The Reader XIV II -Shostakovich


A Life Remembered

By Elizabeth Wilson
Faber And Faber, London, 1994, 517 pp., $40.00
Reviewed by Peter Haworth

Even if they cut my hands off I will still continue to compose", Shostakovich once said. "Even if I have to hold my pen in my mouth, I will go on writing music."

To be a creative artist during the terrible years of Communist rule in Russia was a dangerous occupation. A line of verse, an image from a film, a passage of music could end in exile or death. Even those who survived this horror were frequently forced to endure prolonged periods of humiliation and persecution.

"How terrible! How many times can they smash him? How much can a man bear?," asks one of Shostakovich's friends in this book. "Why is he continually prevented from working, composing the music generated by his genius? What will happen to him?"

Elizabeth Wilson has given us the answer, not in a conventional biography, but in what she aptly calls a "Life Remembered. . . ." Friends, enemies, relatives, lovers, wives, critics, and professional colleagues remember Shostakovich in interviews or specially commissioned articles. The result is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a man and his age: a documentary biography at once bleak and richly textured, sombre and colourful, tragic and hilarious---that in length and depth resembles nothing so much as one of those magnificently sprawling nineteenth-century Russian novels.

Here is Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a quaff of hair over the forehead, the face "now of magnetic beauty now of laceration." Stuttering, chewing his nails, chain smoking, hands and knees shaking, he appears like some bizarre, haunted figure out of the pages of a Dostoevsky novel.

This man wrote some of the greatest music of the century, works which in their satirical brilliance and tragic power must have been an affront to all that Stalin and his brutal regime stood for. Yet, paradoxically, he remained a true son of Communism. He signed letters attacking Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, delivered patriotic speeches which he didn't write, read or believe in, and wrote reams of empty, bombastic music in praise of "Our Great Leader," the one man he loathed above all others.

One of the saddest moments in the whole book occurs toward the end of his life, when, at last, forced to join the Party, he cries out to a friend, "I'm scared to death of them. I'm a wretched alcoholic. I've been a whore. I am and always have been a whore."

But there are also many moving accounts of the ways he helped those in trouble. In January 1948 on the very day he and Prokofief were publicly condemned as "degenerate traitors and enemies of Russian music," he heard that his old friend Solomon Mikhoels, founder of the Jewish Theatre in Moscow, had been murdered by Stalin's thugs. Mikhoel's daughter remembered Shostakovich arriving at the apartment that afternoon. "Silently he embraced me and my husband, then he walked over to the bookcase, and, with his back to everyone in the room, pronounced quietly but distinctly, and with uncharacteristic deliberation, `I envy him."'

The book is made up of a great number of such vividly observed moments---snapshots of the composer's life. The eleven-year-old Dmitri sees another boy cut down by a Cossack for stealing an apple. Stalin suddenly walks out in the middle of a performance of his internationally acclaimed opera Lady Macbeth of Misenk. Here is the famous image of Shostakovich at the piano composing the Leningrad Symphony in the besieged city amidst the gunfire and falling bombs---and later, when he is evacuated, there is a marvellously described train journey to the East-- reminiscent of the one in Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago.

Shostakovich A Life Remembered is at times very funny. He and Stravinsky meet for the first time and talk about nothing except their mutual hatred for the music of Puccini. There is a bizarre scene when Stalin orders Shostakovich and Khachaturian to compose a new Soviet National Anthem---jointly! When Stalin hears it, he gives the commission to someone else.

Everybody seems to agree that, despite the habitual deadpan expression he always wore in photographs, Shostakovich had a wicked sense of humour. You find it in his music. He once referred to his compositions as a report on human experience, and he obviously found that experience comic as well as tragic. The snoot cocking at the establishment and the gallow's humour merge with a deep sense of personal sorrow and tragedy to produce an unforgettable picture of Russia in "the fearful years of the terror."

The film director Grigori Kozintsev with whom he collaborated on versions of Hamlet and King Lear said that he could not have made those films without Shostakovich. He speaks of an all-important quality in the music, "a quality very hard to define. Goodness . . . virtue . . . compassion. But a particular goodness. In Russian we have a wonderful word---virulent. No good exists in Russian art without virulent hatred of all that degrades man. In Shostakovich's music I hear a virulent hatred of cruelty, of the cult of power, of the persecution of truth. That is why, despite its tragic subject matter, the music is essentially optimistic. The reed does not bend before the wind. It endures because it is empowered with exceptional spiritual qualities."

Shostakovich was one of the company of great creative figures who lived and suffered during the Communist regime. Some died. Some survived. All added to the glory of Russian art. Meyerhold, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Bulgakov, Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, and, above all, his friend and admirer the incomparable St. Petersburg poet, Anna Akhmatova.

When they were both old, she wrote a poem which she dedicated to Shostakovich.

To Music

It shines with a miraculous light
Revealing to the eye the cutting of facets.
It alone speaks to me
When others are too scared to come near.
When the last friend turned his back
It was with me in my grave
As if a thunderstorm sang
Or all the flowers spoke.

Read this book and listen to the music that lies behind it.

Peter Haworth is a Vancouver listener and reader.

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