In light of Lewis Owen’s new play Like Chemist from Canada, Rob Edgar writes aboutA Shostakovich Casebook, a collection of essays on the composer.
The story of Shostakovich, the man, calls to my mind the old thread sticking out of a jumper metaphor; when you pull on it to investigate, the whole thing unravels. There is much conflicting information about the composer, as would be expected for any historical figure, but the confusion is amplified by a dysfunctional state attitude that, in those days, bordered on the deranged, a state which, quite aside from its now well-documented crimes, was notoriously bad at keeping accurate records. If you follow one particular thread of his life too closely, everything else falls apart.
This is why a book such as A Shostakovich Casebook is so important, it is a collection of essays, interviews, and miscellaneous articles which seeks to redress the balance and paint Shostakovich in a truer light. Its main target – as one might expect – is Solomon Volkov’s much disputed memoir Testimony, claimed by Volkov to be the authorised memoir of the composer as related to him through numerous interviews. Straight away, the book launches into a pretty robust (though never ad hominem) attack on some of Volkov’s claims. Laurel E Fay’s remarkably diligent academic detective work in her two articles Whose Testimony? and Volkov’s Testimony Reconsidered appears to show instances of outright falsification on the part of Volkov; it suggests that – far from Shostakovich signing to the authenticity of each chapter of the book as is claimed – the composer merely signed a few trivial sheaves of paper, with Volkov later unscrupulously inserting passages at a later date. The evidence seems pretty damning; Fay shows instances where passages previously published by Volkov and others in Sovestkaia Muzyka are copied, sometimes verbatim, and presented as the word of Shostakovich as related to Volkov. To my mind it torpedoes the book’s credibility.
Perhaps its greatest achievements though are the light it shines into the muddy depths of day-to-day musical life in the Soviet Union, where petty squabbles could be blown out of all proportion (it can be quite alarming to read of grown men who – after feeling slighted during an argument – used the threat of alerting the authorities, as a child might threaten to run to a teacher), and the warts and all portrait of Shostakovich that emerges. Richard Taruskin’s typically excellent article towards the end of the book, Irina Shostakovich’s article for the New York Times which is reprinted here, and Elena Basner’s piece all caution against turning the composer either into an heroic dissident or an obsequious toady as many have done, but recognise him as a sympathetic man who was prey to the various prats and pitfalls as we all are, and to urge a more subtle and nuanced understanding of his music. When writing about what the “gunfire” in the second movement of the 11th symphony means – does it reference Russia’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1905, or is it a tacit protest against the Soviet putdown of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 – Taruskin wittily states “Silly Question! Guns go bang whether wielded by Tsarists or Soviets”.
You can – I think – extrapolate a wider lesson from the book; it is unwise for audiences to place an artist on a pedestal, and it is equally ill-advised for an artist to be intentionally partisan. Great music lasts both for its ability to capture the zeitgeist in a way that is only obvious after the fact, and the way it imparts certain truths throughout ages, transcending fashion or politics. The circumstances of Shostakovich’s life could hardly have been more different than the average London concert-goer’s but still his music resonates. How this could be is by far the more interesting question to ponder.