It will be a long time, presumably, before a complete, detailed, documented and totally objective life of Dmitri Shostakovich is offered to the public. A revolution -- or a change of goals and methods as cataclysmic as a revolution -- will have to take place first in the Soviet Union. At the moment, even the most basic documents are inaccessible. "You have to seduce a librarian to see a newspaper or magazine published before 1963," I have been told by Solomon Volkov, who managed to bring out the composer's anguished, fragmentary memoirs and published them in the United States under the title: "Testimony."
The newest attempt at a Shostakovich biography is not exactly an answer to "Testmony," which the authors would have had as much trouble finding in the Soviet Union as a 1935 newspaper article. But it may be taken as, in some sense, an official Soviet version of the life of one of the most celebrated and tormented Russian artists of the Stalin years. The copyright is held by the Russian press agency, Novosti, and the contents reflect what the Russian government in 1980 is willing to let its citizens know about the life of Shostakovich.
It is a curious document, though not an unsympathetic one; Dmitri Sollertinsky, a professional musician, is the son of Shostakovich's closest friend, was helped by Shostakovich in his career and clearly loved and admired the man. He and his wife, a music critic, are able to provide quite a few personal details about the composer that have not been seen in print before, including extensive material from the correspondence between Shostakovich and the elder Sollertinsky. They chronicle in fine detail the origins of virtually all the composer's works and comment on some of them perceptively.
But there are enormous gaps in the story which are clearly a result of the government's uneasy feelings about Shostakovich. To imagine the size of these gaps, try to imagine a biography of Alfred Dreyfus, written by an acquaintance, that does not mention Devil's Island.
The central event of Shostakovich's life, as he says himself in "Testimony," was the fateful day in 1935 when Stalin attended his opera "Katerina Izmailova," hated it, and launched a press campaign against the composer that sidetracked his career and nearly ruined his life. The figure of Stalin came to dominate Shostakovich's mind, even more than it did those of other Russians in his time; he withdrew his Fourth Symphony before its first performance and stopped writing vocal music because words were more dangerous than abstract sounds. And he lived for years haunted by the specter of death or prison camp.
The Sollertinskys duly mention in passing that Shostakovich was criticized by the press in 1935 and that his Fourth Symphony (which they call, rightly, "perhaps one of Shostakovich's greatest creations") was not heard until more than a quarter-century after its composition. But they do not mention Stalin's name at this point, or anywhere else in the book. This omission is something like writing a book about Catholic policy on celibacy and birth control without mentioning the pope.
To their credit, without mentioning the Supreme Music Critic of All the Russias, they do say that the Fourth Symphony was withdrawn because "too much in it could have invited reproof in 1936, and he did not want to take the risk." In some ways, their analysis of the 14th Symphony is even more outspoken: "In essence it is a protest against all that shatters human souls, destinies; and lives, against violence, oppression and tyranny." It would be unrealistic to expect them, after such an analysis, to speculate on whether Shostakovich had any particular oppressor or tyrant in mind.
Stalin's name and role in the life of Shostakovich are not the only omissions from the book. Tikhon Khrennikov, who was Shostakovich's nemesis throughout most of his career and who is still the head of the Soviet Composers' Union, is mentioned only twice, in passing, in completely neutral contexts. Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, to whom Shostakovich dedicated several of his vocal works (when he began composing vocal music again, long after the traumatic events of 1935) and for whom he wrote the soprano part in his 14th Symphony is mentioned nowhere -- but then, her name has now been removed from all Soviet reference works.
Even more remarkable than the omission of Vishnevskaya is that of her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, who was Shostakovich's friend and pupil and to whom Shostakovich dedicated his two remarkable cello concertos. The fact that they are dedicated to someone who later became a nonperson is probably the reason why these brilliant compositions remain practically unmentioned in a book that is usually quite thorough. In the case of the Violin Concerto, the Sollertinskys are able to mention that "David Oistrakh was the violin soloist" at the premiere -- but no such information can be offered on the cello concertos. "Rostropovich is a real Russian," Shostakovich said in "Testimony"; "he knows everything and he can do anything." Evidently, one thing he cannot do is get his name mentioned in books currently being published in the U.S.S.R.
While it certainly casts doubt on the value of large areas of Soviet scholarship, the incompleteness of "Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich" does not mean that the book is wholly without value. Besides its obvious value as a case study in the Soviet Union's efforts at thought control, it manages (against considerable odds) to provide a lare amount of interesting and useful information about its subject. Above all, it has the virtues which were lacking in "Testimony," which is an extraordinary document and fascinating to read, but not really a formal biographical study. "Testimony" reads almost like a stream of consciousness, organized according to emotional and symbolic patterns of association; it is a cry of anguish, enormously detailed and nuanced, but making no pretense to completeness or balance or logical order. The Sollertinkys work is incomplete precisely in those areas where "Testimony" is most lavishly detailed, and it has the kind of orderly structure that makes it easy to track down quickly information on a particular subject -- if the information has not been omitted for reasons of higher policy.
Neither book is the definitive, scholarly biography of Shostakovich that the world ultimately will want, but they complement one another rather well and together they present as complete a view of the subject as we can reasonably expect to see for some time.