Book Reviews 12

Shostakovich A Life

It’s good here!

Everyday Stalinism

12_A Life by Laurel E. Fay /

Shostakovich: A Life by Laurel E. Fay
Published Oxford University Press (USA) 2000 485pp.

Saving Fay’s Biography

The YeahsThe Nays

Saving Fay’s Biography

by CH Loh

Fay, currently a household name in Shostakovich scholarship by way of the infamy of such articles as the odiously titled “The Composer was Courageous, But Not As Much As In Myth” (NYT 1996) and her sensational “Shostakovich vs Volkov: Whose Testimony?” (Russian Review 1980) has finally resurfaced. Why she has remained largely silent over heavy criticism of those articles is now clear.

Any admission that her pivotal work might be wrong would have spelled disaster for a project that, in the words of an admirer of her work, “will be the defining moment in her career” (at this point the bass chorus should exclaim “Lev!”). Furthermore, she seems to have held out any ammunition for the complete offensive by way of her new book, which I suspect has been carefully prepared to takes into account and incorporate all that has been said against her.

It is useful to consider what seems to be the driving force behind Fay’s writings on Shostakovich. The trend is disturbing, and what results from scrutiny of her writings reveals not the sort of admiration for the music that motivates the typical musicologist but something altogether more disquieting. The first article (1980) takes advantage of preliminary, if somewhat dubious evidence of Testimony’s reliability with apparent glee. The next (1996) strives to diminish growing admiration for the composer’s courage and musical bravado (which she assumes to be the result of Testimony although there is little evidence that this is the sole the driving force behind this so-called “revisionism”) the expense of the composer and his music. Her contribution to Fanning’s Shostakovich Studies also contrives to show that Lady Macbeth was an inferior work to Katerina Ismailova, again disparaging the former in what is a subtle attempt at diluting some sort of revisionist sentiment.

As far as objective scholarship is concerned, she has not been objective in her assessment of books like The New Shostakovich (reportedly calling it a “moronic tract”). By attacking the author’s personal views of Shostakovich’s music she is overlooking the monumental contribution the book has made in putting Shostakovich’s music into valuable historical perspective. And if she could not attack Wilson’s book, she could still undermine the unstoppable tide of “revisionist” evidence by waving off the testimony of friends as useless to genuine scholarship.

So what has Fay got to go on? In her new book she proudly claims Soviet-era printed material (newspaper and magazine articles, Soviet biographies and letters written under severe censorship) to be the most objective source. Here she gingerly qualifies their reliability with disproportionate mildness compared to the manner in which she firmly slams the door shut on accounts of friends and family, and on the unreliability of Testimony (these days always tagged by the disclaimer “even if its claim to authenticity not in doubt”).

Yet Fay claims that her work is objective, that it serves to sift out fact from fiction; fiction being the idealised vision of the composer as a critical and courageous figure, fact being the image of the composer that has thus far existed since the 30s courtesy of the Soviet propaganda vehicle. What is laughable is the amount of scepticism one is asked to apply to documents such as Wilson’s personal accounts and Testimony, while Pravda is held to be the word of the truth (oh, but Pravda means “truth” in Russian does it not?).

Her colleague in arms, Richard Taruskin, was far easier to suss out. His word play and clever use of linguistic manipulation in articles such as “Opera and the Dictator” (which disparaged Lady Macbeth) and “Vile Trivialisation” (which patronised the 5th Symphony) was hardly subtle. It was not difficult to sense that some sleight of hand was always being played on the reader (such as his conclusion that the 5th Symphony was “ironic but not sarcastic”) and careful inspection of his writings usually revealed the seams.

Fay is altogether more dangerous. Her school-teacher eloquence and the attractiveness of her simple and apparently honest language lulls the reader into a false sense of assurance that at last here is one unbiased, objective person upon whom they might trust, she herself having written off the others as untrustworthy for various reasons. Unfortunately the foundation of her objectivity is only as strong as that of those notorious Potemkin villages.

One does not read far into A Life to sense this. In Chapter 1 she says in the passages about the Finland Station business “In Testimony, Shostakovich claimed that … he did not remember a thing about it. However, as Boris Losskiy .. has pointed out… the story is implausible.” On the footnote to this, referencing Volkov’s Testimony, Fay adds: “The adult Shostakovich’s assertion to Lev Lebedinsky that he had gone to Finland Station because he knew “a dictator was arriving,” resonates with revisionist hindsight. See EW.” While careful analysis of this excerpt reveals little commitment to anything concrete (the proverbial objectivity of the author), it is easy to misconstrue the text as pointing out the shortcomings of the “words attributed to Shostakovich (ie, Testimony)”. After all, why place the texts from EW in the footnotes to Volkov and not to EW itself (only two notes earlier)? And why the need to qualify it with her own presumptions, (eg, the resonance “of revisionist hindsight”)?

Since she has strayed from the path of objectivity to speculate, why not go further to balance the view by informing the reader that in the quoted passage in Testimony Shostakovich is really attempting to demystify and de-glorify his past? Simply because doing so would have resulted in her texts agreeing with Testimony.

Already in the first few chapters little instances like these betray the author’s lack of objectivity and fairness. There is an obvious eagerness in which she throws around words like “revisionism”, and an obstinate refusal to acknowledge Testimony unless it suits her agenda – and she does have one by the looks of it, which is to perpetuate the belief that it is dubious. For instance, the few lines which she devotes to the memoirs present only the most outdated perspectives, and this in the wake of recent developments is simply inexcusable. She claims that “Volkov was not forthright about the nature of the manuscript… and that it was not properly vetted”, disregarding the extensive work done in Shostakovich Reconsidered and the recent Mannes Conference held in Fay’s vicinity.

She goes on to say of Ho/Feofanov in the footnotes that Shostakovich Reconsidered “raises more questions than it purports to answer” and says that “the question [of Testimony’s authenticity] remains largely unresolved.” This is nonsensical at best, at worst dishonest, as the Ho/Feofanov book does resolve many of the issues and more, the only questions remaining unanswered being those directed towards Fay and Taruskin. As a serious scholar she should have offered reasonable evidence to back her extravagant claims. Instead she manages only the amusing disclaimer, that even if Testimony is authentic it is unreliable because it is the “deathbed disclosures of someone ravaged by illness, with festering psychological wounds and scores to settle”. Again, speculation where she is not supposed to speculate.

So what are we to make of A Life? It might have been a treasure trove of information given the resources from the Soviet Union to which she says she was privy. Yet by her own hand she threatens to make her own work questionable and ultimately unreliable. If in the opening pages she has proven to be evasive regarding anything that might spoil the image of Shostakovich as she intends him to be portrayed, then we can never be sure that the rest of the information is reliable or at least complete and free from bias. And having gone through much of the book many such can be found hiding discreetly amongst innocuous accounts of Shostakovich’s seemingly placid life, for example the misleading description of the 3rd Symphony, the ingenious salvaging of her From Jewish Folk Poetry wrong-folk theory, the insinuation that Shostakovich was not totally divorced from the sentiments behind his public speeches, the true nature of the 13th Symphony etc.

Her idea that Shostakovich was neither dissident nor a Soviet communist-loyalist but something in-between, a complex character and an enigma, begins to sound like an easy way to worm out of an embarrassing situation of having pitched for the wrong team. For it is not difficult to see that Shostakovich was neither as complex nor as enigmatic as Fay tries to pass him off as (Ashkenazy clearly puts down any suggestion of the enigma to ignorance of what life under Soviet totalitarianism is like, and anyone remotely familiar with dictatorship will know what he means). The picture now is pretty clear: Shostakovich was extremely gifted, a genius from youth with a critical mind throughout his life, who was streetsmart enough to have survived The Terror and The Thaw with some humanity intact and a huge catalogue of musical documents to tell the whole gruesome history. Yet the general undercurrent of A Life would appear to imply a mission to deny the composer this glowing reputation, as if the author is obliged to upkeep his Cold-War image for some unknown reason. What sort of service this does to the composer, who in his own terrible life had suffered immensely and surely needs not have it continue twenty years beyond his death, I cannot fathom.

In the end A Life is not so much a book about Shostakovich as it as a book about who Fay needs Shostakovich to be, which is a terrible waste of an excellent opportunity for the author. Still, I would recommend that anyone interested in the composer read the book; not as an authority, I think that one goes to the combination of Wilson for its wealth of personal testimony, MacDonald for the year-by-year historical perspectives, Volkov for its personal insight and Ho/Feofanov for the critical research. A Life is for most part meticulously prepared and researched if only from the public side of Shostakovich’s life, and taken with huge doses of scepticism and armed with the proper perspective (for there is none in A Life; Shostakovich seems to live in a political vacuum) it does provide moments of fascination (notably the affairs surrounding Lady Macbeth and the 5th Symphony). A commendable effort for all its shortcomings.

The Yeas

by Michael Steinberg
Symphony: A Listeners Guide / The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide

The combined effects of scholarly incompetence, deliberate obfuscation, and the imposition of political agendas have made it nearly impossible to get a clear picture of the life of Shostakovich, one of the most fascinating figures in the cultural life of the twentieth century. Laurel Fay, the most patient of scholars, has done an amazing job of getting the material sorted out so as to be able to tell the compelling story of this troubled life. She is calm, bound by no political parti pris, and when even she has been defeated in her research she is not afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ Long awaited, this is an immensely important book ~and hugely welcome.

by Malcolm Hamrick Brown
Professor Emeritus of Music, Indiana University

Fay’s Shostakovich is not only the best biography in English or in any other West European language, it offers readers a factual accuracy and balanced perspective unmatched in post-soviet-era publications by Shostakovich specialists in the composer’s homeland. Undaunted by the lurid debates surrounding Shostakovich’s purported lifelong dissidence and the covert meaning of his music, Fay has produced exactly what we need at this stage in Shostakovich scholarship – a reliable life history and chronicle of the works: clear-eyed, straightforward, copiously researched, sympathetic, objective, and uncluttered by cold-war or post-cold-war myths.

by Richard Taruskin,
Class of 1955 Professor of Music, University of California, Berkeley

At last readers interested in Shostakovich have a reliable source to consult for the facts of his life, meticulously set against the background of his alas, all-too-interesting times. Laurel Fay has erected the platform upon which truly informed interpretation and debate concerning Shostakovich’s works and legacy can now take place.

by Louis Blois

Laurel Fay has produced exactly what has long been needed and what has never before existed in the English language: a thoroughly researched biography of Shostakovich by a professionally trained musicologist, wholly derived from primary source material. In this tidy work, Fay writes a well crafted, information-rich account that rests on a foundation of meticulously gathered materials. There can be no overstating the thoroughness of the research, with a selected bibliography that extends for some 36 pages and somewhere between 70 to 100 references per chapter. The sources include many of the composer’s personal letters, articles from principal Soviet journals, studies by Sophia Khentova and other musicologists, etc. Those familiar with Fay’s writing will recognize its crisp, unfettered, authoritative manner, reminiscent of the style of another noted specialist on Soviet music, Boris Schwarz.

The book’s 15 chapters manage to weave an enormous tapestry of detail, including significant notes on even the smallest of the composer’s 147 plus works, into a flowing, energetic, well-paced read. We learn of the numerous post-Lady MacBeth operatic plans that never materialized and which could have changed the course of the composer’s creativity, his frequent suicidal tendencies, extramarital forays, various periods of blocked creativity, even the details of the composer’s last hours on his deathbed. Fay deserves commendation not only for her assimilation of a vast amount of research materials, but for having selected and assembled them into such a well-judged narrative. The coverage contains so many specifics that each paragraph suggests a research project of its own. One can only imagine the extent of the collected material that had to be excised.

For all its laudable attributes, “A Life” does have minor flaws. Yet these have been given such exaggerated attention in recent reviews that they deserve separate consideration. Contrary to prevailing criticism, I find completely defensible Fay’s decision to ignore the material in Testimony, if only for the fact that the decision is consistent with her early work on that book and as part of her own intellectual journey into its controversial waters. On the other hand, however filtered, distorted and unreliable that resource may seem, Testimony presents at least a reflection of possible interpretation, a set of potential leads and signals to which the scholar’s antenna should be keenly attuned. In some instances, Fay has chosen to ignore such possibilities, and even goes so far as to completely shun the corroborating evidence presented in Feofanov and Ho’s “Shostakovich Reconsidered” (SR) and elsewhere. It is a decision that at times leads to awkward moments, such as in her already infamous discussion of the cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry”(FJFP), in which her own trail of footnotes touches upon evidence that would contradict her view of the work’s conception.

Another instance occurs in her discussion of the Eleventh Symphony (1956-7) where she dismisses the contemporaneous Hungarian uprising as a possible source of the composer’s inspiration, citing a lack of “available evidence”. In fact, SR does present interesting documentation to the contrary (corroborating that found in Testimony). The treatment in this and the FJFP section does leave the informed reader wanting a more inclusive discussion of available material. Such a discussion would have brought some closure to these naggingly persistent issues. It would have also avoided the escalated level of divisiveness that has been created among such a small community of readers and scholars, many of whom are already aware of the published and readily available resources (in particular, “Shostakovich Reconsidered”) that Fay overlooks.

It should be emphasized that it is only upon the speculative matters of intentionality that these small controversies rest. Because it is the dissident interpretation that Fay does not accept in both cases, critics and detractors have accused her of toeing the “Party line” in her portrait of the composer. What precisely is meant by an official “Party line” in these rapidly shifting political times in post-Soviet Russia is itself so unclear as to render such charges utterly meaningless.

Those who would persist in constructing arguments to that effect need only look at Fay’s coverage of the events surrounding the Thirteenth Symphony, the most embarrassing musical incident to occur in post-Stalin Russia. Fay not only presents the original version of the controversial text lines – with its direct confrontation of Russian anti-Semitism – and the officially mandated revisions, but reports the composer’s express dislike for the revision, noting that he “did not inscribe the new text in his manuscript score.” (p236). Fay also notes that performances of the symphony were not encouraged by the Party. If Fay were pandering to the powers that be, she would not have presented such a complete exposure of this politically humiliating incident.

There are other portions that give lie to the “Party toeing” view of Fay’s work. When Shostakovich’s public behavior is consistent with exemplary communist citizenship, Fay thoroughly and demonstratively points out the incongruity of that behavior with the composer’s private convictions. One example is the fascinating and again, embarrassing, account (p. 278) of the composer having added his signature, in 1973, to a public denouncement of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. Fay makes it clear that Shostakovich deeply regretted his ill-advised action, even quoting and discussing the portion of Testimony that finds the composer in a defensive tone on the matter. Elsewhere in the book, Fay reports the composer’s joining the Communist Party in 1960, and again clearly discusses his profound regret after having done so, explicitly quoting his private sentiments, “No, communism is impossible.” (p. 216). Fay could not be more explicit in portraying the composer’s anti-communist stance as well as exposing the insincerity of his many public statements in support of the government. These portions of Fay’s book simply demolish untenable notions of there being an anti-revisionist agenda underlying her writing. One may disagree with Fay for insisting on a counterintuitive interpretation of FJFP, but she cannot be accused of attempting to conceal Shostakovich’s ant-establishment frame of mind.

Ian MacDonald, the leading Fay detractor and least objective reviewer of the book at hand, has advanced a chapter-by-chapter critique that repeatedly questions Fay’s understanding of historical context. MacDonald does point to interesting details, yet if “A Life” included as much background as he recommends, the focus of the book would take us far afield from the life of Shostakovich. As it is, the background Fay provides is expertly described and more than sufficient, as exemplified by her more than complete coverage (pp 98-105) of the events surrounding the Fifth Symphony as well as other landmark episodes in the composer’s life.

Given the bewildering complexity of Shostakovich’s life and times, let alone his character and his music, it is fortunate that there is now an authoritative biography that concentrates on but one of these facets with as rich and reliable detail as “A Life”. Fay’s no-nonsense approach gives her little room to penetrate either the character or the music of her subject, features that require the kind of speculative inferences that she goes out of her way to avoid throughout her book. Yet, it is this very “stick to the facts” quality that gives Laurel Fay’s biography its scrupulous solidity, its distinctive and valuable place on one’s library shelf. The ultimate tribute to “A Life”, even by those who are so negatively critical of it today, will be the many references that will be made to it over the years in the course of future writing and research.

The Nays

by Neal Gittleman

Having just finished Fay’s book I confess to feeling rather underwhelmed. Clearly, it’s a well researched, well considered biography, and definitely worth reading. But the author seems so committed to the idea that it’s biography and biography alone, that I, personally, am left frustrated by the “roads not travelled.”

The consideration of the 10th Symphony is an excellent example. Here’s a major piece, certainly one of the composer’s greatest. It appears just after one of the most momentous events in Soviet history – the death of Stalin. Is there even a word about the purported subject matter of the 2nd movement? Not one. Fay makes allusion to some of Testimony’s testimony from time to time, with a good deal of scepticism and large grains of salt – that’s her prerogative. But why she would choose at this point not even to mention Testimony’s ‘The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking…’ is beyond me. We learn that the 10th introduces the DSCH motive, and we learn that DS was lucky in having such a pregnant set of intervals for his “signature.” Is there any mention, though of DSCH being slammed out in the timpani in the final pages, just as the music of the 2nd movement is reprised? I know it’s “just a biography,” but for cryin’ out loud, it’s a biography by someone who bills themselves as a “writer on Russian and Soviet music.”
Here’s a moment when some salient comments on the music itself would be SO revealing. But no… We get a quote of DS’s own words – the first-movement-too-long-second-movement-too-short bit. We get “he admitted to having written the work too quickly, to having failed in his goal of creating a genuine symphonic allegro in the first movement.” OK, fine. WHY did he work too quickly? And why, if his goal was to create a genuine symphonic allegro in the first movement, did he write a movement marked Moderato, a movement that despite metronome markings of crotchet = 96 and crotchet = 120, doesn’t sound particularly allegro to the listener’s ear? I would have gladly waited a little longer, paid a little more and spent more time reading to get some of Fay’s insights into the music in addition to the and-then-he-did-this-style biographical information.

That said, Fay’s book certainly belongs on my – or anyone else’s – DS shelf. Add it to Wilson, Volkov, McDonald, and Ho/Feofanov, and if you can’t figure out for yourself what you think about DS and his music you’re not really trying hard enough! But, sadly, I think Fay wasn’t quite trying hard enough either. Shostakovich: A Life could have been a MUCH more interesting and enlightening book, one worthy of some high-spirited debate. As it is, it’s too easy to read and file away.

The Washington Post, ‘Subversive Symphonies’, Sudip Bose

When Dmitri Shostakovich died on Aug. 9, 1975, the Soviet government mourned the loss of “a faithful son of the Communist Party,” whose symphonies, quartets and song cycles (other than those that were at one time banned, of course) stood as musical monuments to socialist realism. In the West, this portrait of the contrite communist was never questioned. Musicologists made an example of his Fifth Symphony, which had acquired the notorious subtitle “A Soviet Artist’s Creative Reply to Just Criticism.” In the symphony’s rousing, seemingly optimistic finale, critics found evidence for an embattled composer’s obeisance. Then there were the composer’s denunciations – of Igor Stravinsky in 1949, of Andrei Sakharov in 1973. Shostakovich was a great composer, perhaps the greatest of our century, but one, we were led to believe, whose sympathies were decidedly red.

Then Solomon Volkov came along. A maverick Soviet journalist who emigrated to New York in 1976, Volkov claimed to have smuggled out a typescript containing memoirs the late composer had dictated to him. The publication of Testimony in 1979 was a revelation. The composer who emerged from these clandestine pages was a dissident forced to glorify the Soviet state in official speeches and articles while seeking to subvert it through the dark ironies of his music.

Clinging to the image of Shostakovich as Soviet loyalist, a group of American musicologists attacked the book. One of them, Laurel E. Fay, argued in a controversial 1980 article that Volkov had plagiarized articles Shostakovich wrote much earlier, passing them off as firsthand reportage. Thus began a debate over Shostakovich’s character that has been ugly and personal, with normally mild-mannered, bow-tied academics engaging in bouts of musicological mud wrestling. Numerous musicians have come to Testimony’s defense, including Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Kurt Sanderling, Kyril Kondrashin and the composer’s son, Maxim. Most recently, in their book Shostakovich Reconsidered, the musicologist Allan B. Ho and his colleague Dmitri Feofanov attacked Fay’s anti-revisionist set, establishing, to my mind at least, the absolute veracity of Testimony.

Now Fay, who dismisses Testimony as the deathbed rantings of a bitter man, has written a biography of Shostakovich. It is at times an unreliable book that portrays Shostakovich as a nervous Soviet patriot, “a ‘true son’ of the Communist Party” who “ceded unconditionally his signature, his voice, his time, and his physical presence to all manner of propaganda legitimizing the party.” Of this “dedicated public servant,” Fay writes: “While it would be foolish to accept at face value all the statements and writings ascribed to Shostakovich, it does not follow that he shared none of the sentiments or opinions expressed in this way.”

This caricature of the composer betrays a bewildering naivete about the climate of terror and intimidation in which Shostakovich was forced to work. In 1936, an editorial entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared in Pravda, condemning Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as a formalist, bourgeois work inaccessible to the masses (this despite the raucous response of the masses, who sold out performances and stomped for curtain calls). Soon Shostakovich was watching as his fellow artists, victims of Stalin’s cultural purges, were quietly arrested, tried and shot. As for the composer’s family, his brother-in-law was arrested, his sister exiled and his mother-in-law sent to a labor camp.

In such an atmosphere, Shostakovich was forced to lie, to say all manner of outlandish things in defense of the Soviet state, simply to survive. His recourse was his music, and many a Shostakovich opus contains secondary, encoded meanings. In his pungent memoir Stormy Applause, Rostislav Dubinsky, the first violinist of the famed Borodin Quartet, describes how his ensemble prepared a second, official interpretation of Shostakovich’s Fourth Quartet: “We removed all possible ‘anti-Soviet’ insinuations from the music. Even our faces tried to look optimistic. We lied! We presented the foreboding mood of the first movement as hope for a brighter future; the plaintive lyricism of the second as a pleasant little waltz; the sinister muted scherzo became a cheerful dance; and the tragic Jewish themes of the finale took on traditional Oriental coloring.”

But on the subject of Shostakovich’s music, Fay is startlingly silent. Why, in a book with fewer than 300 pages of text, does Fay give such scant attention to the analysis of Shostakovich’s scores? It’s almost as if she’s afraid to approach them for fear of what they’ll reveal. When Fay writes that after the Tenth Symphony Shostakovich “devoted a disproportionately large portion of his music to the greater glory of Soviet Realism,” she is ignoring every bit of irony and sarcasm and satire the composer embedded in his work.

An example is the Eleventh Symphony, subtitled “The Year 1905,” a depiction of the Bloody Sunday massacre that triggered the first Russian revolution.
Though at face value the piece appears to be classic propaganda, it actually encodes another theme: the 1956 massacre of Hungarian demonstrators by Soviet troops at Budapest’s Parliament Square. Knowing what we now do, it is difficult not to hear this resonance in the Cossacks’ attack in the second movement, punctuated by the rapid gunfire of the snare drum. As Ian MacDonald points out in The New Shostakovich, the dark and graphic symphony “lacks the one self-defining attribute of Socialist Realism: optimism.” In Testimony, Shostakovich spoke of the idea of recurrence – of evil and oppression – that informs the work. Indeed, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Shostakovich heralds the first movement with a trumpet motif from Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony; whereas Mahler’s resurrection is of the human spirit, Shostakovich’s is of its brutal suppression.

But Fay denies any connection to the Hungarian uprising: “Shostakovich actually provides listeners in 1956 little incentive to explore this connection or to delve any deeper than the manifest content of his score.” This is surely one of the most baffling of the book’s claims. What incentive was Shostakovich supposed to provide? An announcement of his intentions in Pravda? Pre-concert lectures outlining the secret program? For Fay to think that Shostakovich could have publicly criticized the totalitarian government suggests she hasn’t a clue about the terrifying nature of Soviet cultural life.

Elsewhere in her book, Fay writes that “Shostakovich preferred to let his music ‘speak’ for itself and inevitably directed the curious to his scores.” Exactly. Anyone who wants to explore the connection between the composer’s conscience and the world that shaped it need only listen to his music with open mind and open ears. In his music, Shostakovich was never silent.

Harlow Robinson , New York Times, Jan 2, 2000,
A Bitter Music – Was Shostakovich a loyal Soviet artist or a closet dissident?

… little [of this] tumult and conflict comes across in Shostakovich: A Life, Laurel E. Fay’s mostly lifeless attempt to produce the definitive biography of the composer. Insistent on sticking only to the facts and avoiding even a hint of the sometimes fanciful speculation that has characterized much of what has been published and broadcast about Shostakovich both in Russia and in the West, Fay has squeezed her provocative subject dry. Cautious, dutiful and choked with details, her book reads more like an extended encyclopedia entry than a biography. Nor do its meticulously gathered piles of information challenge the interpretation presented elsewhere of the composer as a cowardly, embittered, Chekhovian figure profoundly uncomfortable with his role as the Kremlin’s official composer but lacking the moral strength to rebel.

Allan Ho

I have to admit that the more I go through Fay’s book with a fine-toothed comb, the more I am perplexed by her “filtering”. This occurs even with less controversial works than From Jewish Folk Poetry.

For example, take her discussion of Shostakovich’s film score The New Babylon (Fay, pp. 49-50). She notes that the music was “screened and accepted by the artistic panel at Sovkino, which concluded, ‘This music is distinguished by its considerable closeness to the style and rhythm of the film, by great emotional strength and expressivity. The effect of the picture is greatly heightened. Furthermore, despite the originality and freshness of the form, the music is sufficiently simple and can be appreciated by the mass viewer.'” (The latter makes the composer sound like a true “loyal son”.) Then she notes the “humiliating failure” when the film was released, because of “liberal errors in the distributed scores and parts, insufficient rehearsals, lack of ensemble co-ordination, plus a certain amount of hostility (and perhaps outright sabotage) among conductors…”, the need to hurriedly re-edit the film because of censors in Moscow, and perhaps even because projectionists sped up films to allow two showings in a single evening.

All of this may well have been true, but why is there no mention, no comment about what Kozintsev, one of the directors, himself said about New Babylon: “After viewing the film…[Shostakovich] agreed to write the score. Our ideas coincided … We immediately came to an agreement with the composer that the music would be linked to the inner meaning and not to the external action, that it should develop by cutting across events, and as the antithesis of the mood of a specific scene. Our general principle was not to illustrate, and not to complement or coincide on this point. In the score the tragic themes intrude on vulgar can-cans, the German cavalry galloped into Paris to the accompaniment of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène (transformed suddenly out of the Marseillaise); the themes interwove with great complexity, changing the mood from the farcical to the pathetic … The score was met with hostility. It was much easier to continue the old way of life.” (Kozintsev, The Complete Works; trans. in Wilson, pp. 75-76)

The Kozintsev quote seems to shed valuable light as to why there was an incongruity between film and score: that is, that this was in large part an artistic decision as opposed to the “accident” Fay suggests happened in the theaters. Surely Fay is aware of Kozintsev’s statement. Therefore, by its omission, are we to conclude that Kozintsev was lying or misremembered his “agreement” with Shostakovich, that Wilson mistranslated the Russian text, or that Fay considers this unimportant?

Fay also does not mention what Shostakovich says in Testimony: “But when [New Babylon] was first shown, KIM [the Communist International Youth or young people’s division of Comintern] interfered. KIM leaders decided that New Babylon was counterrevolutionary. Things could have ended very badly…” (p. 150-51). Just because something is in Testimony doesn’t mean it’s not true and should be ignored. Couldn’t KIM have played some role in the film’s hostile reception? I believe more information about this episode is in Marek Pytel’s book on New Babylon.



Sofia Khentova – ‘It’s Good Here’
St Petersburg 1999, 44pp.
(published in Russian, 1000 copies)

For a number of years now the biographical oeuvre of this, by far the most prolific of all writers on Shostakovich, has perceptibly changed in character, tending toward the informal, more personal approach. The most obvious example in recent times emanates from a three-part tome, Surprising Shostakovich (featuring the Thirteenth Symphony, Women in the Life of Shostakovich and Shostakovich and his Favourite Sport) published in Russian in 1993.

Now comes a work with many more ‘surprises’ of is own- It’s good here! The book focuses its attention on the periods Shostakovich spent in his family’s country retreats – particularly at Repino and Komarovo, outside Leningrad. The story begins in 1940 and concludes in the final year of Shostakovich’s life.

Khentova centres her attention on daily life – the composser at work and at play. She traces, with typical meticulousness, the numerous compositions begun or concluded “out of town”, and contrasts with punctilious relief Shostakovich’s rigorous studiousness alongside purely recreational activities such as swimming, tennis, football and picnics; taking in sea and forest air during long and regular sorties alone, with family members or with friends and colleagues. Such is the context of a wonderfully informal photograph taken with Mravinsky (indeed many of Khentova’s snapshots of the composer appear here for the first time: did you know – Shostakovich floated!)

The most disappointing aspect of the book is its size – a mere 41 pages including the introduction – and the rather mediocre print quality. Adopting more of a ‘booklet look’ the paper is rough and the photographic reproductions sometimes quite awful. It appears that in the new ‘market economy’ of Russian publishing, means are simply not available at an affordable price, at least to writers like Professor Khentova. (It should be remembered that in former (Soviet) times the author paid little, or nothing, for the privilege of having his or her book published. In return, of course, the writer received little in the way of dues from the State…)

Publishing conditions apart, Shostakovich followers should decry the status quo regarding Khentova’s works – in that not a single article of hers, let alone a book, has ever been published entirely in a translated language other than German [aside humble efforts conceived to fit within the pages of the DSCH Journal – Ed.] This is particularly disappointing given that her recent works bring within easy reach of the musical-loving fraternity a lifetime’s knowledge and passion for her favoured musician.

N. Papworth

12_Everyday Stalinism

Sheila Fitzpatrick.
Everyday Stalinism.
Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet History in the 1930s.
Oxford University Press, 1999.

Some time during the 1930s, a group of rabbits appear on the Soviet-Polish border, applying for admission to Poland. Asked for their reason for leaving, they reply: “The GPU has given orders to arrest every camel in the Soviet Union.” “But you’re not camels!” “Try telling the GPU that.” This typically black Soviet joke, pointing up the intentionally bewildering randomness of Stalin’s Terror, is one of many retold in historian Sheila Fitzpatrick’s latest book. Such humour was the most prevalent form of “resistance” to Soviet rule. In the current absence of Dolgopolova’s Russia Dies Laughing, Fitzpatrick’s fondness for such jokes constitutes one of several good reasons for anyone interested in the Soviet background to read Everyday Stalinism.

A further example. Stakhanovites, “shock-workers” who allegedly overfulfilled their quotas by absurd factors and received preferential treatment as a result, were the butt of many jokes by their resentful fellow “toilers”. Queues, too, were a glum staple of the Soviet Union’s life of perpetual shortages and corruption. Killing two birds with one stone, another joke tells of a deaf old lady who, automatically tagging onto the tail of a queue that winds into the far distance, asks: “What are they giving out?” “A slap in the face,” someone replies. “To everyone, or just Stakhanovites?”

This gallows humour (which Orwell, unnoticed by critics who lack knowledge of the Soviet context, uses in the first twothirds of Nineteen Eighty-four) offers a direct and penetrating insight into the world in which Shostakovich worked. Indeed, we encounter a similar comedy in works like the Ninth Symphony and other pieces cut from the same satirical cloth. Not that such “resistance jokes” account for the total sum of laughter in Shostakovich’s output, which encompasses everything from dry Gogolian caricature (eg, the pseudo-heroic bluster of the trumpet-commissar in the third movement of the Eighth Symphony) to Keystone slapstick (eg, the opening bars of the “circus” scherzo in the First Symphony, where two rows of clowns run out into the ring and pause, the second row arriving three steps after the first, like comic soldiers falling in late for roll-call). Shostakovich arguably wrote more funny music than any other composer; however, most of it follows the mode of the black street-humour he relished as much, no doubt, as any other intelligent Soviet citizen.

The point of bringing a book like Everyday Stalinism to the attention of DSCH readers is, of course, to illuminate Shostakovich’s music. This is not the place to talk at length about Professor Fitzpatrick’s previous books or discuss her role in the war between “totalitarians” and “revisionists” which broke out in general Soviet studies during the 1980s and which still rumbles on today. Suffice it to say that, over time, she has steered a course between the rival sides (a course identified by those in the “totalitarian” camp as recently drawing distinctly closer to their position).

As for her credentials, she’s been a leading scholar in her field during the last 20 years with a dozen books to her credit, many of them co-edited (such as her Researcher’s Guide to Sources on Soviet Social History in the 1930s). Lately, Fitzpatrick has shifted away from the close documentary and statistical studies which formed the raw material of the totalitarian/revisionist controversy, turning instead to more traditional social history, first with Stalin’s Peasants, her lauded account of the Soviet onslaught on agriculture in the early Thirties, and now with Everyday Stalinism, its urban sequel.

Apart from its insights into the socio-political inspirations for Shostakovich’s increasingly dark and bitter humour (in both Testimony and his music), Everyday Stalinism will fascinate anyone honest and sensitive enough to acknowledge that context plays as vital a part in posthumously elucidating the composer’s work as it originally did in shaping its aims, structural designs, and shifting “tones of voice”. Fitzpatrick’s survey misses no detail.

For example, anyone requiring further insight into the hell of the Soviet communal apartment, as sardonically referred to in Testimony, will find the subject efficiently covered in a few pages by Fitzpatrick’s standard format of a run-through of the pertinent facts brought to life by some eye-witness accounts (eg, “Each apartment had its mad person, just as each apartment had its drunkard or drunkards, its trouble-maker or trouble-makers, its informer, and so on”).

A scrupulous historian, she’s careful to point out that not all tales of living in communal apartments are “horror stories”; however, as with her similar provisos attached to other comparably ghastly memoirs of life under Stalinism, the dominant impression is clear. (Though Nervous People, a story by Shostakovich’s friend Mikhail Zoshchenko referred to in Testimony and mentioned by Fitzpatrick, is the classic satire on life in communal apartments, Panteleimon Romanov’s novel Comrade Kislyakov [translated into English in 1931 as Three Pairs of Silk Stockings] deals revealingly with both this and other telltale aspects of urban existence during the Soviet Cultural Revolution – the era of The Bedbug, The Golden Age, and The Bolt – and, as such, is worth digging out of the stack at one’s local central library.)

Such is the fascination of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s material that, whether or not one is interested in the way it illuminates Shostakovich’s life, times, and work, it makes for absorbing social history in its own right. This applies to everything from her description of shopping under conditions of scarcity and “closed distribution” to her account of the necessary requirements for upward mobility during the interval of relative economic relaxation in the mid-Thirties (the “Second NEP”) – a time when the acquisition of basic table manners and the capacity to “speak Bolshevik” became de rigueur for anyone wishing to lift themselves from the urban slums or collective farms to preferential circles in which secret shops containing restricted goods like exotic sausages and champagne were available to those with the correct “papers”.

To Fitzpatrick’s great credit – and unlike some of her erstwhile colleagues on the “revisionist” side (revisionism in general Soviet historical studies being nearly the exact opposite of revisionism in Shostakovich studies) – she never lets her grasp of foreground details or her historian’s compulsion to balance every judgement divert her from the overriding reality of Stalinism: a prevailing coercive fear reinforced by oppressive sloganeering, incessant “social commands”, and recurring crescendos of concerted terror. (“There is no doubt,” notes an Australian witness to the officially inspired carnival gaiety in Gorky Park during summer 1935, “that [the Soviet people] take their pleasure sadly. Among the many thousands there we saw scarcely a smile, though we assumed that they were enjoying themselves.”)

A section on “Wearing the Mask” and the chapter “Conversations and Listeners” similarly expand on the already substantial evidence of social “resistance” (cf. Sarah Davies’ Popular Opinion in Stalin’s Russia, Cambridge University Press, 1997). Likewise – for those lacking the appetite to grapple with synoptic works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror or Solzhenitsyn’s indispensable The Gulag Archipelago – Fitzpatrick’s final chapter, “A Time of Troubles”, effectively sets out the basic itinerary of The Terror in a mere thirty pages.

What should be observed (as Fitzpatrick is careful to emphasise) is that “the Year 1937”, far from a sudden unexpected outburst of terror, was itself part of a crescendo of arrests and disappearances which began after the Kirov murder in late 1934. Indeed, several leading authorities, including Solzhenitsyn and Conquest, see Stalin’s entire dictatorship, from 1928 to 1953, as one long terror, waxing and waning in intensity but continuous even during the war years (eg, Michael Parrish’s The Lesser Terror, Praeger, 1996).

That this still needs to be hammered home is shown by Royal S. Brown’s hostile review in Cineaste of Larry Weinstein’s outstanding TV documentary The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin, in which Brown claims that the Fourth Symphony was written “before the Stalinist purges began”. Even today, it remains necessary to remind pundits who wish to pontificate about Shostakovich that they have a prior obligation to study some Soviet history – or a little more Soviet history than some of them appear to have bothered their heads with until now. Everyday Stalinism won’t tell them everything they ought to know, but it’s a good start and as such is recommended to all open-minded DSCH readers.

Ian MacDonald’s review of The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin can be found at his web site: