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.
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.
It was not until 1936, while soaring from the praise lavished on his second completed opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, that Shostakovich was dealt the first of two punishing blows by the Communist Party. In an unsigned editorial in Pravda, a production of Shostakovich’s opera was roundly attacked under the headline “Muddle Instead of Music.” The composer was criticized as having strayed from music accessible to the masses; he had been seduced by the “formalists” of the West, and, as Fay quotes, the editorial ended with an unveiled threat: “This is a game…that may end very badly.” Overnight the composer was plunged into despair and disrepute. The editorial marked the end of his chapter as a model young Soviet composer and the beginning of his private rebellion. In the early years after the rebuke, his personal correspondence revealed a fighting spirit and an unassailable determination: “If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth.” This determination was coupled, however, with a prudence that informed his fortunate decision to shelve his newly composed Fourth Symphony. Stalin’s purges and the Great Terror were gaining momentum and gradually enveloping Russia, deeply affecting the composer as they struck down his contemporaries, including Meyerhold, who was executed in 1940.
It was against the backdrop of events like the Moscow show trials that the composer nervously penned his Fifth Symphony, which, as Fay points out, was “to serve as a public yardstick of the success of his ideological rehabilitation.” The triumph of that symphony is by now a fabled event, with reports of audiences weeping in the aisles from the pathos of the music and celebrating its victorious conclusion with wild ovations and tumultuous applause. The composer, the newspapers reported, had been steered back to the proper path through the beneficent advisement of the party. The symphony also scored a giant success internationally, helping to cement Shostakovich’s reputation as the leading Soviet composer of his generation. In subsequent years he was increasingly thrust into public service for the party, even as his music showed dangerous signs of relapsing toward the “formalism” for which he had once been attacked.
In 1948 Stalin’s cultural watchdogs clamped down again, eventually dismissing the composer from his conservatory teaching posts and banning many of his works. Rather than defend himself, Shostakovich felt compelled to give effusive thanks for the party’s corrective guidance, and with some notable exceptions, he would gradually become the selfless mouthpiece of the party on all matters of aesthetic policy. He was forced to make countless speeches at home and abroad that were drenched in what Fay calls “the numbing clichés of Soviet public discourse.” His domestic and international popularity, coupled with what became a docile willingness to be manipulated, made him an extremely useful tool of the Soviet propaganda machine. As Fay points out, while there is clear evidence of Shostakovich’s private distaste for his appointed public tasks, we cannot assume that he therefore did not accept any of the ardently pro-Soviet messages he delivered in the many speeches and letters printed above his signature. Indeed, notes of talking points for these speeches, written in Shostakovich’s own hand, have been discovered. Furthermore, for years after Stalin’s death and long into the cultural thaw that followed under Khrushchev, Shostakovich never clarified or publicly distanced himself from the views he had previously expressed. His continued service to the officials of the Ministry of Culture, long after accommodation was deemed necessary for survival, earned him the contempt of many of the post-Stalin generation of Soviet intellectuals. And whatever pro-Soviet rhetoric Shostakovich did not communicate directly through his public appearances, he allowed to be interpreted into his music.
It is certainly not a coincidence that Shostakovich’s greatest legacy is as a symphonist. Though he had a deep love for opera, he was so stung by the early reprobation over Lady Macbeth that he would never successfully return to the genre. Moreover, the symphonic form, which he employed fifteen times, would prove a far more useful political tool for its ambiguity and its very independence from texts that might be scrutinized for their ideological content. Shostakovich rarely described his music publicly except in the vaguest generalizations. As Fay notes, this policy came from the combination of a natural aversion toward putting music into words (and thereby limiting its range of meanings) and an opportunistic posture that insured his safety by allowing others to hear in his music whatever subtext they desired. As for the composer’s private politics, not even Fay’s illuminating account provides absolute clarity. At the end of his life, with his status secure as one of the greatest Soviet composers of the twentieth century, Shostakovich still lacked the courage to speak his mind or refuse the tasks that the party asked him to perform. Perhaps the speeches in officialese and the signing of his name beneath ghostwritten paragraphs denouncing other artists or dissidents (including, famously, Andrei Sakharov) had become so routine as to be automatic and thoughtless. Whatever the case, this complicity enraged many of his contemporaries, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Probably the most charitable response to Shostakovich’s political cowardice is to turn again to his music. It is there that the composer showed a courage and a rebellion that, if necessarily ambiguous at points, was infused with moral imperative. In private comments, Shostakovich suggested that the powerful antifascist messages being read into works like the Fifth and Seventh symphonies were also intended as a stinging commentary on life under the Soviet regime. For example, as one acquaintance recalled the composer privately discussing his work:
Dmitriy Dmitriyevich said reflectively: “Fascism, of course. But music, real music, is never attached literally to a theme. Fascism isn’t simply National Socialism. This music is about terror, slavery, bondage of the spirit.” Later, when Dmitriy Dmitriyevich became used to me and began to trust me, he told me directly that the Seventh (and the Fifth as well) are not only about fascism but about our system, in general about any totalitarianism.
The anecdote suggests that at their core, the Fifth and the Seventh symphonies are about triumph but not the triumph that the party officials saw in them. Rather, they are about the victory of the human spirit, the triumph of the individual against the totalitarian state. On its deepest level, Shostakovich’s work may be heard as a musical response to the argument famously advanced by Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism–that Communism and National Socialism did not lie at opposite ends of the political spectrum but were flip sides of the same coin. Both shared the imposing features of state instruments of control, and both would justify the mass destruction of lives in the name of a larger good. It is against this totalitarian framework that Shostakovich’s music constitutes a passionate act of rebellion. And if listeners have heard antifascist or anti-Communist messages in it, both–one may argue–are correct.
Fay does not engage in such overt speculation about Shostakovich’s politics, preferring instead to hew more closely to the facts of his life story. As mentioned, she also avoids an expanded discussion of his music, a deficit that unfortunately leaves readers with an incomplete picture. If Shostakovich remains one of the century’s great artistic enigmas, it is precisely because for the entirety of his life, the remarkably private man resided in his own musical world. In his old age, even as his lifelong friends and colleagues passed away one by one, Shostakovich’s will to live persisted so that he might continue to write. He never gave up on the hope of finding some miracle cure for an illness that would eventually be diagnosed as lung cancer. This was more than an elderly man clamoring for more time; this was an artist who had not yet written his final notes. He would comment that “the composition of music–an affliction in the nature of a disease–haunts me.” His final work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, bespeaks a vaulted spaciousness tinged with disconsolation. Its closing adagio movement, penned only days before he died, captures a certain radiant interiority that suggests the composer had long since relinquished his battles with the world around him. It is perhaps appropriate that a man who survived–quite literally–on the ineffability of his music should be remembered best, if most elusively, through that very music.
Though more biographical details of the composer’s life will surely be uncovered, Fay has provided a scholarly complement to Testimony that offers listeners all the facts they will need. One may now approach his oeuvre and see it for what it is: an embittered, poignant and ultimately compelling musical diary of our time. Listening to it, audiences cannot forget either the horrors of the period he lived through or his unfathomable ability to find beauty in those moments. One may recall the stunning passacaglia movement of the First Violin Concerto, where the repeating bass-line plods inexorably forward toward a dark fate, and yet above this, the violin transfixes with a spare, haunting melody that contains the strains of tremendous loss but also the seeds of a seemingly impossible hope. Ultimately, it is this moral urgency, this sense of struggle and this compulsion to bear witness that are the composer’s true testimony.