The New Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich, promoted by Soviet propaganda as obedient, if not devoted, to the Revolutionary ideal, has caused controversy in the West. On the one hand is his serious music: emotional, often ironic, intellectual rather than merely pleasant. On the other are his film scores and other light works written to government standards. This portion of Shostakovich’s output, along with his intermittent government positions and such interviews and other materials as we have concerning him, have reinforced the prevailing view of Shostakovich as a fine Soviet artist who, when reprimanded by his government for stepping beyond the bounds of artistic acceptability, repented readily enough.

Or did he? When Solomon Volkov came to the West in 1976, he brought with him a manuscript, every chapter signed by Shostakovich, portraying the composer as a confirmed dissident who deplored much of the Bolshevik-Communist experience and protested it by portraying it in his music as graphically as possible. TESTIMONY caused an uproar.

In THE NEW SHOSTAKOVICH MacDonald examines, on one level, much of Shostakovich’s serious work, its historical background, and the recurring descriptive use of various rhythmic and melodic patterns that characterize it. This study will reward the reader most if he has access to recordings and scores, since MacDonald not only describes the music but also refers to printed rehearsal figures. On another level, the book is a well-documented search into the claims of Volkov’s TESTIMONY. Third, THE NEW SHOSTAKOVICH is an absorbing depiction of an intelligent and sensitive composer’s struggle to maintain his personal and artistic integrity under a political system that demanded the sacrifice of that very integrity.

As a critic and student of Shostakovich’s work, Ian MacDonald was well qualified to undertake a serious biography of one of this century’s greatest composers. Although the result is not a light work, THE NEW SHOSTAKOVICH is highly readable and illuminating.