Book Reviews 57
|amazon.com / amazon.co.uk|
Paris: Bleu Nuit Éditions, 2021
Paperback, 176 pages | €20
The French language’s contribution to Shostakovich studies is surprisingly meagre, given the composer’s associations with, and visits to Paris. Original biographies in French (as opposed to translations from English, Russian, or German) can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and are comparatively summary affairs, such as Bertrand Dermoncourt’s Dimitri Chostakovitch (Actes Sud, 2006) and Michel-Rostislav Hofmann’s Dimitri Chostakovitch, l’homme et son oeuvre, published as part of the series “Musiciens du notre temps” (Éditions Seghers, 1963). The appearance of a new biography, from author and editor Jean-Luc Caron (b. 1948) is therefore something of note. Caron has published several monographs, particularly on Scandinavian music, with subjects including Jean Sibelius (Actes Sud), Allan Pettersson and Edvard Grieg (L’Âge d’Homme), Niels Gade and the French press (Éditions L’Harmattan), Camille Saint-Saëns (Bleu Nuit), and two on Carl Nielsen (L’Âge d’Homme and Bleu Nuit). Caron is also founding president of the French Carl Nielsen Association.
The new book is part of the “Horizons” collection, now approaching one hundred titles, of which Caron has penned a half dozen. As for the target readership, the general assumption in this collection is one of moderate curiosity, rather than detailed knowledge, perhaps prompted by a particular work or genre, or courtesy of a review of a disc or concert, resulting in a wish to know more about a composer and his work. The risk here is one of superficiality, in particular in the light of Shostakovich’s multi-faceted personality, the nature of the society in which he lived, and the array of underlying controversies, in particular since his death.
Caron undertakes to retrace Shostakovich’s life and career, year-by-year and opus-by-opus, in varying levels of detail (and success). Noteworthy is Caron’s allusion to a number of French critics’ eagerness to categorise (or perhaps even brand) Shostakovich as essentially a political figure (either through the composer’s assumed tacit support for the Soviet regime, and/or his disinclination to leave the USSR). He admonishes figures such as Malraux and Sartre, whose rose-coloured admiration for the USSR regime emanated from the safe comfort of French intelligentsia. The initial pages deal, commendably, with the Shostakovich family history, and the social and political milieu in which the young boy grew up, and Caron adds some valuable historical details. Subsequently, key works are presented in a relatively summary form, with minimal musical examples (typically two or three bars) and a very brief description of the structure and thematic highlights. Other works are simply listed, with the briefest of descriptions, including—almost bizarrely—works that are very rarely performed or recorded (an example being The Shot). Caron appears to have structured the book based on a Shostakovich catalogue à la Sikorski, rather than focusing on essential works. Given the slightness of the volume, this is surprising, and ultimately frustrating.
Quoted sources include writings by Lemaire, Glikman, Wilson, Volkov, Lischke and Fairclough, references and notes being inscribed, uncommonly, in the page margins. Caron does unearth some unusual references, such as Two Pieces by Scarlatti as a graduation piece from 1928, as was Six Romances by Japanese Poets, but which was premiered only in 1966. Typical of other anecdotes: “The Russian writer Fredin heard Mitya at the home of the surgeon Grekov: ‘The skeletal boy is metamorphosed at the piano into a daring musician with the strength of an adult, and has a striking rhythmic drive.” And, “In the spring of 1919, Shostakovich took improvisation lessons with Grigoriy Bruni, and was later astounded when he was taken to see a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. He was only thirteen years old.”
If Caron includes principal works in Shostakovich’s oeuvre, the book is peppered with strange comments, or opinions, concerning some of them. For example, the First Cello Concerto is dismissed as being “for many, not among the best of his works,” and the end of the Fifteenth Symphony as depicting the composer as “haunted, petrified.” He alludes to the “Elmira” theme in the Tenth Symphony but excludes any detail, preferring to link this, a Shostakovich “muse,” to his erstwhile infatuation for Margarita Kuss. There are also errors, such as the 1949 voyage to the USA attributed to 1948, and some dubious transliterations from Russian, such as “Kubalevski.”
A chronology places Shostakovich’s life and works against contemporary milestones, both historical and musical, and three other lists (a selected discography, and indexes of names and works) complete the volume.