The composer in charge of the cultural Cold War

The composer in charge of the cultural Cold War


norman lebrecht

January 05, 2020

Joseph Horowitz has written a lengthy reflection in the LARB on the bon viveur Nicolas Nabokov, cousin of the novelist, close friend of Stravinsky and Prokofiev and US-sponsored Cold War agitator against the music of Dmitri Shostakovich.

His landmark opus … was “The Case of Dmitri Shostakovitch” [sic] in the March 1943 issue of Harper’s — in the author’s opinion, a “thorough and objective investigation” of a “success story” too little scrutinized. Though conventional wisdom framed (and frames) the Soviet 1920s as a decade of radical experimentation, Nabokov presented Shostakovich as an artist born into bondage. He did not partake in the “audacious experimental spirit” of the ’20s in “central and western Europe.” Though his Symphony No. 1, finished in 1925 when Shostakovich was all of 19 years old, revealed great gifts (Shostakovich was widely hailed as a genius), it was “essentially conservative and unexperimental,” “synthetic and impersonal,” “in the long run, extremely dull.” Its “utilitarian” spirit, addressing “large masses of people,” betrayed the bygone Russian intelligentsia, “which comprised in its ranks all that was vital, imaginative and creative in the nation.” Shostakovich himself said “very clearly”: “I cannot conceive of my future creative program outside of our socialist enterprise and the aim which I assign to my work is that of helping in every way to enlighten our remarkable country.” Even Lady Macbeth, which aimed to shock, was “neither particularly daring nor particularly new.” Like everything else Shostakovich touched, it was fundamentally eclectic and derivative.

Nabokov found only “two positive qualities in the music of Shostakovitch.” The first was his “versatility and efficiency”; the second — “to foreigners so surprising” — was “the inherent optimism of his music,” which “drives the young composer to naïve and dated formulae.” Nabokov’s crowning metaphor, endorsed by Stravinsky in a congratulatory letter, read: “It is as difficult to describe the music of Shostakovitch as to describe the form and color of an oyster […] because it is shapeless in style and form and impersonal in color.” He concluded by comparing Shostakovich unfavorably to seven other 20th-century composers, including Walter Piston, William Schuman, and Vittorio Rieti….

Read on here.

Recognise the co-conspirator?

None of Nabokov’s music has survived the test of time.


  • Novagerio says:

    The “co-conspirator” did two landmark recordings of the 10th Symphony, and two performances in the presence of the composer, who was moved to tears.
    He also recorded a thrillingly beautiful couple of Stravinsky works and Prokofiev’s 5th symphony.

    The “co-conspirator” had, as a leading mediatic person all
    kinds of acquaintances, from Jean Cocteau, Nicolas Nabokov, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Frank Sinatra, Helmut Schmidt, Margaret Thatcher, King Juan Carlos II, Olympic stars et al…

    Bashing Karajan at any given opportunity Norman?…

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    For those who considered this article interesting I suggest reading Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music, a very readable little book. There’s a chapter on ‘The Avatars of Russian Music’ that is very elucidating on Soviet music. The original book is still in print:

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Pierre Boulez, answering to the question why he did not conduct some of DS’s symphonies, referred to those symphonies as a kind of third pressing of Mahler’s – comparing music composition to pressing olives for oil – but coming from Boulez it could be a compliment and his own music will not be (already is?) played even less often than Nabokov’s. One should not be so harsh about comrade Dmitri. He would become a successful Hollywood composer if he had defected to the West – just listen to his amazing arrangement of ‘Tea for Two’! Genius.

    • John Borstlap says:

      PB never understood what a tradition really is (read his ‘Orientations’, Faber & Faber). He merely listened to the sound of music, being a sound artist himself. The much striking quality of Shostakovich is that everything he wrote sounds as Shostakovich. Whatever he appropriated, was turned into something else, something Shostakoviched, without denying its roots.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==Boulez….his own music will not be (already is?) played even less often than Nabokov’s

    According to Universal Edition catalogue, Boulez performances have really gone down now. Mostly the tiny pieces being done Mémoriale, Dérive 1

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Correction: … his own music will be (already is) played less often than Nabokov’s.

      (Thank you! 🙂 )

  • Malcolm Kottler says:

    The Horowitz piece is in the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), not in the NYRB.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    Judging by that photo, the “co-conspirator” wishes to be anywhere but there.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed, and the other thing is that they both wear the same suit, the uniform of those days: of ‘Les Hommes qui President du Monde’.

  • Rob says:

    Shostakovich remains the great composer and Nabokov, the jealous failure.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    According to Horowitz’ article, Nabokov’s entire existence reeks of jealousy.
    Shostakovich’s music = stunning, brilliant, beautiful, tragic, timeless.
    Nabokov’s music = who knows? Nobody’s ever heard it. Or heard of it.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    That is an unfair statement about Nabokov’s music. He is probably best known for his ballet scores, ballets that are rarely performed because they were repertory of the Ballets Russes, and Balanchine wouldn’t allow that repertoire to be performed.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Wonderful article…. as usual, with Horowitz.


    “Today, such 1950s Shostakovich landmarks as the Preludes and Fugues and the 10th Symphony endure as the most widely performed, most widely appreciated musical products of the Cold War years, eclipsing anything Stravinsky composed during the same period. In fact, they represent a terminus: no subsequent music for solo piano, or for symphony orchestra, so robustly connects to the Western legacy.”

    A quite premature conclusion – today, there are many composers reconnecting with the Western legacy. In fact, something like a revival is brewing.


    “With the passage of time, the saga of Dmitri Shostakovich seems all the more extraordinary. He not only takes his place in a grand pantheon beginning with Bach; he is the also the last man standing.”

    That pantheon is a flexible place, changing with every discovery, and it is not beginning with Bach (think of Monteverdi’s revival), and it is open-ended, like any true tradition.

    Nabokov’s ‘assessment’ of Shos nr I is ridiculous – it is a brilliant work full of striking invention, in spite of the oddities – everything is already the full voice of the composer:

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    The “co-conspirator” on the left stated that if he had been a composer he would have composed in a style similar to that of Shostakovich.
    Ps:I am inclined to agree, to a certain extent, with Nabokov’s assessment.

  • Richard Craig says:

    Oh Norman you just love having a swipe at Karajan. I think it’s about time you gave it a rest. He may have been flawed. But he was a master of his craft and a major player in the world of classical music. And admired by many people

  • says:

    Shostakovich never partook of the “audacious experimental spirit” of the 1920’s? Did Nabokov ever listen to “The Nose”?

  • HvK says:

    Any chance to lash out at HvK, huh?

    I find your bearing appalling, Mr Lebrecht.

    And as far as “conspirators” go, you were one, quite openly, against the “co-conspirator” – you bragged about it in that tribute to your little pal, Hellmut Stern (“Such fun” remember?). So don’t point fingers too quickly.

    I’m a big fan of your Furtwängler talks though…