Book Reviews 26

The New Shostakovich, by Ian MacDonald. New edition

Shostakovich and FEKS. The film scores to New Babylon and Alone

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The New Shostakovich by Ian MacDonald.
New edition revised and updated by Raymond Clarke.
Pimlico Press 2006 441 pages

Eleven years after the 1979 publication of Testimony stirred up ripples of revisionist thought about Dmitri Shostakovich, the appearance of Ian MacDonald’s own insurgent portrait, The New Shostakovich, turned those ripples into a tidal wave. Taking many of its cues from Testimony, The New Shostakovich (TNS), in its 1990 first edition, delivered a wide-reaching polemic whose shortcomings, to some true believers, were far outweighed by the blazing truths it claimed to unveil. Its thesis, summed up in its author’s own words, is that Shostakovich “was not merely passively alienated from Soviet Communism but actively morally critical of it, and that his work is fundamentally shaped by this resistant outlook”.

Opinion split widely over TNS. Here was MacDonald, a journalist working in the field of music (he was one of Britain’s most important music journalists, and for 3 years Assistant Editor of the New Musical Express; he also worked as a song-writer and record producer) espousing a fresh set of interpretations of Shostakovich’s music that flew in the face of the reigning orthodoxy, both in content and in methodology. Its approach was sometimes awkward, its musical analysis often strained. Yet parts of it reverberated truth and held flashes of brilliance. With its passionate prose and intellectual intensity, TNS instantly became as widely discussed and controversial as the work that inspired it.

It seems incomprehensible, then, that after just a couple of printings TNS just about vanished from sight.

Just in time for the Shostakovich centennial, however, comes the longawaited second edition of TNS. The work is the love’s labour of British pianist Raymond Clarke. Clarke has undertaken the enormous task of giving the book a much-needed editorial overhaul – tidying up the prose, checking the hundreds of references and footnotes of the original, and incorporating into it much of Mac- Donald’s later writings (he passed away in 2003), many based on more recently-available sources. The underlying themes of TNS have not been altered. Rather, according to Clarke, they have merely been cast into sharper focus. With an introductory endorsement by Vladimir Ashkenazy, the new and augmented TNS stands as a worthy posthumous successor to the original.

Though it will seem less radical today than it was in 1990, MacDonald’s revisionist view remains far from being universally accepted. Shostakovich, to many scholars, was neither a political hero nor a dissident: he was rather one of the many Soviet artists who merely sought to survive and to create within the parameters dictated by political necessity. Others see things differently. The more nuanced impression of the composer that has emerged in more recent writings such as Elizabeth Wilson’s A Life Remembered (1994/2006) and Feofanov and Ho’s Shostakovich Reconsidered (1998/2006), has, to varying degrees, given weight to MacDonald’s interpretation. The ideological chasm between revisionist and anti-revisionist factions remains just as wide as it has always been. The polemical challenges of TNS, then, in the 2004-2005 edition, remain just as formidable as they were in 1990. The definitive English language biography of Shostakovich, Laurel Fay’s A Life (2000), with its meticulous care for detail and objectivity, provides a valuable counterbalance to the sharply opinionated, politicised perspective of TNS. The two books could not differ more. Fay, of course, is the most prominent critic of Testimony and of the revisionist position on Shostakovich. Defiantly, the new cover of MacDonald’s book bears the identical wartime photograph of Shostakovich found on the cover of Fay’s. Well, almost. The added backdrop of tanks and warplanes swarming over Red Square is emblematic of the differences within. Pivotal to making a case for Shostakovich the dissident, MacDonald dwells far more extensively on the broader sweep of Soviet history and on the human impact of Soviet totalitarian rule.

MacDonald begins the book by examining the extremes of experience that came to bear upon Shostakovich. He makes much more of an issue than Fay the rising tide of hostility in the late 1920s by reactionary groups such as RAPM and its literary counterpart, RAPP, as an extension of Stalin’s increasing hostility toward the intelligentsia. Throughout his coverage of the entire Stalin era MacDonald makes ongoing references to an “ex-Proletkult” faction of Shostakovich antagonists, though unfortunately without ever specifically identifying who the members of this elusive group might be. He notes that by 1929 these organisations were already “baying for blood” under the Communist hegemony that was emerging in all the arts. Shostakovich’s first opera, Nose, provided an early target for these groups. So did his first cinematic collaboration, New Babylon (1929). The hostile reviews the film received for its allegedly satirical attacks on the Communards, so says MacDonald in a section not found in the original edition, are seen as having far more serious implications than previously thought. MacDonald asserts that the Cultural Revolution of the period was in fact sparked by the commotion made over New Babylon
“in a similar way that works by Shostakovich were to become central to the later cultural convulsions of 1936 and 1948”. Testimony’s Shostakovich is quoted on the matter, “Things could have ended very badly…”.

In another newly added section, Mac-Donald argues for the young Shostakovich’s complete apathy toward Communist ideology, even as it applied to the goals of the Revolution. Previous references to his possible support have been replaced with five full pages of new material, partly derived from an interview with his sister Zoya, highlighting the notion of a resolutely apolitical young man. While Fay draws similar conclusions in her biography, MacDonald presses the idea forward as a foundation for his portrait of the composer as a categorically dissenting adult.

He thus has to wriggle somewhat as he proceeds to explain away Shostakovich’s involvement in pro-Revolutionary projects during the 1920s such as the Second and Third Symphonies, bearing the subtitles ‘To October’ and ‘First of May’. Regarding the Second Symphony, MacDonald argues that Shostakovich was under pressure to conform, leaving open the possibility that he had temporarily “slid off his moral moorings” by being drawn into the ‘October mystique’ of the time. In the Third he sees a pretence of orthodoxy, where “calculated insincerity” of the Gogolian sort keeps interrupting the ostensible goal, musically speaking, of patriotic fervour.

In Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk MacDonald sees political subversion taking a more explicit form. He finds Katerina’s explosion of genuine feeling, coming at a time when individualized expression was increasingly frowned upon, as intrinsically anti-Communist. For Stalin, this would have certainly been a source of irritation, almost equaling the evident parody of the leader’s own police operatives in Acts 3 and 4. Feminism, writes MacDonald, was Shostakovich’s safe metaphor for liberation from Communism, an idea that was to be developed in a planned tetralogy of operas. In keeping with this view, Lady Macbeth offered Stalin the perfect opportunity for a crackdown on the intelligentsia and on Shostakovich, its sacrificial representative.

By the time of the Fifth Symphony, an ostensibly apologetic reply to the potentially lethal Pravda attacks, MacDonald sees the mechanisms of Shostakovich’s private world of dissidence already falling into place. Some may find his interpretation in this context a bit overstated, especially in light of the Fifth’s well-contained neoclassical proportions.

He views the work as “so outspoken an attack on Stalinist tyranny… that one can only marvel at its composer’s courage”. One might see the post-War Ninth Symphony (discussed in a later section of the book), a more obvious raspberry in Stalin’s face, more worthy of such a description. He finds the Fifth Symphony’s oft-quoted subtitle, ‘Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’, like the subtitles initially assigned to the movements of other works such as the Leningrad Symphony and the Third Quartet, a “bodyguard of lies” intended to camouflage the work’s underlying dissent. He links the grandiosomania of the Fourth (“saturated in the megalomaniac spirit of the time”) and the ‘forced rejoicing’ in the finale of the Fifth (as described in Testimony) as symptomatic of the optimism spinning out of control during the era of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The coda’s notorious ‘ripple’ quotation, borrowed from Shostakovich’s recently composed Pushkin cycle, receives fresh scrutiny thanks to the inclusion of a new, more accurate translation of the relevant poem, ‘Rebirth’.

TNS leaves its most enduring impression in the sections that lay bare the landscape of human suffering during the decades of the Great Terror. Here MacDonald weaves a comprehensive narrative not only through a review of the historical record, but through a broad survey of the writers of the period. The chilling atmosphere of the times is brought into vivid focus through quotes from essayists and poets such as Isaac Babel, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom he calls Shostakovich’s “literary brother-inarms”. Newly added is an account of David Oistrakh’s numbing experience DSCH JOURNAL No. 26 – January 2007 35 during the wave of arrests of 1937, taken from Vishnevskaya’s autobiography, Galina. Quotes are also taken from the writings of Anna Akhmatova, whose Requiem series of 1939-40 MacDonald regards as the poetical sister of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Extracts from the writings of Nadezhda Mendelstam, ‘Russia’s most penetrating memoirist’, appear most frequently: “We were quite capable of coming to work with smiles on our face after a night in which our home had been searched or a member of our family arrested…”

Much of what made the earlier version of TNS such a vulnerable target for criticism was its overly literal, often naïve, musical commentary. Most absurd was MacDonald’s persistent association of certain motivic patterns with explicit images of ‘the people’, or of Stalin, himself. These discussions have been extensively revamped and made more plausible in the new edition, often with references to specific rehearsal numbers in the scores.

One might still find MacDonald stretching his metaphors in the course of his musical discussions. In establishing connections to the historical realities, he freely exercises his own brand of poetic license. For example, he perceives one passage in the Fifth Symphony as being “like a rumour running wild in a frightened community”, or part of the Fourth Symphony as evocative of “the NKVD [moving] grimly through the darkened apartment in the guise of the vigil theme”, comparing the passage to a corresponding literary device used in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. After describing an era when one’s  neighbours would disappear in the dark of the night and citizens were implicitly bound by the “duty to inform”, such explicit visualizations have a way of making their point. More sober musical commentary concerning theme and development is also found throughout. Yet these discussions are not so much about academic formality. Rather they are about deeply-felt emotional responses set within an elaborately described historical context. MacDonald minces no words when he states that “much of Shostakovich’s art is unintelligible when taken out of sociohistorical context”, that any “attempts to grasp it as ‘pure music’ are doomed… ”. When formal matters are addressed, they are often done so poetically, as when he speaks of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony as consisting of a sonata form that is “present beneath this wayward design, but in the form of wreckage, like a bombed building reconstructed in the mind’s eye from the pattern made by its collapsed remains.” Such disarmingly honest evocations suggest new and interesting ways of hearing this music.

MacDonald elaborates on the premise of isolation and terror that he sees as a common thread in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies. His view of the Seventh Symphony as a fundamentally satirical picture of Stalinist society in the 1930s takes after the comments found in Testimony on the subject, for which he extracts curiously supportive comments from David Rabinovich’s state-sanctioned 1959 biography. He is less convincing when trying to discern a subversive meaning in the cordial strains of the Piano Quintet, to which he devotes a fair number of pages. He misses a more promising opportunity of finding one in the “emotional remoteness” of the Second Piano Sonata, whose imposing Beethovenian finale seems to have escaped his notice. Other major works of which MacDonald is surprisingly dismissive are the mighty Second Piano Trio and the even mightier Eighth Symphony, which, in its “dissident” and “brooding catastrophism”, he finds lacking in Shostakovich’s usual ‘vital electricity’.

MacDonald discusses Shostakovich’s identification with and support of the persecuted Jews in the Soviet Union. In sharp contrast to Fay’s take on the matter, he regards the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, written on the verge of Stalin’s stepped up anti-Semitic campaign, as “one of the most devastating expressions of twentieth- century protest art”. He points
to the fact that the last three songs, with their incongruously upbeat tone, were composed all of fifteen days after the first eight were conceived. He speculates that the added songs might have been supplied upon official orders, the possible result of at least one “informer” being present at a private 1948 audition. He also sees the replacement in the third song of the word “Siberia” with the word “prison” as an attempt to avoid a dangerous allusion.

Among the post-Stalin works, the Tenth, with its “hidden programme”, is seen as a grand monument to the tens of millions killed by the dictator’s madness. After a period of creative lull, characterized by the “bland… insincerity” of the Sixth Quartet, MacDonald sees the Eleventh Symphony as a turning point in Shostakovich’s post-Stalin career that once again established him as the centre of Soviet music. He notes a return of the atmosphere of the Zhdanov era in 1956 with the persecution of Pasternak, an event that Shostakovich, he surmises, had responded to in his First Cello Concerto.

MacDonald speculates as to why Shostakovich would acquiesce to joining the political organization that he was so categorically opposed to all of his life. He eloquently notes that “Shostakovich’s convulsive reaction to being made to join the Party in 1960 can be understood as the breaching of a psychological dam which he had maintained throughout every indignity he endured at the hands of those who did Stalin’s will from the 1920s onward.”

Fay comes to similar conclusions in A Life. However, MacDonald offers independent thoughts as to the external pressures that might have come to bear. In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, Shostakovich was sent to America as part of a delegation of   six Soviet composers, led by Tikhon Khrennikov, on a public relations mission. MacDonald takes note of the “strangely mechanical unanimity” of their behaviour. It was during this visit that Shostakovich’s image in the eyes of the West was confirmed as being an orthodox Communist. After being quizzed by Western reporters about the events of 1948, MacDonald asserts, Shostakovich had to be defused as a figure of cultural controversy; and thus, in the following year, he was coerced into joining the Communist Party. In a new section, MacDonald suggests that permission to premiere the long abandoned Fourth Symphony also might have been offered as an incentive.

Vladimir Lenin’s inability to inspire Shostakovich is reflected in the vacuous pages of the Twelfth Symphony, “The Year 1917”. MacDonald aptly points to the coda as being one of “deliberately ludicrous bombast” that “mercilessly exceeds even the preposterous climax of the Fifth Symphony.” He sees Shostakovich’s choice of adjacent opus numbers 112 and 113 for the Twelfth Symphony and the Thirteenth Symphonies as a strategic juxtaposition between the “seemingly conformist” and the “overtly dissident”. Fay does not find the juxtaposition at all suggestive of a strategy. MacDonald saves some of his most eloquent musical commentary for the late works. He finds “Lashing injustice, lies and the ungrateful crowd” in the Michelangelo Suite, wherein Shostakovich “prowls the verge of misanthropy like some latter-day Ecclesiastes, the whipcrack of chords of [earlier compositions such as] Hamlet and Stepan Razin raining down in its eighth movement as though the scars of calumny were as livid to him in 1974 as they had been in 1946, 1948 and 1962.” In newly expanded discussion on the Fourteenth Symphony he writes that it “may be apprehended as a subtle work of political protest, a very personal expression of moral outrage against the spiritual imprisonment of life under Soviet rule, of which by then Shostakovich had over fifty years of bitter experience.”

As in the previous edition, quotes from Testimony, as a recurring frame of reference, appear throughout. However it is important to keep in mind that these quotes originally were included as touch-points of speculation and not as evidence of
absolute truth. At the time he wrote the first edition MacDonald was himself sceptical about Testimony’s authenticity: “every sentence must be taken with a pinch of salt” (p. 10). The contested memoirs, then, merely provided the spark to his imagination, the catalyst to the independent strain of his revisionist thinking. While MacDonald eventually came to embrace the memoirs as authentic, as we learn in a section of the new edition, the main body of TNS does not represent a summary defence of that position; nor does it stand or fall on the merits of the embattled memoirs. The sceptical reader need not be deterred. Each of the quotes from Testimony that appear in TNS is explicitly identified as such, allowing doubters to either roll their eyes and move on or to take the opportunity to re-evaluate Shostakovich’s alleged voice one sentence at a time.

Throughout MacDonald takes Western observers to task for their failure to grasp the dimensions of the terror wrought by Stalin’s regime. From the interviews that Shostakovich granted New York Times reporters Rose Lee in 1931 and Harrison Salisbury in 1954 to Eric Roseberry’s review of the evidence thirty years later, he notes the obliviousness of commentators to Shostakovich’s plight and their susceptibility to the controlled flow of information coming from the Soviet Union. In a newly-added first appendix, The Question of Dissidence, MacDonald takes up the matter as it played itself out in the 1990s, confronting a variety of commentators – Richard Taruskin, Laurel Fay, and Royal S. Brown among them – for their resistance to the revisionist view of Shostakovich.

Of the remaining five appendices, the three from the original edition reappear. In one entitled Stalinism and Nineteen-Eighty-Four one will find specific comparisons with the characters and events in Soviet history with those in Orwell’s dark vision. The essay Akhmatova, Shostakovich and “The Seventh”, deals with the aesthetic ties between the two artists through a number of the writer’s poems, including the 1958 ‘Music’, dedicated to Shostakovich, which appears here in a new translation. In the newly-added section 1948 and the Formalist Campaign, Per Skans takes an inside look at the decrees and plenums that marked the Zhdanov era of artistic repression. And in a final brief essay MacDonald examines the Aesopian ties between the writings of Mikhail Bulgakov and the music of Shostakovich in their satirical works of the 1920s. The final appendix presents in tabular form a splendidly detailed chronology that tracks the parallel events of Soviet culture, politics, and musical composition alongside the events of Shostakovich’s life.

Raymond Clarke is to be commended for the superb job he has done in the capacities of editor, reviser, and advocate. TNS remains the first and the only study of Shostakovich of its kind, another one of which is not likely to appear anytime soon. Ian MacDonald describes with unmatched passion the inextricable connections between the events of Soviet history and those of Shostakovich’s life and music.

Though his resources seem inexhaustible, his approach to reception history is more like that of a visionary than that of a scholar. He has been called, quite appropriately, the prophet of Shostakovich revisionism. Mac-Donald makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that the terrors that arose in one of history’s most violent totalitarian states penetrated the psyche of every individual in the society, not least those of sensitive artistic temperament. That certainly included an artist whose ears were as keenly tuned to the times as Shostakovich’s.

In this light, the case MacDonald argues that almost all of Shostakovich’s mature music represents a direct and ongoing dialogue with the troubling events of the times becomes persuasive.

On a separate note, each reader will decide for himself or herself whether Shostakovich’s music harbours the explicit or implicit degrees of dissidence that MacDonald suggests.

Even the most hardened antirevisionists may find themselves pausing to consider the alternatives. With its rich resource of relevant fact and provocative opinion, this book begs to be read by anyone seeking to enhance their understanding of the harrowing life and times of one of music’s greatest figures.

One warning: The New Shostakovich, in its revised edition, offers a riveting narrative that may influence the way one listens to Shostakovich’s music…

Louis Blois

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Shostakovich and FEKS. The film scores to New Babylon and Alone.
Dr. Hélène Bernatchez
Forum Musikwissenschaft 2
m press ISBN 3-89975-589-8, 280 pages.
Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH & Co.
KG, Erhardtstr. 8, D-80469 Munchen 159 Taaffe Place, Brooklyn, New York 11205 USA

The background is set in terms of the development of sound in the Russian film industry including close connections with French film styles and techniques, as well as the influence of the French documentary on the Russian Film d’Art. The author explains how Meyerhold was involved and later became a supporter of the cinema; she also develops his importance as a teacher of members of FEKS, founded by Trauberg and Kozintsev (1921) and Shostakovich. Bernatchez points out how Russian and French literature, with writers like Gogol and Zola, find their way into New Babylon.

New Babylon
In New Babylon the principal characters are the salesgirl Louise (working in the emporium New Babylon) and soldier Jean. This love story takes place during the Franco- Prussian War. For a deeper understanding of the film it is important to appreciate that New Babylon is also based on various novels by Zola and texts by Karl Marx and in this way Bernatchez combines French and Russian history. In his novel Au Bonheur des dames, Zola recounts the history of an emporium in Paris. In the film this emporium bears the name ‘New Babylon’. Although the film is ostensibly based on a novel, the documentary fashion with which the producers tackle the subject of the rise of capitalism and industrialization adorns it with a very contemporary quality. Hence, Zola’s critique regarding the circumstances of those men and women who formed the French commune played against those of the bourgeoisie, and of the working classes, is crystallised by Shostakovich music in unmistakable terms.

Bernatchez’s thorough knowledge of the French Impressionists is of great value in examining certain visual techniques in the film. For example, the use of ‘frozen images’ (a modern tool used in theatre by Meyerhold, known as “Tableau Vivant” (HvdG) belonging to his ‘Biomechanics’ methods) alludes to images of French paintings from the Impressionists school; in addition to the striking use of contrast between light and shade.

In another section, the reader learns why Shostakovich became fascinated by the use of dance music and how he used this in a grotesque manner in New Babylon.

In the second and third chapters of the book Bernatchez analyses New Babylon and Odna step by step. She plots the difficulties of the early attempts at sound synchronisation (including music, of course) in the movies. The author’s is a strictly non-technical approach, and the precise depiction of music and imagery makes it easy to follow.

The story of Odna is about a young teacher, Kuzmina, living in Leningrad, who is sent, by order of the State, to the Altai to teach the indigenous population. While there she almost dies in a snowstorm (having been deliberately abandoned). Thanks to modern Russian technology, she is rescued by aeroplane and taken back to Leningrad.

Order of State
Odna, like New Babylon, was a commission done by order of the State. In spite of the inevitable imposed propagandistic content bound to Socialist Realism fixations, and thanks to the members of FEKS, the film contains modernistic elements in its pictures and music. This was the first Russian Soviet film made with a soundtrack. Bernatchez explains that the contrast between intelligence and blind obedience are themes in both New Babylon and Odna.

Modern music
Bernatchez points repeatedly to modern elements in the music to Odna, such as the combination of the harp with the theremin to illustrate a snow storm. Thanks to new technology it was possible to record this onto the composite soundtrack. The author also mentions the adding of the sound of the typewriter in Odna. [The sound of the typewriter occurs for the first time in Satie’s Parade in 1916 and caused a scandal, HvdG]

“Writing a readable book is not too difficult”, Bernatchez says. “Writing a complex and readable dissertation is a more difficult challenge.” Yet this is precisely what Hélène Bernatchez has done. In my opinion it is no exaggeration to conclude that the book offers an invaluable insight into Shostakovich’s music and his work in film. This book is a must for all admirers of Shostakovich’s film music.

Henny van der Groep