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A Shostakovich Casebook

Edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown

Contributions by and/or quotations from Malcolm Hamrick Brown, Laurel E. Fay, Alla Bogdanova, Henry Orlov, Irina Shostakovich, Elena Basner, Mstislav Rostropovich, Irina Nikolskaya (who interviews Marina Sabinina, Israel Nestyev, Valentin Berlinsky, Ivan Martynov, Lev Lebedinsky, Boris Tishchenko, and Manashir Yabukov), Levon Hakobian, Maxim Shostakovich, Ludmila Kovnatskaya, David Fanning, Gerard McBurney, Paul Mitchinson, Simon Morrison, Boris Tishchenko, and Richard Taruskin. B/W photograph and reproductions of documents. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, 2004. 6ľ x 9Ĺ inches. ISBN 0-253-34364-X.


When Testament edited by Solomon Volkov came out in 1979, I and many others read it. Itís a well written, interesting book. We had no reason to question that it was just what it purported to be, transcribed interviews with Shostakovich presenting to the world the great composerís memoirs as he would have wished them to be published. A film was made dramatizing some incidents reported in the book (over-dramatizing, some would say).

A wave of controversy began to swell, with many critics taking absolute sides. In 1989 Russia abandoned Communism and suddenly there was concern over copyrights and royalties. There were those who defended the book word for word as being exactly what it purported to be. There were those who insisted it was a fraud, Volkovís memoirs, not Shostakovichís, a personal statement from Volkov, his way of getting even at Russians who had slighted him and his friends, hiding behind Shostakovich. There are those who have a vested interest in embarrassing Volkov as much as possible. There are those who have a vested interest in defending him. The literate music lover is in a difficult position in deciding just whom to believe, and this book will help you make up your mind ó pick and choose ó as it did me.

I would like to think that I am, like many of the authorities quoted, somewhere in the middle in all this, and after reading this book I am now pretty sure of it. What is collected here are many comments from people who should know what Shostakovich was thinking and saying. And statements by Volkov as to when and how often he met Shostakovich, are evaluated according to the recollections of those who should know.

The arguments have raged in the press, as reported in this book, and Iím not going to summarize them in any great detail here, but I will say that after reading this book I have an opinion, which is:

Volkov, who was correspondent for a major Russian music magazine, had interviewed a lot of Russians and probably encountered a lot of hearsay about what Shostakovich had said on various occasions. People had likely quoted Shostakovich to Volkov, but made him promise not to use their names. He decided to write a book of memoirs in collaboration with Shostakovich and, to prime the pump, collected statements written by Shostakovich at various times and published in various places. These he presented to Shostakovich, whom he hoped would elaborate on them. But Shostakovich was willing to only to read them and sign these pages. Volkov left Russia and moved to the West where he needed to earn a living. He wrote a very lively, informative book including all the hearsay* he recalled, grafting it onto the pages Shostakovich had signed. Once he had sold the book claiming that it was word for word from Shostakovich, he couldnít back down and admit to what is in effect a literary fake. Heís already spent the money. He doesnít want to be sued. Heís angry at those who are trying to take away from him his fame and reputation for what is, in his and perhaps many peopleís opinions, a relatively minor deception.

It seems it may have been a little bit Shostakovichís fault. He tended to fire from the hip, get upset and come out with things he really didnít mean or, on reflection, shouldnít ever have said. Shostakovich was a musician, a man who wrote music because his expression in other areas of human activity was blocked. Writing music was what he needed to do, what he could do best. Other great composers have been like this, noted either for reticence in speaking, or for imprecision in speaking that led to misunderstandings and conflict. When Shostakovich was old and sick, he had the wisdom to remain silent in front of Volkov, yet Volkov, identifying with his readership, defended our right to know. So, Volkov didnít remain silent; he wrote the best book he could. So, he used "artistic license," so what. Heís not the first. Nor is he the first not to want to admit it in a court of law.

Shostakovichís son Maxim, and Mstislav Rostropovich, arguably Shostakovichís closest musical friend, both take particular exception to Volkovís attribution to Shostakovich of negative comments regarding Prokofiev. They avow that Shostakovich had the greatest admiration for Prokofiev, and frequently used the word "genius" in referring to him, and that Shostakovich was influenced by Prokofievís music in some of his later works. Apparently both Shostakovich and Prokofiev believed that Prokofievís melodic gifts were superior to Shostakovichís. As to the negative comments about Evgeny Mravinsky, for many years music director of the Leningrad PO, those close to Shostakovich say that he was grateful to Mravinsky for the many excellent first performances of his works. Shostakovich clearly had some disagreements with Mravinsky in later life, but Shostakovich was a kind and dignified man and would not be likely to attack Mravinsky in print. Furthermore, he would not likely have left such statements in his published memoirs to reflect against his surviving family. One of the legal issues in the ongoing dispute is the heirsí assertion of their copyright so as to expunge these embarrassing passages from Volkovís book.

Volkov is in a difficult cleft. If the work really does represent the literal, word-for-word memoirs of Shostakovich, then his wife and children are entitled to at least part of the royalties, and to some control over publication. On the other hand if it really is a creative work of compilation from many sources, then maybe they are not. If the case goes to trial, everybody will lose and the lawyers will end up with all the money. If I were Volkovís attorney, Iíd advise him to do just what heís doing. Say as little as possible, stick to your story, and donít show anybody anything in writing. In other words, donít let anybody see your original manuscript, which is just as Volkov has acted.

Anyway, thatís my opinion. After you read this book your opinion may differ from mine, but it will be an extensively informed opinion.

There is also much interesting information regarding Shostakovich and his music that doesnít relate to the Volkov situation. For instance, the Twelfth Symphony, "The Year 1917," the "Lenin Symphony", that is generally considered a surrender, a cave-in to vulgar Socialist Realism - one commentator avows it should be struck from the roster of Shostakovich Symphonies - apparently contains a musical satire of Lenin and his manner of speech, something that no Westerner is likely to notice or appreciate without a lot of help. And there are many personal anecdotes that give us a picture of Shostakovich as a kind, generous, and deeply compassionate man. There are a number of comments related to the interpretation of his music.

At last a book that does what Volkov didnít do, presents signed, attributed observations of what Shostakovich actually said, and signed, attributed opinions about what he might or might not have said, might or might not have thought. Volkov really doesnít come out so badly after all.

[*It is no particular difficulty to discover who were most likely to have been Volkovís chief informants and collaborators. Who are the people in Russia who swear that every single word in Testament is true?]

Paul Shoemaker


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