(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Dmitri Shostakovich stands among the giants of modern music. He is also part of the paradox of Soviet culture. Both conservatives and liberals have accused Soviet authorities of stifling that culture, but it has survived and flourished in the twentieth century. Shostakovich is a prime example. In a long and productive career he wrote fifteen symphonies, six concerti, operas, film scores, preludes, sonatas, and scores of other works.

Shostakovich was born in 1906 into a family of Polish descent in St. Petersburg. His mother began to teach him piano at the age of seven (rather late for someone destined for such greatness). While still a child, he studied with Ignati Gliasser, but he left when he began to surpass his instructor. In 1917, Shostakovich entered the Petrograd Conservatory to study piano and composition with Aleksandr Glazunov.

Glazunov is one of the main heroes of Testimony. As the heir to composers such as Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov linked the golden age of nineteenth century Russian music with that of the twentieth. Shostakovich counts him among the best of Russia’s composers, although at the time he was celebrated more at home than abroad. Shostakovich finds this odd, as he believes that Russian musicians attain much of their popularity at home from their reputations abroad, reflecting the paradoxical love/hate relationship Russians have with things foreign—an inferiority complex of sorts which the author finds irritating.

At the conservatory Shostakovich was a particular favorite of Glazunov. In 1919, during the Soviet Civil War, the government imposed a prohibition against alcoholic beverages—a ban enforced by draconian penalties. Shostakovich’s father, a biologist who worked for the Bureau of Standards, had special permission to receive grain alcohol, which he supplied to the alcoholic Glazunov. Shostakovich’s fellow students believed that his grades were based on this bootlegging rather than on merit, but the author claims that this was not true and gives examples when Glazunov judged his work rather harshly.

In his youth Shostakovich mocked Glazunov as a relic of the old era, but after reaching maturity and having lived through the tyranny of Joseph Stalin and the hypocrisy of Nikita Khrushchev he came to appreciate the lessons Glazunov taught on living—lessons which were even more important than his music. Ironically Shostakovich sums up Glazunov’s life by recalling “an ancient prayer”—the serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Lord, grant me the strength to change what can be changed, Lord, grant me the strength to bear what can’t be changed. And Lord, grant me the wisdom to know the difference.” Shostakovich says he does not know whether he loves the prayer or hates it.


(The entire section is 1159 words.)