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Galina - A Russian Story by Galina Vishnevskaya: trans. Guy Daniels (Hodder and Stoughton - 1984)
This autobiography is a horrifyingly bitter experience which leaves one feeling humble, ashamed and excoriated. Through her implacable fury we can gain a cruel insight into soviet life these past 40 years: the collectivization of the peasants who were stripped of their possessions and rights; forced labour; a population subjugated and given to unbridled drunkeness; endless queues for shoddy goods and rotten food; KGB tyranny turning each into an informer; the lack of freedom for artists to perform, record or choose their place of work; Agitprop interference in reshaping history; the loss of an audience for provincial. theatres and opera houses due to the impoverishment of the intelligensia - doctors, teachers and engineers earning less than the average manual wage. Corrupt officials and bureaucrats ruled every aspect of life: Rostropovich used all his Stalin Prize money to buy an apartment and then was not given a permit for he and Galina to live in it because it was too large; an impasse only to be overcome by the personal intervention of Bulganin: Igor Markevich being granted permission to perform Haydn's Creation provided it was expunged of all reference to God! There is humour to be found in this book but only after Galina reaches the point where she had met Mstislav Rostropovich.
Cast out by her parents at six weeks, Galina was raised in absolute poverty by her grandmother; only her indomitable spirit enabling her to survive. Several times she was nearly to die: from starvation in the harsh winter that followed Hitler's invasion of Estonia in 1941 when Galina was only 13; in childbirth at 18 losing her son after only 10 weeks; from contracting tuberculosis four years later which not only threatened her life but also her career had she not resisted the standard treatment - collapsing the lung.
As a ten year old Galina was presented with a gramophone and an album of Eugene Onegin. This was her passport from the harshness of reality to an "imaginary world of beauty, magical sounds and unearthly purity". The decision was made: she must become an artist and sing. When the siege of Leningrad was relieved she studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov School of Music, subsequently taking private lessons from the octagenerian Vera Nikolayevna, beginning her career with the Leningrad District Operetta Theatre whose founder, Mark Rubin, became her second husband; Galina was still only eighteen. To gain some personal freedom she left the theatre becoming a peripatetic solo concert artist. Following an audition for the Bolshoi Theatre in a youth competition she was accepted into the company and studied the part of Leonore. As this was the Russian premiere of Fidelio it was under daily preparation by Melik-Pashayev for eighteen months! On her first foreign trip to Prague, Galina got to know Rostropovich and it was only through marrying him that she was able to escape the infatuation of the Chief of State, Bulganin; one of the moments of lighter relief in this book.
More than just a chronicle of Galina's life this book is of importance because of her close association with Shostakovich. We are given a very personal portrait of the composer written from love and admiration. She writes " the friendship of Shostakovich cast a brilliant light over my whole life and whose spiritual qualities captured my soul once and for all time .... a titanic, deeply tragic figure in the world of art in the Twentieth Century. I found myself witness to the tortures of a man I worshipped, before whom I bowed". She was introduced to the Shostakovich family, in 1954. Nina Shostakovich had recently and suddenly died. The household was impoverished because Shostakovich had been deprived of a livelihood following the 1948 Khrennikov Decree on Formalist Composers, since when his music had no longer been bought by the state. In spite of having maintained both a nanny and a maid the household was in total disorder and neglect; although Shostakovich doted on his two children, Galina and Maxim (then 17 and 14 respectively) who were totally spoiled and undisciplined. Shostakovich had retreated from public life devoting himself to his family and a few loyal friends. In an attempt to restore some order to his household Shostakovich later astounded everyone by suddenly marrying Margarita but this was never a success. The servants refused to treat her as mistress of the house and the children did not like her and she bad no appreciation of the importance of Shostakovich's work. Margarita did not fit in and shortly after Maxim's wedding she disappeared as suddenly as she had arrived. Shostakovich had simply decreed that he could not live in the same house and left Maxim to arrange a divorce. Shostakovich had not been able to get over the death of his first wife and even at Maxim's wedding reception Shostakovich unexpectedly proposed a toast to Nina bringing about a sudden embarrassing silence. His sadness, love and regret was poured into the slow movement of his seventh quartet dedicated to Nina Vasilyevna; intimate, withdrawn music pointing to his later works but which, at the time, was overshadowed by the white beat of the eighth - equally autobiographical but retrospective.
By now Shostakovich was becoming quite ill with a disease of the central nervous system. At Maxim's wedding his legs suddenly gave way and he was hospitalized with a broken leg. The disease spread gradually and his hands became very weak and his actions clumsy: over the next 15 years he was to be hospitalized many times. His responsibilities weighed heavily upon him. His household now numbered fifteen with his daughter, Galina, having two children and Maxim a son, all still living with him as well as the personal staff; with yet little to provide an income. He had been borrowing from Rostropovich when he suddenly realized money had been accruing in a bank from his foreign royalties. These had been deposited in dollars and the bank staff were astounded when Shostakovich asked for these to be converted into roubles. Thus the Shostakovich family got by until the 1960s when a degree of prosperity returned.
Shostakovich started to compose for Vishnevskaya. He wrote a song cycle, "Satires", from the verse of Sasha Cherny (Alexander Glikberg). The poems are highly satirical and Shostakovich was worried that Galina would be wary of performing them and that the state might prevent it. Galina suggested that the authorities might be hood-winked by calling the work "Pictures of the Past". Shostakovich relished the irony - the subtitle being "like a fig-leaf covering up embarrassing parts. It was performed in 1961 with the audience demanding an immediate second performance; however a proposed television performance was subsequently banned (I am not aware of any published recording of this cycle and would be very interested to bear any private recording). Galina opened her recital with Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death" and several. months later Shostakovich presented her with his orchestration dedicated to Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya. Shostakovich was tilling new ground and went on to the Thirteenth Symphony, The Execution of Stepan Razin and the Fourteenth Symphony.
In 1962, when Shostakovich was 56, he married Irina Supinskaya. She worked as a literary editor for the Soviet Composer Publishing House and Shostakovich had met her in 1958 when his operetta Moscow, Cheryomushky was being published. Whilst she was more than 30 years his junior, Shostakovich was greatly taken by her intelligence, taste and charm. This time the Shostakovich family did take to his new wife who rapidly organized life so that he could work undisturbed. Shostakovich no longer felt alone having a devoted wife to look after him through the ill-health of his last fifteen years.
His last public performance, in 1966, was a concert with Galina. He had not performed in public for many years because he was worried that the muscular weakness in his hands might let him down. Galina reports that on the evening of the concert he was more than just nervous - he was afraid - terrified that his hands would fail him. In the event the recital went off brilliantly but the strain had been great and during the night he suffered a heart attack which left him in hospital for several months. During this period he wrote the Blok cycle of Romances which were also dedicated to Galina. Shostakovich had confronted Death but returned to life - he had always been terrified of death.
I am very concious of the many aspects of this autobiography I am not able to cover: Galina's work with the Bolshoi; her relationship with Mstislav; the friendship between Britten and Shostakovich; her disappointment at the refusal of the Authorities to allow her to sing in the War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral; the invasion of Czechoslovakia and particularly Rostropovich's championship of Solzhenitsyn, who became a member of the household for the four years before being sent into exile. The family Rostropovich had become an ever-increasing irritant to the authorities who began to react. Concerts were cancelled, first abroad then at home; Rostropovich could neither play or conduct. Galina continued to sing and to tour even though now she went unreported in her own country. They finally felt they had suffered all they could take when a recording of Tosca, conducted by Rostropovich, was abandoned after the first act had already been taped. They decided to appeal to Brezhnev for permission for the whole family to go abroad for two years. When news of this filtered through to Leonard Bernstein he enlisted the help of Senator Kennedy who, on a visit to Moscow, successfully campaigned on their behalf. Mstislav, who left almost immediately, was humiliated to the very last when a customs officer impounded all his international medals and decorations because they were made of gold. Galina left two months later following the premiere of "The Gambler". No reviews of that opera were published for six months until Galina bad been replaced by a new singer. Following radio broadcasts of her operas she was not mentioned in the cast list and her name was removed from record and film credits. She had become a non-person. The extent of this can be seen in that in spite of their importance to, and close collaboration with, Shostakovich neither of them are mentioned in Sollertinsky and Sollertinsky "Pages from a life of Shostakovich" and they only merit a couple of footnotes in the Volkov memoirs.
Shostakovich died a year later on August 9th 1975.
In 1978 Galina and Mstislav Rostropovich were stripped of their Soviet citizenship for the "systematic acts that bring harm to the prestige of the Soviet Union" and they disappeared from the Russian history books.
This article first appeared in ORMS NEWS, The newsletter of the Olton Recorded Music Society
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