Book Reviews 45

The Noise of Time: Julian Barnes tells of the books he has read…

Stalin’s Music Prize: Soviet Culture and Politics

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The Noise of Time: Julian Barnes tells of the books he has read…
Knopf, 2016
Hardback, 224 pages
ISBN 9781101947241

For those who’d like more people to learn about Shostakovich and his work, any study likely to reach a wide audience should be welcome. But from any other perspective, the latest book from Booker Prize-winner Julian Barnes is likely to disappoint. The Noise of Time is a decent survey of Shostakovich’s life, but it’s not at all clear why it claims to be a novel.

The book consists of three sections. The first takes place one night in 1937, as Shostakovich waits with a suitcase outside the lift of his apartment building. The second is set on the flight home from the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in 1949. And the third has the composer being driven by his chauffeur to an unspecified destination sometime in the early 1970s. All of the action takes place in Shostakovich’s mind, as he thinks over his life and muses on his relationship with the state.

That’s the idea, anyway. In practice, it’s hard to tell whether we’re hearing from Shostakovich, from Barnes himself, or from some omniscient narrator. The narrative takes unexplained leaps into other characters’ heads (e.g., when Shostakovich asks to see the misbehaving Maxim in his study, “even these words brought a kind of pain to the boy”) or ahead in time (e.g., 28 January, when “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared, was “a date [Shostakovich] chose to mark each year until his death”). Barnes portrays Shostakovich as knowing things that he could only have suspected (e.g., “Solomon Mikhoels…was murdered on Stalin’s orders,” as if this had been cheerfully reported in Pravda). The fictionalised composer’s observations on art and “Power” (always capitalised) are both heavy-handed and too detached; we have no sense that he’s living in the midst of the system he’s describing. The irony and subversion that feature so often in Shostakovich’s letters only occasionally surface here, and the reader is left with little idea of his personality.

Barnes has clearly done his research (he cites his main sources as Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, and Michael Ardov’s Memories of Shostakovich). Unfortunately, this manifests itself as long chunks of biographical and historical exposition, most of which will be tediously familiar to DSCH Journal readers, and at times, uncomfortably familiar: several passages are taken more or less directly from Testimony, with only a few tweaks to avoid plagiarism. Despite being only a medium-length 200 pages, the book feels padded. We get a full history of the White Sea Canal, regular catalogues of Shostakovich’s work to date (“four symphonies, one piano concerto, some orchestral suites, two pieces for string quartet but not a single finished quartet, some piano music, a cello sonata, two operas, some film and ballet music”), and a recital of the full plot of Maupassant’s Madame Parisse.

Barnes has made some effort to force all of this into a literary jacket. Certain motifs are repeated in a quasi-chiastic structure: Shostakovich waits by a lift in the first section, rather than listening for footsteps on the stairs, because the last section will contain a passage about Irina earning a certificate to operate the lift in his final home. There are opening and closing sections about Shostakovich meeting a beggar during a wartime train trip, which supposedly illustrate the traditional saying, “one to hear, one to remember, and one to drink.” But these touches feel like afterthoughts, and none of them really convince.

W.G. Sebald got away with blurring the line between fact and fiction because his prose swept readers along wherever he cared to go, but Barnes doesn’t have the same gift. The Noise of Time is full of clichés (e.g., Stalin’s henchmen look at him “sycophantically”—how else?) and descriptions that had me scribbling “Show, don’t tell!” in the margins (e.g., Shostakovich’s mother “had a way of talking about Nina which sounded like praise yet was in fact criticism.”). There are aphorisms that prove to be either banal (e.g., “Destiny. It was just a grand term for something you could do nothing about”) or absurd (e.g., “If at home you were spied on by [the KGB], here in America you were spied on by the press.”). And the metaphors simply don’t work. On two occasions we’re told that those persecuting Shostakovich know “as much about music as a pig knows about oranges.” But this would mean they devoured any music put in front of them without stopping to inspect it. Maybe Barnes has never observed pigs, but Shostakovich did.

Tantalisingly, there are moments when Barnes creates genuine dramatic tension—Shostakovich’s grilling by Nicolas Nabokov at the peace conference, for example, or this fantasy by the lift:

He imagined [the interrogator], behind his desk, holding out a pack of Belomory. He would decline, and offer one of his own Kazbeki. The interrogator would in turn refuse, and each would lay his chosen brand on the desk, the dance concluded.

But instead of building on this vivid scene, Barnes gives us a long excursus about Soviet cigarette brands, and which type of person smoked each one.

The strangest and most frustrating thing about The Noise of Time, though, is the utter lack of any sense of Shostakovich’s music. For all the lengthy catalogues of works, we’re given no idea what any of them sound like, why anyone would have objected to them, or why Shostakovich wrote them the way he did. Indeed, there’s nothing in the book to convince me that Barnes has even heard them. All his references to the music are superficial; with a few find-and-replace commands, you could turn this into a novel about a carpenter.  Even Barnes’s attention to factual detail seems to wane when it comes to musical matters. He seems to think that Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a “Russified” version of Shakespeare’s play. And he has Shostakovich dismiss the idea of writing works that cannot be performed—in 1948!

“One of life’s many disappointments,” Barnes has Shostakovich think as he waits by the lift, “was that it was never a novel.” Perhaps it can be. But not this one.

Laura Del Col Brown

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Stalin’s Music Prize: Soviet Culture and Politics by Marina Frolova-Walker
Yale University Press, 2016
Hardback, 369 pages.
ISBN 9780300208849

How artists conform to or rebel against the state’s and society’s wishes, how each attempt to influence the other, and how, involuntarily, imperfectly, they end up reflecting each other has long been a part of art history. Similarly, it has been an important narrative in popular studies: Beethoven titanically enforces his noisy vision on an appalled Vienna; Mozart impudently flouts the theatre’s pettifogging rules; Michelangelo resolutely bends the Pope’s commission to his own ends; and Van Gogh is tragically rebuffed by an uncomprehending bourgeoisie.

Getting behind these myths is not always easy; primary materials may be lost, hidden, inaccessible, or decontextualised. But totalitarian regimes are highly bureaucratic, and records, when they become available, are often very extensive, as the opening of the East German Stasi files demonstrated. Suddenly there is an indescribable wealth of direct evidence that can utterly transform our view of the state and its apparatus.

In the last decade or so of “Soviet musicology,” such material has contributed to histories of institutions from authors including Kirill Tomoff, Simo Mikkonen, and Meri Herrala, and there have been comparable publications in other fields. These have helped give a more nuanced view of events and personalities, whether explaining the villains’ bad behaviour or giving our heroes feet of clay.

In earlier musicology, the “means of production” were traditionally seen as notebooks, sketches, drafts, and scores. Thereafter, reception theory allowed us to consider press and public reactions, supplemented by the artists’ responses in diaries, etc. Marina Frolova-Walker (working with Jonathan Walker) examined these critical writings in Music and Soviet Power 1917–32 (reviewed in DSCH 39). She now strikes out on her own, delving into the history of official reception, in particular the Stalin Prize, through the extensive stenographic record of the behind-closed-doors discussions. This allows her to eavesdrop on their deliberations, showing the detail of the actual process: who was involved and how; what criteria were used, and how they developed or were ignored.

State prizes are an obvious way to influence artists, signalling levels of approval and creating controllable “league tables.” As such, the awards were immersed in numerous levels of politics—international, national, and personal. Embracing these sometimes contradictory demands meant that the institutional hierarchies and processes were by no means as centralised, sclerotic, or philistine as has sometimes been implied in studies that have simplistically presented the Soviet system as “top-down” totalitarianism.

Clearly, a prize named after the Leader needed his approval, and his was the primary voice, but Stalin only tended to become directly involved at the end of the process and often got his way through cunning and psychological manipulation, rather than brute force—although he was not above using that. Certainly, he would make “suggestions,” and they were, of course, duly regarded, but sometimes he seemed content to allow things go their own way. He did take a particular interest in literature and cinema, and there are numerous reports of his intimidating familiarity with the contending works. This sometimes meant that members of the Stalin Prize Committee (the KSP) were persuaded to agree on the basis of his knowledgeable opinion as much as their unwillingness to challenge him. Nevertheless, the KSP was not simply Stalin’s rubber stamp, and the writer Aleksandr Fadeyev didn’t always need Dutch courage to challenge him.

As for the KSP’s critical credentials, the overseer was Mikhail Krapchenko—a highly cultured man married to the musicologist Tamara Tsytovich—and many of the members were practising artists or well-regarded critics and theoreticians. Members with a special interest in music included conductors Samosud and Golovanov, pianists Sofronitsky and Goldenweisser, and composers Myaskovsky, Gliere and Dunayevsky, as well, of course, as Shostakovich and Khrennikov. Other disciplines had equally distinguished representatives. There was also a reasonable turnover of members, ensuring fresh views (albeit that the departures were not always voluntary). Decisions were obviously made against the backgrounds of national, artistic, and personal politics. Krapchenko, who could be seen as Khrennikov’s mentor, brought a deeply political and personal approach to the work: the degrees of support he gave to different composers, pieces, and genres at different times were clearly informed by both his personal predilections and the wider cultural politics. Having said which, there were genuine aesthetic debates as well.

All of this then sheds fascinating light on that critical chimera, Socialist Realism. Those who see it as a suffocating ubiquity should note that though the subject was sometimes discussed, many of the winners were far from conforming to its strictures.

Readers of DSCH will of course want to know how Shostakovich comes out of all this. Two chapters are devoted to him, covering him as laureate and committee member. Together with chapters on Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, Frolova-Walker shows how the fates of these three giants of Soviet music rose and fell at different times.

The award’s first year, 1941, covered works created since 1934, and Shostakovich presented a problem: his dominance made him difficult to ignore, but what work could stand comparison with Mukhina’s 78-foot statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (later the logo for Mosfilm productions)? The strange response was the Piano Quintet—hardly an epic work, and one which doesn’t end in a blaze of glory. This detour from the expected led Solomon Volkov to assume that Stalin must have been directly involved. However, Frolova-Walker’s careful dissection of the tortured nomination and voting process, including quotations from the discussions, shows that it was an internal matter, in part to avoid the memories of Shostakovich’s condemnation that might have been reignited by nominating the Fifth Symphony. And if Stalinist Socialist Realism were the be all and end all, how are we to account for the award to Myaskovsky’s less than triumphant Symphony no. 21? Meanwhile, Dzerzhinsky’s Stalin-endorsed opera And Quiet Flows the Don was excluded, in part because the follow-up—Virgin Soil Upturned—had been a terrible flop, and in part to avoid the implication that composers as notoriously unschooled as Dzerzhinsky should be rewarded.

And much of the same politicking went on every year: the Seventh Symphony was nominated, though many of the KSP had not even heard it. The Eighth was subjected to particularly exhaustive and exhausting criticism: Goldenweisser attempted to weigh its musical and ideological values, leading to an exchange about comprehensibility, especially in comparison with its unimpeachable predecessor. But behind that was Krapchenko’s internal politicking, as with four prizes and four nominees he felt he was being bounced into a decision.

Shostakovich won five Stalin Prizes: for the Piano Quintet (1941), the Seventh Symphony (1942), the Second Piano Trio (1946), a combined award for The Song of the Forests and the film score The Fall of Berlin (1950), and the Ten Poems for Choir (1952). As can be seen, some of his greatest works—most notably the Tenth Symphony—fell by the wayside or were strategically not even considered. But symphonies 8, 9, and 10, and some string quartets, were vigorously discussed. The 1950 award embraced two works as neither was considered quite strong enough on its own—a similar solution enabled the committee to award Prokofiev his record sixth (posthumous) Stalin Prize for his Seventh Symphony and (in this context) the makeweight ballet The Stone Flower.

A prodigal son, Prokofiev struggled to expunge the stain of foreign influence, and Krapchenko’s attitude toward him varied over time. Meanwhile, the book’s other “hero,” Myaskovsky, won five Stalin Prizes but, despite his reputation as a symphonist, only two such works—Symphony no. 21 and, posthumously and in tandem with String Quartet no. 13, Symphony no. 27—were so rewarded. As a KSP member, perhaps it was naivety that led Myaskovsky to occasionally be overly candid, pointing out the faults even in those works he was supporting.

Shostakovich had two stints working for the KSP, one on either side of the 1948 denunciation. He often used his influence to promote favourite composers—as, to be fair, did everyone else, but Weinberg’s Piano Quintet and the Moldavian Rhapsody both failed, and Shostakovich’s nomination of the music from the innocuous children’s radio play The Invisible Dimka (Dimka-nevidimka) may have been an attempt to get something almost under the radar. Weinberg was the only composer to remain unrewarded—indeed never even properly considered—on clearly non-musical grounds. Even Mosolov and Shcherbachev, the two major 1920s avant-gardists who were still active, were considered, though both failed. Others in Shostakovich’s circle, such as Shebalin and Sviridov, did benefit from his advocacy, but he also supported composers whose names might barely register, even with readers of DSCH: Yuri Kochurov and Georgii Kreitner.

In addition to all this, we have a deepening view of Khrennikov, but anyone expecting an exculpatory rehabilitation will be disappointed. His role as an administrator perhaps took away energy that could have been put into composition, but it also meant that everyone knew his views and remembered his actions, and could frame his pronouncements accordingly. It must then have been a deliberate snub that all three of his (second class) awards were for film scores and were shared with other crew members, rather than for his operas or concert music. Indeed, his 1950 opera Frol Skobeyev was an object of widespread carnivalesque derision, as Khrennikov’s accusations of others’ formalism were turned back onto his own work. Meanwhile, he  allowed a selection from Shostakovich’s op. 87 to be nominated (rather than the complete work) while giving his tacit approval to The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland.

Stalin’s death and the onset of the Thaw clearly rang the award’s knell, but a series of mis-steps had recently undermined the KSP’s credibility—most notably in the award for Herman Zhukovsky’s 1950 opera Heart and Soul. This debacle threw Soviet opera once again into the spotlight, with a work and a composer unable to bear the scrutiny. On the one hand it seemed inevitable that the opera would win, and yet many realised that it was an unutterably weak work, further compromised by various people’s attempts to correct its faults. Like Lady Macbeth, it was met with a Pravda review (albeit not so much excoriating, as portraying the work as wearyingly bland). The composer quickly wrote to Stalin asking that the prize be withdrawn from this failed work, and the prize sputtered to its end. The embarrassment of its existence was ameliorated when laureates were invited to exchange their Stalin Awards for State Awards—with a far smaller gold or silver content.

Frolova-Walker marshals this incredible body of evidence to show a process that was sometimes highly directed, sometimes misdirected, and sometimes almost chaotic, driven by personal relationships, aesthetics, artistic politics, and national strategy. And this is brought to life with fascinating extracts from the actual discussions. These were not beige bureaucratic sessions, but opportunities for friends to meet and enemies to spar, agendas to be promoted and thwarted, streaked with flashes of frankness, sometimes overt and sometimes veiled.

Frolova-Walker could not include all the vast quantity of research material. Three appendices, including sixteen tables, analyse the awards in various ways, but all eight appendices (29 tables) are free to view and download at With far more research in reserve, Frolova-Walker has annotated the online appendices with background information. In addition, the book’s footnotes point to further online resources, including transcripts of discussions and other materials.

Many of the 800-plus footnotes contain fascinating asides and elaborations, and could profitably have been promoted to the main text, leaving the apparatus for references and the like.

The phenomenon of the Stalin Prize is immense: almost 300 were awarded in music alone, and there were also categories for other arts as well as the sciences. Naturally, some of these are interconnected—the film award might (or might not) include the composer, the ballet and opera awards could be for the work or the staging or an individual performance. There were also general prizes, given to people for an unspecified body of work. In the final pages, Frolova-Walker briefly touches on some of these, but only to point the comparison between the “abstract” art of music and the “concrete” ones of literature, painting, etc., which can more obviously be aligned with the developing tenets of Socialist Realism.

Stalin’s Music Prize draws back the curtain to give an invaluable insight into the grand and petty machinations that surrounded the Soviet Union’s greatest gift. In the process, it demolishes a few lazy assumptions and favourite myths. Not only is the work important, but it is also written in an engaging style with occasional flashes of wit that lighten what could otherwise have been an oppressive story.

John Leman Riley