Voldemort or Stalin?

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets by Wendy Lesser
    Yale, 350 pp, £18.99, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 300 16933 1
  • Shostakovich in Dialogue: Form, Imagery and Ideas in Quartets 1-7 by Judith Kuhn
    Ashgate, 296 pp, £65.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 7546 6406 2

Dmitry Shostakovich was once seen in the West as the quintessential Soviet loyalist. Avant-garde composers despised him and official descriptions of him as a ‘fighter for peace’, ‘progress’ and ‘humanism’ didn’t help his reputation in the world outside. Things he himself said over the years appeared to confirm the Soviet image: his Third Symphony (1930) was entitled First of May and a Soviet music journal reported him as saying in 1940 that ‘to write a symphony immortalising Lenin’s name’ had always been his ‘cherished dream’ (though he never did write one). His enormously successful Seventh (‘Leningrad’) Symphony was, he said in 1941, the year of its premiere, ‘about … our sacred war and our victory’.

Everything miraculously changed in 1979, when a recent émigré, Solomon Volkov, smuggled out of the USSR the manuscript of a book that he described as Shostakovich’s memoirs. He called it Testimony, and represented its apparent author as a bitter anti-Stalinist, and a victim of the regime. Maxim Shostakovich, Dmitry’s conductor son, arriving in the West that same year, noted cautiously that Testimony (whose authenticity many questioned) was a book about his father rather than by him. Nevertheless, Maxim basically accepted the ‘victim of Stalin’ label, and who can blame him, given the enormous boost it gave his father’s (and his own) reputation, particularly in Cold War America? The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, an even more high-profile defector of the same period, promoted his old friend’s music along similar lines. It was the beginning of a new era in Shostakovich’s Western reception.

Word went round that his pro-Soviet statements were not his at all but written by others and published under his signature. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a small flood of memoirs – of which Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994) was the most notable – and published correspondence and interviews with his friends showed him full of acid-tongued contempt for the stupidities of Soviet bureaucracy. Even the famously patriotic ‘Leningrad’ symphony turned out to have a secret anti-Soviet programme: Flora Litvinova, who had met Shostakovich when they were both evacuated to Kuibyshev during the war, said he had told her ‘straight out that the Seventh Symphony, and for that matter the Fifth as well, were not just about Fascism but about our system, or any form of totalitarian regime’.

The facts of his life can be read either way. The Shostakovich family, like most Petersburg intellectuals, held mildly radical views in 1917; there was even a Bolshevik uncle on his mother’s side. Mitya, who was 11 in 1917, was a child prodigy, and despite the unpropitious times achieved spectacular early success as a pianist and a composer. Like most of his contemporaries, he saw himself as a revolutionary musician; the political revolution had paved the way for his challenge to tradition. By the mid-1920s, he was on familiar terms with such avant-garde celebrities as the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and had acquired highly placed political friends and protectors – Marshal Tukhachevsky was one. His star continued to rise in the 1930s, and the Maly Theatre’s premiere of his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was the event of the 1934 Moscow season; Stalin, Molotov and other leaders came to a later performance to see what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, they didn’t like what they heard and saw – not tuneful enough, too ‘formalist’ (modernist, Western) in idiom, too much sex – and the work was roundly condemned in Pravda. It was a substantial blow, but even as his colleagues dutifully criticised the opera in public, the Soviet arts boss Platon Kerzhentsev was responding warmly to his pleas for help in regaining official favour (while at the same time assuring the Politburo that Shostakovich had learned his lesson). By the end of the 1930s he was already back in favour, and he then scored an enormous domestic and international hit with his wartime Seventh Symphony.

Another setback came in 1948, when he was again publicly criticised, this time along with Prokofiev and Khachaturian, for his old sin of formalism, which meant writing music that wasn’t easily accessible to popular audiences. This time, it may have hurt him psychologically but it didn’t damage his career. Stalin had already shown a benevolent interest in him – or at least recognised that he was an asset worth protecting – in 1946, when his request for a better apartment (initially addressed to Beria, whom he presumably considered a patron) was not only granted but improved on, at Stalin’s suggestion, to include a car and a dacha. A few years later, he received one of Stalin’s famous phone calls out of the blue offering general reassurance and material help (this time, access to medical care at the Kremlin hospital for his whole family). He never felt obliged to join the Party in Stalin’s time, though he served conscientiously for many years as an elected deputy to the Supreme Soviet and was a powerful member of the Composers’ Union executive and an active committee man. In 1960, however, he surprised everyone by joining the Party, telling sceptical friends shamefacedly that he was being forced to do so.

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