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Vol 3, No 23
25 June 2001
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Book_cover Balance and Complexity
Laurel E Fay's Shostakovich: A Life
Neil Edmunds

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) has become one of the twentieth-century's most popular composers. Laurel Fay is undoubtedly correct to end her biography of the composer Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 1999) with the claim that "Enjoying ever increasing popularity and critical appreciation, Shostakovich's musical legacy now seems certain to endure well into the future."

The author suggests several reasons for the growth of interest in Shostakovich's music over the last two decades. Some are purely musical, such as "festering dissatisfactions with 'serialism'" and that "Western performers and audiences were ready and eager to explore and embrace more accessible, more obviously 'communicative' music, music not ashamed of its audible links to the traditions of the past." Others are political, including "The headline-grabbing defection of the composer's son, Maxim, and his grandson Dmitriy, in Germany in 1981" and "the publication of Solomon Volkov's Testimony (Faber and Faber, 1981), a provocative book purporting to be the composer's memoirs, in 1979."

Shostakovich is presented in Testimony as a musical dissident who deliberately incorporated double meanings into his music in order to satirise the state and express his life-long anti-Communist beliefs. However, it was not long before doubts were raised over the probity of Testimony, and the plot thickened when it became clear that Solomon Volkov had destroyed his original notes and claimed to have sold the Russian typescript-which included Shostakovich's signatures-to a collector.

Testimony and conflict

Laurel Fay was one of the first to doubt the veracity of Testimony, and she has been joined in her criticism by two of those who heaped advance praise on Shostakovich: A Life: Professors Malcolm Hamrick Brown and Richard Taruskin. More surprising (and compelling) would have been if this advance praise had emanated from the equally as vociferous pro-Volkov camp led by Ian MacDonald, Allan Ho and Dmitry Feofanov.

The fact that the latter is a lawyer as well as a concert pianist is particularly apt, since the amount of vitriol that has been traded by the both sides resulted in the debate over Testimony being branded the Shostakovich wars.

As a result of this debate and the composer's legendary status in his own lifetime, Shostakovich scholarship is anything but "in its infancy," as Laurel Fay claims. The first English-language biography of the composer was published in 1943, but what earlier scholars of the composer did not have to endure was the vitriolic tone that characterises the Shostakovich wars. Even being asked to review a book about the composer today, let alone write his biography, can be likened to receiving a poisoned chalice, especially when the biographer is a key figure in the controversy.

It is no wonder, when one's ideas are subject to violent criticism, that Shostakovich: A Life took almost a decade to come to fruition. As Laurel Fay points out, there are also the practical problems of a lack of reliable sources, and that much of the primary-source material is inaccessible to the scholar, because it remains in private hands.

A different approach

Have these problems been overcome and the wait been worth it? Generally speaking, the answer to these questions is a resounding YES. Laurel Fay has produced an outstanding volume that supersedes all other biographies of the composer in any language and is a huge testimony to her scholarship.

Its main virtue lies in the author's belief that "Hasty attempts to assimilate the new revelations... into revisionist interpretations of Shostakovich and his music have until now outstripped the basic research and necessary to back up any sweeping pronouncements."

Consequently, "basic research and fact-finding" is the hallmark of Shostakovich: A Life, and Laurel Fay goes into scrupulous detail over how she has approached her source material in order to defend herself from those who will be going through the text of Shostakovich: A Life with a fine-tooth comb in search of weapons for the next instalment of the Shostakovich wars. Thanks to her fastidiousness, we have for the first time a dependable source to turn for information about this most enigmatic of composers.

Laurel Fay writes in a self-effacing way that some might describe as "dry" or "dull." However, self-effacement can be advantageous and it is a virtue of Shostakovich: A Life, for it contrasts refreshingly with the intemperate language that has recently been a feature of Shostakovich scholarship.

Students of Shostakovich have been crying out for a biography of the composer that is not blighted by Cold-War political prejudices, and we finally have it. Dr Fay provides us with a scrupulously balanced appraisal of the composer which fits neatly with her main argument that Shostakovich's life was more complex than the crude debates over Testimony would lead us to believe.

The man behind the myth

The overall image of the composer presented in Shostakovich: A Life is not the dissident of Testimony or the Hero of Socialist Labour of Soviet propaganda. It is of a patriotic individual who, like many others, felt threatened by the system, but, at the same time, was able to use it to his advantage.

Both the positive and negative features of Shostakovich's character and the many paradoxes and contradictions that characterised his activities and pronouncements are also noted, but Laurel Fay usually makes no attempt to explain them. This proves an eminently sensible decision in light of the problem of obtaining primary-source material. It is better not to draw rash and possibly inaccurate conclusions based on insufficient evidence, but better to wait until the evidence becomes available.

This is not to say that Shostakovich: A Life is completely devoid of interpretation. Laurel Fay is prepared to draw conclusions and pass judgement when she believes sufficient evidence is available to back her opinions up, and several of the contentious issues in Testimony are also discussed.

For instance, she questions the claim that the finale of the Fifth Symphony (1937) was deliberately composed in a restrained fashion to give the impression of rejoicing under duress in order to make an anti-Stalinist gesture. It is also suggested that the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry might not be Shostakovich's protest against late-Stalinist anti-Semitism, but the composer's attempt to protect himself in the wake of criticism by Andrey Zhdanov at the first Congress of the Composers' Union in February 1948 by composing precisely the sort of tuneful, folk-inspired music the authorities wanted to hear.

Laurel Fay also found no evidence to corroborate the claim in Testimony that the scherzo of the Tenth Symphony (1953) was a musical portrait of Stalin, or that the Eleventh Symphony had anything to do with Hungarian uprising as suggested by Lev Lebedinsky.

A biography of public life...

However, the primary aim of Shostakovich: A Life is not to debate issues raised by Testimony but to provide information about the composer's life. In this respect, particular praise should be awarded to the chapters in dealing with the 1920s, since they shed light on Shostakovich's activities during a period that we know comparatively little about. Shostakovich allegedly describes the period as his "misty youth" in Testimony, and that is about as far as we get. The later chapters, on the other hand, are stronger on personal matters, such as the composer's battle with ill health.

In general, however, Shostakovich: A Life is a biography of the composer's public life in terms of the circumstances surrounding the composition and performance of his music, rather than an exposé of his private life.

As a result, no doubt because of the lack of sources and Shostakovich's natural reticence, we learn very little about his relationship to other members of his family or about the family members themselves.

It would also have been interesting to find out more about Shostakovich's activities as First Secretary of the Russian branch of the Composers Union, since he expended a lot of time and energy over them, and how he coped with the demands of public office. He was elected a deputy in the Supreme Soviet for the town of Gorky and a member of Leningrad City Council at various moments during his life.

...not an analysis of his works

Shostakovich: A Lifewill disappoint those who are seeking an in-depth analysis of the compositional elements of Shostakovichs music. Laurel Fay seems to be in agreement with Ian MacDonald's claim that "value-free examination of that limited portion of the music which is representable by the score... cannot... by itself tell us anything of real consequence about this composer's [ie Shostakovich's] music."

Consequently, very little score analysis is undertaken in Shostakovich: A Life, and literature devoted primarily to the theoretical aspects of musicology is excluded from the bibliography. Nevertheless, the bibliography is still very impressive, and is supplemented by a list of Shostakovich's compositions and glossary of names.

The work-list is basically a reprint of the work-list compiled by Laurel Fay for The New Grove Russian Masters, Vol.2 (1986), but without the original Russian titles of works. The glossary of names will be particularly useful for both the specialist and general reader, and it complements rather than repeats the glossary provided by Elizabeth Wilson in her excellent collection of reminiscences Shostakovich: A Life Remembered.

Inevitably, though, there are some omissions, such as the composers Aleksandr Davidenko (two of whose pieces Shostakovich orchestrated), Nikolay Peiko (Shostakovich's assistant at the Moscow Conservatory 1943-1948) and the conductor Kurt Sanderling.

Sanderling is a particularly surprising omission, since he was joint chief conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra with Evgeny Mravinsky from 1941 to 1960, a fervent advocate of Shostakovich's music, and one of several individuals whom the composer used his influence to protect after he received official criticism.

Thanks to extensive footnotes, glossary, work-list and bibliography, the main body of the text of Shostakovich: A Life is very concise: 287 out of the 458 pages.

The many stages of a life

The division of any biography into chapters is inevitably a problem, because people do not live their lives in convenient self-contained sections, and it is left to the biographer to exercise their critical judgement. Laurel Fay divides her biography of Shostakovich into fifteen chapters that cover periods that range from two years (1936-1937) to fourteen (1906-1919).

The logic behind how the chapters are divided is generally sound. It varies from significant moments in Shostakovich's musical career and private life, such as entering conservatory, the beginning of the composition of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Moscow, Cheryomushki and his departure to Kurgan for treatment for polio, to important historical events (the Great Fatherland War and the death of Stalin) and key moments in Soviet cultural/musical history (the criticism of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Pravda and the Party resolution "On the Reconstruction of Literary-Artistic Organisations" of April 1932). Each chapter is given a title that characterises the period under discussion. Most of these titles are self-explanatory, although some are abstract.

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It is difficult to ascertain, however, what is being consolidated in the chapter entitled "Consolidation," for example, especially since the Eighth Quartet and Twelfth Symphony were composed during the period under discussion (1958-1961).

Problems also invariably arise at times when Shostakovich's creative juices were not flowing, such as the late 1930s. It is at this point that we learn about the composer's love of various sports, chess and poker. This is all interesting information but not specific to period, and there is a sense that it merely fills the void while we wait for creative muse to return to Shostakovich and the circumstances surrounding his next composition could be discussed.

Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles, and should not detract from what is a fine book.

A powerful resource

On the evidence of her analysis in 1996 of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, Ian MacDonald which deemed it "comic were there not so many dead bodies involved," claimed that Laurel Fay was "presently engaged in producing what her publisher, Oxford University Press, trusts will be a definitive biography of Shostakovich."

Laurel Fay more than answers her critics, and the intemperance of Ian MacDonald's remark alone illustrates why the calm and collected Shostakovich: A Life is a necessary and valuable contribution to the field of Shostakovich studies.

Neil Edmunds, 25 June 2001

The author:

Neil Edmunds is Lecturer in European History at the University of the West of England, Bristol. He is author of The Soviet Proletarian Music Movement (Peter Lang, 2000) and numerous articles on Soviet musical life.

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