- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

In his preface to “Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator,” Solomon Volkov writes, “If you don’t count the mythic Greek singer Orpheus, probably no one suffered more for his music than the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.”

Taken on one level, this book is a catalogue of that suffering, a compelling depiction of the surpassing composer’s oeuvre and subsequent fame, which thrust him into a duel with Joseph Stalin that lasted more than a decade. But it is also an account of broader artistic survival against the bleakest of odds. In these pages, the oppression of an entire generation of writers, poets and musicians is documented beside the unfolding fate of Shostakovich, “a frail and fragile” man who endured an autocrat’s relentless surveillance and subjugation.

In the beginning of Shostakovich’s career, there was every reason to hope that the gods would protect the composer and his gifts. In 1934, when he was just 27 years old, two of the boldest and most enterprising opera collectives in the USSR seized the right for first production of his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” As Mr. Volkov writes, “The Leningrad premier beat Moscow’s by two days but the reception in both cities was overwhelming. The words ‘Mozart’ and ‘genius’ filled the air. Even the vigilant and eternally grim Party leaders fell away to delight.”

The opera was a much-anticipated musical event and, after its premier at the Bolshoi Theater, news of the work and its ecstatic reception spread to Europe and the United States. But two years later an unsigned editorial about “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” appeared in Pravda with the headline “Muddle Instead of Music.” Mr. Volkov writes that Shostakovich read this appraisal of his work on a cold winter’s day in Moscow while standing at a newspaper kiosk, and he was devastated.

Mr. Volkov notes, “We can understand why Shostakovich felt the earth open beneath his feet. His opera, his beloved creation that had won recognition throughout the world, was unexpectedly subjected to a crude, untrammeled and illiterate attack. The article has become a classic example of authoritarian cultural criticism.” And it was the first salvo to come from a hand that was hidden — but only barely so.

It did not take long for the source of Shostakovich’s humiliation to become known. As Mr. Volkov writes, “Shostakovich’s friends, and the composer himself, had no illusions about who was behind the unexpected and brutal attack on [his opera]. They understood that thunder, as Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman used to say, quoting Pushkin, ‘came not from the manure pile but a storm cloud.’ As he put it, ‘No one but Stalin could raise a hand against the famous opera and demolish it.’”

Thunder envelopes this book, a volume that appeals as much to the hearing senses as to any other. Mr. Volkov’s skill brings the symphonies to the page, each insistent rhythm or plaintive digression analyzed and revealed. (The third movement of the Fifth Symphony is that work’s “emotional center”; its finale is “perhaps the most disturbing and ambivalent music of the twentieth century.”)

“Shostakovich and Stalin” is a work of illuminating musicology as well as history and the book is structured to follow the course of Shostakovich’s career through each piano concerto, opera, film score and orchestra. And piece for piece, he demonstrates that little of what Shostakovich created can be considered apart from political mandate or whim.

Mr. Volkov is at pains to show the composer’s great struggle in light of “two pivotal events that connected Shostakovich and Stalin” — Stalin’s denunciation of the “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and the Communist Party resolution of 1948 censuring Shostakovich and other leading Soviet composers.

Though the details of Shostakovich’s early life are somewhat sketchy — his father died young from pneumonia, the family was challenged by “dire circumstances” — the detailed record of the political climate, the major players and the appraisal of the musical works make up for the vacuum. And Mr. Volkov offers great insight into what drew Stalin to the arts.

Noting that the dictator knew that maintaining a stable of internationally recognized artists would show Soviet culture in its best light, Mr. Volkov points out that Stalin’s artistic tastes were varied but not deep. Stalin enjoyed film and opera and claimed to admire Pushkin. Though, as Mr. Volkov relates, the “intimacy of the leader’s feeling for the poet could be summed up in a joke of that era” concerning a competition for a monument to Pushkin:

“The third-prize winner depicted Pushkin reading Pushkin. The second-prize winner, Stalin reading Pushkin; in first place was Pushkin reading Stalin.”

The Soviet Union became a place in which the arts flourished but were never free. Someone was always watching and a miffed dictator could end a performance, a career, a life. Mr. Volkov notes that many of these artists adopted the posture of a yurodivy (a holy fool) in order to keep Stalin’s gaze at a distance.

This posture appears to have derived from a Russian tradition with the first appearance coming during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I (a monarch whom Stalin admired for his “orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality.”) During the reign of Nicholas, it was the yurodivys who dared “to tell the truth to the tsar’s face.”

Shostakovich enjoyed a brief rehabilitation after his Fifth Symphony was performed in 1937. Later, during the war years, Shostakovich’s performance in Leningrad during the German siege of the city raised his stock once more. But no matter how much popular or professional esteem he earned, and perhaps because of it, the composer was never far from Stalin’s sight.

One day in March 1949, shortly after Shostakovich decided not to join a high-ranking delegation going to New York for the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, the composer answered his telephone and was told to “hold on for Comrade Stalin. At first, the composer thought it was a prank. But then he realized that no one would dare pull a stunt like that. And the voice he remembered [from a previous meeting at the Bolshoi Theater] came on the line, asking why Shostakovich was refusing such a responsible assignment.”

Shostakovich said that he was unwell. Stalin countered that he should see a doctor. Shostakovich disclosed that he and his colleagues Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khatchaturian had not been able to perform in the Soviet Union for more than a year. Stalin noted that he “would have to correct the comrades from Glavrepertkom” who caused this to happen. Shostakovich went to New York and delivered a speech in a trembling voice condemning the “clique of warmongers” planning aggression against the Soviet Union.

In this affecting tale of two men, the voice of Stalin on the telephone makes one shudder. But the lingering sound of it has to compete with this beautifully rendered chronicle of so many more potent and enduring sounds — the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, the musical scores of Prokovfiev, the symphonies of Shostakovich. It is not difficult to see how Shostakovich was a victim of unremitting duress, though it is painful to contemplate. Still, Mr. Volkov has done a superb job of bringing insight and feeling to an epoch in which art was under siege but not obliterated.


By Solomon Volkov

Translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis

Knopf, $30, 313 pages, illus.

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