Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Testimony is the story of Dmitri Shostakovich’s life from his childhood to just before his death in 1975. The autobiography was written in 1974 and 1975, with the assistance of the music critic Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich’s friend, who transcribed his conversations with the composer, edited them, and wrote the introduction. Shostakovich undertook the project on the condition that Volkov would not publish the book until after his death.

Shostakovich asserts (not entirely convincingly) that his own life is not interesting, but he suggests that there is value in revealing the truth about those whom he has known. In the course of relating a series of vignettes about these diverse people and his relations with them, he provides a vivid history of Soviet culture, particularly its music and theater. The people whom Shostakovich discusses are chiefly Soviet figures, but some foreigners are included as well.

In the English translation Shostakovich’s memoirs comprise 291 pages, with an additional forty-two pages of introductory material. The book also contains thirty-nine photographs, a listing of Shostakovich’s major compositions, titles, and awards, an index, and detailed notes about most of the persons Shostakovich mentions. Although originally written in Russian, the work was first published in English, translated by Antonina W. Bouis. In his preface, Volkov recounts the origin of the book. Shostakovich, whom Volkov first met in...

(The entire section is 525 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, yet he has written that his life “was replete with sorrow.” Understandably, he had no desire to recount that life. However, he thought about his friends and acquaintances and how none of them had enjoyed easy lives either; some had even suffered terrible deaths. To memorialize their lives, Shostakovich decided to talk to his admirer and protégé, Solomon Volkov, so that his first-hand knowledge of the cultural life of his times would be passed on to the future.

In the United States—in fact, anywhere in the free world—Shostakovich’s need to memorialize his friends could be criticized as a disguise for professional vanity. But the nightmares of the free world are the everyday reality of the Soviet Union. One example must suffice for numerous instances. One of Stalin’s henchmen walked out in the middle of a play directed by Meyerhold. The director ran after him. The henchman got into a car and drove away. Meyerhold ran after the car. Soon after, Meyerhold disappeared. Business at the theater went on as usual. No one mentioned Meyerhold again and he was never heard from. His exact fate remains unclear. Soon after his disappearance, his apartment was burglarized and his wife was stabbed to death. No one called the police; no one was sure that the criminals were not the police.

As with Meyerhold, so with Shostakovich himself. At thirty-two, he was a famous composer, a mature version of the Wunderkind who took the world by surprise with his first symphony, which became an international success when he was nineteen. While visiting Turkey with a cultural delegation, Shostakovich bought a January 28, 1936, copy of Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper. That was the first day of a troubled existence that ended only with the composer’s death. In a Pravda article entitled “Muddle instead of Music,” Shostakovich was attacked. The article was unsigned, but clearly represented an official position. Shostakovich thought Stalin himself was the author. No matter; the piece made the point that things could “end very badly” for the composer. Moreover, this critique was followed by another ten days later. Overnight, Shostakovich had become “an enemy of the people.” Deeply depressed, the composer was near suicide.

He had done nothing overt to criticize the regime, but the...

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Testimony Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Devlin, James. Shostakovich, 1983.

Norris, Christopher, ed. Shostakovich: The Man and His Music, 1982.

Roseberry. Shostakovich: His Life and Times, 1981.

Sollertinsky, Dmitri, and Ludmilla Sollertinsky. Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1980.