In early 1966, Leonard Bernstein threw a birthday party for Dmitri Shostakovich in Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. Although the great Soviet composer couldn’t attend, Bernstein bounded onto the stage and announced to a crowd of squirming schoolchildren that, in honor of the occasion, the orchestra would be performing one of Shostakovich’s “gayest and most amusing works,” the Ninth Symphony. It’s like a “witty comedy in the theatre, where you’re treated to one joke after another–puns, wisecracks, punch lines, surprises, twisteroos.” The final movement is “like sitting down to a big serious banquet and being served hotdogs and potato chips.” A perky violin solo set against the brass section is “like Mickey Mouse leading a football cheer.”
Based on his latest book, it’s a good thing Solomon Volkov wasn’t invited to the party. Instead of comedy, Volkov hears in Shostakovich’s Ninth “tragedy, lyricism, irony, and grotesquerie.” Instead of playful allusions to Beethoven, he hears a “direct challenge to Stalin” and a “demonstrative act of creative insubordination.” Instead of Mickey Mouse, he hears something closer to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Most audiences today listen to Shostakovich through Volkov’s ears. It is a remarkable feat for a composer who never served time in a labor camp, never experienced internal exile and never suffered material privation of any kind in his adult years. Indeed, at the time of his death in 1975, Dmitri Shostakovich was widely considered, in the words of his Pravda obituary, a “faithful son of the Communist Party.” He was Soviet Russia’s most decorated composer, and his popular symphonies often came pre-packaged with dedications to make even the most hardened Communist bureaucrat smile: “October,” “The First of May,” “The Year 1905,” “The Year 1917.” Genuine dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn and Lydia Chukovskaya considered Shostakovich a coward and a villain. Shostakovich returned the compliment, allowing his signature to appear beneath a published denunciation of Andrei Sakharov. He had to be convinced not to sign a letter supporting the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
But twenty-five years ago, Solomon Volkov single-handedly destroyed this popular understanding of Shostakovich by publishing a manuscript that he alleged was the composer’s memoirs, dictated to Volkov as a young Soviet journalist. Testimony, as the book was titled, was explosive. In its pages, Shostakovich was revealed to be a bitter opponent of Soviet power who tried to express his resistance in music. “The majority of my symphonies are tombstones,” he allegedly told Volkov. “Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin…. That is what all my symphonies… are about.”
Testimony transformed Shostakovich’s reputation in two ways. No longer considered a loyal servant of Soviet power, Shostakovich was increasingly understood, in one popular phrase, as a “secret dissident.” His music, meanwhile, was scoured for evidence of this dissidence, which was held to be the music’s “true” meaning.