Book Reviews 28

Letters to I.I. Sollertinsky

Mstislav Rostropovich: Cellist, Teacher, Legend

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Pis’ma Ivanu Ivanovichu Sollertinskomu
Letters to I.I. Sollertinsky (from D.D. Shostakovich)
Published St Petersburg by Kompozitor, 2006. 276 p
ISBN 5-7379-0304-4. In Russian

The importance of this collection of letters from Shostakovich to his friend and confidant Ivan Sollertinsky is impossible to overestimate. The period during which the 179 letters included were written spans a period of Shostakovich’s life for which we have precious little first-hand information – the earliest dates from 1927 and the final letter dates, poignantly, just 4 few days following Sollertinsky’s premature death in Novosibirsk, to his widow Olga, on 15th February 1944.

Doubts over the cause of Sollertinsky’s death persist even to this day; Russian newspapers stated that he died of a heart illness but rumours spoke of his having been murdered by the NKVD. The effect on Shostakovich was expressed most touchingly by the composer himself:

“I cannot express in words all the grief I felt when I received the news of the death of Ivan Ivanovich. Ivan Ivanovich was my closest and dearest friend. I owe all my education to him. It will be unbelievably hard for me to live without him.”

Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky (born 1902) was an expert in theatre and languages, but is best known for his musical accomplishments. He was a professor at the Leningrad Conservatory, as well as the artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. In these capacities he was an active promoter of Mahler’s music in the Soviet Union. From 1927 he became a close friend of Shostakovich. In the wake of Shostakovich’s first denunciation in 1936, Sollertinsky was termed, “the troubadour of formalism” in Pravda. Shostakovich dedicated his Second Piano Trio to Sollertinsky after his death.

Whereas many of the letters in this collection relate banal, everyday matters, others shed light on key events in the composer’s life, notwithstanding the inevitable eye of the censor to which one imagines these letters must have been subject. Even as early as 1929 Shostakovich was under pressure from ‘they’ – Soviet musical officialdom:

Leningrad, March 22, 1929 Dear Ivan Ivanovich,

“I have a great favour to ask. Can I ask you, unofficially, to do what you can to rehabilitate me if they hurl abuse? If they say my music can’t be played by a trio or some other group, you say it can. Say they must use the piano reduction and the orchestral parts they need for that ensemble.”

The traumatic events of 1936 are related to Sollertinsky with icy precision:

28 January 1936, Archangel

Dear Ivan Ivanovich,

On 26 [January] I arrived in Moscow. In the evening I went to see Gisin[1].Learnt nothing new though. But while I was with him, Leontiev[2], the deputy director of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre phoned and asked me to their filial branch. Lady Macbeth was on [there]. Comrade Stalin and c[omrades] Molotov, Miloyan and Zhdanov were present. The performance went well. After the performance the audience called, I entered and bowed – shame I had not done it after the third scene. With a heavy heart I went back to Gisin, collected my briefcase and went to the railway station. The train leaves at 0.20 am. We were travelling in an upholstered carriage[3]. The conditions were unsanitary. Arrived at 8 o’clock in the morning. We were met by one Nikolay Andreevich[4]. He kept us at the station for a long time. Then he brought us to the flat of a local conductor, Viktor Karpovich Subashiev[5]. Kubatsky left for a rehearsal, and I now sit here and wait until they find a temporary place to stay. It is impossibly cold here. In Subashiev’s room it is also very cold. I am shivering with cold. I curse myself for coming here. Do not tell anyone about the poor conditions of the journey and our stay in Archangel, because I am afraid that my relatives will get worried. I have already caught cold and am coughing. Besides, I am in a blue mood. As you can guess, I am contemplating what happened to my namesake and what did not happen to me[6]. Besides I am upset about the incident with my former affection[7]. I very much want to see you soon to discuss various topics.

Greetings to Irina Frantsevna.

Yours, D. Shostakovich.

If you write to Moscow (Moscow, 51, Bolshoi Karetny pereulok 17, flat 61), I will be very glad. V. K. Subashiev sends his best regards.

[1] From 1936 onwards S. N. Gisin worked in the administration of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre.
[2] Leonid Sergeevich Leontiev (1885-1942), the ballet company manager of the Mariinsky Theatre in the 1920s, the deputy director of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre in 1930s.
[3] On the tour to Archangel, Shostakovich went with V. L. Kubatsky.
[4] Unidentified person.
[5] V. K. Subashiev, a symphonic conductor in Archangel, later (in 1941) the conductor of the Symphonic Orchestra of the State Philharmonic Hall of the Southern Coast of the Crimea in Yalta.
[6] Apparently the occasion of I. I. Dzerzhinsky being invited to Stalin’s box after the play The Silent Don (Tikhy Don) is alluded to here.
[7] Perhaps a reference to E. E. Konstantinovskaya, her expulsion from Komsomol and her arrest after a denunciation.

The friends continued their correspondence even during the Leningrad Blockade and then during their respective displacement. Shostakovich offers an insight into the premiere of the Seventh Symphony from Kuibyshev, his wartime home.

8 March 1942, Kuibyshev

Dear Ivan Ivanovich. Yesterday evening I received a letter from your sister E. I. Sollertinskaya, to the address at the Bolshoi Theatre. She begged me to let her know everything I know concerning you. I did so immediately. Here is her address for you: Kuibyshev region, Shigony village, Raiplan, E. I. Sollertinskaya[1]. She will surely write to you when she receives your address. She does not write anything about her life. Asking only about you. We are all right. On the 5th of March my 7th Symphony was performed. Nothing else was performed. After the 1st part, which lasts 32 minutes, there was an interval. Then the 2nd, the 3rd, and the 4th parts were performed. Samosud was very good in the first three parts. By the last one he had got a bit tired. After all, he is already fifty-eight years old. But anyway, the fourth part sounded convincing enough. I hope my relatives will soon arrive from Leningrad. Recently I had a telegram from my mum concerning that. I will probably visit Moscow one of these days, where it has been suggested to perform the Symphony. Do write, my dear friend, I miss you very much. Kisses to you, Olga Panteleimonovna, and the kids, too. Nina sends her best regards. D. Shostakovich.

[1] Ekaterina Ivanovna Sollertinskaya (1904-1991), sister of I. I. Sollertinsky, was a professor of political economy. She was evacuated from Moscow, where she had been living permanently for many years, to the village of Shigony in the Kuibyshev region. Having learned that Shostakovich was in Kuibyshev she decided to contact him as she had had no news about her brother since the beginning of the war.

It is to be hoped that this collection will be rapidly published in English – more news on that in future editions of DSCH Journal.

Alan Mercer

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Mstislav Rostropovich: Cellist, Teacher, Legend
by Elizabeth Wilson 
Faber and Faber
Hardcover: 320 pages
ISBN-10: 0571220517

In April [of 2007], Mstislav Rostropovich’s body was laid to rest in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery with scarcely less public attention than that accorded his friend Boris Yeltsin, who was buried there just four days before. Such a finale for the great musician would have seemed inconceivable at the point in his life where Elizabeth Wilson ends her book. She brings his story down to 1974, when he was, for all practical purposes, kicked out of the Soviet Union. The government had made life difficult for him since 1969, when he gave refuge to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Learning that the writer was ill and living in an unheated apartment, Rostropovich lodged him in a flat on the grounds of his dacha in exclusive Zhukovka outside Moscow, at the very time authorities were stepping up their campaign against the dissident. Rostropovich went on to write a fervent condemnation of official attacks on Solzhenitsyn, who had recently won the Nobel Prize. He mailed it to four Moscow publications before embarking on an international tour, and upon returning he too was persona non grata.

The pages Wilson devotes to Rostropovich’s steadfastness and growing despair in the face of governmental pressure are among the most gripping of her book, as one would expect. Restricted in his travel and performing opportunities, and ostracized by many fellow musicians, the once lionised musician wrote directly to Leonid Brezhnev for permission for him and his family to leave the country for two years, which was granted. Travelling ahead of his family with a suitcase, two cellos and his Newfoundland dog, he experienced a final indignity at the airport when customs officials wouldn’t let him take his medals. Sixteen years elapsed before he returned to Russia, and when he did the Soviet regime was no more.

This book, which appeared shortly before Rostropovich’s death, deals with his Soviet career, and Elizabeth Wilson, who is perhaps best known for her biography of Dmitry Shostakovich, as well as one of the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, is uniquely qualified to write it. She actually studied cello with Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory from 1964 to 1971 and, in addition, was the daughter of Sir Duncan Wilson, Britain’s ambassador to Russia when Rostropovich’s situation became acute. The book deals extensively with Rostropovich’s work at the Conservatory, where he joined the faculty soon after completing his post-graduate work there in 1948, at the age of 21, and remained until his departure from Russia. Wilson’s fellow students Natalia Shakhovskaya, Alexander Knaifel, Misha Maisky, Natalia Gutman and Ivan Monighetti are a few of his illustrious protégés.

To hear his students tell it, studying with Rostropovich was not just an education in cello playing but an education in life. He disliked dealing with purely technical aspects of playing, insisting that they be bound up with the musical result. Even playing with a beautiful tone was unimportant if not backed by musical purpose. Instead of telling students to play softly here or change their bowing there, he sought to inspire their musicality with images from life. Although he sometimes gave private lessons, he favoured a classroom approach in which all his students participated and benefited from his work with a given individual. When he was having trouble explaining a point to Maisky about Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, he finally said “look at all those beautiful girls sitting there. Pick one and just play for her,” knowing full well, as did everyone else in the class, that Maisky had a crush on one of them. Like most great musicians, Rostropovich had innate, superhuman musical skills, in particular a phenomenal memory – all put to staggering use in a 1963-64 cycle of 11 concerts embracing 44 works for cello, including more than 20 premieres.

For a musician of such prodigious gifts and boundless energy, the limitations of a single instrument were understandably confining. He responded both by expanding the possibilities the cello offered as an outlet for him and by broadening his own musical pursuits. He worked determinedly to win greater acceptance of the cello. Irritated that the instrument was excluded from the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, he ensured that a new division devoted to cello was in place for the Tchaikovsky’s second instalment four years later. Above all, he was a catalyst for new compositions, giving the world premieres of more than 200 works.

Early on he tried his hand at composing, though he quickly concluded that his efforts were outclassed by those of his idols, Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. An accomplished pianist, he often accompanied his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, in recital, and he regularly illustrated points in class on the piano, not the cello. His métier became conducting, but primarily after he left Russia. “I have always dreamed of a cello with one hundred strings,” he once wrote. “I have envied conductors who inspire orchestral musicians in an artistic vision for which no single instrument possess sufficient means of expression.” His father, who was also a cellist but died when Mstislav was only 15, had urged his son to become an instrumentalist before turning to conducting so as to win the respect of his players. The younger Rostropovich made his debut as a conductor only in 1962, later conducting at the Bolshoi Theatre until his work there was unceremoniously curtailed.

Wilson is generous in allowing her fellow students to relate their own experiences with the maestro. But the cumulative result is repetitiveness, as they spin yet more variations on the theme of what a fount of inspiration he was or relate further anecdotes about the demands he placed on them. A fair amount of the book is for the cello aficionado, and portions even seem pitched to Wilson’s own circle. But the author’s discussions of interpretive issues relating to individual works are often illuminating, and a comprehensive index makes them readily accessible as a reference source to the student or serious amateur.

Rewarding, too, are Wilson’s discussions of Rostropovich’s relationship with three 20th-century giants, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten. Rostropovich was only 26 when Prokofiev died, yet the composer created significant works for him, perhaps most important the Sinfonia Concertante, whose later incarnations reflect Rostropovich’s suggestions. Shostakovich’s wife told Rostropovich in confidence that if he wanted Shostakovich to write a piece for him he should never ask him to. The strategy worked, and in a touching moment Shostakovich sought to make sure that Rostropovich really liked a new piece (the First Cello Concerto) before he asked Rostropovich’s permission to dedicate it to him. Rostropovich was less reticent about badgering Britten, who also became a close friend; the composer’s companion, tenor Peter Pears, jokingly complained that Rostropovich was a bully who wanted Britten to write exclusively for him.

Rostropovich was nothing if not strong willed, and had zero tolerance for incompetence. Regarding an early tour, an official chided him for directly informing the American impresario Sol Hurok what he would play, rather than going through the Culture Ministry. Accordingly, Rostropovich phoned the ministry to tell them what works he planned to programme, information that was duly passed on to Hurok: Bach’s Suite No. 7 in F minor, the Mozart Fourth Cello Sonata, Scriabin’s Cello Sonata – all nonexistent, of course. More serious was his revulsion at the official attacks on Prokofiev, Shostakovich and others in 1948, which must have been a formative event in shaping his attitude toward the regime. He later asserted that, unlike many other musicians, he never expressed the slightest doubt about these composers, and they responded by writing music for him. Wilson gives a real feeling for this indomitable personality.

George Loomis, Moscow Times 2007