Sunday, 11 December 2005

Shostakovich and Stalin

Listening to:

Valley of the Dolls, sung by Dionne Warwick.

Just read:

Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin: the extraordinary relationship between the great composer and the brutal dictator.

This interesting book is essentially a biography of Shostakovich, refracted through the prism of his relationship with Stalin. Shostakovich lived for over 20 years after Stalin died, which means that there’s less for Volkov to say about this stage of Shostakovich’s life. Nonetheless, he can comment on the way in which Shostakovich’s composing continued to be affected by his experience of the Stalinist period.

Volkov is famous for the book Testimony, which was published just a few years after Shostakovich’s death. This purported to be Shostakovich’s posthumous message to the world (Volkov claimed that Shostakovich saw and approved his manuscript), explaining how he was always a dissident, and how he encoded his hatred and contempt for the Soviet regime, and particularly Stalin, in his music. This made for a great story, and struck many people as much the best way to explain aspects of the music. On the other hand, there were all sorts of discrepancies in Volkov’s explanations of how the book came to be written, and how much of it Shostakovich may or may not have seen. This prompted an ongoing controversy, one that I don’t know to be entirely resolved one way or the other.

Given all this, one has to read this book of Volkov’s knowing that he is pushing a barrow that seems plausible, but which is not necessarily as well supported by the facts as he might like you to think. Anyway, it’s still an interesting, and pretty well-written account. Volkov draws a parallel between Stalin and Shostakovich on the one hand, and Nicholas I and Pushkin on the other. In both cases, the dictator wields the power of life and death, but indulges the artist. I don’t think Shostakovich would have ever been allowed to “speak truth to power” in prose, but music was a safer medium. (And Stalin did intervene personally in other cases to save some poets and artists. Capriciously saving a few lives, while callously causing the deaths of millions is no moral redemption of course.)

Volkov covers the important stuff well: the furore over the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich’s response to being accused of muddle instead of music (the fifth symphony), his appropriation as a wartime propaganda tool, and finally his second condemnation in 1948 (along with Prokofiev and others), as part of the cultural purge called the Zhdanovschina. It’s a fascinating story, and well-told. Volkov may be taking liberties with personal motivations, but his is still a plausible line, and his book is definitely worth reading.