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Was Shostakovich a dissident or a lackey?

Shostakovich: Critical Lives
By Pauline Fairclough
Reaktion Books, 240pp, £11.99/$19

There’s a popular image of Shostakovich – encouraged by books such as Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time and by music history of the kind you hear on Classic FM – which has the Soviet composer sleeping with a packed bag by his bed, ready in case the feared knock at the door comes in the middle of the night.

It isn’t fanciful: he did sleep with that bag packed, as did many well-known Russians in the Stalin era. And it isn’t hard to read the human consequences of those years of terror in the photographic record that survives of the composer’s life. He rarely smiles; and when he does, it’s with a rictus grin that shows no evidence of joy. You see those pictures and you see a victim. Somebody who suffered and whose music is the product.

But this book invites you to see more.

Its author, an academic at Bristol University, doesn’t propose anything especially revisionist or radical – nor would it be expected in a book that’s part of a series of concise biographies whose purpose is more introductory than investigative. But she wants you to stand back and take a broader view of a creative artist who made use of the system that otherwise oppressed him, playing it at its own game. And she makes the point that Western readings of Shostakovich have been suspiciously changeable over time, for reasons that relate to politics as much as music.

When he was alive, the West regarded Shostakovich as a loyal son of Soviet Russia, writing works that danced (after a fashion) to the tune of its ideology and celebrated its supposed achievements. But in the years following his death in 1975 the West decided that this celebration was ironic: Shostakovich was instead a covert dissident and martyr-hero of the Western liberal cause, as revealed by a “memoir” published in 1979 of supposedly recorded conversations with the late composer, which suggested that his support for Soviet ideology was mere pretence.

With the Cold War still icy, it suited Western ears to hear this. But Testimony, as the book was called, later turned out to be of questionable truth, destabilising our sense of what Shostakovich was or wasn’t doing in his music.

He undoubtedly experienced bad times as the state played cat and mouse with him, alternating praise and prizes with denunciations and threats whose seriousness was all too real, given the many who disappeared either to the gulags or onto mortuary slabs. It must have been terrifying when his phone rang and he heard the purring menace of Stalin’s voice at the other end. And while it seems extraordinary that Stalin had the time and interest to hassle troublesome composers personally, it is perhaps the kind of thing that Donald Trump might do, and evidence of a neurotic governance that latter-day America shares with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s.

But as Pauline Fairclough has it, Shostakovich knew how to survive. Raised in the Soviet system, his default position was belief in it – at least, when he was young. When he composed robustly tuneful music for “the people” it was usually because he chose to rather than because he had to. And he knew the system well enough to show subservience while actually writing as he pleased.

The perpetual risk for a Soviet composer was to find himself charged with “formalism”. But what formalism was, beyond some vague affront to breezy, cheerful, optimistic populism, wasn’t clear. If someone high-up in the Communist Party said you were a formalist, you were. If you could afterwards get them to change their mind, you weren’t.

And so it was that, having suffered one dangerous denunciation that caused him, for the sake of safety, to withdraw his modernist 4th Symphony, he then produced a 5th Symphony that affected humility, called itself an “answer to just criticism”, and was generally approved  – even though it fails to demonstrate any conspicuous change of style or language. That it ends in a bombastic major key was all, apparently, it took to get approval – though how anybody could have found its final bars uplifting is a mystery.

Even more of a mystery is why, in later years when Stalin was gone and life got easier, Shostakovich joined the Party – something he had previously resisted. Why, in 1970, did he compose a dreadful paean to Lenin that compared the architect of communism to the Buddha, Allah and Confucius? And why, in 1973, did he allow his name to appear on a public condemnation of the Nobel physicist Andrei Sakharov? That he was ill and weak, wanting a quiet life, perhaps explains it. But the evidence suggests he didn’t have to do these things – although we can’t be sure until the Russians finally grant access to his KGB file. So far, to the understandable annoyance of biographers like Pauline Fairclough, it remains locked. And the Putin regime isn’t likely to step forward with a key any time soon.