The major works on Shostakovich

Our new book club discussion is about three central books about the composer and a new recording:
Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time
Elisabeth Wilson: Shostakovich, A Life Remembered
Solomon Volkov: Testimony
Artemis Quartet: Shostakovich (Erato)

Book Club moderator Anthea Kreston introduces the topic with four major authorities (below). Any questions? Ask them in the comments section below. Here’s Anthea:

Shostakovich – the man, the music, the world he inhabited. These are the themes investigated in this series of Fortnightly Music Book Club. Our selected materials – three books and one cd – are merely jumping-off points for our imaginations. We have a veritable army of people at the stand-by, ready for your questions and observations, each person bringing with them a world of experience to share with us. So grab your books, turn on the stereo, pour yourself a drink and put your slippers on. Let’s travel back in time, and find a path through the complex, devastating and wondrous world of Shostakovich.

Our guests are people both new and old to me. Ignat Solzhenitsyn (conductor and pianist), Elisabeth Wilson (author), Bernd Feuchtner (author and president of the German Shostakovich Society), Elisabeth Leonskaja (pianist), and Elisabeth von Leliwa (musicologist and vice-president of the German Shostakovich Society). Each is a monster of their chosen field, and we at Slipped Disk are honored that they have agreed to join us on this journey.

Materials read/listened to:
Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time
Elisabeth Wilson: Shostakovich, A Life Remembered
Solomon Volkov: Testimony
Artemis Quartet: Shostakovich (Erato)

Questions (general or for a specific person) can be left below in comments, or sent to Following are a collection of the biographies of our fascinating panel. What a ride this will be!

Elisabeth Wilson, Author of Shostakovich: A Life Remembered
“Dear Reader,
Anthea Kreston asked me to write a few words about how I came to write my book Shostakovich- A Life Remembered. Around 1986/87 I was approached by Faber and Faber to do a book in their series Composers Remembered. I am a cellist, and had studied in Soviet Russia at the Moscow Conservatoire during the mid 1960s to early 1970s under Mstislav Rostropovich. Altogether I lived in Moscow for 6 years. So I knew Russian very well, and had excellent musical contacts. This was perhaps a good qualification for me to do the book. On the minus side – I had never written anything in my life except an odd programme note- and I was unsure whether I could write at all. I nevertheless agreed to take on the commission, thinking I could construct the book around interviews with people connected with Shostakovich. This way it would fit into the Faber series.
I made several trips to Moscow and Leningrad (as it still was) in the last 4 years of the 1980s and started a fascinating adventure. Having been a student of Rostropovich’s (then living in exile), and through knowing the Shostakovich family I had the best qualifications to make contact with a large spectrum of people. These included Shostakovich’s sister, Zoya Dmitrievna and his first girlfriend, Tatyana Glivenko, and other family members, who in certain cases were willing to ”speak” but not to be interviewed. I interviewed many composers, musicologists and performers, and also the theatre director Yuri Lyubimov, the opera director Boris Pokrovsky and performers like Mstislav Rostropovich, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Valentin Berlinsky and Fyodor Druzhinin who had worked closely with Shostakovich. I talked to his best friend Isaak Glikman, and to people the composer studied with in Leningrad, such as Mikhail Druskin and Natan Perelman. I also met people, amongst them was Miecizlaw Weinberg, who were too frightened of speaking with foreigners. Weinberg didn’t say more than “Shostakovich was a wonderful composer and person” – nice to hear, but not very useful for the book. We must remember that I was doing my research in what was still the Soviet Union, where people had for years learnt to keep silent, and only to speak to somebody openly if you trusted them 100%, and at that to be careful that you spoke without being overheard. Yet politically, things were beginning to crack up, and Gorbachyov’s reforms included “Glasnost” – the idea of speaking out and reviewing the past more critically.

Some of the people I met volunteered to write their own reminiscences- I am proud of the fact that I encouraged people like Flora Litvinova ,Tatyana Litvnova, Isaac Schwartz and Mark Lubotsky to do so. I was also able to use taped interview material provided by Kirill Kondrashin’s widow, and to use Evgeny Evtushenko’s recorded testimony on the Thirteenth Symphony. Some of my interviewees were extremely interesting but controversial, not least Lev Lebedinsky, a one time critic of Shostakovich when he belong to RAPM (the Russian association of Proletarian Musicians) in the late 1920s/early 1930s. However life brought many changes to both men, and for more than a decade in the 1950s and early1960s they enjoyed a close friendship. I became very fond of Lebedinksy and his wife, but knew I had to use his material with care.

In every case I did my best always to check people’s memories against published facts. I also took care to check that when I transcribed and wrote up the interview material, I then checked it out with the people concerned, giving them a chance to correct what I wrote, and to delete or add information.
I also met some people I had never heard of before, who had known Shostakovich in various capacities- as literary critics, as Jewish refugees during the War and so on. I heard many stories of how Shostakovich had helped people, often anonymously, and also how, when in his cups, he could pour sarcasm on those he thought were stupid or antagonistic; – these included Party officials.
For the most part what I was told only increased my respect for Shostakovich the man- I was already an immense admirer of his music from an early age. However there were also those who criticised Shostakovich’s actions, not least his “signing” letters or newspaper articles – or more precisely his not protesting when his signature was added without being asked. There were also some people who simply wanted to share gossip- but with the microphone off. My problem was to use my judgement and be discerning about what material was genuine and viable, and what was suspect and should not be included in my book.

The next stage of my work was collating and adding written reminiscences and other published material to my own collection of material. I realised that by now I had extended my brief to such an extent, that the book had to come out of the Composers Remembered series. In fact almost all of what I had now amassed was either completely new or had never before appeared in English. It was then that I agreed with my editor that I should construct a “mosaic” biography, using the interviews , written material and reminiscences (while attempting to exclude too much repetition). My job was to link the disparate parts of the mosaic to give it thematic relevance and chronology to build up an objective picture of the composer’s life. I hoped that by placing the original contributions within the “context” of the times, I could recreate the atmosphere, which formed the background to Shostakovich’s life and work. I wanted his life to become more comprehensible and real to my English-speaking readers.

My book first came out in 1994 under the title “Shostakovich A Life Remembered.” In 2006 I did a revised and expanded edition- this was necessary because of the enormous quantity of new material that emerged in Russia during the 1990s and early years of the new century. And of course I could still think of making a third edition as new material continues to appear, but at this stage I think it best to leave well enough alone. An enormous quantity of Shostakovich books and critical assessments of his music have come out in recent years. In particular the scholarly work being done in recent years Russia is highly commendable and has brought to light new works(mostly in-completed) and important insights.
But “unslanted” biographies are rather more scarce than you might think. I can highly recommend Laurel Fay’s biography to those interested in a detailed, factual account of his life. In Russia, a two volume biography written in the 1980s by Sofiya Khentova was a pioneering book in one sense, but unfortunately it was highly flawed by its heavily ideological slant. A real and viable Shostakovich biography by a Russian biographer or scholar has yet to appear.

Although I do not believe that Solomon Volkov’s Testimony can in any way claim to be “Shostakovich’s Memoirs”, his book was – and still is -a fascinating read. Credit is due to Testimony for perhaps being the first to open the eyes of many people in the West to what Shostakovich was and what he stood for. Again it is a flawed book because of its methods, and for making a false claims that it was all a dictated memoir, when in fact some of the material came from Soviet published sources- Volkov hoped nobody in the West would be aware of them. But it made Westerners realise that the “official” puppet version of the “ideal communist” composer was an invention of the Soviet State authorities. On the converse side it unwittingly gave rise to some very primitive interpretations of the music.
It is not for me to judge where my book stands in all this, but I hope I succeeded in showing Shostakovich in a fair and comprehensive way, where the legendary side of his achievements is balanced by facts. For me it was important that this extraordinary composer was seen and understood against the background of the times.”

Elizabeth Wilson ©
“Shostakovich A Life Remembered”
2006 Faber and Faber London
Princeton University Press.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Conductor and Pianist
Recognized as one of today’s most gifted artists, and enjoying an active career as both conductor and pianist, Ignat Solzhenitsyn’s lyrical and poignant interpretations have won him critical acclaim throughout the world.
In 2018-19 Mr. Solzhenitsyn returns to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic with Gidon Kremer as soloist, conducts a new production première of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich at the Bolshoi Opera, appears as piano soloist with Vladimir Spivakov and the National Philharmonic of Russia, and gives solo recitals in New York, Zurich, and St. Petersburg.
Principal Guest Conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Ignat Solzhenitsyn is much in demand as a guest conductor, having recently led the symphonies of Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Nashville, Phoenix, Seattle, and Toronto, the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, the Czech National Symphony, as well as many of the major orchestras in Russia including the Mariinsky Orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Moscow Philharmonic, and the Moscow Symphony.
A winner of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, Ignat Solzhenitsyn serves on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music. He has been featured on many radio and television specials, including CBS Sunday Morning and ABC’s Nightline. Born in Moscow, Mr. Solzhenitsyn resides in New York City.

Bernd Feuchtner is living as freelance author in Berlin and is President of the German Shostakovich Society. For ten years, he served as Artistic Director and Chief Dramaturg in Heidelberg, Salzburg and Karlsruhe. Before that, he was one of the most renowned music and dance journalists, worked as editor at Der Tagesspiegel Berlin newspaper and Opernwelt magazine and contributed to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung and several Radio Stations. He lectured at Universities in Frankfurt, Berlin, Heidelberg, Salzburg and Karlsruhe.

Elisabeth Leonskaja, pianist
For decades now, Elisabeth Leonskaja has been among the most celebrated pianists of our time. In a world dominated by the media, Elisabeth Leonskaja has remained true to herself and to her music, and in doing so, is following in the footsteps of the great Russian musicians of the Soviet era, such as David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, who never wavered in their focus on the quintessence of music despite working in a very difficult political environment. Her almost legendary modesty still makes her somewhat media-shy today. Yet as soon as she walks out on the stage, audiences can sense the force behind the fact that music is and always has been her life’s work.

Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, to a Russian family, she was regarded as a child prodigy and gave her first concerts as early as age 11. Her exceptional talent soon brought her to study at the Moscow Conservatory.

While still a student at the Conservatory, she won prizes in the prestigious Enescu, Marguerite Long and Queen Elizabeth international piano competitions. 

Despite her busy schedule as a soloist, chamber music has always played a prominent role in her creative work, and she frequently appears with the Emerson, Borodin and Artemis Quartets.

Elisabeth von Leliwa, born 1962 in Berlin, is a musicologist and music manager.
She started her professional career working in the management of the Duesseldorf Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Oper am Rhein). 1997 she became a member of the senior management of the Tonhalle Duesseldorf, one of the biggest concert halls in Germany. A main focus of her work has always been the music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

As a university lecturer, she teaches Musicology and Management for Musicians at the Robert Schumann Hochschule Duesseldorf.

She took a leading part in the project “On the Wings of Music – concert programs for people with dementia”, which was launched 2012 in North Rhine-Westphalia and received the “BKM-Preis Kulturelle Bildung” by the German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. Since then, musical projects for persons with dementia have been an important part of her work. The experience of how music can affect memory, emotion and well-being has influenced and enriched her thinking as a teacher, coach and consultant.

Since September 2018, she is vice president of the German Shostakovich Society.


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  • Solomon Volkhov’s book has been widely dismissed by many in the know both in Russia and elsewhere. Maybe you should choose Laurel Fay’s excellent book and the book of letters to his good friend Isaac Glikman. Their accounts are more accurate, believe me I know after speaking with Maxim, and many others close to the family.

    • Gregor – yes feel free to read the Fay book. It is excellent. I included the Volkov (which I know is highly controversial) because it is still and excellent source. Both of the other books relate to it, and site it as a integral source.

    • Even if the Volkov book would be incorrect on many points (in a literal sense,) the music seems to fully confirm the gist of what Volkov wanted to convey.

    • As a historian by training (albeit in a different field) I have approached reading the various English-language Shostakovich sources in the same way I would if I were trying to get an understanding of any historical topic, with a critical eye but also with the knowledge that it is a rare source that contributes nothing to the conversation. Read them all, understand their biases, and in so doing form the fuller picture–but be clear about your limits. For instance, I am constantly reminded as I read that I don’t know Russian, which keeps me humble about making black-and-white statements about which source is “right” or “correct.” As someone who has worked extensively in a language not my own (in my case, Latin) this is huge. It’s doubly compounded because the history of the period itself is opaque for so many of us in the West (but even to some extent to Russians as well). I would normally say that the music transcends the language issues, and in many ways it does, but it is clear that certain things do not jump out to a Canadian of midwestern American heritage as they would to a Russian. Music is also its own language, and being conversant with the basics (as I am) does not make me fluent in its nuances.

  • In June 1973, Shostakovich was reportedly seen, at State Department request, at the (U.S.) National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (also, possibly the then Naval Medical Center in Bethesda) for a “second opinion” regarding a progressive paralysis of his right hand, and other health issues. In 2006, while researching the matter for a proposed scholarly paper, I made Freedom Of Information Act requests for records relating to this visit, and actually physically visited the Institute to further pursue the matter. No records were ever found, or yielded up. Which leads to my question: was a definitive diagnosis ever confirmed, and have the NIH / NINDS records of his evaluation ever seen the light of day?

      • Anthea – I had confirmation of the NIH visit from a State Department driver, the correspondence about which is probably now lost in the electronic mists of time. I tried at the time to reach out to the family, but that went nowhere. In 2008 Ms Fay told me that Ms Wilson states that Maxim had been “told by American doctors some time after his father’s death” that the diagnosis was Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. We don’t know if there was documentation regarding this. But the point was, I think, that the original diagnosis of polio was thought to be incorrect. Not very satisfying.

  • I was very disappointed by The Noise of Time, not just by the very strange style in which it was written but by the musical errors. It made me regret that I had broken my rule never to read novels about musicians or other creative artists.

    • Tully – sounds like it a good time to dig into the Wilson or Fay or Volkov! I have also read it, and although it is in an unusual style, I found in compelling – as did enough others to make it to a Sunday Times Best Seller. It suspends reality, and in that way put me into a sense of confusion – maybe Barnes was trying to disorient us in the way that Shostakovich must have felt at times.

  • Richard Tarushkin call Solomon Volkov “Testemonies” a shameless book. Very good biography written by Shostakovich pupil Polish composer Kzystov Maeyr.

    • Esfir – we are very aware of the controversies surrounding the Volkov. In fact, Wilson goes at this directly in her introduction, if you read the above. We are going in with eyes wide open here. You choose your book, no need to read anything you don’t want to! Try one of the others. I am reading all three, and find them to compliment each other very well.

  • What I took as the main, overriding point of Volkov’s book was that Shostakovich’s symphonies, starting from the fourth onward, were “tombstones” for the Russian people. For anyone who knows that music, that obviously rings very true. It’s a gross over-simplification, yes, but the overriding point remains. For those who want to present Shostakovich as a misunderstood Russian Haydn (or something), you’re kidding yourselves.

  • Although not a biography, I highly recommend Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich, a fine collection of poetry by English poet, Joanna Boulter. Published in 2006, it was shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and takes the form of a long sequence based on the life and turbulent times of the composer. Taking Shostakovich’s “Preludes & Fugues” as her starting point, the poet puts together a deeply-considered and thoroughly-researched account of the composer’s life, with the ‘preludes’ written in free or invented forms in the third person, and the ‘fugues’ in any strict poetic form in the first person as the voice of the composer himself. The effect of these poems is cumulative and together they make an original contribution to the assessment and celebration of the life and work of Shostakovich.

  • No book I know of addresses his secretly Jewish ancestry. Laurel Fay, considered an expert on Soviet composers dismissed it outright without consideration. But it’s true. Through Belarussian Boleslav Shostakovich (probably Berl Shostak). Just ask the Shostaks in Toronto and Montreal.

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