The cost of compromise: Bayan Northcott reviews a new biography of Shostakovich, and asks whether the post-Soviet era has diminished his music's stature

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The Independent Culture
In January 1918, before the assembled pupils of a Petrograd gymnasium, a thickly spectacled 11-year-old schoolboy 'with fragile, sharp features . . . somewhat like a small sparrow', sat at the piano and played his latest composition: Funeral March in Memory of Victims of the Revolution. The piece no longer seems to survive in the vast Shostakovich catalogue, but it would be hard to imagine an event more suggestive of his artistic precociousness, personal vulnerability, or ultimate fate.

Granted, countless other composers over the centuries have also become 'news': artistic news after some first night riot, or political news for fighting some injustice. But from the moment the excited 10-year-old boy rushed home to tell how he had just seen Lenin arrive at the Finland Station, to his death under the Brezhnev regime 58 years later, Shostakovich seems to have been almost continuously at the mercy of political events. For much of that period, this intensely sensitive, driven man, who bit his fingernails to the quick and perhaps never recovered from losing the authority of a beloved father at 15, found himself not just news, but world news: the very emblem of the artist under ideological duress, universally judged - as he knew only too well - according to how he handled the pressures.

Or how he appeared to handle them. Before and after the Second World War his plight at the hands of the Party drew sympathy among the Western intelligentsia (fellow travellers aside), and during it - when 'Uncle Joe' was supposed to be our ally - he gained vast popular acclaim for his patriotic symphonies. Yet in the 1960s and 1970s, by when Shostakovich was assumed to be invulnerable in his world fame, there were also murmurings about his failure to exert himself on behalf of dissidents.

With the posthumous publication in 1979 of Testimony, his putative memoirs 'as related to and edited by' Solomon Volkov, it emerged that Shostakovich had long since concluded that any direct action against a tyranny so all-pervasive would be futile, and that it was rather his duty, however personally compromising, to survive and bear at least covert witness against it. This provoked immediate attempts in Soviet quarters to brand the book as a forgery. Yet though the provenance of some of Volkov's material remains in question, Mstislav Rostropovich, for one, is prepared to affirm that 'basically everything that is stated there is true', if less (or, just occasionally, more) than the full truth.

This statement turns up in what must be welcomed as the most rounded portrait of Shostakovich to date. Between 1964 and 1971 when her father was British ambassador in Moscow, Elizabeth Wilson studied the cello with Rostropovich, sometimes encountering Shostakovich himself. Though her massive Shostakovich: A Life Remembered falls short of a definitive biography - for which she feels the time may still not be ripe - it amounts to the next best thing: an assembly of memoirs and interviews from Shostakovich's friends long gone and still surviving, linked and annotated to comprise a documentary life. Much of the material appears for the first time and often illuminates complementary aspects to Testimony: Shostakovich's remarkably open but evidently vital first marriage, for instance, or his astonishingly swift and sure working methods (except when it came to setting metronome marks). But as Stalin's murderous bureaucracy took over, as cant and blackmail threatened to undermine every stand of conscience, the real wonder is how the confessedly unheroic Shostakovich could keep going creatively at all.

Part of the answer seems to be that his mind kept compulsively inventing music anyway, whether he wanted it to or not. And part, no doubt, was that the act of writing it down enabled him to escape for a time from the oppressiveness of his situation. But in the beginning at least, he also seems to have been driven by an undeniable spirit of transgression. Not for nothing would he continue to resemble a naughty schoolboy almost into middle age. It was the satirical bite of his First Symphony, completed when he was 19, that first attracted international audiences - even if the more thoughtful of them noticed that it turned tragic halfway through - and the sheer rudery of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: that uneven but vastly powerful product of his mid- twenties. Significantly, it was the rudery that Stalin and his hacks first pounced upon in their denunciation of 1936.

This was physically the most dangerous of the regime's onslaughts. Indeed, it emerges that Shostakovich might have vanished in the purges like so many of his fellow artists, had the official who was menacing him not been arrested first. But his turning of the Party's crass prescriptions to positive account in the new maturity of the Fifth Symphony, while retaining - for those with ears to hear - a substratum of defiance in the forced rejoicing of the finale, was a resilient response. There followed the Second World War interlude in which Shostakovich contrived both to fulfil the propaganda requirements of the Soviet authorities with his Seventh Symphony, the 'Leningrad', and to confound them with his apparently lightweight, end-of-the-war Ninth (both can be heard at the Proms this week).

Then came the second onslaught of 1948: more publicly humiliating this time, since Shostakovich actually had a recantation thrust into his hand by a Party official as he tottered to the platform to answer his accusers. Yet with the death of Stalin in 1953 and the consequent release of the First Violin Concerto and Tenth Symphony, he seemed more or less to have survived again. In fact some of the most poignant contributions to Elizabeth Wilson's book come from such then-young admirers as Rostropovich, the theatre director Yuri Lyubimov, and the dissident composers Edison Denisov and Sofiya Gubaidulina, trying to understand how, after enduring so much, Shostakovich could finally allow himself to collapse into the arms of the Party in 1960, and set his name to those late letters condemning Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.

Whatever part the loss of his first wife and the decline of his health played in this capitulation, it was never total: there remained occasional public stands such as the Thirteenth Symphony's protest against Soviet anti-Semitism. For the rest, Shostakovich seems to have rationalised his compliance as a means of doing good behind the scenes and continuing to encode his true feelings in those last numb string quartets and funerary song-cycles. And to the extent that the Soviet state has withered away far sooner than he can have foreseen, while his music is more valued and genuinely understood than ever, this historical gamble would seem to have paid off. Or has it? For it could be argued that the very meaning of his music depends upon a vicarious recreation in our minds of the horrors that surrounded him, and that without this we might begin to question just how good, how interesting the emptier, more self-repetitive tracts of his music really are.

It is interesting to discover that some of Shostakovich's most loyal Russian contemporaries also had their reservations; the composer Vissarion Shebalin, for instance, venerated his formal reach and orchestral infallibility, but found his melodic invention weak and his counterpoint mechanical. On the other hand, Gubaidulina bears witness to the personal help Shostakovich could still offer the young. 'My wish for you,' he remarked after looking at her early work - and with what wistful irony we may imagine he said it - 'is that you should continue on your own, incorrect way.'

'Shostakovich: A Life Remembered', by Elizabeth Wilson, is published by Faber, 550pp, pounds 25