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Was It Good Party Music? | The Nation

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Was It Good Party Music?

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Lionel Trilling once commented that "if ever we want to remind ourselves of the nature and power of art, we have only to think of how accurate reactionary governments are in their awareness of that nature and that power.... Intensity, irony, and ambiguousness [are seen as] a clear threat to the impassivity of the State. They constitute a secret." More than any other composer of the twentieth century, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote music with the qualities of "intensity, irony, and ambiguousness," and more than any other composer, he possessed a secret.

About the Author

Jeremy Eichler
Jeremy Eichler writes frequently about music for Newsday and other publications.

In 1979, four years after the composer's death, the content of that secret was divulged to the world through the publication of a shocking book called Testimony, which purported to be Shostakovich's autobiography "as related to and edited by" Solomon Volkov. The Western readers who would eventually pore over Volkov's riveting exposé discovered a vastly different picture of the composer from the one they had known. During his lifetime, Shostakovich had been seen as the consummate loyalist to the Communist Party and a strident defender of Socialist Realism. Testimony, however, revealed a dissident composer forced into public subservience to the party but privately hardened into rebellion and vehement protest. And not only had Shostakovich shared his feelings of protest with Volkov and other confidants: Testimony suggested that he had encoded anti-Communist messages into his compositions all along. Cloaked in the garments of party fidelity had been the ironic creation of an emancipated mind.

But the story did not end there. In 1980 Laurel Fay, an independent scholar of Russian and Soviet music, attacked the authenticity of the memoirs in a now famous article in Russian Review titled "Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?" She argued that Volkov had duped the composer into signing off on Volkov's own narration of the composer's life and that the memoirs could definitely not be trusted. Fay's argument gained exposure and allies, but the feud was not over yet. Two years ago in an edited volume of essays titled Shostakovich Reconsidered, musicologist Allan Ho and pianist and lawyer Dmitri Feofanov marshaled more formal evidence in defense of Volkov. The dispute has dragged on for two decades, sometimes at a very shrill pitch, and has threatened to drown out a sober discussion of Shostakovich's music and legacy.

Now Laurel Fay has returned to the fray with a new biography, Shostakovich: A Life, though many readers will be relieved to find little of the Testimony imbroglio within its pages. Rather than continue a debate in which "the true-believing Communist citizen-composer is inverted into an equally unconvincing caricature of a lifelong closet dissident," Fay sets out to describe the composer based on the existing factual record of his life. She has delved into the archives and sifted through newspapers, concert programs, letters, diaries and other miscellany with an eye toward straining out the bias of the Soviet hagiographers, the Testimony-inspired revisionists and, not least, Shostakovich himself. (By the end of his life, he had ample reason to recall selectively his years of self-loathing service to the party.) The resulting biography is both a success and a disappointment for the same reason: It is a remarkably straightforward, nonsensationalized treatment of the composer's life and work. As such, it is a sorely needed contribution to a field that has been overheated with controversy, the flames of which have been stoked by the very paucity of reliable facts about the composer's life. On the other hand, in presenting a balanced and meticulous picture of her subject, Fay has also painted a fairly flat one. She does little to probe the guarded inner spaces of this notoriously private man and provides readers with scant personal context for his vast creative output.

Most noticeably, Fay deals very little with the substance of the composer's music itself, deferring instead to quotations from period reviews and private correspondence. Her hesitancy to analyze or even describe the music is understandable; after all, music can be very murky water for a biographer in search of historical clarity. But the absence of this treatment will be missed by anyone who comes to the book out of interest not just in the man but in the kaleidoscopic opus he created. Fortunately, there is plenty to hold the reader's attention in this chronicle of facts and events alone. Divested of its mythology, Shostakovich's life still remains the stuff of myth. Born in St. Petersburg in 1906, he displayed some of the customary signs of the Wunderkind, including a prodigious musical memory. (The future composer would trick his mother in piano lessons by pretending to read from the score, while instead playing entire passages from memory, having heard her demonstrate them a full week before.) Through private lessons, young "Mitya" developed his piano skills, and eventually, shepherded by the composer Alexander Glazunov, he enrolled in the Petrograd Conservatory. There he honed his compositional talents while occasionally chafing against the conservative tastes of his teacher Maximilian Steinberg, who could not comprehend the "enthusiasm for the grotesque" he saw in the compositions of a boy not even 18 years old. The young composer would not be deterred from developing his own signature style, and, buoyed by the successful premiere of his First Symphony, he continued composing while supporting himself and his family with different jobs as a pianist for silent films. He also ventured into the terrain of musical theater, working as a pianist for the legendary director Vsevolod Meyerhold.

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