What Shostakovich is really all about, by Norman Lebrecht
THERE is a striking symmetry between the Holocaust “denial” issues that are being heard in the High Court and the publication of a purportedly authoritative biography of Dmitri Shostakovich which argues that he was essentially an obedient Soviet citizen.
The historian David Irving, who has acknowledged that millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis, maintains that this cannot properly be attributed to Adolf Hitler’s instigation since no one has ever seen a signed Führer order for the prosecution of genocide.
The American musicologist Laurel Fay follows similar thinking in maintaining that Shostakovich came to terms with communism because nothing in his own hand suggests otherwise. She dismisses the composer’s dissident memoirs, dictated to Solomon Volkov, and she discounts the oral evidence of musicians who worked closely with Shostakovich.
Never mind that the composer’s son and daughter have endorsed Volkov’s book, Testimony, or that Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom he wrote two cello concertos, was given to understand that his 15 symphonies amounted to a coded history. No musician of consequence, apart from the Stalinist apparatchik Tikhon Khrennikov, ever regarded Shostakovich as a Soviet puppet. Yet Fay and her fellow revisionists, with the curious support of Oxford University Press, generally accept only signed statements. Many of these will have been made under mortal pressure. Eye-witness accounts are all too often ruled out of court. Memoirs, sniffs Fay, “furnish a treacherous resource to the historian”. Shostakovich, from her perspective, was a musician who lived for music alone and wrote without a “political or moral subtext”.
There are persuasive attractions to this point of view. Music is, after all, just music. If a piece is any good it will speak to the hearts of an audience who know no more about the composer than his name and opus numbers. A masterpiece will always transcend time and place. One cannot grasp the politics of Shostakovich from listening to his Eighth Symphony any more than one can tell from listening to the Pathétique which way Tchaikovsky swung. Extra information may enhance your appreciation, but it does not affect the notes on the page.
This approach may be valid for music written up to the end of the 19th century, when the composer was paramount and many concert-goers could read and play the score on the living-room piano. With the rise of the great conductor, perceptions changed. Gustav Mahler, the first composer who was also a world-famous conductor, introduced inflexions of irony and satire to his symphonies, urging conductors to bend certain phrases and suggest a subversive undercurrent.
Shostakovich, for whom Mahler was a primary influence, extended the technique under totalitarian pressure to a point where he seemed to be writing two symphonies in one. Taken at face value, his music can be made to sound triumphalist or communally tragic. Taken with the subtext divulged by the composer to close associates, the music turns caustically against the state and tenderly reflects individual suffering.
There are four ways of conducting a Shostakovich symphony. The official Soviet method, happily a thing of the past, involved much oom-pah and precious little rubato. The dissident school, led by such defectors as Rostropovich, Kyril Kondrashin and Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, leaned too much the other way and seemed to be underscoring every other phrase with political intent. Certain Western conductors – Stokowski, Haitink, Karajan – achieved a kind of musical Finlandisation, which acted as if the USSR did not exist, and the symphonies were performable as a Mahlerian extension.
The fourth method, now prevalent, is the messiest. Its proponents are conductors who grew up under the hammer and sickle. They knew the compromises Shostakovich had to make, and experienced his music in more shades than propagandist black and white. The approach of Jansons, Gergiev and Järvi combines text with subtext in a way that echoes the original interpreters, Mravinsky and Sanderling, but adds post-Soviet undertones.
Am I, and they, reading too much into the music? Undoubtedly, say Fay and her ilk, who give the impression of having appeared to have studied it under sterile laboratory conditions. The greatness of Shostakovich, however, was that he did not shrink from infection. His music was a mirror of Soviet reality and a testimony to human endurance. It is profoundly a moral issue, an issue of truth versus contrivance.