinations -- dating from the 1930s to the end of Shostakovich’s life -- Brown’s analysis set its sights chiefly on the composer’s reception in the West. For years, his music met with dismissive evaluations from the likes of Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland and Arnold Schoenberg. The latter, while expressing reluctant admiration for Shostakovich’s musicianship, could not put aside his objections on political and theoretical gronds. In standard music texts, Shostakovich conventional vernacular was accorded disproportionate neglect vis-a-vis critical acceptance of the Second Viennese School. Even the unrepentantly nostalgic Samuel Barber, during a performance of Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony nearly 35 years ago, made this caustic aside to Brown: “Doesn’t he know how to get out of C minor?”

But apart from the cultural attitudes toward Shostakovich’s conventionality, Brown cited another more powerful reason for his devaluation in the West -- namely, his identification with the Soviet Union and his complacency in allowing himself to be used by his government as a tool of propaganda. Ernst Krenek, comparing his nationalism to that of the Nazi composers, declared that “Shostakovich ought to be condemned.” And Brown, recalling his own awkward encounter with the Russian composer in 1962 while attending a composer’s congress in the Soviet Union, professed acute embarrassment over his callow remarks at the time and attributed part of his ambivalence to the prevailing political overtones of the Cold War. While there were ameliorating factors for the Shostakovich case -- for example, his public rebuke over “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and his obvious musical acuity -- his rehabilitation in the West was impossible so long as his name was synonymous with the evil empire.

Prof. Brown pointed out that Shostakovich’s critical re-evaluation was made possible by two catalysts. One was the post-serialist reappraisal of harmony and hermeneutics -- or meanings in music. The other was the publication of “Testimony” in 1979. He thoroughly excoriated Solomon Volkov, editor of the reconstructed memoirs, for his academic improbity. Volkov, it is now believed, spent no more than three days with Shostakovich, not enough time to glean material for a book of its scope. Moreover, several lengthy sections of the memoir were demonstrably plagiarized from previously published sources without attribution -- though common practice among composers, a cardinal sin for writers. Still other anecdotes were apparently based on hearsay. Armed with “the stylistic sense of a novelist,” Brown said, Volkov thus engineered the rehabilitation of Shostakovich in America -- first by floating the notion that Shostakovich was a closet protestor and, second, by asserting that his music must have had latent meanings. Once again, Shostakovich had been expropriated, this time for financial gain. In this, Volkov has found complicity in Ian MacDonald’s revisionist biography, one that Brown says is chock full of trivial analyses and reductive commentary. Even the well-meaning friend Isaak Glikmann, in attempting to rescue the “real Shostakovich” from these ventriloquists, may have unwittingly become one himself.

If unraveling the Shostakovich enigma seems a little like trying to find the truth in “Roshomon” -- i.e., everyone who tells the story is instantly suspected of “expropriating and exploiting” the subject to his own ends -- then is neutrality the answer? Brown, for his part, is more reluctant than most observers -- including the conscientiously cautious Richard Taruskin -- to read any dangerous interpretations into the music, and he completely refrained from any effort to portray “the real Shostakovich.” However, he did allow that a credible vision of the composer can be found in Elizabeth Wilson’s recent biography. Here, he said, the cumulative impression of Shostakovich that arises is a complex -- sometimes conflicting -- yet believable characterization arising out of several memoirs and personal recollections.

Sunday afternoon’s concert was a tribute, not only to Shostakovich, but also to the personal dedication and energy of Julien Musafia, the festival’s artistic director and yeoman pianist. With the sole exception of the Festive Overture, Op. 96 -- played with collegial spirit by the CSULB Wind Symphony led by John Carnahan -- Musafia took part in all the remaining programmed works, surveying all periods of Shostakovich’s creative life. He aided cellist Julius Berger, who gave the Sonata, Op. 40, a driven performance of dynamic power and elasticity that were just a smidge this side of Rostropovich. Musafia, who understands the Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues as well as anyone (he edited the critical edition and gave their first performance in the West in 1968), traversed the thorny complexities of the fifth and the last in the series with singular clarity (and only momentary weaknesses here and there).

Violinist Oleh Krysa joined Berger and Musafia in the New World premiere of the recently published Piano Trio, Op. 8, a work from Shostakovich’s teen years and a lightweight sibling to the far better known Opus 67 Trio. This work swayed gently with its lovely, lyrical charms but was impressive nonetheless for the sophistication of the young composer’s harmonic language and grasp of structure; even at 17, he had the spark. The Concertino for Two Pianos, Op. 94, placed Musafia in the solo spotlight supported by his celebrated former student, Richard Carpenter. It was an able and professional reading, though Musafia’s restrained lyricism and Carpenter’s forward intensity didn’t make for the most ideal partnership. Soprano Galina Pisarenko together with Krysa, Berger and Musafia recreated the vivid imagery of the Seven Romances on Words of Alexander Blok, Op. 127, in all its dark and brooding hues. In a way, the sweeping power of this dramatic song cycle summarized the cumulative impact of the entire Shostakovich weekend and put the proper exclamation point on the ambitious endeavor.

© 20th-Century Music, 1996.

The debate over the "Real Shostakovich" hasn't abated since I reported on this local festival four years ago. There's an excellent running chronology of that debate on Ian MacDonald and Allan Ho's "Music Under Soviet Rule" website -- Admittedly, MacDonald and Ho are prominent partisans on one side of this fracas, but their clippings summarize the main events and offer a well balanced picture of seemingly unbalanced people exchanging vicious salvos. There's a generous helping of excoriating condemnations all around -- in its way, a contemporary version of the 19th century's contest between the Davidsbündler and the Philistines (you decide who's who).

With such heavy-hitters on this battlefield, I have no business weighing in with my own unscholarly opinion. But they seem more interested in having a good fight than anything else. Where are the voices of moderation who can synthesize this dialectic once and for all? On the face of it, Volkov's book seems to present a very compelling flesh-and-blood portrait of a real human being. That's its attraction and its primary selling point. Though its authentication and documentation fall well short of Western standards for journalistic rigor, it's hard to read that book and come away with the idea that it's a fabrication.

The most vocal critics of "Testimony" -- principally Laurel Fay and Richard Taruskin -- have pointed out significant and illuminating flaws in Volkov's product, which gives them all the license they need to shoot the messenger. But I suspect they protest a little too much. My own reading of "Testimony" suggests a picture of Shostakovich as a flawed hero. A self-confident musician possessed of supreme egotistism. A professed humanist with highly condescending opinions of colleagues and peers. An intellectual embittered by a lifetime of accumulated injustices -- so much so that even the petty ones weigh as heavily on him as the grossest and most grievous ones.

The portrait of Shostakovich as a dissatisfied thinking man with private grumbles was compatible with the look we got at ordinary Russian citizenry in Hedrick Smith's "The Russians" (Random House, 1976) -- a book that illuminated aspects of contemporary Soviet life to many of us in the West for the first time. It came out three years before "Testimony." What's more, that Shostakovich very closely resembles the image that Taruskin himself has postulated in his voluminous writings on the subject (e.g., The Atlantic Monthly, February 1995). One of his most recent pieces for the New York Times (March 2000), is actually careful not to take direct aim at Volkov but instead sets the crosshairs on some of the commentators who try to extrapolate from "Testimony" that Shostakovich wrote messages into his musical bottles. In any case, it appears that all parties more or less agree now that the idea of "Fireman Shostakovich" -- Stalin's loyal toady laboring to create a new musical voice for the Soviet proletariat -- is dead.

A few questions. Was "Testimony" a true memoir? I suspect not. Volkov and Shostakovich spent some moderate amount of time together, and much of what they discussed must have made it into the book. Volkov apparently didn't work from recorded tapes but used notes or recollection. Moreover, Laurel Fay has demonstrated pretty convincingly that he used other sources to fill in gaps. Undoubtedly, Volkov must have taken some liberties (as biographers do). I interviewed Maxim Shostakovich briefly in March 1988, and he told me, "It's not true, everything in that book." Maxim has done some waffling since then; I've seen him quoted later as saying that he believes every word is true. In all likelihood, "Testimony" is less a personal memoir than a reasonably authoritative biography written in first person (something that's not unique in the literary world). But Volkov obviously felt that he had something of value to bring to the table and that whatever he legitimately got from Shostakovich's mouth was worth casting into a book.

Was Shostakovich a subversive? A dissident? Or to use Volkov's word, a yurodivy? Maybe in his dreams. Or maybe in Volkov's interpretation. But really, how much of a dissident can you possibly be if you write cryptic musical messages that only you can decode?

Which brings us to the fun question: Did Shostakovich write messages in bottles? When I spoke with Maxim about the string quartets, he would only go so far as to say, "I think his music mirrors his life and the life of his people." But I'm fairly convinced that he did so now and then. I haven't seen a better explanation for the Tenth Symphony of 1953 than the one in "Testimony." When I first got to know that piece, I thought it was pretty peculiar -- three-and-a-half movements of solemn gray broodings chased without warning or provocation by a half movement of kinetic giddiness. And with the signature DSCH in the middle of the third movement, I told myself it had to mean something. I remember reading some album liner notes about Shostakovich himself being asked what people were supposed to make of it and his cryptic, tauntingly suggestive reply: "Let them listen and guess for themselves." But the only extramusical interpretations I could find were some unlikely notions about "man's battle against evil forces" or "the individual's sacrifice for the greater Soviet good." Those didn't make musical sense because there was no dramatic struggle of thematic ideas the way you hear in, say, the symphonies of Carl Nielsen. It was just 40 minutes of grim music and then -- BOOM!!! -- off to the races. I imagined that someday, someone might stumble onto an annotated score (as Douglas Greene and George Perle did with Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite") that would explain the mystery. And then I read the explanation offered in "Testimony": "I wrote it right after Stalin's death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It's about Stalin and the Stalin years."

I was an instant believer. It made sense. The first movement's sinister undercurrents. The savage menace of the second. The misery of the third pepped up by a surreal circus waltz on the DSCH motive. And finally, the inexplicably silly whirlwind that ends the ;symphony. I could hear Shostakovich literally dancing on Stalin's grave. It hasn't been enough to convince key players in the skeptic camp. But given the interpolation of the DSCH theme, it doesn't take a big leap of faith to buy into the idea that this is program music -- and it looks like the Stalin program is the best lead anybody has.

There aren't many explicit suggestions in "Testimony" about other works with an implicit "program." Therefore, any extrapolation that's not based on Shostakovich's word or the use of a significant theme that pops up elsewhere in his output (e.g., the DSCH sequence or a theme from one of his movie scores) is an entertaining speculation at best -- or at worst, myth-spinning. Shostakovich isn't around to explain himself, so the wisest course is probably to remain agnostic and accept the fact that some things will always remain a mystery. It's too bad, really. I'd really like to know why the Fourth Symphony is, for practical purposes, a long de facto bassoon concerto.

~ David Bündler

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