So instead of an author's inevitably partial
approach, this book presents a kaleidoscope of 'outer' events and 'inner' motivations. Elizabeth Wilson, a professional musician and the daughter of a US ambassador to the Soviet Union, has made an exemplary selection from the mass of available material, and the translations (often her own) read fluently. But if what comes out is not far from a great book, the greatness derives not from the author-compiler but from the subject. Shostakovich lived a copiously productive, painfully bifurcated life, being relished or reviled as crusading hero or tragic victim, according to political prejudice. This book reveals how trivial such distinctions are, for Shostakovich's greatness lies precisely in his being scapegoat for us all. If most of us haven't had to live under monolithic tyranny, we have all been subjected to agonising pressures between the demands of the private and the public life. Shostakovich reminds us that the inflated forms these pressures have assumed throughout our battered century are simply the human condition writ (very) large.
From childhood, Shostakovich exhibited near- incredible aural sensitivity and acuity, computer- like recall and an instantaneous apprehension of compositional relationships. The mind boggles at stories here recounted of Shostakovich's being able (for instance) to add from memory the second violin and cello parts of Beethoven's Grosse Fugue to the first violin and viola parts played from score by a friend; of his fabulous talents as score-reader; and, most significantly, of his composing even his most complex orchestral works direct in full score, without an intermediary piano score. Such aural sensitivity, intellectual command and unbridled inventiveness finds no parallel apart from Mozart; and the young Viennese musician had clearly defined artistic conventions to start from, whereas Shostakovich, with so turbulent a past and present, could take little for granted. For this reason one might even claim that Shostakovich's boyhood compositions are more interesting than Mozart's.
By the late 19th century the public concepts
of an industrial technocracy in America or of a tyrannical state in Russia were alike inimical to personal fulfilment. Indeed, the Russian tyranny embraced the materialism inherent in industrial technocracy without the compensatory virtue of 'freedom' - though the inverted commas are still, as they always were, necessary. Shostakovich profited from living in a community that believed it was forging the future on behalf of the common (communal) man. At first hoping that was true, he made music copiously and continuously, ostensibly to fulfil demands. What he couldn't have bargained for was the criminal imbecility of leaders drunk on power. Throughout these absorbing if often scaring accounts we are appalled not so much by the malice of bureaucrats but by their gross deafness to the still, small voice that is the heart of art and of our humanity. Shostakovich suffered unspeakable anguish, and was, during the purges of 1936 and 1948, exposed to physical threat as well as deprivation.
The divisions created in Shostakovich by this dichotomy between the private and the public life are vivid in the accounts offered by friends, colleagues and enemies. His fusion of nobility of heart with ironic humour, often of Gogol-like savagery; his physical appearance, now of magnetic beauty, now of raddled laceration; his volatile, stuttery mode of speech; his neurotic fidgetiness and nail-biting; even the recalcitrant quiff of hair spilling over his forehead (still evident on the
only occasion I met him, not long before his death) - all these create, in these pages, an impression wondrously truthful and irresistibly alive. Admittedly, he sometimes toed the line (accusing himself of being 'a whore'); but would you or I, with a family to care for and all that music to create, have done differently?
Interestingly, Shostakovich's supreme works often appeared just before or after the social and political crises he submitted to, for instance, the tremendous opera based on Leskoy's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had a prodigious success with both public and critics, yet was officially damned and banned because it dealt not only with 'socially realistic' but also with real (and sinful) people; the Fifth Symphony which he apparently wrote as retribution for this 'error', while making it a new, but no less truthful, affirmation; the patently autobiographical Eighth String Quartet, too musically forceful to be rejected even by authority; the magnificent Piano Quintet, unusually acclaimed by all and sundry; the Eighth Symphony, accepted as a masterpiece but then quietly dropped because of its 'tragic' nature. After digesting this book one should relisten to these works: and still more pertinently to the Fourteenth Symphony, a song-cycle comparable with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, which
Shostakovich once acclaimed as the most wonderful of all musical compositions because it wrested affirmation from the unflinching confrontation of death.
At the time he composed his Fourteenth Symphony, Shostakovich knew that he was terminally ill; perhaps he also knew that his impending death presaged the demise of a god that had failed. This seems to be supported by the Fifteenth and last symphony of 1972; for there is little doubt that
he meant it to be autobiographical and epilogic, riddling it with quotations. Yet although the piece is an elegy, for Shostakovich, Russia and 'Europe', its basic key is A major, traditionally
associated with innocence and youth, and the strangely moving and movingly strange symphony seems distantly to glimpse a child's Eden beyond the weary body and the sorrowing soul.
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