NY Times changes tune on Shostakovich’s Testimony

NY Times changes tune on Shostakovich’s Testimony


norman lebrecht

September 25, 2022

While the ebullient academic Richard Taruskin was alive, the New York Times led a campaign of vilification against Solomon Volkov’s best-selling 1979 book of Shostakovich memoirs, Testimony.

If the book was mentioned at all it was only for the purpose of deprecation.

Today, with Taruskin honourably buried by the parish sheet, there are two creditable mentions of Tony Palmer’s film of Testimony, accepting the memoir as authentic.

Sic transit musicologicae mundi.


  • IC225 says:

    Incredible to think that the line of serious scholarship was being held by a single man – and now he’s gone, the musical world snaps straight back into its default position of lazy, sentimental moral self-indulgence. I respect Taruskin even more now.

    • Ellon Carpenter says:

      It wasn’t just Taruskin who determined Volkov’s “Testimoney” to be fake, but an entire crew of prominent Western scholars of Russian and Soviet music, such as Laurel Fey, Malcolm Hamrick Brown, et al. See the arguments as presented in “A Shostakovich Casebook” (2004), ed. by M. H. Brown.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        And another crew, no less expert, dissented. But their view was never heard in the NY Times.

        • Morgan says:

          Where in print was that view expressed?

        • Krunoslav says:

          Simply false. Taruskin and others cited their tendentious views to correct them- because they are spurious.

        • Gustav9 says:

          What do Maxim and Galina Shostakovich have to say on this matter?

          • Adam Stern says:

            I seem to remember a statement by Maxim that went something like: “It’s more a book •about• my father than •by• my father.” I took this to mean that the facts were essentially veracious even if they didn’t come directly from the composer’s lips.

        • Lawrence Kershaw says:

          I remember quizzing Rosti Dubinsky about the book (I was the Borodin Trio’s European agent at the time) and he assured me that it was genuine and well-researched.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “Testimony” rings true to me.
    I of course was not on the scene, so I have no way of knowing for sure, but it rings true.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      The Italian adage seems to apply to Testimony: se non e vero, e ben trovato.

    • Jobim75 says:

      Completely agree, even if not 100% true, you can always suspect some ideological bias pro or against soviets, it really had the perfume of truth….

    • Olof Axler says:

      But that’s just it, isn’t it – you and many others want it to be true. It’s been a few years now since I last read about the Testimony case but remember reading both sides of the argument in some detail and coming out of it being 100% convinced that these memoirs are just as fabricated as Taruskin et al argued.
      I was frankly surprised to hear that so many still think they are genuine, but most people tend to believe what they want to believe I suppose.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      The conclusion of many of Shostakovich’s intimates is that they had heard many of the stories recounted in Testimony, and so they knew them to be accurate. But many doubted that Volkov had actually sat down with Shostakovich and S gave V them these same stories.

      From my perspective, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not Volkov collected this information second-hand and recounted it as if Shostakovich instead narrated it to him, so long as the information is correct. And it sounds like others have confirmed that they’ve heard many of these same narratives on their own, even if they doubted Volkov’s backstory.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Of course it rings true. That should be obvious to anyone who knows Soviet history in the period of Stalin, and how that history relates to those who surrounded Shostakovich, such as Tukhachevsky and Meyerhold. Shostakovich stayed alive because Stalin needed him for his ‘Soviet Realist’ film projects, and because he became too big of a public figure to dispense with, once the second world war had started and S. presented his “Leningrad” Symphony to the world. I also have it on good, second-hand information that both Rostroprovich and Rozhdestvensky said that “Testimony” was mostly quite truthful. Some minor details may have been fabricated, but the big picture is surely correct.

    • Herb says:

      It did to me as well, and although I know the arguments against it, the tone of the testimonials in Shostakovich Remembered breathes the same suffering and subversive atmosphere as Volkov’s narrative. I will also add that Laurel Fay’s work relies far too heavily on official organs like Pravda as reliable sources (see the numerous citations in her bibliography). For me, casting aspersions on Volkov while at the same time trusting Pravda to the great extent that she does simply made her lose all credibility as a scholar in my eyes, sorry to say. If there was any narrative in this tangle that was utterly unreliable, it was that of Soviet government officials who mounted the original smear campaign against Volkov long before Fay did her work. Meanwhile, much of the content of Testimony was in fact independently confirmed over time (see Feofanov and Ho).

  • JamesM says:

    Has Maxim ever weighed in on Testimony? Recently?
    Surely he’s credible.

  • M McAlpine says:

    The NYT has become so notoriously unreliable that I wouldn’t believe anything it says.

  • Adam Stern says:

    Happy Birthday, DSCH! (9/25/1906)

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    And today is also Shostakovitch’s birthday.

  • msc says:

    Hello, Norman. You need to work on your Latin. I’m not sure what you are trying to say, but what you wrote surely is not right. Sic transit musicologicalis mundus (thus the musicological world moves on)? Sic transit musicologistae [coinage of my own] mundi (thus pass the musicologists of the world)?

  • Orchestra manager says:

    I spoke several times about Volkov´s books with a conductor who knew Shostakovich very well. He was very shure that “Every word is true”! I even talked to Volkov himself about the doubts which he of course denied. In my opinion with right!

  • Alan Glick says:

    The only element that counts in this debate is the fact that practically every one of Shostakovich’s friends, relatives, associates, etc. claims that the Shostakovich presented in Volkov’s book is the Shostakovich that they knew. I wonder how much of this anti-Volkov hatred is motivated by reluctance to accept the accurate portrayal of the Soviet Union as the evil empire it was. Much of it does indeed seem to be driven by an excess of emotion.

  • Costa Pilavachi says:

    Around 1983-4, I worked briefly with Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son. I asked him point blank whether the Volkov book was accurate. His reply was that it was accurate in essence, if not in detail. That seemed good enough for me, at the time.

  • MacroV says:

    I must not be very good at reading between the lines, as the article on Lady McBeth merely mentions the 1988 film of Testimony; is the Times obliged to add a “Whose authenticity has been disputed” every time the book is referenced in its pages?

    It seems kind of a stretch to impugn the Times’ journalism here.

    I read Testimony years ago. True or not, it certainly read plausible to me.

  • Patrick says:

    True or not, the story in the book is amazing of Glazanov presenting his new symphony to a private audience, with DS listening in an adjoining room. Then DS entering and announcing he will present ** his ** new symphony. He sits at the piano and proceeds to reproduce the Glazanov from memory (heard once, moments before).

  • MR says:

    Several years ago, I mistakingly received a package in the mail containing vocal music. Locating the intended recipient, she turned out to be a soprano from Russia, and was grateful for my diligence. Learning I was a composer, she mentioned how her father was a close friend of Maxim Shostakovich. Regretfully, when I attempted to learn more about this friendship, perhaps even contacting her father to learn more about his father, one of my favorite composers, she demurred. Perhaps too many people had already made this request of her, which is understandable.

  • KANANPOIKA says:

    I asked a Russian colleague in our orchestra what he thought of “Testimony.” He thought for a moment…and replied:

    “Even if nothing in there is true….it’s ALL true….”

  • John Porter says:

    Ben Kingsley is terrific in the movie. We will never be able to determine whether or not this is completely authentic. That said, a great deal of what appears in the book had appeared elsewhere. It’s enough to see as an important perspective on Shostakovich. The film is so rarely shown and most people don’t even know about it. That’s a shame.

  • Gary Freer says:

    it seems that even in Russian newspapers the football results are on the back page

  • Monty Earleman says:

    “Musicology”??!!! Hahahahaha!!!!!

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    Read The Shostakovich Wars by Ho and Feofanov. Updated in 2011 (at least the copy on my iPad). It’s free on the web. Temirkanov and Ashkenazy believe Testimony is true

  • Stephen R Gould says:

    If “Testimony” had been fake, the Soviets would have put less effort in attempting to discredit it.

  • Greg Hocking says:

    I asked Rostropovich directly during an Australian tour I did with him in 1988.He said it accurately represented Shostakovich’s views but was not dictated by him.

  • Piano Lover says:

    I recently read the book and found it sincere and convincing.