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Shostakovich

Tuesday 26th May. Rain.

[The New Shostakovich, Ian MacDonald, revised and with notes by Raymond Clarke, Random House 2006]

(Draft: Less later)

Shostakovich was born in Petrograd in 1906. His family were middleclass, educated, mildly revolutionary in sympathy; connections were more actively anti-Tsarist political. In 1917 he was in the crowds who saw Lenin arrive at the Finland station and was caught up in the euphoria (long afterward he denied this, but I bet it's true. Ten years old, with his family background. Why wouldn't he have been excited?). He was a child prodigy, his first symphony premiered in Leningrad in 1926 to instant acclaim, and recognition that here was an extraordinary, world-class talent. In the early thirties he wrote an opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, about an "ordinary Russian family, they beat and poison one another. . .", with a free and defiant rural Soviet heroine (whose principles Shostakovich seems genuinely to have embraced) whose genius is that she breaks free from the petty oppression of bullies, and slaughters her male chauvinist oppressors. In 1936, in the opening phase of the Stalinist purges, he received a severe reprimand from the Party for this anarchic work, at a time when reprimand was a whisker away from a sentence of death; or "disappearence" avant le lettre. His response was his Fifth Symphony, subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Response To Just Criticism", which passed the censor, and was acclaimed world wide despite strange inconsistences in texture and tone; but was in fact a coded message, that the Russian people understood if no one else did. In the slow movement, the premiere audience heard the ticking away of midnight vigils, waiting for the Secret Police to knock on the door, they heard the suppression of their fear and grief, the deadening pervasive torment of constant suspicion, and when the bombastic, blaring final movement took over they all knew very well that this was not triumphalism but daring and bitter satire. They broke down in tears. They gave the composer a rapturous ovation. (Personality cult style success, to the extent of a highly dangerous standing ovation, was to greet many of Shostakovich's works).

But he walked the line, and despite a couple of further minatory brushes with the authorities he remained for his entire career the Composer Laureate of the Soviet Union, Stalin's Poster Boy, saying what he had to say, when interviewed by Western journalists on cultural trips abroad. When the pressure became too great he'd write music he knew he could never publish and put it away, and then turn in another bland innocuous socialist realism movie score. In 1975 he died of lung cancer, in an odor of Soviet sanctity. In 1979, someone called Solomon Volkov produced a work called "Testimony", published in New York, which he claimed was Shostakovich's secret autobiography, that turned everything on its head and revealed a suppressed, passionate dissident. "Testimony" has had a chequered history. Naturally Western music critics, of whatever political persuasion, didn't like being told they'd been fooled into accepting satire as pure music: naturally Communist and even some Left Wing intellectuals were furious at the slur on Russian culture. But though the authenticity of the "autobiography" has been convincingly rubbished, the "New Shostakovich" is now almost universally accepted as the real composer. Maxim Shostakovich (once he was free to speak without endangering lives of family members) has said of Testimony, "this is a book about my father, not by my father, but it gives a true picture of his life". . .


Many musicologists, even so, were unable to believe Shostakovich had devoted his towering abilities to such a weird, secret life. What? One of the greatest composers of the C20 (probably, possibly, the greatest, and he distorted every single line of his music with the secret message "STALIN STINKS". It's not possible! We know Beethoven had a crush on Napoleon and then repented of it, in public, but it was only part of the music. Shostakovich's first priority has to have been self-expression. Deep down, all great artists are selfless egotists (to coin a phrase), they don't traduce themselves. . . Glasnost came along, and the staggering extent of Stalin's Terror was finally, by degrees, revealed. "Testimony" was no longer implausible. And yet, by the way, you'll still find furious Communists, denouncing the New Shostakovich idea all over the net, check it out.

The New Shostakovich was a shock to the system. My music student son has been taught the New Shostakovich line (I checked); me, I was just curious. Long ago, I'd dismissed the man as one of the C20 Big Composers whose work was just never going to interest me. A wannabe Art of Noise merchant, prevented by politics from embracing Modernism, but making up for it with blaring, crude and clumsy dissonance in a Classic mode. Then Gabriel started playing the Preludes and Fugues (Op 87, 1950-51), beautiful, complex, serene and challenging. I loved them, and that made me wonder. . . I never read a biography that left me so interested, and yet so unsatisfied as this one. I immediately decided I'd better read Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror". R. Conquest is a pickle: a complete nutcase on the subject of how he would rule the world (a ginormous Superstate called the Anglosphere, in case you don't know: which would run the entire world, with the President of the USA as CEO, and the Queen of England as, well, Our Queen, God bless her). Also a superb investigative historian, who told the truth about Stalin forty years ago, and has since Glasnost revised and filled out the picture. "The Great Terror" is not for the fainthearted, it's a relentless, endless mass of grim facts and forgettable names, but it did give me insights on the Shostakovich enigma.

My parents (my father died recently, aged 98) were there at the time. They were Manchester Socialists in thirties, forties, fifties, they had no illusions about the Show Trials, and didn't pass any illusions on. Anyway, by the time I left school. I'd read 1984, I'd read Animal Farm. Darkness At Noon was required reading, alongside the Communist Manifesto, at my alma mater. Yet they walked, and taught me by example I suppose, the art of walking a complicated line, the art of being a Socialist, and voting the way you ought, while knowing that your leaders were to some extent corrupt (it's the nature of the beast); that the Great Socialist State over the water was a hellhole; and that many daft idealist local plans (such as the National Health Service without means testing), were bound to end in disaster. But there's a lot in Conquest that I didn't know, particularly the chunks of transcript from the Great Trials, the weirdly moving public confessions of Great Men who had finally been caught in the maw of their own hellish system. Some of them, between the stirrup and the ground, actually appear to have come to their senses under torture. They confessed, with unsettling conviction, to the "invented" crime of decades of secret sabotage; they confessed to wrecking their country.

Shostakovich didn't choose the role he played. If he'd known what was coming he'd surely have fled, but he was genuinely a socialist artist, and then it was 1930 and it was too late. So he walked a line, staying alive, never revealing his true feelings about the regime; trying not to denounce anyone, much. Same as most people of his class. But he was Shostakovich, so he allowed himself to remain a Great Soviet Artist, Stalin's pet composer, so that he could go on writing music, and being heard, at the global level he knew that he deserved; that the world deserved. No wonder he had a real breakdown when he was finally coerced into becoming a Party Member (1960); a fate than many another secret dissident had accepted with resignation. He'd survived for so long, hanging onto his selfless egotism, with honour as he believed, but in the end they beat him. They made him "sell out".

So what about the music? It hasn't changed, it's still weirdly inconsistent, sombre one minute, gruesomely jovial the next. It's still mostly programme music, not pure music, and "full of quotations" (and I think that's not coerced in either case). But surely music that can't be heard right without knowledge of a particular, isolated historical context is doomed to die? Hm. All art has historical context, and somehow the Illiad gets by. And Stalin's Russia was hardly an isolated phenomenon. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Rwanda, Bosnia. . . And the Western Powers, who let Stalin's Russia happen because, cut the humanitarian crap, Hitler was more of a threat to "our" territories? Do you remember that secret WWII Allied pact to sacrifice Poland, to get themselves a following wind, that I fictionalised with the imaginary codeword Iphegenia in Band of Gypsys? I didn't make it up.


In the C20, Big Music moved to Russia. . . I didn't used to believe that. Movie scores, ballets, Rach2 okay, but what about the Modernists? What about Benjamin Britten? I think I'm going to have to change my mind. Listen to the Fifth. Listen to the music of the C20, the difficult, grievous, harsh, immortal music of the century when "we" reached our peak.









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