Book Reviews 30

A Shostakovich Companion

The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich

The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years

29_Companion /

A Shostakovich Companion
by Michael Mishra
Hardcover: 640 pages
Publisher: Greenwood Press (June 2008)
ISBN-10: 031330503X
ISBN-13: 978-0313305030


   Michael Mishra
1. Shostakovich Reception History
2. On Shostakovich
3. The Testimony Debate

    Michael Mishra
4.  Youth, Revolution, and Fame (1906-1926)
5. The Modernist and the Iconoclast (1926-1931)
6. Rise and Fall, Fall and Rise (1932-1937)
7. Maturity (1938-1947)
8. “DSCH” (1948-1953)
9. The State Composer: Compromise and Dissent  (1954-1965)
10. “I Lived On … in the Hearts of My True Friends” (1966-1975)

11. Shostakovich the Dramatist: The Nose and The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
      James Morgan
12. Shostakovich and Wozzeck‘s Secret: Toward the For mation of a “Shostakovich Mode”
      David Haas
13. Shostakovich’s “Trademark” Form: The Arch-Sonata in the First Movement of the Fifth Symphony
      Michael Mishra
14. Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87:
Structural Model and Manipulation
      Andrew Grobengieser
15. Shostakovich, the Passacaglia, and Serialism
      Lyn Henderson
16. The Moving Image: Time and Narrative in the
Fifteenth Quartet
      Richard Burke

17. Shostakovich and the Cinema
     John Riley
18. Shostakovich the Pianist
      Sofia Moshevich
19. The Shostakovich Legacy
      Louis Blois

As trailed in the DSCH Journal No. 29, a closer look at Michael Mishra’s A Shostakovich Companion, which appeared in the summer  of 2008, a handful of months before Cambridge University Press’ own The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich. (As an aside – do the Journal’s readers have a theory as to why authors and/or publishers consider that you require such ‘companionship’ in respect of your interest in the composer’s music? Write to the Editor if you do or indeed if you don’t!).

As in the Cambridge book, Mishra’s primary emphasis is on “musical issues, and the secondary emphasis is on the biographical and much-debated political issues.”

Unlike the Fanning and Fairclough tome, however, Mishra’s own contribution is substantial, constituting roughly half of the book’s 600+ pages, as he plots Shostakovich’s life and career from ‘Youth, Revolution and Fame’ to ‘I lived on … in the Hearts of My True Friends’. He also pens three ostensibly unconnected introductory chapters that include a 28-page assessment of the reception that Shostakovich ‘enjoyed’ at various points in his career, and of Testimony.

Only by page 313 are we presented with the multi-authored approach, and nine writers on subjects as diverse as the Passacaglia and Serialism, Wozzeck and Shostakovich’s pianism.

Notwithstanding Mishra’s academic qualifications (he is currently Professor and Director of Orchestral Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville), the notion of Shostakovich as a popular figure in the eyes of the consumer is equally and readily accepted into his introductory ‘Preface’ as a way of ‘arguing’ one of the project’s prime inspirational forces:

“… the scope of the celebrations [of Shostakovich’s centenary] would almost prove a match for the other major composer anniversary of 2006, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. Yet it did not take an anniversary to tell us something that has been apparent for at least the last few years: no com­ poser wholly of the twentieth century currently enjoys a higher standing amongst audiences of classical music, at least in the West. In North America, for example, Shostakovich was the ninth most frequently performed composer of orchestral music (of all periods) in the 2001–2002 season, and the tenth most frequently performed in 2004–2005, an impressive showing, especially for a twentieth-century composer. In the seasons incorporating the anniversary, Shostakovich ranked sixth (2005–2006) and fifth (2006–2007).”

Indeed one of the book’s main differentiators (compared for example to The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich reviewed on page 48 of this edition of the Journal) emanates from Mishra’s ability to pitch his literary tent in the seemingly disparate camps of popularism, musicology, biography and politics with equal weight and objectivity.

Mishra’s “life-and-works volume” opens Part I with an overview of Shostakovich ‘Reception History’, subdivided into three sections:

1 – A detailed, thematically-guided plunge into the often troubled waters of Shostakovich Reception, subdivided into sub-sections: an over-brief look at ‘Western Reception’ – a short, mainly approving history of the book that ‘ambushed’ the musical world,  Testimony; ‘Shostakovich the Man; Dissent, Compromise, and Guilt’ – in which Mishra explores the psyche of the composer, the nature of his appearance to others and of his own élan, exemplified through his letters to Isaac Glikman (amongst others); ‘Characterizing Shostakovich’s “Enemies”’ – a massively over-shortened section in which the author looks at a critic, Khubov, and a dictator, Stalin; ‘Interpreting the Music’ – on the way in which commentators such as Norman Lebrecht and Ian MacDonald’s perceptions and arguments cross and collide; ‘A Multi-Layered Interpretation’ – in which codes and ciphers form part of what Mishra terms ‘multivalence’.

2 – A rather strange little section entitled ‘On Shostakovich’, containing 35 citations from the composer and from various contemporaries and commentators ranging from Britten to Zoshchenko, Zoya Shostakovich to Grigory Kozintsev. Entertaining, diverse and surprising in places.

3 – ‘The Testimony Debate’. As the title implies, Mishra looks at the conflicting arguments regarding the ‘memoirs’’ authenticity through the Fay / Ho & Feofanov claims and counter-claims, and so on. As for Mishra’s conclusion: ‘And so the mystery of Testimony’s authenticity is, as of 2007, still ongoing.’

The weighty Part II lists seven chapters (see details, above) that focus on the ‘evolution of Shostakovich’s musical language’. The editorial approach here is to consider the development of the composer’s creative output in chronological order, era by era, rather than an ordering by genre or musical/musicological discipline. This ultimately is where the Cambridge notion of ‘Companion’ differs substantially from Greenwood/Mishra’s. Aside the latter book’s ability to invest 200 extra pages on the subject in hand (an obvious advantage in any quest for thoroughness!), the single-author approach, combined with a well-balanced, homogeneous use of musical terminology ultimately pleads firmly in favour of this book as a more indispensable resource. Part II’s chapters track the development of Shostakovich’s deployment of musical forms, his highly individualised use of modes and the movement away from the pre-dominantly orchestral works of his early and middle periods to the sparser and more literarily conceived works of the final period. As already mentioned, Mishra’s examination of musical style is interwoven with a generally adequate mapping of Shostakovich’s life, including some specific analysis of his abruptly-shifting relationship with Soviet cultural politics. Throughout, Mishra utilises citations from contemporaries and from scholars to substantiate or to illustrate a trait or a period in question. There is also a quantity of musical analysis in selected areas – notably the chamber repertoire; however the level of complexity of such episodes is significantly below that found in, for example, the Quartets section of Fanning and Fairclough’s Companion. True, certain episodes and works are necessarily either trimmed, or omitted altogether, I imagine because of space constraints (notably the stage works from the 1920s and 1930s, one of the Cambridge book’s points forts, and major influences such as the Jewishness in his music), but overall the 250 pages that comprise Part II form an excellent illustrated biography of the composer.

Part III of the book, separated from the preceding pages by a small collection of photo-studies of Shostakovich, consists of six, individually-authored chapters that present, as Mishra puts it: “analytical writings, a collec­ tion whose diversity is manifested not just in the topics themselves but in the analyt­ ical techniques brought to bear.”

James Morgan, a literary scholar from the US, confronts Shostakovich’s two principal operatic oeuvres The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District separately, the conjoining element being Morgan’s employment of individually-developed and researched form of literary analysis, exploring the role of Shostakovich as that of an operatic dramatist. The author examines, citing contemporary and ‘classic’ literary sources, the composer’s work on the libretti for the operas,comparing them with original source materials. Morgan also discusses the perceived parallels between Shostakovich’s operatic works and Berg’s Wozzeck, arguing in fact that such ‘connections’ or influences are minimal. He also expands on the theme of ‘Shostakovich’s Orchestra’; the role of the orchestra within the context of an operatic performance, and as a means of comparing the vastly differing styles that govern each opera. As expounded in the Cambridge book, the transformation of Leskov’s nineteenth century Katerina into Shostakovich’s ‘old and new heroine’ is analysed and argued in considerable depth, logically so, given the underpinning nature of her character.

In contrast, David Haas’ contribution ‘Shostakovich and Wozzeck‘s Secret: Toward the Formation of a “Shostakovich Mode”’ is the first, principally theoretically-driven study in Mishra’s tome. As the editor explains:

“Haas proposes a “Shostakovich mode” on the basis of the prevalence of certain scale structures found in the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and, in particular, the opus 34 Preludes for Piano. This “Shostakovich mode” is not a mode in the conventional sense, i.e., one with a given tonal centre, but a construction that is more akin to the Schoenbergian “vagrant sonority,” a scalar pitch collection that is not necessarily related to the tonic of the moment. Although Haas considers only these works from the mid-1930s, his proposed mode’s compatibility with the octatonic scale and, by extension, with the intervals that constitute the composer’s famous “DSCH” monogram would give it a wider use in later works, though by that point the “vagrant sonority” quality has given way to something more traditionally modal, as the pitch collection more often centres itself onto the surrounding tonic.”

As elsewhere in the book, the structural analysis is partnered by generous contextual passages, citing contemporary influences through Russian and Western works such as those by Shcherbachov and of course Berg.

In a similar vein, Mishra’s own sortie into the landscape of musicology sees him expounding on and examining what is termed as the “sonata-arch” structure, arguing the construction to be a Shostakovich ‘innovation’ in terms of formal design and deployment. Mishra:

“Although the “sonata-arch” was most often found in his symphonic first movements, certain compositional features associated with it (for example, the “gradually emerging” recapitulation) would find their way into other genres and forms. My own study shows the “sonata-arch” as manifested in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, the work in which this form could be said to have reached its first maturity.”

In a sense contrary to Mishra’s introduction, his own article is by far the most ‘technical’ in the book, in analytical terms (for the layman, a recording plus score of the Fifth Symphony are essential to follow each logical thread in Mishra’s various transformation theories.)

The following two chapters comprise formulaic analyses and definitions of compositional technique in respect of genre, as opposed to deliberations based on performance format: musical theorist Andrew Grobengieser’s on the Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, opus 87 and researcher Lyn Henderson’s on the passacaglia and serialism. Grobengieser examines the arguments for and against an an­ alytical concept of “model” whilst demonstrating how the notion is able to be employed in a logical and fulfilling sense in respect to Shostakovich’s piano cycle. The essay inevitably considers the Preludes and Fugues with reference to the work’s most obviously inspirational predecessor, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Again, the treatment here is densely analytical, pitching to an informed audience.

In respect of Henderson’s contribution, Mishra elucidates:

“Aside from the Piano Quintet, whose first two movements also carry the titles “Prelude” and “Fugue,” opus 87 would constitute Shostakovich’s only engagement with that particular eighteenth-century pairing. By contrast, another baroque form, the passacaglia, would preoccupy Shostakovich for his entire career. Even excluding a couple of formative attempts at ground-bass composition (the opening of the Second Symphony and a short scene in New Babylon), this preoccupation would last over four decades and manifest itself across the board in symphonies, concertos, solo instrumental works, chamber music, opera, and song cycles.”

Lyn Henderson considers the changing role of this form in Shostakovich’s music, argu­ ing that while a progressively stronger engagement with baroque manners can be felt in the passacaglias written up to 1951 (culminating in the Twelfth Prelude of opus 87), the later examples (starting with the Sixth Quartet of 1956) would seek “a radically new orientation,” one in which the melodic aspect of the ground would become more important. Although Shostakovich was a latecomer to serialism and his flirtation with it was short-lived, his treatment of the note-row as a melodic/expressive device rather than as a structural determinant a la Schoenberg would, in a sense, parallel the new melodic orientation of his passacaglias.

Equipped with ample quantities of musical examples, this essay is one of the most successful of the extended family that forms Part III of the Companion, thanks to Henderson’s ability to marry overtly objective, ‘monochromatic’ technical theorems to the highly subjective, multi-layered, affecting experience of the audience to the works in question.

The final paper in this section, Richard Burke’s ‘The Moving Image: Time and Narrative in the Fifteenth Quartet’ considers, as Mishra puts it, “Shostakovich’s use of cinematic technique in the service of musical narrative.” Fascinatingly, Burke relates Shostakovich’s early exposure to cinematographic experimentation, wherein the juxtaposition of shots within a sequence can be perceived by the audience as comprising a logical and coherent narrative.  Elsewhere, Burke argues other dramaturgical links that exist between different aesthetic and musical disciplines, peering into the Quartet’s own structure and narrative lines.

Each of the three remaining chapters that make up Part IV of the book evokes distinct facets of Shostakovich’s life and career; his work within the Soviet film industry, his performing ca­ reer as a solo pianist and his role – and legacy as a teacher.
In spite of Mishra’s hard-sell introduction to John Riley’s contribution (“It is certainly easy to dismiss Shosta­ kovich’s film scores. Even taking into account the vastly different requirements of film versus concert music, they can hardly be said to rank with the symphonies or string quartets in the quality of their musical invention, though the score to Ham­ let comes the closest, etc), and notwithstanding the author’s extensive knowledge of his subject, this chapter passes without any great sense of advancement of a subject that is comprehensively covered in Riley’s own 2004 book on the films (Dmitri Shostakovich: a Life in Film Tauris Publishers). That said, and as with the Cambridge tome, as part of a ‘broad’ overview of Shostakovich’s life and career, the abridged nature of this chapter is perfectly adequate.

Likewise Sofia Moshevich’s writings on Shostakovich the performer appear in greater detail elsewhere. (It should be noted that Mishra’s book was first conceived before either Riley or Moshevich’s books were written!) This chapter largely outstrips David Fanning’s in terms of documentary evidence and presentation.

Finally to a contribution from a writer whose name will be familiar to the Journal aficionado; Louis Blois, who offers an overview of the ‘Shostakovich Legacy’, as manifested by those who studied with him formally as well as those who fell more generally into his sphere of influence.

His essay is subdivided into sections entitled ‘Shostakovich the Teacher’, citing the composer’s desire to reinforce the individuality of his students, quoting the creatively reciprocal nature of the teacher-student relationship and expanding upon the multidisciplinary nature of his pedagogical approach. ‘The Shostakovich Influence’ in which he considers the work of major com­ posers who followed Shostakovich’s ‘path’ such as Boris Tishchenko, Boris Tchai­ kovsky, Galina Ustvolskaya and Mieczyslaw Weinberg.

As Mishra projects, “These figures would demonstrate diverse responses to the Shostakovich legacy. In the case of Tishchenko, Tchaikovsky, and Weinberg, it was usually the incorporation of specific Shostakovichian compositional devices into music that occupied quite different aesthetic spheres. In the case of Ustvolskaya, an initially very close attachment to Shostakovich’s style (for example, her Con­ certo for Piano, Strings, and Timpani) would eventually lead to a complete rejec­ tion.”

‘Shostakovich’s Students’ includes excellent and useful mini-essays illustrating the nature of the influence of the teacher on the pupil, namely: Tishchenko, Weinberg, Ustvolskaya, B. Tchaikovsky, Sviridov, German Galynin, Karen Khachaturian and Kara Karayev.

Overall, A Shostakovich Companion does what it sets out to do; it offers both the initiated and the uninitiated a broad biographical and musicological overview of the composer’s life and works. Whereas the Cambridge counterpart is structured according to the choice of its individual contributors, Michael Mishra is very much the pillar on which the Greenwood book stands. Its availability and pricing, however, will pose a significant problem for the ‘average’ reader, pending an eventual paperback appearance?

Alan Mercer

30_Cambridge Companion /

The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich
Edited by Pauline Fairclough and David Fanning
416 pages, 91 music examples
Published Cambrisge University Press October 2008
Hardback ISBN-13: 9780521842204
Paperback ISBN-13: 9780521603157


Introduction – Pauline Fairclough and David Fanning

PART I: Instrumental works

Personal integrity and public service: the voice of the symphonist – Eric Roseberry
The string quartets: in dialogue with form and tradition – Judith Kuhn
Paths to the First Symphony – David Fanning
Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata: a composition recital in three styles – David Haas
‘I took a simple little theme and developed it’: Shostakovich’s string concertos and sonatas – Malcolm MacDonald

PART II: Music for stage and screen

Shostakovich and the theatre – Gerard McBurney
Shostakovich as opera composer – Rosamund Bartlett
Shostakovich’s ballets – Marina Ilichova
Screen dramas: Shostakovich’s cinema career – John Riley

PART III: Vocal and choral works

Between reality and transcendence: Shostakovich’s songs – Francis Maes
Slava! The ‘official compositions’ – Pauline Fairclough

PART IV: Performance, theory, reception

A political football: Shostakovich reception in Germany – Erik Levi
The rough guide to Shostakovich’s harmonic language – David Haas
Shostakovich on record – David Fanning
Jewish existential irony as musical ethos in the music of Shostakovich – Esti Sheinberg

In their scene-setting Introduction to this new book, the authors recall that:

“The first English-language study to attempt a genre-focused overview of Shostakovich’s music was published over a quarter of a century ago. Christopher Norris’s Shostakovich: The Man and his Music was an early attempt to assess the major works (symphonies, operas, piano music and string quartets) by writers from a wide range of backgrounds: music critics, composers, performers, historians and literary theorists.”

And indeed this is the basis on which the ‘companionship’ implied in the book’s title is to be developed.
The Introduction continues:

“It is a paradoxical fact that, despite Shostakovich’s extraordinary popularity, there was no reliable post-Soviet biography until 2000 and the present collection of essays is the first English-language study that aims for near-comprehensive coverage of his work. That Western musicology has been so late in its engagement with Shostakovich is, however, symptomatic of diverse forces, some specific, some general. Though some of the specific prejudices concerning the quality of his output may be fading today, Shostakovich’s belated acceptance into the canon of works for viable musicological study is as much a symptom of musicology’s recently broadened cultural remit (popular music, world music, cultural studies) as it is of an enhanced awareness of his wider output and its cultural resonance.”

Some of the chapters in the book are employ a broadly analytical emphasis, but attempt, with varying degrees of success, not to lose sight of the context in which the works evolved and emerged.

Eric Roseberry’s 29-page tour of the symphonies oscillates between musical analysis and biography (although that The Execution of Stepan Razin be included in this chapter, given the limited word count available, belies belief). The resultant mix is at times frustratingly bland, eg. the reader familiar with the quotes to be found in the Tenth Symphony could surely have passed over  the same-ground excavations here: in contrast, Roseberry’s detailed accounts of the Thirteenth Symphony’s impossibly difficult inception and gestation and his views on the programmatic nature of the Eleventh and Twelfth symphonies are refreshingly original. In conclusion, Roseberry almost touchingly fails to ‘place’ Shostakovich’s symphonic legacy within the cycles of Beethoven, of Tchaikovsky and of Mahler, before concluding that ‘in their breadth and power the finest of his symphonies represent a true twentieth-century response to the broad historical challenge of this most universal of musical forms.’

Judith Kuhn’s chapter on the quartets is far less digestible for the non-musicologist in her rather frantic and at times stifling tour of the 15 works in 32 pages, is the only paper in the book to contain almost no contemporaneous or biographical material, is requiring of some not insignificant musicological knowledge and broadly speaking is not for the layman’s table.

Of by far the greatest documentary interest in this first section of the book, David Fanning’s chapter on the early works, Paths to the First Symphony, is a paper that is thoroughness exemplified, as the author evokes the appearance (and in some cases the disappearance) of Shostakovich’s early works, whose influences look both to past and future schools, stylistically-speaking. The manner in which Shostakovich’s creative abilities develop and mature is plotted with examples from works such as the opus 1 Scherzo in F sharp Minor, the opus 3 Theme and variations for Orchestra, the opus 6 Suite for Two Pianos and the opus 7 Scherzo in E Flat. Not only do the paths lead to the star pupil’s opus 10 – many threads and themes find their way into later works.

David Haas’ paper explores the harmonic language to be found in the Second Piano Sonata, whilst at the same time alluding to the climate in which Shostakovich was by then working (1943); of special interest is his drawing of parallels between compositional traits that define this undervalued work as falling both within the broadly classical tradition of Schubert and Beethoven and reflecting the deeply-rooted traditions that characterised the Nikolayev ethic. Untypically poignant is his closing paragraph:

“At the end of many a Shostakovich work, it is a temptation for all in the audience awestruck initiate, seasoned ticket-holder and cagey scholar alike to ponder the issue of extra-musical meanings, personal and collective experiences, and the possibility of articulating a philosophical underpinning. In the Second Sonata, there is enough affective and stylistic variety, enough harrowing excess, enough stasis and peripeteia to launch a number of distinct, perhaps contradictory hermeneutic projects. The focus might be given to personal grief over the loss of an artist and friend, or to a nation whose recent past, present and foreseeable future in 1943 seemed inescapably defined by a culture of suffering, sacrifice and loss, regardless of whether Hitler, Hitler’s SS and Wehrmacht, Stalin, the NKVD, death in general, or something else, or nothing at all be considered the source of the evil. At such moments, it bears reminding that Dmitry Shostakovich had acquired his characteristic reluctance to divulge specific extra-musical meanings long before the War and 1936. In the person of Leonid Nikolayev – a kindred spirit in this regard as well – verbal reticence was more than a personality trait. In his studio he not only discouraged the use of poetic imagery but was capable of satirizing it. In this he remained loyal to an aesthetic tradition that Lev Barenboim has traced back through Taneyev to Taneyev’s own teacher: tone poet Anton Rubinstein’s more analytical and programme-averse brother Nikolay. For such as these, the deepest riches of a musical work are inaccessible to metaphorical approx­ imations, but are instead best appreciated upon the completion of a proper apprenticeship in other styles and other works.”

In Malcolm MacDonald’s chapter: ‘I took a simple little theme and developed it’, seven works are considered – the four string concertos and the three string sonatas. MacDonald offers a logical contextual foundation based on contemporary events in Shostakovich’s life on which to construct his arguments for or against the creative pulse and impulse behind each work, from the ‘retrenchment’ of the Cello Sonata, the tracing of the ‘development and sublimation to increasingly elegiac ends of the comic style’ (here he cordons off the first violin and first cello concertos for separate analysis under the banner ‘Sublimation of the comic to the elegiac’) to the late sonatas and concertos, which he categorises as ‘shared concerns’. Each work is analysed and contextualised separately, combining musical analysis with contemporaneous facts of concern and influence for Shostakovich. The compositional progression to which the seven works accord is a neglected field of study, and as MacDonald demonstrates, is one most worthy of attention.

In the section on music for stage and screen, Gerard McBurney theorises as to why the theatre music is an almost uniformly neglected echelon of Shostakovich’s repertoire. Within this paper he adds a separate section on the composer’s early encounters in the theatre, aptly entitled ‘A baptism of fire: working with Meyerhold’, offering wonderfully colourful insights into the dramatic ethics of the 1920s, before embarking on a detailed tour of the repertoire emanating from the 1930s. Here the most notable of the works considered are the stage version of Hamlet (1932) and the (soon-to-be-released) music to Salute Spain! in which McBurney evokes the political machinations that resulted in Shostakovich being ‘chosen’ as its composer, whilst adding more personal agendas including his infatuation for a translator and a temporary divorce to Nina. The article includes many references to Declared Dead (or, as is the title more often encountered – Hypothetically Murdered) – which work McBurney researched, completed and orchestrated. McBurney’s inclusion of a complete list of theatre scores, which details theatre company, place and date of premiere as well as author and director, is an invaluable resource.

Likewise, Rosamund Bartlett’s chapter on Shostakovich’s operatic output combines both background and foreground aspects to the composer’s curtailed career in this genre; by way of introduction to The Nose she plots the operatic landscape of Soviet Russia in the 1920s including the significant influence of Western composers such as Berg, Bartok, Hindemith and Schreker, devoting substantial passages to the influential critic Boris Asafiev, whom she describes as an éminence grise of Soviet musical life and elucidates thus. In addition to The Nose and Lady Macbeth Bartlett admits the Gogol-inspired The Gamblers, an incomplete project but one that Bartlett describes as consisting of ‘two hundred pages of inspired writing’. In terms of original research and to a great extent uncharted territory, she concludes her contribution to the book with a series of references – some brief, some expanded – on projects that Shostakovich considered, or indeed began. These range from The Adventures of Pinocchio, The Carp, People’s Will, Lermontov’s classic A Hero of our Time, The Snow Queen and Chekhov’s extraordinary The Black Monk. The recently-revealed project Orango is also mentioned, although without allusion to any current work or prospects of performance, this despite substantial sections of the opera coming to light (work on reconstruction and orchestration is underway although a staging may not be realised until late 2009, 2010 or later…)

In a similar vein the essay that features Shostakovich’s balletic output, written by Marina Ilichova, navigates its way through the 1920s and 1930s, from the repertoire’s ‘golden age’ to public disgrace and eventual oblivion. She offers insights into contemporary theatre and ballet; the struggle between artistic ‘freedom’ and the increasing political constraints that ultimately quashed an era. Finally, and more optimistically, she alludes to ‘later’ ‘reinventions’ in which, in some cases, Shostakovich’s symphonies and theatre music’ were used to ‘create’ new staged works, prior to the true revivals of ballets such as The Golden Age and The Bright Stream in the concluding 20 years of the twentieth century.

‘Screen dramas; Shostakovich’s cinema career’, the title to John Riley’s contribution to the book hides little; this is indeed a full-blown tour of the composer’s on-screen repertoire, spanning just short of fifty years and thirty-odd films. The problem here – the fifteen paltry pages allotted to this vast swathe of celluloid and manuscript paper: the sheer density of facts and analysis ought to have justified twice the word count. Nevertheless, the ‘companion’ nature of the book is respected – name a film with a score by Shostakovich, and you’ll find a reference here. A pity the editors didn’t consider the inclusion of a table of film projects, à la McBurney; this would have added considerably to the usefulness of the chapter.

Francis Maes’s exploration of Shostakovich’s songs is particularly welcome, given the relative sparseness of quality writing on the subject. Here Maes achieves the word-music equilibrium with impeccable judgement, with the arguable exception of a clutch of musical examples that surely could have been restricted to purely textual manifestations, especially if space was at a premium. Maes argues against the over-zealous use of literary-symphonic connections, especially the Pushkin Verses – Fifth Symphony allusions for which, whilst not wholly discounting, Maes argues that prudence is in order, guiding the reader to note:

“A more obvious case of song quotation in a symphonic work occurs in the second movement of the Thirteenth Symphony at the thought that humour is executed. At that point, Shostakovich quotes the song ‘MacPherson before his Execution’ from his opus 62, another defiant dance in the face of death. On the other hand, the allusion to the Pushkin monologue on the text ‘What does my name matter to you?’ (the second song from opus 91), which Elizabeth Wilson detects in the Tenth Symphony, is too vague to carry much critical weight.”

Also impressive in Maes’ contemplation of the status of critical work within this genre is:

“Song criticism that focuses on unequivocal meaning in this way denies the defining quality of the genre. Meaning in song is multidimensional by nature, resulting as it does from a subtle interplay between two discrete, autonomous modes of expression, whose combined content is always hard to paraphrase and partly elusive. The multidimensional quality of song has been accepted in song criticism in general as one of the glories of the genre, but it is all too often neglected in the case of Shostakovich.”

Co-editor Pauline Fairclough focuses on the ‘official’ works in the Shostakovich opus, although here I detect a certain internal editorial contradiction (or divergence of opinion?); whereas the Introduction is uncompromisingly dismissive of certain works:

“Shostakovich’s two cantatas, The Sun Shines over our Motherland, opus 90 and even Song of the Forests, opus 81, as well as numerous patriotic songs, languish in neglect, and understandably so, given their poor musical qualities.”


The Sun Shines over our Motherland, composed for the 35th anniversary in 1952, cannot bear comparison in compositional terms with Prokofiev’s stunning 1937 Cantata, whatever ideological problems both works embody. Texts aside, few concert promoters would be prepared to inflict Shostakovich’s work on a paying audience, except perhaps in the context of a festival with didactic as well as artistic aims.”

In her chapter, she argues the merits of each so-called ‘official’ composition and not only musically, but also as a child of its times, with or without notions of Soviet politicisation. Missing from the chapter is the Festive Overture – an example of Shostakovich’s self-deprecation on the back of a brilliantly-executed work, thematically and textually speaking. However what is present is a splendid array of wartime pieces, of ‘forays into the mass song genre’, of anthem competitions and of the valleys, hills and mountains that form the various hymns to the Motherland to which mass verse was born and to which Shostakovich, and many of his contemporaries ‘chose’ to add their voice. Song of the Forests receives its own section, plus plentiful musical analysis before Fairclough’s finale, which includes rarities: October, Loyalty and March of the Soviet Militia – all three pieces falling with the opp. 131 – 139 span.

Erik Levi’s – ‘A political football: Shostakovich reception in Germany’ looks at the relationship between the country, its artistic and political outlook, and the composer. Levi explores the synergies that marked, in particular, the composer’s youthful period, including that of ‘Shostakovich in the Weimar Republic (1928–33)’ but whose nature changed irrevocably post-War, reflecting the perception of the composer in the West (including the German West) as a Soviet lackey, and promoting his status within East Germany:

“If one of the principal motives that lay behind all this active promotion of Shostakovich in the GDR was to bolster the cultural policies of the regime, the composer himself was portrayed as a willing accomplice to its stance. Two examples in particular served these objectives admirably. First, there was Shostakovich’s work on the anti-fascist film Five Days. Five Nights (1960), a joint project between the GDR and Soviet Union that necessitated the composer’s high-profile visit to the country. Although Shostakovich’s visit is best remembered nowadays as the time when he worked on his Eighth String Quartet, it was the film music that initially attracted most attention. Second, both Musik und Gesellschaft and Musik in der Schule were especially proactive in publishing German translations of articles written by the composer that toed the party line with regard to issues of music and ideology.”

If the objective of David Haas’ ‘Guide to Shostakovich’s harmonic language’ is indeed to be “rough”, as the title depicts, and of any succour to the wearied adventurer in search of companionship [sic] – then it fails, in spite of its spirited forays into non-technical, (dare I say) factual areas such as a splendid snapshot of the Petrograd Conservatoire in 1919 or again details of the repertoire to be found in the halls of Leningrad in the 1920s or indeed with the notion of the use, abandon and return of key signatures at various junctures in the composer’s career. The editorial unevenness (or perhaps an excess of fair-mindedness?) is a disappointment, given the innovative plan to which this book has been constructed. All of that said, an hour spent on this chapter is worth every minute spent – and every bead of sweat expended, whether or not one’s sense of inadequacy might be heightened at reading:

“As we enter into the second century of Shostakovich studies, scholars should accept as a central challenge the search for an analytical approach that is both comprehensive and subtle enough to respond to the highly allusive, familiar-yet-uncanny harmonic language that undergirds, syn­ chronizes, and, in fact, is directly responsible for producing the realm of Shostakovia: that agglomeration of affective states whose peculiar organiza­ tion of familiar tropes and distortions and lingering unease renders it easy to recognize yet difficult to characterize in words and charts. Reasonable though it may appear in the short term, a powerful ‘all-explanatory’ analy­ tical system, when imposed too broadly and unilaterally, ultimately disap­ points. As F. Scott Fitzgerald (a slightly older contemporary) put it: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two mutually opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ The same holds for anyone seriously wishing to engage with the music of Dmitry Shostakovich and has informed the best analytical investigations of it to date.”

David Fanning’s contribution to his own co-tome is rather mischievously entitled ‘Shostakovich on record’ – are we about to be treated to an appreciation of the finest in vintage recordings of Shostakovich’s music, or perhaps an insight into the Shostakovich-Melodiya relationship, rights and production issues and so on? Not at all; what in fact makes this chapter tick is a overview of Shostakovich the pianist and his appearances as such on disc. Of course a recent book on the subject (Dmitri Shostakovich – Pianist by Sofia Moshevich, McGill-Queen’s University Press, see review in DSCH Journal No. 21) covers an equivalent ground, but necessarily in greater detail (222 pages as opposed to 25). Ultimately this is an enjoyable chapter, with several titbits of note (Shostakovich’s Bach interpretation, a look at the broader phenomenon of composers’ aptitude (or otherwise) to interpret their own works in addition to a very detailed look at a couple of the opus 87 set): but surely the editors could have avoided such obvious duplication of content within such a specialised academic field?

Finally comes Esti Sheinberg’s discussion of ‘Jewish existential irony as musical ethos in the music of Shostakovich’. The subject here is dense and complex, but Sheinberg approaches it logically and meticulously – indeed her ability to lighten the obfuscations surrounding such philosophical theses impresses, producing fascinating and thought-provoking intellectual premises. To what extent was Shostakovich aware of the Existentialist movement, influenced by Ivan Sollertinsky’s fascination with Nietzschean theories surrounding love, and the artistic exploitation of same? (Sheinberg here quotes Shostakovich via Testimony, albeit with riders and sub-questions). In particular and most explicitly, Sheinberg refers to Shostakovich’s transformation of Leskov’s Katerina in his portrayal in Lady Macbeth, as well as to works such as Carmen and those by Kustodiev. Again, the influence of Sollertinsky on the young Shostakovich in regard the theme of Jews and Jewishness is key to Sheinberg’s arguments: she is on fairly safe ground of course, as such influences have been adequately discussed and accepted during past decades of research into this period of the composer’s life. The author analyses the ‘Song of Poverty’ from From Jewish Folk Poetry in addition to the finale of the second Piano Trio, arguing in respect of a passage in the former that:

“the augmented second between the minor third degree and the raised fourth is ‘East-European’ rather than specifically Jewish (in the latter case the augmented second interval tends to appear between a lowered second degree and a major third). This is significant since Shostakovich clearly prefers the less directional force of the former interval, thus emphasizing the semiotic role of this augmented second: existential disorientation rather than an ethnic pointer.

Shostakovich is not looking for Jewish folklore, it would seem, but for Jewish ethos, the Jewish mode of awareness of existence, the inescapable human responsibility to expect justice in a hopelessly unjust world. The incongruity between these two correlations is analogous to the textual one. Suffering, starvation and the death of innocents, condoned by the God of justice, position us in an alienated, awkward, disorienting reality, to which the Jewish ethos responds with incongruent, ironic euphoria.”

This book has its shortcomings, notably the unevenness of chosen subject matter and the column inches thereby allotted, but the Companion also has much that is unique, challenging and highly informative – a valuable addition to the Shostakovich-focused bookshelves and an entertaining read.

Alan Mercer

30_Morrison /

Simon Morrison
The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years
New York, Oxford University Press
ISBN: 987-0-19-518167-8
H/B 491pp

I heard the “Classical” Symphony on the radio the other day, and the announcer said afterwards: “Well, Sergei Prokofiev never wrote another symphony like that one.” He meant well, but questions of style seem out of place, following close study of The People’s Artist. Through Simon Morrison’s meticulous research into formerly closed Russian archives, we see a great composer progressively stripped of authority, even over the shaping, content and orchestration of his own works. His wife realises the horror of their situation right away, tries to get the family away. Instead, the rocky marriage collapses. But the Soviet state simply tightens the screws on a very sick man and puts his wife in a labour camp. His name is used, as the State sees fit, and the State watches him die.
Prokofiev’s poor health and near-poverty sometimes alarm his friends and colleagues into action: he was not the easiest person, but people were clearly worried about him. Shostakovich intervenes (successfully) to ensure Prokofiev gets proper medical treatment, while others try to help with commissions. Yet even Lev Atovmyan, who had helped persuade Prokofiev to make his disastrous move home in the 1930s, and who helped him later on, falls foul of the System. He needs help himself, to make even a subsistence living. Prokofiev, always busy but in very bad shape indeed, turns helper. They were all in the same, sorry, sinking ship, and this is not a happy story. Morrison shows us an exhausted Prokofiev at the end of his short life, simplifying and extending earlier works like the Fourth Symphony, the Fifth Sonata and the Sonatinas, while writing the “children’s” Seventh Symphony, but every consonance seems limned with tragedy.

Yet Prokofiev would have been a major creative miracle even if all he’d written was the “Classical” Symphony, from the start of his career, or the Symphony-Concerto, from the very end. Or the F minor Violin Sonata, a work that enacts in just half an hour the composer’s dispiriting later life. The last movement famously wipes the smile off its own face, slowing its jolliest “Classical Symphony” tune into sad, quiet despair at the end. Simon Morrison is more often at pains to stress Prokofiev’s optimism, derived from his faith in Christian Science. He hails War and Peace as a victory against all odds. He also exposes (for the first time in proper detail) the extraordinary official meddling in Prokofiev’s Tolstoy epic, and in The Stone Flower, while revealing the macabre prehistory of the anodyne On Guard for Peace.

No one could now make serious comment on any of this later music, without first digesting every grim paragraph of Morrison’s narrative. His book also makes a manifesto for the reassessment of Prokofiev’s neglected works, especially those for the stage, and the wartime film scores. Still more powerfully, Morrison argues for a reliable edition of the complete works. When even Romeo and Juliet is most familiar in compromised form (the original scenario is included here as an appendix), Morrison is right to assert that we just won’t know what Prokofiev’s true status is, until all the music is laid clearly before us. To that extent, The People’s Artist is itself part of a confusing transitional phase, in Prokofiev Studies. So much new material has appeared in the last few years, altering the picture. Yet no amount of delving into Soviet written materials is guaranteed to tell the whole truth about a society in which nobody with any sense wrote down anything that really mattered.

So Prokofiev Studies (like the DSCH territory) is both a boomtown and a minefield for scholars. Morrison’s academic referents tend to be Americans, who know their Russia well: Malcolm Brown, and Caryl Emerson. I still find the overall approach slightly naive, and sometimes lacking in appreciation of irony, with respect to the documentary evidence. Meanwhile, volume one of David Nice’s recent Prokofiev biography seems unlikely to have a successor, though Morrison’s very different book forms the de facto volume two. There is also a dust jacket encomium here from Richard Taruskin, who says: “Prokofiev’s life and the lives of his wife and family were wrecked in consequence of his character flaws.” Thankfully, Morrison’s book rises above such high-and-mighty pronouncements, though he offers no examination of the rumours about the composer’s gambling debts, or the possible psychological roots of Prokofiev’s progress.

The index of Morrison’s book is a little confusing, and I think he is sometimes off-the-mark when he strays into assessment of some of the works. The publishers should have allowed him to include far more of the unfamiliar photographs he found. He has clearly had to compromise, and understandably gives most space to works he’d like to see revived. I’m sure he’d have preferred to publish more materials. But anyone with a serious interest in Prokofiev needs to grab this absorbing and readable book, which as a piece of primary research into an unfathomable era, counts as a triumph. Shostakovich is a bit-player in this story, but Prokofiev was ever conscious of him, and his role is still important. Compared to Prokofiev, in later years, he seems almost secure for a while, even after 1948. Substantial food for thought, from Morrison, about the changing status of Shostakovich, under the crazy system, and the surreal nastiness of day-to-day Soviet musical life. The picture of what it was really like for Prokofiev and Shostakovich is clearer and more convincing in The People’s Artist, than in any current Western biography of Shostakovich himself. For the rich historical detail, for the information on so many in the Soviet world (not least Meyerhold, Atovmyan and Miaskovsky, as well as Rostropovich, and of course Prokofiev), and for the insights into common ground like the Soviet film industry, The People’s Artist is also required reading for the DSCH enthusiast. Bring on the Prokofiev Critical Edition.

Paul Ingram