A complex socialist composer

May 23, 2008

Shostakovich: A Life

By Laurel E. Fay

Oxford University Press, 2005

458 pages, $47.95 (pb)

Dmitriy Shostakovich (1906 — 1975) is regarded by many as the greatest composer of the 20th Century.

At the time of his death in 1975, Shostakovich was regarded as the "official face" of Soviet music: he frequently represented the Soviet Union abroad, was a member of the Communist Party and deputy to the Supreme Soviet, and had honours such as "Hero of Socialist Labour" and the "Order of Lenin" bestowed on him by the Soviet regime.

Shostakovich: A Life steers a careful course between this official Soviet view of Shostakovich and other accounts released after his death — finding that the truth about this intensely private person is significantly more complex than either of them suggests.

In 1979, Solomon Volkov published Testimony, which purports to be the composer's memoirs. The picture in the West of Shostakovich as the mouthpiece of official Soviet aesthetic policy gave way to the picture of Shostakovich as a secret anti-Communist, cleverly encoding anti-Soviet messages in his compositions.

In the introduction to this readable but fully-researched biography, Fay argues that it is doubtful whether Volkov's book faithfully reproduces Shostakovich's confidences, and that even were its authenticity not in doubt, Testimony "would still furnish a poor source for the serious biographer".

"The embittered, 'death-bed' disclosures of someone ravaged by illness, with festering psychological wounds and scores to settle, are not to be relied on for accuracy, fairness, or balance when recreating the impact of the events of a lifetime as they actually occurred."

The early chapters in the book give a vivid picture of the intense creative energy released in Russia by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Shostakovich's earliest works — including his popular and acclaimed First Symphony — were produced in the explosion of artistic talent in the decade that followed.

The first great personal and artistic crisis that Shostakovich suffered occurred during the second decade after the revolution, as Stalin and his followers tightened their grip over all aspects of Soviet life and society. Shostakovich's second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, proved to be a big success with the public following its first performance in 1934.

In January 1936, however, Stalin and his entourage attended a performance of the opera at the Bolshoy theatre. Stalin took a dislike to the opera, and two days later Pravda carried an unsigned editorial denouncing Shostakovich's music as a "deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds", totally at odds with the simple, accessible and tuneful "Socialist Realist" music prescribed by Stalin's regime.

Following his fall from grace as the golden boy of Soviet music, though, Shostakovich produced one of his greatest, but most complex and uncompromising works, the Fourth Symphony, which Shostakovich was coerced into withdrawing on the morning of the scheduled premiere in December 1936.

It was not performed until 1961, probably just as well for Shostakovich: following the 1937 frame up and execution of his friend, the distinguished civil war veteran Marshal Tukhachevsky, Shostakovich's position looked increasingly vulnerable. He was perhaps saved from the fate of so many creative and independent artists and thinkers at Stalin's hands by the triumphant performance of his accessible and immensely popular Fifth Symphony in November 1937.

Following Shostakovich's partial rehabilitation after the Fifth Symphony, he found himself in besieged Leningrad after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. He applied twice to serve at the front, but was rejected on each occasion.

While beginning the composition of his Seventh Symphony, he worked as a fireman in the starving and bombarded city, until he was evacuated to Kuybishev on the order of the government.

In one of the great propaganda coups of the war, the score of the completed Seventh Symphony was flown into still-besieged Leningrad and performed by the half-starved Leningrad Radio Orchestra in August 1942.

As psychological warfare, the performance was broadcast on loudspeakers to the German troops stalled on the edge of the city, and the Seventh Symphony quickly became an international symbol of resistance to fascism.

Shostakovich dedicated the work "to our struggle with fascism, to our coming victory over the enemy, and to my native city, Leningrad". The Seventh Symphony is still referred to today as the "Leningrad Symphony".

Following the war, Shostakovich again fell out of favour with Stalin's regime, and was one of the group of composers officially censured for "formalistic, individualistic tendencies" in the notorious campaign waged against leading Soviet composers in 1948 by Stalin's aesthetic henchman, the bureaucratic philistine Andrey Zhdanov.

Shostakovich's works were banished from the repertory, he was stripped of his teaching positions in Leningrad and Moscow and was reduced to composing scores for banal Stalinist films such as The Fall of Berlin. Following Stalin's death in 1953, though, Shostakovich was again rehabilitated, and remained the most significant figure in Soviet musical life until his death in 1975.

Fay charts the rest of Shostakovich's illustrious career up until his death in 1975, including his artistic collaboration with Soviet poet Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, and his friendships with figures such as the cellist Mstislav Rostropvich and the violinist David Oistrakh.

Summarising the motivation behind his Fourteenth Symphony in 1969, Shostakovich quoted from Nikolai Ostrovky's famous Soviet novel How The Steel Was Tempered: "Man's dearest possession is life. It is given him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world — the fight for the liberation of mankind."

Unlike many others who had the chance, Shostakovich never defected to the West, and the picture that emerges in Fay's balanced and sober biography is of a highly complex man and artist — who was neither a closet anti-Communist nor a simple dupe of the Soviet bureaucracy.

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