Hans Keller

  • 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.

But I am paying the editor an undeserved compliment by as much as mentioning an omission that should only be allowed to knit one’s brows in the general context of credibility – a context which, for me, ceases to exist on page one. In the preceding xxxiv pages, in which a Preface mysteriously signed by ‘Simon Volkov’ is topped by an Introduction ‘by Solomon Volkov’ (is the editor practising metamorphosis?), he writes about Shostakovich. But from the opening sentences of Chapter One, he turns into Shostakovich – or rather, he turns Shostakovich into himself: ‘These are not memoirs about myself. These are memoirs about other people.’ Now, if Shostakovich had said that. I’d immediately challenge him: the book is about yourself as well as about other people. But how do I know that he said it? It is easier to assume that he didn’t. He didn’t write it. He didn’t tape it. He didn’t dictate it. According to Irina, the composer’s widow, the two had ‘no more than three or four’ sessions together; she for one can’t understand how a book’s worth of material could thus have accumulated. Volkov, on the other hand, claims that he wrote down what Shostakovich told him.

Dictation and recording apart, there is no such thing as writing by proxy, however accomplished Mr Volkov’s shorthand, and the very fact that he writes in the first person turns him from ‘a brilliant musicologist’ into a bloody journalist. I speak with total empirical assurance, as a lifelong musicologist (so-called: I consider the profession a phoney), writer, journalist and translator – as an interviewee as well as an interviewer: I wasn’t even born the day before yesterday, and it is my submission that qua ‘memoirs’, this volume doesn’t exist, for the elementary reason that it can’t. Almost invariably, on the many occasions on which I was interviewed, I subsequently found myself misquoted, quotation-marks and all. Ironically, there was a single exception: a blind interviewer from the New Yorker – the only journalist who ever quoted me verbatim.

Mr Volkov is not blind, though he seems as deaf to music as music as musicologists tend to be. After hearing Shostakovich’s Eleventh, ‘for the first time in my life, I left a concert thinking about others instead of myself. To this day, this is the main strength of Shostakovich’s music for me.’ Music reduced to moral music therapy. As a musician, one doesn’t think about others or oneself after this astonishing work – perhaps the only one that makes truly symphonic use of folkloristic material. One thinks about – no, with the music. Mr Volkov’s reactions to the art, whether under his name or Shostakovich’s, continue to lack musical weight – where they are not simply replaced by anecdotal material: ‘On Schreker’s opera The Distant Peal, which was staged in Leningrad, Glazunov [Shostakovich’s old teacher] pronounced “Schrekliche Musik!” ’

Nor must we look too attentively at this vapid pun: the title of the opera (The Distant Sound) is mistranslated, and the German adjective (schreckliche) is misspelt, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to approximate it further to Schreker’s name (itself the bearer’s own deliberate misspelling: Schreker dropped the ‘c’ in order to conceal his Jewish father). Add to all this that The Distant Sound is a masterpiece that found its way into Schoenberg’s book on Harmony (mistranslated, in the recent, first complete English version of this classic, as ‘Theory of Harmony’) and which is distinctly better music than most of Glazunov’s and much of Shostakovich’s, and the significance of the story, true or false, evaporates altogether.

I wouldn’t make such a meal of this tiny anecdote if it weren’t typical – and I have not yet mentioned the fact that our ‘distinguished Soviet musicologist’ does not disclose Schreker’s Christian name, either in the text or the Index – which, however, does remind us of Shakespeare’s and Hitler’s Christian names: whichever of its dimensions you scrutinise, ‘this astounding self-portrait’ (we thought it was supposed to be ‘not … about muself’?) is shoddy at is most interesting, and journalese at its frequent emptiest. Stripped of the last vestige of verbal dignity and talking American slang,[*] Shostakovich simply makes an unreal impression – utterly unrecognisable if you happen to have met him. Of course, Volkov knew him better than you or I, but did he know him all that well? ‘Shostakovich never did have friendly contacts with a foreigner, with the possible exception of the composer Benjamin Britten.’ With the possible exception? At about the time Shostakovich dedicated his Fourteenth Symphony to Britten, Britten decided to dedicate his Third String Quartet to me, and although I did not spend much time with him, I knew him sufficiently well to be aware of their very close friendship – a rare occurrence amongst composers of stature.

The trouble is that it is easier to prove Volkov himself wrong than to prove intermittent impersonation, and the trouble about this trouble is that in the 14 November issue of Literaturnaya Gazeta, six friends and pupils of Shostakovich declared the memoirs to be a forgery: when ‘they’ say something is a forgery, we naturally fancy that it isn’t. It is at this point that we have to remind ourselves that forgery is not the only alternative to authenticity. Editorial intervention and invention, however unconscious, are another, and the borderline between the two is becoming ever more blurred – in proportion as truthfulness is ceasing to be the ultimate aim of communication; our mass-medial civilisation – ours as well as theirs – is turning the truth into material – for ‘a good piece’, a good broadcast, a good article, a good book.

Material is matter from which a thing is made. The truth is no longer the thing; in fact, naked, it is getting ever more boring, as mass education – the higher education of lower intelligences – celebrates victory upon victory. Volkov’s Testimony thus merely emerges as an extreme example of what the ‘professional broadcaster’, the ‘professional journalist’ produces day in, day out. Professionalism turns the end – the truth – into a means, unless you happen to be a professional truth-teller – but you can’t be: as truth, the truth doesn’t sell, and therefore is not a fit subject for professional study, except within what Schopenhauer described as a mere ‘aetherial addition’ to mankind’s bustling and bloodstained life and strife – philosophy, science and art.

Solomon Volkov’s seems an eminently marketable product – a jumble of quarter-truths, half-truths and (for all we know) truths, with only a single element of unity which, itself, represents the gravest half-truth of them all: the descriptions and symptoms of tensions between the composer and his regime. Nowhere, that is to say, do we get the bewildering other half of the truth, which was his political loyalty, and without which this genius’s creative complications cannot, in my submission, be understood. But how do we know about that other side of his divided self? For one thing, we know – though Volkov and his Shostakovich seem to have forgotten – such public utterances of the composer’s as his notorious Pravda article of 31 May 1964, in which 12-tone and serial music were devaluated in terms which no Stalin, no Zhdanov could have improved upon: the tone-row ‘was one or the great evils of 20th-century art’. And come to look for it, there is not a word about dodecaphony in the book, nor indeed about Schoenberg himself, whereas Berg – in the anti-tonal world the traditional innocent amongst the atonalists – is accorded an elevated place of honour: ‘Mahler and Berg are my favourite composers even today, as opposed to Hindemith, say, or Krenek and Milhaud whom I liked when I was young but cooled towards rapidly.’ Mind you, no musician ever talks about his ‘favourite composer(s)’: there’s hardly a sentence in this alleged autobiography that does not raise some doubt about its total authenticity.

For another thing, I have it from Shostakovich’s own mouth – or his interpreter’s mouth, anyhow. I met the composer twice in my life – first as one of the interviewers at an informal, small press conference, and years later in the context of a more normal conversation, just between the two of us (abnormalised, admittedly, by another of those sinister interpreters). I must stress that reading Volkov’s book, I found it quite impossible to establish the remotest connection between the Shostakovich I had met face to face and the Shostakovich I was supposed to be reading.

On the first occasion, then, we chiefly talked about Schoenberg’s music, on which most of my questions centred. Shostakovich’s replies were incisively ambivalent: enormous, musicianly respect was expressed, on the one hand, while, on the other, he gave me the party line in much the same words as his Pravda article’s. Either way, he spoke with conviction, palpably identifying with the party line when expressing that side of his ambivalence. I remember thinking at that very moment: ‘He’s obviously honest. This bundle of nerves couldn’t lie if he tried.’ And it was at that moment that I felt I’d suddenly gained insight into the psychology of his creative personality – a piece of insight with which I shall conclude the present review.

Meanwhile, there was the second occasion, on which I tried – most unsuccessfully – to challenge the great man very specifically: hard fact, and hard fact only, would be thrown at him. I had published a detailed analysis of his then new Twelfth String Quartet, demonstrating that it was minutely modelled on Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, and that it employed Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, albeit tonally. Was I right or not? I now asked him. ‘It is true that there are very strong parallels between my Twelfth String Quartet and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony.’ As for my diagnosis of the work’s dodecaphony, ‘Any means of expression are permissible to an artist.’ Even if they are among ‘the great evils of 20th-century art’? No, I didn’t put that nasty question; he looked uncomfortable enough as it was.

Instead, I continued my silent thoughts on his profound ambivalence towards, his downright obsession with, Schoenberg – his musical obsession with ‘evil’. Whatever was wrong with his masters at home – and about that he and/or Volkov now tells us a lot – he was a convinced Communist who even accepted some of their own aesthetic dicta – and about that he and/or Volkov tells us nothing.

It is the precise division of hit self that is the real, unique problem of Shostakovich’s creativity: torn by the conflict between his political loyalty and his artistic disloyalty, he mistook his political conscience for his artistic conscience, and his artistic conscience for the opposite of his conscience: i.e. his ‘evil’ self. Without Freud’s discovery of an unconscious superego, this baffling psychic battlefield would hardly have become comprehensible. The fact that the Memoirs contain no evidence of it, whereas two compressed conversations with Shostakovich produced conclusive evidence, is the most serious indictment they must needs face: at best, they are as truth-empty as they are truthful, and this reviewer’s advice is, therefore, not to bother. Stick to the music, which is intriguing enough, and not only because of its substance: did that unprecedented mental war produce an unprecedented development, or envelopment, of genius – a genius who never wrote an unblemished masterpiece?

[*] 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.