The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator

By Solomon Volkov. Translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis. Knopf. 313 pp. $30


Edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown. Indiana Univ. 313 pp. $39.95

Readers with an interest in literary matters may recall the numerous attempts that have been made to "prove" that Shakespeare's plays were in fact written by Francis Bacon. Similarly, a small but vocal group of musicologists has never accepted the authenticity of Dmitri Shostakovich's memoirs, Testimony, as "related to and edited by Solomon Volkov," which were smuggled out of the former Soviet Union and published to mingled acclaim and controversy in 1979.

The portrait of Shostakovich that emerged from Testimony was that of a thwarted and embittered genius who had been obliged to cater to -- indeed, to celebrate -- one of the most murderous regimes in history, and who was both well aware and ashamed of his complicity in a long nightmare. The book was denounced as fraudulent in the Soviet Union, of course -- how could the government possibly admit that its one indisputably great composer looked back on his life and saw nothing but "mountains of corpses"? -- but it rang true at the time to most readers, and the succeeding years have only confirmed its basic credibility.

Still, Testimony had an unusual -- and, in many ways, unfortunate -- genesis. Volkov, then a young independent scholar, met with Shostakovich on several occasions, took longhand notes on their conversations, then transcribed them and combined them into chapters. This sort of second-hand "as told to" autobiography is fine for busy, vapid Hollywood stars determined to recount struggles and glories for their fans, but it is hardly an ideal medium for one of the 20th century's most extraordinary creators. Some of the composer's friends were appalled by the unremittingly bleak and nasty tone of the book: This, they insist, was not the whole Shostakovich, and I'm sure they are right. Nevertheless, it is what we were left with -- a necessarily fragmentary, grumbling but profound insight into Shostakovich's late thoughts on his life and art -- and, as such, Testimony is to be cherished.

This extended preamble is necessary to put two new books in perspective. The first, Shostakovich and Stalin, is Volkov's attempt to write a distanced history of the long, intricate relationship between composer and dictator. The second, A Shostakovich Casebook, might be described as the "revenge of the Baconians" -- an all-out attack on Testimony from more than 20 different sources.

Neither book is especially successful. Volkov's volume offers some new details about Stalin's surprisingly refined (albeit profoundly conservative) musical taste. He makes a strong case for the dictator having personally authored the infamous attack on Shostakovich's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mstensk" that was published in Pravda in 1936. A sampling: "The listener from the very first minute is stunned by the opera's intentionally unharmonious muddled flow of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of musical phrases drown, escape and once again vanish in rumbling, creaking and squealing."

And so on -- the usual cudgels against modernism, but this time wielded by a man capable of sending millions of people to their deaths, one certainly able to dispatch a single errant composer. The inherent drama is spectacular; unfortunately, Volkov doesn't tell a story very well. The book is not particularly long, but it feels padded, especially at the beginning. Moreover, with its extended digressions on such recondite topics as the relationship between Czar Nicholas I and Alexander Pushkin, Shostakovich and Stalin seems addressed to fervent students of Russian history rather than to the general reader. All well and good, if that's what you're looking for, but this could have been a much more directly engaging and accessible book had Volkov, as they say, stayed "on message."

Nobody will ever make that particular complaint about A Shostakovich Casebook. Just the titles of some of the collected articles -- "A Pitiful Fake: About the So-Called Memoirs of D.D. Shostakovich" and "An Answer to Those Who Still Abuse Shostakovich" -- are enough to set the tone. The conclusions of musicologist Laurel E. Fay, who published a biography of Shostakovich in 1999, are representative: "At best, Testimony is a simulated monologue, a montage stripped of its original interrogatory and temporal context, by an unproven ghostwriter who has repeatedly professed ignorance of the basic published materials by and about the composer, and who has admitted to having resorted to guesswork. At worst, Testimony is a fraud."

And yet in this company Fay comes across as one of Volkov's more temperate and thoughtful critics! Just in case you have a hankering for the bad old days of the Evil Empire, try on this jargon, originally published in a Soviet literary journal in 1979 and kindly translated for us here: "The Soviet system, Soviet society, having rejected all that was unjust in evaluating the composer's work, bestowed upon the artist its highest recognition and love. His great creations entered the spiritual treasure house of our people. His quests for innovation, which stood opposed to the lack of spirituality in Western 'avant-gardism,' enriched the musical art of the contemporary world and opened new horizons for the development of the mighty realistic tradition." Volkov's "dirty fingerprints" are all over Testimony, we are told: "What else can this be other than a vain attempt not only to defile the memory of a great composer but also to slander the people whose culture nurtured him, the people he created for?"

Invective is slung, nits are picked, and a certain strain of distinctly academic ferocity is indulged. But in the end, Testimony emerges pretty much as originally recognized -- as a less than perfect book, assembled under far from optimal conditions, that nevertheless captured some essential truths about a great composer in a terrible time, and therefore an essential document of the calamitous 20th century. *

Tim Page is The Post's music critic.