Column

Lingering questions about a musical giant

Shostakovich may, or may not, have been a closet Soviet dissident, but we are not in a position to pass moral judgment

Barbara Amiel June 22 1998
Column

Lingering questions about a musical giant

Shostakovich may, or may not, have been a closet Soviet dissident, but we are not in a position to pass moral judgment

Barbara Amiel June 22 1998

Lingering questions about a musical giant

Shostakovich may, or may not, have been a closet Soviet dissident, but we are not in a position to pass moral judgment

Column

Barbara Amiel

All sorts of controversies swirl about us. Some years ago, historians were preoccupied with a dispute as to whether or not Hitler was influenced in his genocidal policies by Stalin’s stirring example in the 1930s of do-it-yourself, man-made famines. These days, musicologists are once more fighting about Dmitry Shostakovich.

Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a highly talented Russian composer. Alternately banned and praised by Stalin, he died a natural death with a large number of official Soviet medals pinned to his chest. Four years after his death, his smuggled memoirs, as related to and compiled by Solomon Volkov, a Soviet Jew, defector and editor of a Soviet music magazine, were published in the United States under the title Testimony. According to the memoirs, Shostakovich detested communism, filled his music with coded insults to Stalin and risked his life to help friends.

The KGB claimed the book was a fraud and some Western critics agreed. The notion that Shostakovich was a dissident, coded or not, was questioned. He had virtually been the official face of Soviet communism long after Stalin died and had never denounced him. He had disavowed dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, and when it became relatively safe to speak out, Shostakovich became even more conservative.

Now, a new book, Shostakovich Reconsidered, by musicologist Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, a lawyer and pianist, analyzes the evidence of both sides and comes down firmly on the side of Shostakovich as hero.

The academics supporting Shostakovich as a closet dissident, for example, cite his daring, in a climate of anti-Semitism, in composing From Jewish Folk Poetry, a song cycle based on Jewish melodies. Those debunking this say that the piece was completed in August, 1948, one month before Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies were proclaimed. This was when Pravda was praising the “policy of equality and mutual respect among the ethnic cultures of the country’s constituent minorities.” Soviet multiculturalism needed the depiction of happy folk in national costume, and Shostakovich, according to his critics, filled his quota by writing this piece. “It was his rotten luck [not an act of heroism],” declares one of his fiercest critics, writer Fay Laurel, in a 1996 essay, “that of all the available nationalities, great and small, he just happened to pick the wrong ‘folk’ as his inspiration.”

The battle over this point has been ferocious among academics, but both sides are probably right. There is nothing mutually exclusive about the same person at the same time being (1) an inner dissident, (2) wanting to satisfy the Politburo, (3) knowing Jews were persecuted by the Communists, and (4) writing a piece of music about Jews to please the Communists. And further, (5), having had

the “rotten luck” to pick the wrong group, turning that accidental act into a deliberate act of heroism in his own mind.

Only those with no feel for the Kafkaesque nightmare of Stalinism could possibly believe that only one of these explanations is true. It is normal for people even less gifted than Shostakovich to have contradictory impulses. In dealing with tyranny, one has to make a number of mental adjustments to cope with terror. They may include the need to believe that everything is all right or that one is secretly fighting bad things. In addition, Shostakovich probably shared with most of his generation the notion that communism was a noble idea that had been distorted in practice.

When you live in a tyranny, you can survive if you don’t make waves. But if you turn out to be a great airplane designer—or composer—you will have to become a vocal supporter of the regime. It is expected of you. Refuse, and at best you’ll never hear your music performed. At worst, you and your family will be put into the gulag, or killed. To be one of the leading musicians in the Soviet Union and not take an active role in political life would be a contradiction in terms.

Shostakovich, as revealed in Testimony, shows his fear on virtually every page. His rivetting anecdotes demonstrate how unpredictable—except in his cruelty—Stalin could be. Myself, I don’t believe Shostakovich was a closet dissident. The great cellist Mstislav (Slava) Rostropovich believes he was, and explains how Shostakovich made sarcastic allusions to Stalin in his First Cello Concerto. “These allusions,” says Rostropovich in Elizabeth Wilson’s book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, “are camouflaged so craftily that even I did not notice them to begin with. I doubt if I would have detected [them] if Dmitry hadn’t pointed it out to me.” If Slava couldn’t hear the tune, I’d say it wasn’t there!

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was disdainful of Shostakovich. In The Gulag Archipelago, he writes that if Shostakovich had wanted to parody Stalin’s favorite tunes in the Cello Concerto, he should have come to the camps to hear the zeks whistle them. I would never deny Solzhenitsyn the right to be disdainful of the ambiguity and the yielding to fear and ambition that makes Shostakovich at best a carefully coded resister to Stalin. Solzhenitsyn is entitled to vent his disdain—he has earned that right—but I have not.

Nor, I think, have Western academics or writers. Think what we have done in order to get a little advantage—a Canada Council grant, a place on an arts committee, jury or government body, to be invited to this or that dinner, or get an Order of Canada. We have compromised principles, kept quiet or changed the tone of our voice to please. Who are we to criticize a Kurt Waldheim or a Dmitry Shostakovich for not standing up to Hitler or Stalin when we have gone to pieces for such little carrots? That, I suppose, is why I have written this column.