Rebel Yell

Was a great 20th-century composer—and Soviet collaborator—secretly howling behind the music?

ONE OF MY COLLEGE professors met Dmitri Shostakovich at a State Department reception in 1959: a nervous, morose man, he told our class, and quite unlike the Shostakovich of Soviet propaganda, trumpeted as a loyal party member and musical chronicler of glorious Communist history and ideals.

That professor's report squares with Testimony, a book advertised as Shostakovich's memoir, which appeared four years after his death in 1975. Testimony portrays a bitter and beaten man who bore witness to unimaginable fear and oppression; who rode a roller-coaster of official adulation and displeasure in a time when displeasure meant loss of livelihood, imprisonment, and/or death; who read ghostwritten speeches denouncing the decadent West and penned songs glorifying the state, out of coercion rather than conviction; who protested not in words or deeds but through his music, encoding dissident criticism into works ostensibly conforming to the pro-Soviet tenets of socialist realism.

Shostakovich's life and music will be addressed in Shostakovich Uncovered, a series of concerts and panel discussions running this week (sponsored by the Seattle Symphony through Feb. 4, it includes a symposium featuring Laurel Fay and Mikhail Schmidt). The artist remains connected to some of the 20th century's major aesthetic and political issues: Discuss musical modernism's difficulty for mainstream concertgoers, and, as one of the few composers active after WWII with a following, he is there; discuss the Cold War, the right's Red-baiting and the left's Stalin-rationalization, and, as a hapless football in the U.S.-Soviet culture wars, he is there. One's view of Shostakovich is entwined with one's very worldview in ways that no other composer can claim.

That's why the debate over Testimony's authenticity is still so heated. It was compiled, claims editor Solomon Volkov, from his shorthand notes of interviews with Shostakovich, who signed off on each chapter as Volkov finished it. But a 1980 article by Laurel Fay questioned Volkov's story, revealing that seven of the eight pages Shostakovich signed "consist substantially, if not totally, of material which had already appeared in print under Shostakovich's name." Which would appear to mean either that:

Testimony is either Volkov's invention, and he included just enough of Shostakovich's previously published words to dupe the composer into approving it, or Shostakovich deliberately chose to open these seven chapters by quoting his earlier writings—so assert Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, who defend Volkov in their book Shostakovich Reconsidered.

Frankly, neither explanation seems particularly plausible. Fay, in a recent interview, stated, "I am now convinced that Testimony is inauthentic as the authorized memoirs of Shostakovich. The evidence that led me to that determination should appear by the end of the year." Yet many believe that despite Volkov's shady methodology, Testimony's portrait of Shostakovich rings true. The composer's son Maxim, for one, denounced the book while still in the Soviet Union, but defended it after he defected, as have dozens of the composer's friends and colleagues. Others accuse these "revisionists" of whitewashing the composer's weak-willed collaborationism.

But "it wasn't in his nature to fight the system," surmises Seattle Symphony Orchestra violinist Mikhail Schmidt: Music came first for Shostakovich, and he did whatever was necessary to keep composing. A student in Moscow when Testimony appeared, Schmidt recalls "the huge official campaign to discredit it." Testimony's bitter tone didn't surprise him—"I could actually already hear everything in his music"—since he'd noted the discrepancy between Shostakovich's heroic public image and the shy, frail figure seen on TV serving in endless official functions, "always afraid of something."

The big question, though, isn't completely academic—the authenticity of Testimony's portrayal of the composer directly affects musical interpretation. If the notion of musical meaning is problematic, the concept of musical irony adds another layer of complexity: Can a work have both a hidden "true" meaning and a different surface meaning?

So Testimony claims. In one provocative example, Shostakovich reveals that the bombastic finale of his Fifth Symphony is really parody: "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. . . . It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing,' and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering 'Our business is rejoicing.'" Every musician approaching Shostakovich now must consider how his covert intentions might conflict with the music's surface. Conductor Gerard Schwarz's brilliant solution, in a 1997 SSO performance of that finale, was a rigid, hurtling tempo, razor-sharp rhythms, and blatant dynamic contrasts—a chilling evocation of implacable, Orwellian Soviet bureaucracy (though Schwarz believes Testimony to be "an exaggeration, if not somewhat of a fabrication").

Ian MacDonald, in his 1990 book The New Shostakovich, re-examines the composer's work with such irony in mind. Some more convincing than others, MacDonald's suggestions of hidden meanings and narratives are nevertheless fascinating. But Richard Taruskin, an outspoken critic of Testimony, calls Macdonald's analyses "vile trivialization. . . . MacDonald's description of the Fifth Symphony reads exactly like a confession State Procurator Vishinsky might have given Shostakovich to sign." MacDonald, in turn, calls Fay's biography a "dismal, devious, and at times dishonest book."

Neither the official Soviet view of Shostakovich nor the revisionist view does much to explain his music's appeal; if the former is obvious propaganda, the latter is one-dimensional. Shostakovich's music cuts deeper. From the rudest wit to the blackest despair, from frivolity to numbness, it depicts the range of human experience—his own experience, his own reactions to his tumultuous life. It's the work of a man—a genius surely, but not a saint—who dealt with inconceivable pressure and fear by making enduring art both from and in spite of it. Shostakovich, so Testimony reports, said it himself: "There are very few heroes or villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. . . . And it's in that vague gray middle ground that the fundamental conflicts of our age take place."

gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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