The Shostakovich wars are declared over

The Shostakovich wars are declared over


norman lebrecht

November 28, 2019

In the December issue of The Critic, out today, I find that a new biography of the composer has laid to rest a long-running international conflict:

Survivors of the Shostakovich wars — we wear chestfuls of medals on the composer’s birthday — suffer savage bouts of PTSD at the sight of a new biography of the composer. The wars, for those of you who have not read newspapers for the past 40 years, were triggered by the appearance of Testimony, a book claiming to be the composer’s memoirs as dictated to a journalist, Solomon Volkov, who in the late 1970s took them to New York and found a publisher….

After a predictable onslaught of Kremlin denunciation, some Soviet-educated US academics led by the ebullient Richard Taruskin and the biographer Laurel Fay, demanded proof of the composer’s authorship. Volkov produced a number of signed manuscript pages. This failed to satisfy the scholars who, among other cavils, demanded to see a note in Shostakovich’s hand criticising communism. The war went ballistic…

Read on here.



  • Greg Bottini says:

    “Shostakovich wars”? Maybe in the minds of a few fusty classical music historians.
    But the general concert-going public has judged his music the way it has always judged music: you either like Shostakovich’s works or you don’t. His personal history doesn’t matter in the general public’s mind.
    And I really would like to hear you sing the first few bars of the First Violin Concerto. Can you make a YouTube video of your performance, please?
    (Personally, I think he is one of the towering musical giants of the 20th c.)

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Let’s make it really entertaining, Greg, and ask our worthy host to solfège the second movement, in tempo. One could make money selling tickets to that if it can be done.

      Years ago I had the opportunity to interview the Ukrainian violin virtuoso Mela Tenenbaum, who had several interactions with Shostakovich. She mentioned his habit of trying to pull his wrist and hand entirely into his sleeve, as if he was embarrassed by it. One thing I recall in particular was that she said it sometimes needed to be taken with a grain of salt when this or that interpretation claimed to be “composer-approved” because Shostakovich found it difficult to be critical and had a tendency to praise it all, even if it contradicted other interpretations he had also praised.

      Yet he was critical, not always mildly, of interpreters in Testimony, which suggests that perhaps he found his conversations with Volkov to be a liberating opportunity to be frank and not just on the politically charged topics.

      I always found it endearing that he proudly presented his Violin Concerto No. 2 to David Oistrakh as a 60th birthday present, only to learn he was off by a full year. He felt he still needed a present for the actual 60th, and that is why we have the Violin Sonata. Perhaps the best mistake in the history of music.

  • M2N2K says:

    If those “scholars” really “demanded to see a note in Shostakovich’s hand criticising communism”, then they have no credibility.

  • Jean says:

    My only wonder is: why hasn’t the original manuscript (of the Memoirs) been published?
    It would end all the debate at once !

    (An innocent question…)

    • Dennis says:

      I believe the memoirs were allegedly dictated to Volkov, so there is no “manuscript” in Shostakovich’s hand (though apparently Volkov did produce some pages that had actually been signed or corrected by Shostakovich).

    • M2N2K says:

      This question is much more naive than it is innocent.

  • JohnG says:

    This looks great. I’m currently reading Philip Ross Bullock’s biography of Tchaikovsky, also in this series, and it seems to have similar clear-eyed virtues (e.g. building on Taruskin’s work about how we’ve projected all sorts of things onto the composer which say more about us than him, and seeing Tchaikovsky as a sophisticated ‘manager’ of his own career). I think there’s a lot to be said for short critical studies which spare us all the day-to-day life details, which easily take a turn for the cliched.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting. I always found Shostakovich’s ‘voice’ entirely convincing in Volkov’s book.

    The most satisfying sentence in this review:

    “He died, aged 68, in 1975 and went on to emerge from the ideological wars as one of the cornerstone composers of the twentieth century, the one who most effectively applied Mahler’s method of conveying contradictory meanings in music. In contrast to Boulez, he owns the next century.”

    Indeed. And what is also remarkable: while using much of Mahler’s aesthetics, he turned it all into pure Shostakovich, stamping it with his own distinctive voice. This proves what a musical tradition really is: a shared vocabulary so flexible that any talented composer can freely use it for his own ends. Something Boulez never understood.

    When Stravinsky visited the Soviet Union in 1962 he said in a table speech at a banquet where Shostakovich was present, that ‘one should go further than Mahler’, thereby attacking Shostakovich who was biting on his hands (as reported by Craft). How wrong Stravinsky was; in art, there is no ‘further’, there is change, decline, improvement, various developments, but no ‘going further’ which suggests progress. Stravinsky, considering Shostakovich being backward, was parrotting the postwar ideology, to which he recently had converted with his serialist works.

    • esfir ross says:

      At that banquet Stravinsky was willing to approach DS.He shout to him: “Do you like Pucinni?” “No, no!” DS shout back

      • John Borstlap says:

        Interestingly, Stravinsky did not like Puccini’s music but respected it, as Debussy did. They knew it was very good but often of miserable taste. Sometimes this goes together.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    So does this mean that I have to live with the ridiculously slow, ponderous closing of the 5th forever? Bernstein got it right – so did others before Testimony came along and ruined it.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      The point IS the “ridiculously slow, ponderous closing”. Yes, the stabbing, repeated A’s (I believe) in the upper strings and the ponderous bass drum at the end. Remember: our business is rejoicing; our business is rejoicing! Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to like it.

  • George Porter says:

    Testimony may not be authentic, but it is true.

    • John Borstlap says:

      One cannot say this about many such sensitive texts, but in this case Volkov probably was S’s ‘ghost writer’ and said the things that S would have said, or indeed DID say, or had wanted to say. A mask can, in certain circumstances, tell the truth, as music can.

  • Calvin says:

    Shostakovich himself said, “Most people are average, neither black nor white, but grey.” Perhaps that statement, applied to his own politics, gives rise to the conflict. Millions and probably most under the yoke of the Soviet system didn’t like it, but they expressed discontent only privately or in highly veiled ways while towing the line in public. This makes them neither model comrades of the Soviet system nor heroic dissidents to be now lionized. Just grey.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Living under the Soviet dehumanizing system and wanting to reject it and leave the country, was only possible if you had contacts abroad, enough money to take with you, and no family members you had to leave behind and could be taken hostage. Probably S accepted the theoretical idea of an ideal society where assets were fairly shared, and was fully aware of the evil caricature that was reality, but he was trapped and had to find a way of survival, both personally and artistically. I don’t think such position is ‘grey’.

      Also, we should not forget that artists, escaping from the nazis in the thirties and landing in England and the US, faced great difficulties and many of them simply perished in humane freedom. Prokofiev’s income from touring greatly diminished as his fame withered in the thirties, while his concerts in Russia continued to be very successful, so he walked into the trap and could not get away.

    • Dennis says:

      Exactly. I find it curious the way Shostakovich is treated as opposed to, say, Furtwängler. Whatever the (dubious) claims for Shostakovich as sort-of “secret dissident,” or his works as a “secret history,” outwardly he was no less a fellow-traveler of his regime than Furtwängler was of his (as were most people essentially, stuck in a system they couldn’t fight and had no means of escaping, just having to get on with their lives and work somehow), yet Furtwängler is generally treated far more harshly.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The difference is, that WF represented, as he thought, the morally highminded German classical tradition, loaded with universalist idealism. This was an attractive disguise of the regime to get some respectability. The Russian revolution cultivated proletarian values, to which contemporary music had to conform, that is a different thing. And then, there is the difference between a conductor and a composer (although FW did also compose in his free time).

  • We privatize your value says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, I hope that you have apologized top Mr. Taruskin for likening him to that walking garbage can, David Irving. And why is it worth recalling that slur when it would have been so much better to just forget it? Truly one of your least brilliant moments, this.

    • esfir ross says:

      When I talk sometimes to R.Taruskin-we laugh about Solomon Volkov and his war on RT. Now we’ll laugh about Norman. RT’s the brightest mind in contemporary musicology.

  • Perturbo says:

    Volkov won (don’t miss the end):

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    ” In contrast to Boulez, he (Shostakovich) owns the next century.” Is the claim that Shostakovich is more influential on 21st century music than Boulez? Or just that Shostakovich’s music is more popular?

    • John Borstlap says:

      The point is, that Shostakovich’s music, rooted as it is in tradition and a tonal vocabulary, can be absorbed into the classical performance culture which is based upon variations of this vocabulary. Boulez, together with his postwar revolutionary collegues, created a different art form, sound art, which cannot fit within that culture, it is a different culture. (I would like to say it is an art form by and for unmusical people but I will refrain from spilling the beans.) And now that avantgarde sound art of half a century old is no longer modern, composers seek a way back to musical values which had been so carelessly rejected by the advocates of progress. It is to be expected that the 21st century will see its own progress in a very different light.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      EM: “Is Shostakovich is more influential…or more popular”.

      While it is undeniable that Boulez was, for a time, highly influential among his contemporaries, this influence has faded. This is mainly because his music has failed to get much of an audience in the major concert halls: contemporary composers have largely (but not entirely) lost interest in his music.

      Shostakovich, in contrast, has become part of “the tradition” and has a secure place in repertoire. The fact his music is regularly performed automatically makes his music influential to contemporary composers (as are Beethoven and Brahms).

      • John Borstlap says:


        But what is surprising, is that this music, which tells us about how life feels in such society, equally resonates in Western societies which have enjoyed more than half a century of freedom and wealth, and are supposed to be the total opposite of the killing stranglehold of a totalitarian regime. Westerners apparently recognize something of their own nihilism and despair and longing for truth and authenticity in music born from a situation so fundamentally different. So, ….

  • Edgar Self says:

    Of the dozen books on Shostakovich I have, two of the most useful besidesVolkov’s “Testimony”,are Ian Macdonald’s”The New Shostakovich” and Elizabeth Wilson’s “Shostakovich Remembered”, both in their second editions with some added material. I’m in their camp, and against Taruskin-Fay.

    I agree that the music is the main thing. Stokowski introduced me to it with the sixth symphony and his orchestration of the prelude in E-flat minor,– then Eileen Joyce and Leslie Heward in the first piano concerto.

    Im’ still listening, and have managed to hear many live performances of all the symphonies except two and ghree, and all the quartets (Pacifica) and 24 preludes and fugues (Nikolayeva) once, supplemented with many recordings.

    • George Porter says:

      If you haven’t already, get
      Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman