Shostakovich and Stalin, by Solomon Volkov, trans. Antonina W Bouis

Suffering to convey a message of liberation
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The Independent Culture

In his preface, Solomon Volkov writes: "If you don't count the mythic Greek singer Orpheus, probably no one suffered more for his music than the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich." It isn't a good start. More than any other 20th-century composer, Shostakovich wrote music with the Aesopian qualities of irony and ambiguity. Other creative musicians witnessed worse atrocities: Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein perished in Hitler's camps.

What matters is that Shostakovich had the opportunity and talent to renew an older tradition of what some still choose to call absolute music. Take the magnificent passacaglia slow movement of the First Violin Concerto. As its repeating bass-line grinds inexorably forward (seemingly rooted in the grey realities of the everyday), the soloist still dares to hope for a radiant future. But you are not obliged to accept this image, let alone politicise it. Universalising the particular is what great music is all about.

Yet recent Shostakovich commentary has tended to polarise around two equally batty notions. The purist camp would like to assess his oeuvre without reference to external events. This is a respectable enough viewpoint, except that it has tended to go hand in hand with incautious statements on Shostakovich's own political position.

In the revisionist lobby, libertarian populists tend to assert that his music is only comprehensible in so far as it encodes anti-Stalinist dissent. Why should this be so? We don't value a Beethoven symphony merely because it enlists motifs from Revolutionary France.

Volkov will always be somewhere near the epicentre of this debate. It was he who "edited" the composer's much-disputed posthumous memoir, published as Testimony in 1979. This book is a sort of pendant in which Volkov expands on what has always been a plausible portrait. He suggests that Shostakovich found an important model in Pushkin, who survived the cruelties of Tsar Nicholas I by juggling three archetypal Russian roles of "pretender", "chronicler", and "holy fool". Less viably, he discerns opposition to Communism as a major factor in the composer's early creative life. Volkov is not the first to insist that a Pravda editorial about the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with the headline "Muddle Instead of Music" was written by Stalin himself. Shostakovich is said to have read this life-changing appraisal while standing at a newspaper kiosk in 1936.

In later years, Shostakovich, with a family to support, chose to operate from inside the bureaucracy. As the work shows, this was the right decision for him. His "public" pieces could only convey their liberating, anti-Stalinist message through the institutional framework of the state. It is naive to suppose that cultural cabals and movements of capital have not also dictated the direction of Western musical life, the crucial difference being that patronage here is not a matter of life and death. The Soviet Union was a place in which the arts flourished - but were never free.