1. BBC-2 interview 1986. Source ‘Testimony pro Testimony ’ at Shostakovichiana
  2. Interview with Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov - 1996. Source ‘Testimony pro Testimony ’ at Shostakovichiana
  3. Volkov, S. Testimony p.156.
  4. Pravda January 1936. O, Strunk. (Ed.) Source Readings in Music History - The Twentieth Century. p.127
  5. Fay, L.Shostakovich - A Life pp.102 - 103
  6. Testimony p.183
  7. The Tenth was premiered on 17 December 1953. Stalin had died nine months earlier on 5 March 1953
  8. Testimony p.xxv

II Pictures of Shostakovich

The relationship of Dmitri Shostakovich with the Soviet State has been a controversial topic ever since the publication, in 1979, of Testimony - The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. This book, compiled by Solomon Volkov from interviews and articles, challenged the myths that had surrounded the composer since he had first achieved international fame in the nineteen-thirties. Western academics, with the willing help of Soviet propagandists, had built a largely fictitious personality assessment of the composer that purported to explain the apparently varying quality of his musical output. He was portrayed as a “Hamlet” figure, plagued by self doubt and not fully in control of his faculties. He was also believed by many to be a committed communist - the greatest musical exponent of socialist realism. For those who adhered to these beliefs and had a vested interest in perpetuating them, the publication of Testimony was a thorny issue. At first, it was dismissed as a forgery and its accuracy was denied by most of those who knew him. The composer’s own family were forced to make public statements denouncing the book as fraudulent. However, as the communist regime began to relax its grip on the minds of its people, the truth and validity of the memoirs were confirmed by everyone who was in a position to do so. Most telling of all was the revelation by the composer’s son, Maxim, in a BBC television interview in 1986.

It’s true. It’s accurate. Sometimes, for me, there is too much rumour in it, but nothing major. The basis of the book is correct.1

The composer’s daughter, Galina, was even more certain of the authenticity of the work.

I am an admirer of Solomon Volkov. There is nothing false there [in Testimony]. Definitely the style of speech is Shostakovich’s - not only the choice of words, but the way they are put together.2

The revelations of Testimony brought about a new interpretation of the composer, set out most clearly in Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich. While maintaining some doubt as to the truthfulness of Shostakovich himself in the memoirs, MacDonald accepts that the composer was at heart a dissident, contrary to the conformity that he generally projected in public. While in spoken and written words, he had never before publicly condemned the political system under which he lived, his music was full of references to Stalin, totalitarianism, and the sufferings of the Russian people. According to MacDonald and others, much of Shostakovich’s musical output, and in particular the symphonies, consists of a social and political commentary on his society and his own place within that society.

The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. It happened to many of my friends. Where do you put the tombstones for Meyerhold or Tukhachevsky?3

The view of Shostakovich as a committed socialist and the belief that his musical output reflected this commitment was completely undermined once the authenticity of Testimony was established. The realities of his life and personal thought are still emerging, most recently with the publication of Shostakovich - A Life by Laurel Fay. This book concentrates on a factual rather than interpretive approach to the composer’s life and works, and even though its revelations go no further in portraying the dissident composer than previous publications, it has still become a source of controversy. It confirms with documentary and anecdotal evidence much of what was contained in Testimony, and the points of view expressed by those who accepted it in the first instance.

With regard to The New Shostakovich - although it is one of my main sources, I have some reservations as to the accuracy of the interpretation of the “extra-musical” content of Shostakovich’s music - simply because the nature of the musical references to external referents is of necessity vague. However, I am convinced that the basic idea expressed by MacDonald - that much of the music of Shostakovich contains external referents in the manner of a spoken or written language - is completely correct.

A knowledge of the relationship between Shostakovich and the State is important in establishing the representational nature of his symphonic output. His portrayal as a committed socialist was originally based on several factors, many of which have now been shown to be untrue. Of particular note are the events surrounding the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, Lady Macbeth, and the Leningrad symphony. It was in 1936 that Shostakovich first experienced the disfavour of the Party; as part of a general offensive against artists of all kinds. In January of that year the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District, a work that had received great success and critical acclaim, came under attack in the official party newspaper - Pravda. Entitled Chaos Instead of Music, the article was a general attack on formalism, a tirade against the opera, and a personal attack on the composer. Perhaps the most telling part of the article was the line,

The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.4

In the language of the Soviet press, this amounted to no less than a condemnation to death. Most of the composer’s friends and associates immediately began to avoid him for fear that his misfortune would become theirs. His rivals publicly denounced him and sought retribution. The composer took to sitting outside his apartment at night with a packed travel bag so that the secret police would not disturb his family when they came to take him away. Luckily, perhaps, for the composer, Stalin seemed to have taken a personal interest in keeping him alive. Throughout a period when his works practically disappeared from the concert repertoire, he was supplied with enough contracts for the production of film music to keep himself and his family alive. It is likely that this resulted from a direct decision of Stalin, as the dictator personally controlled every aspect of cinematic production during his reign.

Shostakovich’s next composition, the Fourth Symphony, was in rehearsal when its production was abandoned. The original version of events stated that the composer felt that the work was not ready for performance and possibly completely unsalvageable. This was, it seems, untrue. The real reason for the abandonment of the performance is more likely to have been the interference of the Party, and the Party’s order that the production should not go ahead. Eyewitness accounts tell of Shostakovich being called to a meeting with the director and a local party leader. He emerged from the meeting tense and pale, stating that the production would not go ahead.

The next symphony, No.5, received a place in Shostakovich mythology as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”. This phrase was not his own, but that of a critic. Laurel Fay comments specifically on this “quote” in Shostakovich - A life .

This passive appreciation of an unidentified critic’s remark is the source of one of the most enduring myths about Shostakovich, that the composer used the phrase as a subtitle for his Fifth Symphony. Shostakovich never accepted the criticism levelled at him and his opera in 1936. [ ... ] He neither affixed nor endorsed any subtitle on the Fifth Symphony, nor does any appear on the published score.5

Fay goes on to state that this myth was propagated not so much in the Soviet Union as it was in the West. It was used by many Western critics as the proof that Shostakovich was a Socialist striving to achieve the goal of a truly socialist art form. His later comments in Testimony contradict this interpretation. He specifically comments on the supposedly triumphant endings of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies.

I discovered that the man who considers himself its greatest interpreter does not understand my music. He says that I wanted to write exultant finales for
my Fifth and Seventh Symphonies but I couldn’t manage it. [...] I think it’s clear what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat [...] Its as if someone is beating you with a stick and saying, “your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing”.6

Many of the other symphonies stand to confirm or contradict the opposing views of Shostakovich’s relationship with the ideological and cultural maelstrom in which he lived. The Second and Third Symphonies are both dedicated to the Revolution and do not appear to contain the guile of later works. They are possibly genuine contributions to the celebration of the universal freedom that communism was supposed to bring. The fact that the composer makes no mention of these symphonies in his memoirs is possibly because he wished to dissociate himself from a flirtation with a regime which he later grew to hate. Conversely, it is possible that these symphonies were completely insincere and a way of pleasing the political masters who might otherwise choose to destroy his life. He returned again to celebrations of the Revolution in Symphonies Eleven and Twelve, although some more recent interpretations have cast these as works which dealt with the betrayal of the ideals of the Revolution rather than their fulfilment. The Ninth was expected by all to be a celebration of the glorious victory over Germany, and a musical portrait of Stalin. Many were incensed by its return to simpler classic forms and its apparent ignorance of the significance of a “Ninth Symphony”. The Tenth has been described by the composer as this portrait in music of Stalin - one the composer could only write safely in the knowledge that the “Great Leader” was no longer around to seek vengeance7.

From examination of the available evidence, it seems possible that the entire symphonic output of Shostakovich, excepting the First, forms a commentary, and possibly satire, on the regime under which he lived. He has certainly, to some extent, incorporated representational aspects into his music and commentary on the events through which he lived. He did this in a manner that excluded the possibility of the authorities understanding the specifics of what was being said. While he is known to have regularly signed press releases and made public statements with which he did not agree, the question of the truth that is contained in his music is still an open one. Many sources and commentators have described Shostakovich as yurodivy - a particularly Russian sort of dissident who’s origins date back to the fifteenth century.

The yurodivy has the gift to see and hear what others know nothing about. But he tells it in a paradoxical way, in code. He plays the fool, while actually being a persistent exposer of evil and injustice. The yurodivy is an anarchist and individualist, who in his public role breaks the commonly held "moral" laws of behaviour and flouts conventions. But he sets strict limitations, rules, and taboos for himself.8

It is certain that the entire truth of the matter will never be known, but the journey of trying to discover the meaning contained in the works of this composer reveals an aspect of his music that has not been documented in any other composer. Shostakovich may have been the first political diarist to write exclusively in the medium of music.