“Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a butcher, knew that.” So said the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose first compositions in the 1920s identified him as an avant-garde wunderkind. But that same singularity became a liability a decade later under the totalitarian rule of Stalin, with his unpredictable grounds for the persecution of artists. Solomon Volkov—who cowrote Shostakovich’s controversial 1979 memoir, Testimony—describes how this lethal uncertainty affected the composer’s life and work.
Volkov, an authority on Soviet Russian culture, shows us the “holy fool” in Shostakovich: the truth speaker who dared to challenge the supreme powers. We see how Shostakovich struggled to remain faithful to himself in his music and how Stalin fueled that struggle: one minute banning his work, the next encouraging it. We see how some of Shostakovich’s contemporaries—Mandelstam, Bulgakov, and Pasternak among them—fell victim to Stalin’s manipulations and how Shostakovich barely avoided the same fate. And we see the psychological price he paid for what some perceived as self-serving aloofness and others saw as rightfully defended individuality.
This is a revelatory account of the relationship between one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and one of its most infamous tyrants.
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Solomon Volkov is a musicologist and the author, most recently, of St. Petersburg: A Cultural History.
Antonina W. Bouis is an award-winning translator.
Shostakovich's tortured relationship to the Soviet authorities was a main subject of Testimony, a book published after the composer's death by Volkov, who claimed that it contained Shostakovich's own remembrances. Controversy about the authenticity of Testimony swirled for years, until the publication in 1999 of Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life, accepted by many scholars as decisively countering Testimony's claims to accuracy. The appearance of a new study by Volkov on Shostakovich (1906-1973), then, is sure to raise critical hackles. Volkov argues that Shostakovich survived the denunciation of his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, and more minor controversies thereafter, in part by relying on a Russian tradition of playing the "holy fool" when under political pressure. When Stalin asked that Shostakovich henceforth submit operas and ballets for approval, the composer solved the problem by refraining from writing these musical forms. Volkov finds that luck played a role as well in Shostakovich surviving while so many other artists were killed or banned, but the "holy fool" argument as a whole only partially convinces: at times, Shostakovich's reticence regarding the regime seemed to turn into compliance, as when he signed a letter late in his life that denounced human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, an act Volkov says Shostakovich regretted. The book assumes a lot of knowledge of Soviet history for a general readership; nonspecialists interested in the composer and his work will still be better served by Fay.
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