Shostakovich: A Life Remembered 
by Elizabeth Wilson.
Faber, 631 pp., £20, July 2006, 0 571 22050 9
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In the introduction to her authoritative biography of Shostakovich, published in 2000, Laurel Fay sounds a sharp warning about the historical value of personal reminiscences:

Fascinating and useful as these can be, memoirs furnish a treacherous resource to the historian. Reminiscences can be self-serving, vengeful, and distorted by faulty memory, selective amnesia, wishful thinking and exaggeration. They can be rife with gossip and rumour. The temptation to recast the past to suit the present . . . can be hard to resist. In any case, factual accuracy is not generally one of their most salient features.

Researching a Life of Stravinsky in the 1990s, I talked to many people who had known him more or less intimately. I read, of course, Stravinsky’s own published reminiscences, and the memoirs of those who had, in effect, helped him write them. I looked at filmed interviews, including I forget how many hours of out-takes from Tony Palmer’s film Aspects of Stravinsky. I soon realised that, in order to weigh up what I was hearing, I needed to know something about the speakers’ relationships with the composer and those around him, which was precisely what I was trying to find out by talking to them or watching them being talked to. In other words, the process was circular. Leaving aside the candid liars (there were one or two), and those who had palpably refreshed their memories from books that I too had read (in one case even from a book that I had written), the only way of usefully sizing up these reminiscences was to identify such common ground as there might be, and thereafter trust one’s own judgment as to who could or couldn’t be relied on to have remembered things fairly or lucidly or accurately.

The people I met or listened to were and always had been free to say what they liked. Stravinsky lived his entire life in what, by Shostakovich’s standards, were liberal, or at least not efficiently illiberal societies. But in a society governed by censorship and fear, by the informer and the cat’s-paw, a society which offered instant and vicious redress to the envious and the vindictive, what remains of trust rapidly vanishes in a fog of self-exculpation and score-settling. Even those contemporary resources which, in a free world, one feels entitled to depend on for information at the very least unclouded by defective or recovered memory – letters, diaries, newspaper reports, interviews – have to be litmus-tested for self-censorship under circumstances where letters might have been opened or diaries rifled from locked drawers. Not every nuance or irony is as transparent as the following, in a letter of December 1943 from Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman: ‘The freedom-loving peoples will at last throw off the yoke of Hitlerism, peace will reign over the whole world, and we shall live once more under the sun of Stalin’s constitution.’ The question is, with someone as cautious and vulnerable as Shostakovich: which of the remarks that might conceivably strike the casual, or even careful, reader as in any way unexpected are to be understood as nuanced or ironic? Without some measure of certainty on this score, a letter or interview is practically valueless as a psychological document, and not much less so as a factual one.

Elizabeth Wilson knows all this as well as anyone. In her own preface to the original 1994 edition of her documentary biography Shostakovich: A Life Remembered she noted that at the end of the 1980s, when she was conducting her researches, glasnost was enabling Russians ‘to speak openly and without fear about their past’. But there were, she admitted, ‘instances when reminiscences were coloured by the personal issues at stake’, to which she now adds in the new preface: ‘not least by the wish for self-justification’. These are perilous sands for the general reader. After all, the first apparently authentic challenge to the Soviet image of Shostakovich as a loyal, if sometimes erring, Communist had come long before glasnost, in the form of his posthumous ‘memoirs’, edited in 1979 under the title Testimony by a thirtysomething Russian musicologist called Solomon Volkov, who by that time had left Moscow for a post at Columbia University. Volkov claimed to have compiled the book out of many meetings and conversations with the composer, and the text is couched in the form of a first-person monologue, swift, precise and detailed. There seemed no obvious reason to doubt the authenticity of its portrait of a composer who, behind a necessary façade of compliance, had pursued through his music a continuous campaign of sniping and satire against a despised regime, while storing up sharp, sometimes wickedly penetrating impressions of friends and colleagues. Nevertheless subsequent exchanges in, for the most part, academic publications have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that Volkov’s book is substantially a fabrication. Laurel Fay herself delivered the coup de grâce in a meticulous piece of scholarship published in a collection of largely sceptical essays, A Shostakovich Casebook, edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown, in 2004. Elizabeth Wilson sides with Fay, while observing with regret that ‘the so-called “Shostakovich Wars” have given rise to debate, ranging from tendentious quarrels to mud-slinging, all copiously described in acres of print and cyberspace,’ and that ‘ultimately this has held up rather than promoted the advance of Shostakovich scholarship.’ It is this disorientating state of affairs that lends particular value to the reminiscences and reflections which form the bulk of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and which fully justify their reissue in this expanded form.

Elizabeth Wilson is a cellist (a pupil of Rostropovich) who lived and studied in Moscow for seven years in the late 1960s and early 1970s (her father, Duncan Wilson, was British ambassador for some of that period). By the time she went back to Russia at the end of the 1980s to conduct her research, the old Soviet Union had effectively ceased to exist and glasnost was in full swing. Even so, most Russians would not have spoken so freely to just any microphone-wielding Westerner: it was Wilson’s detailed sense of the subject and familiarity with its environment and language that drew them out. The book as it evolved would in any case certainly have been inconceivable in the Brezhnev years. In this sense it was opportunistic and cleverly timed. But in another sense it might have been thought premature. The kind of scholarly research that glasnost also made possible had not yet borne significant fruit, so that Wilson was almost entirely dependent on published Soviet material and on the memories, recovered or otherwise, of her interlocutors. One of the most obvious differences between the old volume and the new is the addition of translated material from recent, mainly Russian, collections of letters, documents and reminiscences. Wilson’s own commentaries are a great deal more substantial than before, and include sizeable chunks of programme-note description which seem designed to amplify the volume in the character of a ‘life and works’. The original text is appreciably revised; some material has been expanded from the original sources, some substituted, footnotes added, and so forth. The result is a fatter and to some extent more up-to-date, if not crucially different volume. But does it still punch its old weight in its new guise, or is the revision merely an attempt to remarket a book which, indispensable in its day, has largely been overtaken by the progress of Shostakovich scholarship?

One distressing answer is that the progress of Shostakovich scholarship has been such that Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is not less but more indispensable in its new edition, because it remains practically the only general book in this much trampled field that serves the general reader in the complex, intelligent, emotionally engaged and above all incautious way required. These epithets are not meant frivolously. At present the biographical field is substantially occupied by two books, Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich (1990), which is so candidly biased in favour of Volkov and so relentlessly hermeneutical in its reading of the music as to defy serious consideration; and Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life, which is scholarly, balanced and painstaking to the point of dullness. Some idea of the minefield that Shostakovich scholarship had become at the turn of the century can be gleaned from the fact that MacDonald, whose biography had been excoriated by the anti-Volkov front, posted a book-length denunciation of Fay’s biography on his website, then, after a long period of clinical depression, took his own life. Fay’s is clearly the essential book, but it confines itself, on the whole, to what a scholar can assert with reasonable certainty, and there is a whiff of unstated disapproval in her remarks about oral histories of Wilson’s variety, though she has the grace to acknowledge her debt to them. Much of Wilson finds no place in Fay because, presumably, it can’t be relied on. Yet, reading Wilson, one forms a picture which, with all its vagaries and quirks, strikes one as more revealing. It seems to tell us as much as we can hope to know, at least, about those aspects of its subject that remain, and will presumably always remain, in any more official or material sense undocumented.

Wilson manages with considerable skill to stitch together a coherent and more or less continuous narrative of Shostakovich’s entire life out of the threads of memoir and documentation that she compiled during her time in Moscow. The story is compulsively readable, not least because of the close-up images and snapshots that typify the reminiscence form. The penetrating yet affectionate portrait by Shostakovich’s close friend, the pianist Mikhail Druskin, hits off the complexities of his nature as convincingly as anything one has read, and more persuasively than anything in Testimony. ‘He was disciplined and restrained,’ Druskin claims:

Although this restraint cost him great moral effort, it became the mainstay of his stoic spirit. He was sociable and absolutely lacking in arrogance; he was well disposed towards people and at the same time aloof (only in his own music could he be completely open and sincere); he had natural good manners, but simultaneously kept his distance from the vast majority of people whom he met (he was secretive because he was vulnerable). At the same time . . . he never refused any requests for help of a personal or professional kind.

More in keeping with the portrayal of Shostakovich in Testimony is an observation by the theatre director Yuri Lubimov, which sheds an oblique light on Druskin’s image. ‘For all his nervousness and defencelessness,’ Lubimov remarks (as if Wilson had played him the Druskin interview),

Shostakovich was a caustic man. His table talk was full of sarcasm. He liked his drink and, when in his cups, revealed his wit and irony . . . Later on his nervousness assumed the character of panic, a kind of conditioned reflex. He used to say: ‘I’d sign anything even if they hand it to me upside down. All I want is to be left alone.’

Both of these accounts were in the original edition of the book. New memoirs include reminiscences by Levon Atovmyan, the one-time administrator of Muzfond (the funding arm of the Composers’ Union), a rare example of an apparatchik Shostakovich felt he could trust. Atovmyan claims to have witnessed more than a hundred performances of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth before the fateful Bolshoi performance attended by Stalin in January 1936 which led to the work’s denunciation in Pravda. Shostakovich was himself in Moscow that day on his way to a concert in Archangel. Shortly before leaving to catch his train, he received a phone call instructing him to attend the Bolshoi performance. Nervous both about the train and about the odd character of the invitation, he asked Atovmyan to go to the theatre and let him know how matters stood. The performance was already in progress when Atovmyan arrived, and he soon saw that Stalin and other members of the Politburo were in the audience. ‘The show was going well,’ he writes,

but then in the orchestral entr’acte before the scene of Katerina’s marriage, the players . . . got carried away and played very loudly . . . I glanced over to the director’s box, and saw Shostakovich walk in. [At the end] he went out on stage to take applause. He was as white as a sheet, bowed quickly and walked off into the wings . . . Shostakovich simply couldn’t calm down and kept asking irritably: ‘Why was it necessary to reinforce the band, to exaggerate the noise level? . . . I should think those in the government box must have been deafened by the volume of the brass. I have a bad premonition about this. And to boot it’s a leap year which will bring me the usual bad luck.’

Perhaps Atovmyan’s reminiscence, which was first published in Russian only in 1997, fits a little too well with the Pravda description of the opera’s ‘deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds’ and its ‘snatches of melody [which] struggle free and disappear again in the din, the grinding, the squealing’ (I quote from Fay’s translation). Yet the singer Sergei Radamsky, who was in Shostakovich’s box, had painted a similar picture in a comparatively obscure memoir published in German in 1971, which Wilson excerpts here for the first time. The government box was opposite theirs, and though Stalin himself was hidden by a curtain, his companions were visible, and ‘every time the percussion and brass played fortissimo we saw Zhdanov and Mikoyan shudder, then laughingly turn round to Stalin . . . When Shostakovich saw how this “troitsa” laughed and made merry, he . . . covered his face with his hands.’

Radamsky also claims to have been present at the subsequent meetings of the Moscow Composers’ Union in which the rump of Shostakovich’s colleagues queued up to associate themselves with the Pravda denunciations. The composer Lev Knipper attacked Shostakovich for ‘“anti-people” sentiments’, and followed this up with an anecdote about Shostakovich’s having arrived late and drunk for a meeting of the Leningrad Composers’ Union at which Knipper was to address a party of sailors. ‘But,’ he concluded poisonously, ‘we are not here to hammer the last nail into Shostakovich’s coffin.’ At this point Radamsky has himself yelling, ‘You bastard!’, which might be one of those self-exculpatory inventions to which memoirs are prone, or might just be true. In either case it gives the lie to MacDonald’s reading of Knipper’s remark as ‘generous’; who, after all, had said anything about coffins?

The difficulties presented by this kind of reminiscence are thrown into relief by Lev Lebedinsky’s account of the rewriting of the Twelfth Symphony, which Wilson included in her original edition and which survives, with a mildly defensive editorial gloss, in the new one. According to Lebedinsky, Shostakovich had written the symphony as a satire on Lenin, but lost his nerve shortly before the Leningrad premiere in October 1961 and rewrote the entire 40-minute work in three or four days in time for the rehearsals, confiding this information exclusively to Lebedinsky. As Fay points out, the problem with this story is that the work had already been played through in a piano duo reduction at the Leningrad Composers’ Union more than a fortnight before it went into orchestral rehearsal, and Sovetskaya kultura had published a critical study of the score a week later. Wilson now defends the story by means of a slightly earlier dating. But this undermines it altogether, since a panic rewrite for a piano run-through makes no sense, and a critical study could easily have been withdrawn.

Why should Lebedinsky invent such a far-fetched tale if not to lay claim to a special intimacy with the tormented genius? The same wish seems also to underlie his account of Shostakovich’s becoming a Party member in 1960. Lebedinsky portrays himself as the composer’s confidant and conscience, warning him that ‘invitations issued by certain friends brought him into the society of licensed officials, and were nothing short of a trap.’ On the night after the meeting at which Shostakovich was supposed to have been admitted to membership but which he had failed to attend, he broke down in Lebedinsky’s presence and sobbed hysterically: ‘I’m scared to death of them . . . you don’t know the whole truth . . . From childhood I’ve been doing things that I wanted not to do . . . I’m a wretched alcoholic . . . I’ve been a whore, I am and always will be a whore.’ Once a member, he duly attended Party rallies of the most stultifying tedium, sitting apparently comatose and even once applauding a speech which had contained personal insults against him. ‘Why did you clap when you were being criticised?’ Lebedinsky asked. But Shostakovich had noticed nothing.

Not all Wilson’s material, of course, is of this questionable character, and sometimes it’s unclear why material that she now includes was excluded from the original edition. For instance, there is a great deal more here on Shostakovich’s final illness, which was diagnosed as a rare form of polio by a Soviet doctor in 1969, but later identified by American doctors as motor neurone disease. New information on Shostakovich’s emotional entanglement with his pupil Galina Ustvolskaya (who has died since this edition of the book was published) is genuinely new in the sense that it comes mainly from an interview published in Moscow in 1996, though conducted in 1977. Wilson is censorious of Ustvolskaya’s attitude to her former teacher, which was itself increasingly critical of what Wilson calls ‘his musical and personal principles’. Ustvolskaya came to resent any suggestion that Shostakovich influenced her own work, and – tellingly – destroyed his letters to her and sold the manuscripts he gave her to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle.

Wilson finds all this hard to understand and harder to forgive – a rare example of lack of detachment on her part. It’s more in her nature to give her dramatis personae space and it seems to me precisely because of her light editorial touch that a picture gradually takes shape of a far more socially complex and psychologically intricate world than normally emerges from books about Shostakovich. As with any large-scale portrait, the truth of the image is independent of the smudging or misrepresentation of small details, which the mind, like the eye, corrects instinctively; such surface features are no hindrance to the perception of deeper and perhaps richer truths. Of all books on Shostakovich, this is the one that best depicts the horrors and triumphs of his life and work, and it does so without bias or special pleading but with unfailing sympathy.

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