Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Testimony - Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich

I knew about the controversy when I started Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich - as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov.  This book, with an extra long title, was published in 1979, four years after the composer's death.

(Here's some music, Shostakovich's last string quartet, to listen to while you read.)

It wasn't until I finished reading that I did more research.  Turns out that the controversy is a big one - but only for people in the dull-as-dust world of musicology.  To them, deciding whether this book really is the memoirs of an important 20th century composer (or not) has become a humongous article of faith.  For the rest of us, it should be no big deal.

My personal impression is that I was indeed reading the voice of a real composer.  It reminded me of bitch sessions I myself have had with composers - although none nearly as famous as this one.  After a drink or two, while sitting with trusted friends, out come stories about colorful but incompetent performers, dottering inscrutable professors, wonderful still unfinished pieces, unflattering unfair reviews and encounters with a sexy harpist or horny fellow composer or two -- successes, failures, life.

Unlike this book, however, most composers reminisce in small bits.

Testimony represents 276 pages of Shostakovich's first-person narrative.  It is very much stream of consciousness.  Improbably, Volkov claims to have created it from notes taken by hand during one-on-one conversations during Shostakovich's last years.  He says the composer refused to allow tape recordings and insisted that it not be published until after his death.  Volkov maintained that the manuscript had been approved by Shostakovich himself but provided no direct proof of that.

Yes, Volkov's story is a mite suspicious.  Given the circumstances, he must have done an awful lot of "editing".  But I'm okay with that.  Shostakovich had good reason to be suspicious that people were looking over his shoulder.  Telling the truth could have gotten him into trouble.

Testimony revealed Shostakovich as secretly opposed to certain political currents in the Soviet Union - most notably Stalinism.  This upset Westerners who insisted that Shostakovich was a devoted Communist composer.  This also upset Soviets who also insisted that Shostakovich was a devoted Communist composer.  No one could agree on what sort of devoted Communist composer Shostakovich actually was.  Did he really mean what he says in this book?  Had he been hiding his true feelings all along?  Are there secret messages composed into his music?

It's hard for us freedom-of-expression types to understand the times through which Shostakovich lived, when uppity creative artists could be taken away in the middle of the night and never be heard from again.  Afterwards people were too afraid to ask what might have become of them or even mention their names.  Shostakovich had good reason to fear this might happen to him.  One of the reasons he gives for dictating his memoirs is to preserve some memory of people who did disappear.

Here are the first few paragraphs of Testimony:
These are not memoirs about myself. These are memoirs about other people. Others will write about us. And naturally they'll lie through their teeth - but that's their business.

One must speak the truth about the past or not at all. It's very hard to reminisce and it's worth doing only in the name of truth.

Looking back, I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses. And I do not wish to build new Potemkin villages on these ruins.

Let's try to tell only the truth. It's difficult. I was an eyewitness to many events and they were important events. I knew many outstanding people. I'll try to tell what I know about them. I'll try not to color or falsify anything. This will be the testimony of an eyewitness.

Of course, we do have the saying "He lies like an eyewitness."
Here is a video showing Shostakovich in 1975 about the time of his interviews with Volkov.  He talks at the beginning and again at 6'40".  He was in poor health and seems nervous.

It's not unreasonable to assume that Dmitri Shostakovich harbored a certain ill will about some of the difficult conditions under which he lived.  In order to survive, Shostakovich adapted his music to the political conditions and demands of his time, writing pieces celebrating the Russian revolution or adapting to "just criticism".  He may have survived, while others did not, thanks to his name recognition outside the Soviet Union plus the fact that Stalin liked his film scores.  If he harbored secret personal opinions, he also knew better than to speak them in public.

Of course the Soviet Union was not the only 20th century society in which artists knew which things they were supposed to say in public.  I've written about the experiences of composers during the Nazi regime.   Even in the United States, during certain periods, composers have been expected to toe the political-speak line.  You can read Aaron Copland's 1953 testimony before Senator Joe McCarthy's Senate investigating committee.  Copland denied being a Commie, of course, but his Lincoln Portrait was still removed from a concert celebrating the inauguration of President Eisenhower.

So, if Shostakovich knew how to keep his mouth shut and only ventured to tell his stories when he knew death was near, who among us can blame him.  Some of his stories are pretty good - especially when he tells how Soviet musicians tied themselves in knots to please their musically unsophisticated dictator. 

But, in the end, you can only feel sympathy for Dimitri Shostakovich.  Here are some quotes from the last few pages:
No, I can't go on describing my unhappy life, and I'm sure that no one can doubt now that it is unhappy.  There were no particularly happy moments in my life, no great joys.  It was gray and dull and it makes me sad to think about it.  It saddens me to admit it, but it's the truth, the unhappy truth. ...
No, every new day of my life brings me no joy.  I thought I would find distraction reminiscing about my friends and acquaintances.  Many of them were famous and talented people, who told me interesting things, instructive stories.  I thought that telling about my outstanding contemporaries would also be interesting and instructive.  Some of these people played an important role in my life and I felt it was my duty to tell what I still remembered about them.
But even this undertaking has turned out to be a sad one.
I have thought that my life was replete with sorrow and that it would be hard to find a more miserable man.  But when I started going over the life stories of my friends and acquaintances, I was horrified.  Not one of them had an easy or a happy life.  Some came to a terrible end, some died in terrible suffering, and the lives of many of them could easily be called more miserable than mine.
And that made me even sadder.  I was remembering my friends and all I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses.  I'm not exaggerating, I mean mountains.  And the picture filled me with a horrible depression.  I'm sad, I'm grieving all the time.  I tried to drop this unhappy undertaking several times and stop remembering things from my past, since I saw nothing good in it.  I didn't want to remember at all.
And so, in this book, I read that at the end of his life one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century could find nothing whatsoever to smile about.  Should I believe this?  I think so.  The reason is simple: because Shostakovich makes the same point elsewhere - in his music.   Here again is the link to his last string quartet, number 15, written the year before he died.

The website Shostakoviana includes an even-handed introduction to the Testimony controversy entitled A Manual for Beginners.  There's a lot more beyond that.  You're welcome to it. As controversies go, it's far less interesting than wondering who really shot Bobby Kennedy.

The Time Magazine cover is from July 1942.  You can read the article about Shostakovich in that issue.  This was that unique time when the Soviet Union and the United States were friends.

The photo of Shostakovich playing the piano while an obviously retouched Stalin looks over his shoulder comes from Testimony.

Other tangentially related Mixed Meters articles:
Aspics of Shostakovich - Dmitri Shostakovich, Johnny Green and things floating in jello
Schoenberg in Hell - Schoenberg's demeaning final years
Stravinsky, On the Cover - another Time magazine cover of a composer
Ten Most Influential Classical Composers - actually eleven, according to me
Suppose Wagner Had Been a Nazi

Testimony Tags: . . . . . .


Kraig Grady said...

What i read, seemed to match what i already heard in the music.
If he wasn't playing games what do they think the quote from the sabre dance in the middle of the 3 rd mvt. after cavary charges of the8th... or when Stalin offered him everything for his ninth to celebrate the victory of WWII and he wrote his shortest maybe most frivolous sym?
No he wasn't happy, but one russian told me , you americans avoid your sadness at all cost where us russians see it as a gift, and we polish it.
the 15th and all the rest of the quartets kiss ass

David Ocker said...

Kraig - Did you mean "kick ass" rather than "kiss ass" ? A couple of changed letters give rather different meanings. Shostakovich's quartets are a remarkable group of very personal works.

Kraig Grady said...

kick me kick!!!
i have listened to them all way too much.
11 is my favorite these days

Kraig Grady said...
this is my favorite passage of music and one of the most innovative moments i know of in all of music.
he starts from nothing and in a few bars opens ones heart open in pure bliss or it might be blissfully pleading then suddenly one brutally beaten over the head into in 45 sec.
when i heard this i realize that innovation can be as much based in verbs as nouns

MarK said...

This is an intelligent and well-written post, about Volkov's book and about Dmitry Shostakovich. Your understanding of the whole thing is convincing and in my opinion mostly right on. The book is probably not as "authentic" as the author presented it, but nevertheless its content is valuable and is most likely very close to what Shostakovich himself was thinking and feeling, because Volkov is a smart man and he knew the situation and his subject extremely well. As for the composer looking nervous in the video - he ALWAYS looked nervous, at least every time I saw him which was of course in public only, during the last decade of his life and mostly when his own music was being performed.
This video in particular brought back some of my most vivid memories from those years. It shows Shostakovich during rehearsals of his opera "Nose" which was revived in a small Moscow theater (not more than a couple hundred seats, literally underground) after not being performed for several decades. By the way, the correct year of this footage is definitely 1974. You can see the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky hugging the composer at about 3:30. Half a minute later, the video shows Shostakovich's much younger third wife Irina sitting next to her husband. As a student of the Moscow Conservatoire at the time, i was incredibly fortunate to attend the premiere of this production, thanks to my good female student friend (a fine violist now living in Florida) who was able to persuade her friend working in the theater to let the two of us in through some kind of secret back door, because it was absolutely impossible to obtain tickets for that event, especially for us poor students. There were no seats available, so we stood behind the last row of the audience for the entire opera and considered ourselves the luckiest people in Moscow. When my teacher David Oistrakh (who of course did have tickets) saw me there, he could not believe his eyes: "How did YOU get in?"
In the last part of the video, Shostakovich talks about the premiere of his Seventh Symphony that was heroically performed in the besieged city of Leningrad. My mother, a teenager at the time, was at that concert. Thanks for bringing back all these memories for me!
The question of Shostakovich's true feelings about the Soviet regime is certainly interesting. In my opinion, Esa-Pekka Salonen had the right understanding of it. According to him, Shostakovich was a true believer in the communist ideals and most of that propaganda until roughly 1930. Sometime in early 1930s, he finally understood the inherent evil of the whole big lie and was never again as naive as before, for the rest of his life. This is Esa-Pekka's assessment and it seems perfectly reasonable and very convincing to me.

fdemcol said...

I read Testimony just a few years after its publication, when the USSR still existed and Brezhnev had just died. And, as the author of this article rightly puts it, I heard the voice of the composer speaking. I must say that I never perceived in Shostakovich's arguments not even a hint of antocommunism, but a very deep contempt for Stalin and stalinism. I would say that he defended the big social gains of the revolution but hated the regime that stood over it. I could perceive a deeply commited fighter for the cause of the socialist revolution. ¿Why is it that no one talks about this part of Testimony when he explains why he never defected or thought of defecting to the west, even when many oppotunities arised? He despised capitalism and hated the injustices of the so called "free world". "I compose music for the workers and my place is here" he explains if I remember correctly. In short let me say that Shostakovich never confused true communism with the sinister caricature stalinism made of it.