Book Reviews 22

Shostakovich – A Life in Film – J. Riley

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 – D. Fanning

Preface to the 25th Anniversary edition of Testimony – V. Ashkenazy

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Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film
John Riley, London: I.B. Tauris, 2005
Paperback; 150 pages
ISBN 1 85043 484 0

The speed at which eager Shostakovich scholars have purchased this book is testament to the high regard in which the author is held and the interest he has generated in Shostakovich’s film music through presentations to the UK Shostakovich Society and his many articles and reviews for DSCH Journal. His book is the third in the new KINOfiles Filmmakers’ Companions series, which, under the general editorship of Richard Taylor, is ‘devoted to the most important and interesting people who have participated in Russian cinema from its beginnings to the present’. The series will include personalities other than directors, of whom Shostakovich is the first.

The main body of Riley’s book is divided into an introduction and seven chapters, the last of which deals with the legacy of Shostakovich’s film music. The first six chapters provide a chronological discussion of every film project, including those that never actually materialised. The number of films discussed in each chapter varies, as the rationale behind the division of the chapters is primarily political, broadly corresponding to Stalin’s First, Second and Third Five-Year Plans; the Great Patriotic War to the death of Stalin; the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. There are fifteen illustrations, all except two of which are film stills. Copious endnotes to all chapters are provided at the back of the book and are worth detailed examination, as they contain many gems of information from the author’s encyclopaedic knowledge on all sorts of topics, together with touches of his warm sense of humour. The endnotes are also the best source for bibliographical references, as the suggested further reading is rather brief. There are two further appendices: a curriculum vitae, charting the premieres of Shostakovich’s films and major concert works alongside events in Soviet history, and a filmography. There is no indication in the filmography of the few films commercially available in the West in VHS or DVD format; indeed the filmography reads more like a discography. In order that, according to Riley’s own wish from the introduction, music critics study the music ‘as it appears in the films’ rather than via sound recordings, we need to know how one might access these films—perhaps an article for a future issue of DSCH Journal could address this topic. However, the filmography does provide a fairly comprehensive summary of recordings (without listing catalogue numbers) and will delight any collector.

In an ideal world where time, money and copyright issues are no object, this book would have undoubtedly been more extensive, with copious music examples and accompanying DVD(s) containing illustrative film clips. In reality very few film music books even approach this imaginary ideal and it would be unfair to review the book on such terms. Instead its success should be measured within the constraints placed on its format by being part of a series with a shared editorial style and length and also against its own mission statement from the extensive blurb, ‘the first book in English to look at Shostakovich’s cinema career, [which] discusses every film he scored, looking at the films themselves, tracing their relationship to the changing concerns and policies of the Soviet state and examining how the music works in context’. It is also important to remember that this is a ‘companion’ book and as such is not a definitive account, but is designed to complement and draw together a diverse collection of sources, which include bibliographical references, manuscript and printed scores, recordings and, most importantly, the films themselves.

Using these criteria, the book more than accomplishes its aims. Riley’s introduction succinctly acknowledges the Testimony debate, describes Shostakovich’s early career as a cinema pianist, gives an overview of early accompaniments to Russian and Soviet silent films and encompasses the early sound theories of Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Pudovkin (the famous 1928 Statement on Sound) and Vertov (for The Man with the Movie Camera)—all within five pages of text and two pages of endnotes!

The section on Shostakovich as a cinema pianist is perhaps a little too concise and does not state what kind of music Shostakovich played to accompany films. As Riley indicates, there are many inconsistencies in sources regarding when Shostakovich actually began and ended his time as a cinema pianist and precious few details of the films he accompanied. Although some sources suggest that his improvisations were not always understood or appreciated by the cinema audiences, causing scandal and jeering[1], others imply that Shostakovich had a band of loyal followers who attended just to hear him play[2].

Whereas Riley describes New Babylon as a ‘wordless opera’, I see it more in terms of a musical, or at least a film with some musical numbers, such as the early American sound-film classic, The Jazz Singer (starring Al Jolson, 1927). Riley mentions Marek Pytel’s privately published video and book New Babylon (London, 1999). I think that Riley should have given a warning about the nature of this source in his footnotes, heralding its values and Pytel’s passion for the film but acknowledging its obvious limitations. Although Pytel’s book does include some very important new material and ideas, such as the first full English translation of Shostakovich’s 1929 Sovetskii ekran article, Pytel’s text in general needs to be treated with care and the accompanying video should not under any circumstances be used as a basis for audio-visual analysis of the film, due to Pytel’s use of Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the suite for the synchronisation, without reference to either the Boosey & Hawkes or Sikorski full scores.

The main part of the book deals with the middle of Shostakovich’s film career, from the Great Patriotic War to the Khrushchev years, including the ‘film famine’ (1945–53), when the annual number of feature films produced by Soviet studios fell, as Riley points out, to between 9 and 20 (in stark contrast to the 400–500 films churned out annually from Hollywood). Since most books on Soviet film only briefly mention the films from this period, if at all, much of the information in these chapters will be new to those (myself included), who only know the film titles from track listings on CD compilations of Shostakovich’s film music and suite arrangements by Atovmian. This is indeed where even those familiar with Shostakovich might learn the most. Two genres dominate: self-sacrifice for the State (Zoya, The Young Guard and The Gadfly) and the biopic (Pirogov, Michurin and Belinsky), but it is perhaps Shostakovich’s two contributions to the Stalin-cult, The Fall of Berlin and The Unforgettable Year 1919 (both directed by Chiaureli), which are the most fascinating. I only know these two film scores through Adriano’s recent premiere recordings for Marco Polo (catalogue reference 8.223897, released 2002), which Riley reviewed in DSCH 18. It is a pity that he fails to highlight the overt narodnost[3] aspects in these scores, belatedly mentioning narodnost only in relation to the subsequent biopic, Belinsky. Indeed Riley’s account of the score of The Fall of Berlin concentrates less on Shostakovich’s original contributions and more on Chiaureli’s use of existing music, for example Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to accompany Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun.

The miniature ‘piano concerto’, The Assault on Red Hill, from The Unforgettable Year 1919, is one of Shostakovich’s most well-known pieces of film music, second only to the Romance from The Gadfly. I was intrigued to discover that this Rachmaninov-inspired music is used to accompany the Red Army attack on the Whites and the re-capture of Fort Krasnaya Gorka. Riley describes how the music seems an odd choice of accompaniment for a war scene and that it has to compete with other noises on the soundtrack, such as shouting, explosions and gunfire, before being abruptly cut off. Of course this could be due to bad sound editing, as in The Fall of Berlin, but it did make me wonder if Shostakovich was actually using the piano music to represent the Whites—Rachmaninov’s music was banned in Soviet Russia for many years—and that the music was purposely cut off when the Whites were conquered by the Red Army.

Generally Riley writes in a very accessible style, but hampered by the lack of music examples and near-total avoidance of musical terminology (presumably in an attempt to make the book appeal to a wider audience), his descriptions of the music sometimes lapse into what I would call CD-liner style. For example, the music to the scenes of poverty from Joris Ivens’ documentary The Song of the Rivers (1954) is described as ‘wandering strings, punctuated by lurching chords that slowly overwhelm the music with a shuddering climax’.

Compared to Tatiana Egorova’s book, Soviet Film Music: An Historical Survey (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997), until now the only book in English which discussed some, but not all, of Shostakovich’s film scores in any depth, Riley’s book not only fills in the gaps, but also adds common sense clarifications to some of Egorova’s generalisations. For instance, with regard to the immediate and widespread popularity of the Counterplan song, Egorova describes the song as being ‘sung by the whole country’, whereas Riley points out that its success can only initially have been an urban phenomenon, due to the lack of sound projectors. Riley has also noted that Egorova seems to have erroneously outlined the opening of Alone in her description of The Counterplan; I wondered if I had been watching the same film when reading her description of New Babylon.

Riley has laid down a challenge to Shostakovich scholars to do further research on his film music. Future studies need to include comparisons with Western film music practices, which I am convinced would confirm Shostakovich’s skill in the medium.

Compared to the study of most film composers, Shostakovich scholars are very lucky to have so much film music surviving in autograph scores and a substantial selection readily available for study in printed editions, with the promise of more to be published in the future. We are also lucky to have Riley’s book, with the particular insights that a film historian can bring to the subject.

Fiona Ford, University of Nottingham, UK

[1] For example the memoirs of Zoya Shostakovich and Nathan Perelman, a fellow cinema pianist, in Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 8 and 60.

[2] Dmitri & Ludmilla Sollertinsky, Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich, translated by Graham Hobbs and Charles Midgley (London: Robert Hale Ltd, 1981), 33.

[3] See discussions of narodnost in Richard Taruskin, Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).


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String Quartet No. 8
David Fanning, Ashgate Publishing
Hardback; 200 pages
July 2004
ISBN 0 7546 0699 6

The Eighth String Quartet is easily one of Shostakovich’s most performed works, and also one of his most cited in both music history textbooks and in-depth discussions of the intent of his life’s work. While there has been extensive writing in various other sources about the social and psychological ideas of the piece, comparatively little has been written on the structure of the music itself. David Fanning’s book, part of the Landmarks in Music Since 1950 series published by Ashgate books, fills this gap.

Fifty pages introduce the social and historical context of the work, but the bulk of the remaining pages are an indepth structural and harmonic analysis. Fanning pays particular attention to Shostakovich’s use of musical quotes, both from his own earlier works and other sources. While this phenomenon principally concerns quotes that Shostakovich himself cited to friends, Fanning conjectures that there are other quotes as well. In the case of Shostakovich’s self-quotes, the book prints the appropriate excerpts from the quoted work and the Eighth Quartet.

Fanning uses several analytical techniques, mainly diagrams of motivic form and chord progressions. For those who know their theory the detail is most rewarding. People who are not well-versed in music theory might struggle. A score is pretty essential for comparison to the diagrams.

The end of the book includes appendices of primary documents about the piece – reviews and testimonials from Shostakovich and friends – as well as a partial discography of the work. The book comes with a CD of the Eighth Quartet performed by the Rosamunde Quartet.

A full review and analysis of the book will appear in the next edition of the Journal.

Julia Lozos

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Testimony – 25th Anniversary Edition
Volkov, transl. Bouis
Limelight Editions July 2004
Paperback Edition, 292 pages
ISBN: 087910998X

Foreword by Vladimir Ashkenazy

After more than 40 years in the West, I am still amazed at how little general understanding there is of Soviet reality. As a musician, I am particularly concerned that this incomprehension leads to misun­derstanding and misinterpretation of the motivations and activities of Soviet composers, and thus of the meaning of their music.

I read some time ago in The Economist, for instance, that “Shostakovich rarely explained his pieces with a program.” The writer went on to argue that Shostakovich’s music contained no references or allusions to his atti­tude towards the Soviet system.

The truth is, Shostakovich confided in only a small circle of trust­ed friends. To have said too much elsewhere – at rehearsals, for exam­ple – would have been career suicide, and perhaps worse. Not for noth­ing did Shostakovich’s son Maxim, at a rehearsal of the Eleventh Symphony (“The Year 1905”), whisper in his ear, “Papa, what if they hang you for this?”

When at a press conference at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, a Western journalist asked Shostakovich if it was true that the Communist party’s criticisms had helped him, the composer nervously replied, “Yes, yes, yes, the Party always helped me! It was always right, it was always right.” When the journalist left, Shostakovich turned to Mstislav Rostropovich, who was present, and said. “Son of a bitch! Doesn’t he know he shouldn’t ask me such questions – what can I possibly say?

The need to protect oneself was something all of us who had to sur­vive in the Soviet Union understood. As the outstanding Russian com­poser Rodion Shchedrin has said, “Nobody wanted to go to the gulag.”

Still we knew without a shadow of a doubt that Shostakovich deeply detested the system in which he lived. We knew how much he suffered from it and how helpless he felt about being unable to do anything except express himself through his music.

I and my fellow students at the conservatory had the privilege of attending several first Moscow performances of Shostakovich works (first performances usually being in Leningrad) – and one would have to be deaf not to have heard what the composer wanted to say. But this was barely perceived by the gullible West, which largely pre­ferred to think of Shostakovich as a conformist, a civil servant eager to please the authorities. Even his great symphonies generally elicited condescending comments. Such epithets as “crass”, “vulgar”, and “old-fash­ioned” prevailed in Western musicology – a negative attitude reinforced by the postwar trend in music championed by certain composers who tended to deny the priority of the artist’s inner world.

When, in 1979, a young Russian musicologist published a book – Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov – we all believed that at last the world would under­stand the true state of affairs. When I read Testimony, there was no ques­tion in my mind that the real Shostakovich was here in this book. All that we knew about him was now confirmed in print; and there was much more in the same spirit.

Now, 25 years later, the debate about Shostakovich’s image – and, con­sequently, about the message that his music contained – is gradually dying down. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating to trace its origins. I tend to think that without interference of Soviet officialdom and its denunci­ation of Testimony there would have been almost certainly less controver­sy about the genuineness of the book, and perhaps dramatically so. Rudolf Barshai, conductor of the first performance of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony, stated that Testimony should be considered 100 percent correct. The composer’s son Maxim has likewise endorsed it as true and accurate, and his sister Galina agrees. This is only the tip of the iceberg – dozens of testimonies from the former Soviet Union confirm the basic truthfulness of Shostakovich’s image in this book. Thus the pendulum of credibility inevitably swings towards those who knew Shostakovich well and who, in their own lives, experienced similar pres­sures. I have no doubt that the Soviet party hacks knew the truth as well, but they had to play their game of manipulation and deceit in order to make sure that Shostakovich acted as their puppet. And as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, lies became truth.

Shostakovich acted heroically managing, against all the odds, not only to survive but to leave for posterity great music of shattering intensity and quintessential spiritual and musical validity. We do not have to infuse every note by Shostakovich with extra-musical connotations, but we need to understand what he endured in his life – the inhumanity, moral depravity, and hopelessness which the murderous Soviet system inflicted on its people – all of which he amalgamated into the spiritual context of his music (along with, need it be said, a good measure of irony and black humour).

Shostakovich sublimated his personal experience to the level of universality. For that, we should be eternally grateful to him. And Testimony helped countless Western music lovers to re-evaluate Shostakovich’s message. For this, we should be grateful to Solomon Volkov.