A Life

By Laurel E. Fay

Oxford. 458 pp. $35

Reviewed by Sudip Bose

When Dmitri Shostakovich died on Aug. 9, 1975, the Soviet government mourned the loss of "a faithful son of the Communist Party," whose symphonies, quartets and song cycles (other than those that were at one time banned, of course) stood as musical monuments to socialist realism. In the West, this portrait of the contrite communist was never questioned. Musicologists made an example of his Fifth Symphony, which had acquired the notorious subtitle "A Soviet Artist's Creative Reply to Just Criticism." In the symphony's rousing, seemingly optimistic finale, critics found evidence for an embattled composer's obeisance. Then there were the composer's denunciations -- of Igor Stravinsky in 1949, of Andrei Sakharov in 1973. Shostakovich was a great composer, perhaps the greatest of our century, but one, we were led to believe, whose sympathies were decidedly red.

Then Solomon Volkov came along. A maverick Soviet journalist who emigrated to New York in 1976, Volkov claimed to have smuggled out a typescript containing memoirs the late composer had dictated to him. The publication of Testimony in 1979 was a revelation. The composer who emerged from these clandestine pages was a dissident forced to glorify the Soviet state in official speeches and articles while seeking to subvert it through the dark ironies of his music.

Clinging to the image of Shostakovich as Soviet loyalist, a group of American musicologists attacked the book. One of them, Laurel E. Fay, argued in a controversial 1980 article that Volkov had plagiarized articles Shostakovich wrote much earlier, passing them off as firsthand reportage. Thus began a debate over Shostakovich's character that has been ugly and personal, with normally mild-mannered, bow-tied academics engaging in bouts of musicological mud wrestling. Numerous musicians have come to Testimony's defense, including Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Kurt Sanderling, Kyril Kondrashin and the composer's son, Maxim. Most recently, in their book Shostakovich Reconsidered, the musicologist Allan B. Ho and his colleague Dmitri Feofanov attacked Fay's anti-revisionist set, establishing, to my mind at least, the absolute veracity of Testimony.

Now Fay, who dismisses Testimony as the deathbed rantings of a bitter man, has written a biography of Shostakovich. It is at times an unreliable book that portrays Shostakovich as a nervous Soviet patriot, "a `true son' of the Communist Party" who "ceded unconditionally his signature, his voice, his time, and his physical presence to all manner of propaganda legitimizing the party." Of this "dedicated public servant," Fay writes: "While it would be foolish to accept at face value all the statements and writings ascribed to Shostakovich, it does not follow that he shared none of the sentiments or opinions expressed in this way."

This caricature of the composer betrays a bewildering naivete about the climate of terror and intimidation in which Shostakovich was forced to work. In 1936, an editorial entitled "Muddle Instead of Music" appeared in Pravda, condemning Shostakovich's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" as a formalist, bourgeois work inaccessible to the masses (this despite the raucous response of the masses, who sold out performances and stomped for curtain calls). Soon Shostakovich was watching as his fellow artists, victims of Stalin's cultural purges, were quietly arrested, tried and shot. As for the composer's family, his brother-in-law was arrested, his sister exiled and his mother-in-law sent to a labor camp.

In such an atmosphere, Shostakovich was forced to lie, to say all manner of outlandish things in defense of the Soviet state, simply to survive. His recourse was his music, and many a Shostakovich opus contains secondary, encoded meanings. In his pungent memoir Stormy Applause, Rotislav Dubinsky, the first violinist of the famed Borodin Quartet, describes how his ensemble prepared a second, official interpretation of Shostakovich's Fourth Quartet: "We removed all possible `anti-Soviet' insinuations from the music. Even our faces tried to look optimistic. We lied! We presented the foreboding mood of the first movement as hope for a brighter future; the plaintive lyricism of the second as a pleasant little waltz; the sinister muted scherzo became a cheerful dance; and the tragic Jewish themes of the finale took on traditional Oriental coloring."

But on the subject of Shostakovich's music, Fay is startlingly silent. Why, in a book with fewer than 300 pages of text, does Fay give such scant attention to the analysis of Shostakovich's scores? It's almost as if she's afraid to approach them for fear of what they'll reveal. When Fay writes that after the Tenth Symphony Shostakovich "devoted a disproportionately large portion of his music to the greater glory of Soviet Realism," she is ignoring every bit of irony and sarcasm and satire the composer embedded in his work.

An example is the Eleventh Symphony, subtitled "The Year 1905," a depiction of the Bloody Sunday massacre that triggered the first Russian revolution. Though at face value the piece appears to be classic propaganda, it actually encodes another theme: the 1956 massacre of Hungarian demonstrators by Soviet troops at Budapest's Parliament Square. Knowing what we now do, it is difficult not to hear this resonance in the Cossacks' attack in the second movement, punctuated by the rapid gunfire of the snare drum. As Ian MacDonald points out in The New Shostakovich, the dark and graphic symphony "lacks the one self-defining attribute of Socialist Realism: optimism." In Testimony, Shostakovich spoke of the idea of recurrence -- of evil and oppression -- that informs the work. Indeed, I don't think it's a coincidence that Shostakovich heralds the first movement with a trumpet motif from Mahler's Resurrection Symphony; whereas Mahler's resurrection is of the human spirit, Shostakovich's is of its brutal suppression.

But Fay denies any connection to the Hungarian uprising: "Shostakovich actually provides listeners in 1956 little incentive to explore this connection or to delve any deeper than the manifest content of his score." This is surely one of the most baffling of the book's claims. What incentive was Shostakovich supposed to provide? An announcement of his intentions in Pravda? Pre-concert lectures outlining the secret program? For Fay to think that Shostakovich could have publicly criticized the totalitarian government suggests she hasn't a clue about the terrifying nature of Soviet cultural life.

Elsewhere in her book, Fay writes that "Shostakovich preferred to let his music `speak' for itself and inevitably directed the curious to his scores." Exactly. Anyone who wants to explore the connection between the composer's conscience and the world that shaped it need only listen to his music with open mind and open ears. In his music, Shostakovich was never silent.

Sudip Bose is associate editor of Preservation magazine.