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Books: Music Was His Final Refuge

9 minute read
Patricia Blake


As related to and edited by Solomon Volkov

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis; Harper & Row; 289 pages; $15

For both Russians and Americans, the supreme symbol of the Soviet Union at war was the “Leningrad” Symphony, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh. In 1942, when Arturo Toscanini and the NBC orchestra performed it on radio for the first time in America, the New York Times music critic remarked that “the ballyhoo has never been surpassed in history for the scope of the publicity and the distribution of the music.” In the U.S.S.R., performances of the symphony were said to have exerted “a profound influence on the psyche of the Soviet people in the struggle against the Nazi invader.”

By the late ’40s Shostakovich’s symbolic value had accrued so dramatically that he was used to add luster to Generalissimo Joseph Stalin’s postwar policies. In 1949 Shostakovich was dispatched to New York City as the star Soviet delegate to a Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, an event sponsored by such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman and Charlie Chaplin. The conference was part of a vast Soviet-sponsored peace campaign that was conveniently distracting attention from Stalin’s resumption of hostilities against his own people.

This was the time of the destruction of Jewish cultural life in the Soviet Union and the arrest of leading Jewish intellectuals. A purge of the arts was under way that mortally threatened those writers and composers who had survived the Great Terror of the mid-’30s. In music the principal target was Shostakovich. Though laden with Stalin Prizes, he was now being termed the author of “un-Soviet, unwholesome, eccentric, tuneless” works. He knew what to do. In 1936 he had nearly lost his life after receiving a public “whipping” for an opera that had displeased Stalin. Following a Central Committee resolution condemning him in 1948, he publicly expressed “deep gratitude” to the Communist Party for pointing out his shortcomings.

Seen close up at the Waldorf in the wake of these events, Shostakovich scarcely looked fit for his assigned role as Stalin’s propagandist. He cut a surprisingly frail figure on the dais at the Starlight Roof, where he was seen to light cigarette after cigarette with trembling hands. His face was at the mercy of twitches and tics, his lips were drawn in an unconvincing smile. A translator read his speech for him; it attacked both U.S. warmongers and Igor Stravinsky, and praised the “unheard-of scope and level of development reached by musical culture in the U.S.S.R.” Throughout the reading, the convulsive working of the composer’s mouth and cheek betrayed an almost uncontrollable agitation.

Still, for most people Shostakovich was exactly who he said he was: a loyal son of the Soviet state and the Communist Party. For others, he presented a poignant spectacle of servility that his utterances in the years to come did little to dispel. With the appearance of this book, these two images that constituted his persona have been irredeemably shattered. Shostakovich’s memoirs were dictated to the musicologist Solomon Volkov during the four years that preceded the composer’s death in 1975, at the age of 68. The manuscript was smuggled abroad with each chapter signed by Shostakovich.

Volkov then immigrated to the U.S., where he edited and annotated it. Now that the memoirs have been published, not one episode of the composer’s career can be viewed in the same light as before, not one work of music heard in the same way.

Take the Waldorf conference.

As Shostakovich describes it, it was a grisly charade in which the chief performer’s face was actually a mask of rage, his smile a rictus of fear. Stalin had been disappointed that his campaign against “putrid formalist perversions” (i.e., experimentalism) in the arts had not been received enthusiastically enough by Westerners. “Don’t worry, they’ll swallow it,” said the dictator. Sending Shostakovich to New York was his way of ramming it down their throats. “Stalin Liked to put a man face to face with death and then make him dance to his own tune,” Shostakovich says. “That was his style completely.” The composer has nothing but scorn for the Americans’ willingness to be deceived.

The new image of Shostakovich that emerges from his memoirs is that of a proud, exceptionally intelligent and cultivated man whom fear rendered foolish. “You feel like screaming, but you control yourself and just babble some nonsense” became a way of life.

He signed any statement and made any speech that was put before him. But behind the babble was another Shostakovich, whose governing passion was anger. He seethed at the mindlessness and the menace behind the Soviet regime’s response to his music. His greatest fury was reserved for Stalin, his greatest grief for the dictator’s victims.

These attitudes stunningly reverse the view that is almost universally held of Shostakovich, so much so that there will be some people who will wonder if he did not undergo a conversion late in life and revise his recollections with an eye to posterity. There is no certain answer to that question, but the book’s sincerity is so apparent that it can scarcely fail to persuade most readers.

Unable to vent his anger in words, the composer expended it in his music.

“The majority of my symphonies are tombstones,” he says. “Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone … 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.”

The Seventh Symphony, he says, was planned in his head before the war; the so-called invasion theme, with its fearsomely swelling fortissimo, has nothing to do with the Nazi attack. “I was thinking of other enemies of humanity [namely Stalin and his killers] when 1 composed the theme.” His Fifth Symphony, which established Shostakovich’s reputation in the Soviet Union, was meant to describe Stalin’s Great Terror of 1936-37. In the post-Stalin era, his Thirteenth Symphony was intended as a protest against antiSemitism, and his Fourteenth was an evocation of the horrors of the Gulag.

Even his powerful reorchestration of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was meant to dramatize the opera’s message that an “antipeople government” is “inevitably” a criminal government. The composer believes that the score makes the point even more clearly than the Alexander Pushkin play on which the libretto is based. “For me, the abstract art—music—is more effective,” he says.

“Music illuminates a person through and through, and it is also his last hope and final refuge. And even half-mad Stalin, a beast and a butcher, instinctively sensed that about music. That’s why he feared and hated it.”

For Shostakovich, music was indeed the last hope and final refuge of a man perpetually thwarted in the expression of his moral outrage. But the notion that his music’s meaning could be made intelligible to Stalin, or to anyone else, was only a comforting illusion. Stalin, like all Russia’s other tyrants, held an attitude toward the arts that was best summed up by a bureaucrat in a story by the 19th century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin: “What I do not understand is dangerous for the state.”

The composer-historian offers an unexampled picture of some 55 years of Soviet musical life. His tender and witty evocation of his teacher Alexander Glazunov constitutes one of the most affecting portraits of a composer in the literature of music. Shostakovich muses over the fates of his close friends, the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, the Red Army Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky and others more obscure: composers, an organist, a musicologist. All died in the Gulag. “When I started going over the life stories of my friends and acquaintances,” he told Volkov, “all I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses.”

Perhaps the most moving passage mourns the extinction of folk music in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich tells a story about the blind folk singers, called lir-niki and banduristy, who from time immemorial had wandered along the roads of the Ukraine. In the mid-’30s, the singers were summoned to an official congress of folk music in the Ukraine. Several hundred in all assembled from all over the Ukraine, from tiny forgotten villages. Says Shostakovich: “It was a living museum, the country’s living history. All its songs,

The manuscript was smuggled abroad.

all its music and poetry. And they were al most all shot, almost all those pathetic blind men killed.”

Why? Shostakovich answers: “Just like that, so that they wouldn’t get un derfoot.” The blind men’s songs had not been passed by the censor. “Mighty deeds were being done there,” he adds with fu rious sarcasm. “Complete collectivization was under way, they had destroyed ku laks as a class, and here were these blind men, walking around singing songs of dubious content.” Shostakovich vows that some day, the people who were respon sible for this and similar “evil deeds” will be brought to account, if only before their descendants. “If I didn’t believe in that completely, life wouldn’t be worth living.”

Shostakovich wrote the score for the superb Soviet film of Hamlet. It was one of his favorite plays, and there was a line of Hamlet’s he particularly liked: “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.”

Now we know that that could have been Shostakovich’s epitaph.


“I had to go to the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York. But I refused, it was humiliating for me to take part in aspectacle Like that. I was a formalist, a representativeof an antinational direction in music. My music wasbanned, and now I was supposed to go and say that everything was fine. Finally I agreed. People sometimessay that it must have been an interesting trip, look atthe way I’m smiling in the photographs. That wasthe smile of a condemned man. I felt Like a deadman. I answered all the idiotic questions in a daze,and thought, When I get back it’s over for me.Stalin liked leading Americans by the nose thatway. Well, why say lead by the nose? That’s too strong¬ly put. He only fooled those who wanted to be fooled.The Americans don’t give a damn about us, and inorder to live and sleep soundly, they’ll believe anything.”

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