- Hardcover: 313 pages
- Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (March 23, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375410821
- ISBN-13: 978-0375410826
- Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #367,768 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Shostakovich's tortured relationship to the Soviet authorities was a main subject of Testimony, a book published after the composer's death by Volkov, who claimed that it contained Shostakovich's own remembrances. Controversy about the authenticity of Testimony swirled for years, until the publication in 1999 of Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life, accepted by many scholars as decisively countering Testimony's claims to accuracy. The appearance of a new study by Volkov on Shostakovich (1906-1973), then, is sure to raise critical hackles. Volkov argues that Shostakovich survived the denunciation of his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, and more minor controversies thereafter, in part by relying on a Russian tradition of playing the "holy fool" when under political pressure. When Stalin asked that Shostakovich henceforth submit operas and ballets for approval, the composer solved the problem by refraining from writing these musical forms. Volkov finds that luck played a role as well in Shostakovich surviving while so many other artists were killed or banned, but the "holy fool" argument as a whole only partially convinces: at times, Shostakovich's reticence regarding the regime seemed to turn into compliance, as when he signed a letter late in his life that denounced human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, an act Volkov says Shostakovich regretted. The book assumes a lot of knowledge of Soviet history for a general readership; nonspecialists interested in the composer and his work will still be better served by Fay.
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From The New Yorker
After hearing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, an envious Boris Pasternak wrote, "He went and said everything, and no one did anything to him for it." The extent of the composer's complicity or dissidence under Stalin has been much debated. Volkov, a prominent adherent of the latter view, marvels at this timid man's ability to express suffering in music that was nonetheless outwardly optimistic, and suggests that Shostakovich found an important model in Pushkin, who survived the cruelties of Tsar Nicholas I by juggling three classically Russian roles—"pretender," " chronicler," and "holy fool." Volkov's story depends too often on hunches and assumptions, but he is illuminating when he places the composer in the context of other artists (Pasternak, Bulgakov, and Mandelstam) who attempted dialogue with Stalin and were alternately supported and persecuted by him.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Thus it was for Shostakovich, the universally acclaimed genius of geniuses: daily dread, daily insecurity, until Stalin himself was mounted alongside Lenin in his own crystal sarcophagus. And even afterward, as the aftershocks of Stalin's death played themselves out in Kremlin court politics.
As most readers of this harrowing story will know, author Volkov--who in 1979 published the "Testimony: the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov" - is the leading figure in Shostakovich revisionism, the proponents of which take the view that the composer was a secret dissident who often composed in musical code, embedding anti-Stalin, anti-regime, and other dissenting messages throughout his work. The controversy continues to rage, with a massive and still accumulating body of work that picks over every detail of Shostakovich's life, work, and relationships, arguing over questions of Shostakovich's intent and his relationship to the Soviet regime. (For further details, see the late revisionist scholar Ian McDonald's website, and particularly the page "The Shostakovich Debate: A Manual for Beginners." And, full disclosure, I tend to side--as do Shostakovich's children and virtually everyone who was close to him--with the revisionists. At the same time, I recognize that this is a point of view as well as an argument that is unlikely, ever, to be settled. People will believe what they will believe.)
Volkov, squarely on the side of "hidden dissident," draws out from Shostakovich's life and work character aspects based on a Mussorgsky-Boris Godunov-derived taxonomy: the "pretender" (the "hidden dissident"), the "chronicler," and, perhaps most important of all, the "holy fool"--who, in seeming naiveté, speaks profound truths, often in coded words. Volkov builds his narrative around two key years--1936 and 1948--during which Shostakovich was denounced in Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party organ, for "formalist" musical errors. He also tells these stories in Testimony, but Volkov is also a scholar of Russian and Soviet culture, and broadens his narrative to included associated material from the lives and documents of other cultural icons of the Soviet era: Pasternak, Eisenstein, Akhmatova, Gorky, Mandelstam, and scores more. Moreover, Volkov decodes--and, for me, convincingly--key Shostakovich works, including (several of my personal favorites,) the Piano Quintet, the Second Piano Trio, the Tenth Symphony, and the Eighth String Quartet.
Imagine a world in which an all-powerful autocrat knows the names and appraises the works of every nationally important poet, novelist, painter, director (film, stage, opera), conductor, soloist, and, of course, composer. Imagine the pervasive sense of anxiety, of white-knuckle fear, among the entire cultural class, for whom no stamp of approval from the Leader is permanent, whose very existence is day-to-day contingent and dependent upon, literally, the whim of the leader. One might be a Stalin Prize First Class winner one day, vilified in the press the next, with perhaps internal exile the day following, and/or in many too many cases, physical elimination to follow, for crimes only the Leader might define. It's difficult to imagine subordinating so much brilliance to such arbitrary repression.
There is of course much more in Shostakovich and Stalin, including an important reminder of the continuity in Russian leadership thinking since at least Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855), which in every generation seems to embrace, in one form or another, Nicholas' program of "orthodoxy, autocracy, nationalism." (Merely consider the daily news out of Russia, the deep resonances in Volkov's history with the Russia of today under V.V. Putin, admirer of Czar Nicholas and J.V. Stalin, and of Putin's personal style as Vozhd.)
And so, yes, I count myself as a Shostakovich revisionist, and a Volkov admirer, and a devotee of the music left for us by one of the great, and most tortured, musical geniuses of the 20th century, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. And I'm exceedingly grateful for the record Volkov has compiled to document hidden facets of Shostakovich's greatness as an artist, musician, and human being.