- Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich edited by Solomon Volkov, translated by Antonina Bouis
Hamish Hamilton, 238 pp, £7.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 241 10321 5
I don’t trust Mr Solomon Volkov an inch, and as for Miss Antonina Bouis, the question of trust hardly arises: Shostakovich is supposed to have said that ‘Hamlet was screwing her’ (i.e. Ophelia) in Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov’s (1901–1968) production of Hamlet which, at the time (1932), ‘was highly regarded in the American literary press’ – or so Mr Volkov informs us. On every page, the reader is confronted with this two-tiered question: did Shostakovich actually say anything of the sort? If so, what precisely did he say? Is there a Russian equivalent for ‘to screw’ in this sense, and if so, how ‘equi-’ is it? What, for that matter, is the Russian for the ‘Leningrad con man’ highlighted a page or two later? Moreover, why does Shostakovich talk about what didn’t happen, and not about what did? He goes on about not having written a Hamlet opera with Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold, and about having written the music for Akimov’s production of the play, but there’s not a word about his extensive music for the Hamlet film, which we in the West have seen and heard. Was it, in parts, derived from the incidental music? It can’t have been extracted from it, because, inevitably, it’s much longer.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] Only the orthography of the translation has been Anglicised for the benefit of UK readers – so we are confronted with an American text spelt the English way. The effect is incongruous and irritating, for among the multi-dimensional differences between American English and English English, orthographic differences are the least significant – yet superfically the most obtrusive.
Vol. 2 No. 5 · 20 March 1980
SIR: Critical reaction to the Shostakovich memoirs has been mixed, in a pattern suggesting that scepticism increases in proportion to a reviewer’s interest in maintaining the official Soviet image of the composer. One can understand, if not entirely condone, the equivocation of a specialist in Russian music whose too-open authentication of so damaging a piece of anti-Soviet propaganda might lead to academic reprisals. Hans Keller’s wriggling discomforture, on the other hand (LRB, 21 February), is face-saving of an altogether less delicate kind against the idea that Shostakovich could actually have repudiated the Party antagonism to new musical developments which the BBC’s former principal adviser on new music – in common with the critical establishment – apparently shares.
It is obviously not widely enough realised to what extent a composer’s living, even here in the West, is governed by politics. Composers still have to go hungry while orchestras and opera houses eat up resources to resuscitate the past: the myth of the mass market amounts to as potent a system of censorship as that imposed by any cultural bureaucracy in the Eastern bloc.
It must be pointed out, therefore, that what a composer recognises in the memoirs is a truth of more universal moment: an experience shared and contested by every significant composer of the past 80 years. It is that in order to survive and continue to write, a composer has to compromise with the state, and this can be a painful and spiritually consuming affair. The purgatorial intensity of suffering and scorn visited by Shostakovich on his state oppressors – and by implication on all those in the West whose adulation of his public image could be used to sanction official Soviet persecution of advanced music – speaks for the conscience of the greatest survivors, such as Schoenberg, as well as for the silenced. To challenge the authenticity of the text on the grounds that the composer had it all made is to miss the point. The point is artistic liberty, and the composer’s right to live. If Shostakovich weren’t responsible for the Memoirs, their message would still be true.
Hans Keller abuses the editor and translator without a thought as to how an impoverished refugee with little English could afford a proper translation, or whether a publisher would care to risk paying extra to have the manuscript decently edited. He questions the circumstances of the book’s publication as though it were easy to obtain such material and smuggle it out of the Soviet Union, let alone find it a publisher. Does it count for nothing that Volkov had to choose exile for the book’s sake? Would anyone seriously pretend that he is likely to make a fortune from it? Why, if Keller is to be believed, would anyone want to forge memoirs of such minority interest, so patently improbable, and on top of all that, so badly put together? Could not the reason why Hans Keller seems to align himself with official Soviet denunciations – the latter an impressive gesture of authentication – be that he doesn’t like ‘fashionable new music’ either and when he was at the BBC did little to encourage it? Or does he hope to deflect the memory of his own inept invention of a ‘modern composer’ – the fictitious Pjotr Zak?
Department of Music, University of Surrey
Hans Keller writes: My attitude to ‘new musical developments’ (and my disregard of ‘the critical establishment’) I was able to demonstrate practically throughout my 20 years with the BBC, whose ‘principal adviser on new music’ is one of Mr Maconie’s multiple fantasies: I made jolly sure that there would never be any such person, and that antagonism to any new development would never be allowed to influence BBC programmes. As a result, Sir Lennox Berkeley, on behalf of the Composers’ Guild, has now conferred on me a ‘Special Award in gratitude for many years of service to contemporary British music’.
As for Pjotr Zak, he wasn’t my invention: in fact, the greatest care was taken for his music not to be either inventive or, indeed, an individual product. It had to be absolutely meaningless, and would only have been ‘inept’ if it had meant something, and thus failed to prove my case – the acceptability of meaninglessness. As it was, good old Zak brilliantly succeeded – to the extent of his non-creation still being broadcast abroad, almost twenty years after its manufacture, while we even find his name now in some musical encyclopedias. I hope he will always be remembered. For the rest, anybody who fantasises into my review an ‘alignment with official Soviet denunications’, an ‘interest in maintaining the official Soviet image of the composer’, must be so blinded by his hatred of my own work that he is no longer capable of percerving what I have written.
Vol. 2 No. 7 · 17 April 1980
SIR: Hans Keller ‘made jolly sure there would never be any such person’ as the BBC’s principal adviser on new music (Letters, 20 March). When in office he wrote:
I happen to be in charge of New Music at the BBC, and I have revised our score-reading system and our rules of acceptance and rejection in such a way which makes it incumbent upon me to read any new score submitted … I speak with the widest possible experience … possibly with the most comprehensive knowledge of new scores one can attain … I have not yet … made a demonstrable mistake, nor indeed have I been accused of one, except by one or the other composer I have judged negatively.
Hans Keller, ‘Music 1975’, the New Review, March 1976
Just who is fantasising?
Department of Music, University of Surrey
Hans Keller writes: If Mr Maconie will divest his question of its rhetorical element, I shall happily answer it: he is. Making ‘jolly sure that there would never be any such person as the BBC’s principal adviser on new music’ meant, amongst other things, that I made it impossible for my own negative judgment, or any other BBC staff member’s, to result in the rejection of a new work: only a panel of independent assessors could, and can, effectively recommend rejection.