Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1159
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.
Shostakovich composed his first major work, First Symphony (1926), in 1924-1925. It was an immediate success, and his reputation in the Soviet Union was established. This was a period of artistic ferment and bitter conflict as rival groups sought to set the course of the arts in the new Soviet state. In this heady atmosphere Shostakovich joined the Moscow Art Theatre and worked with Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovski. The experimentation of the 1920’s soon came to end, however, as Stalin consolidated his power over every aspect of Soviet life.
Shostakovich recalls this era with bitter sarcasm mixed with subtle wit and black humor. Tragedy soon becomes farce, he maintains; another person’s fear seems ludicrous when retold. Shostakovich himself became the object of Stalin’s wrath with his opera Ledi Makbet Mtsenskoga, part of a cycle of operas he planned depicting Russian women. This opera was based on a tragedy of pre-Revolutionary Russia by Nikolay Leskov (“Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda,” 1865; English translation, 1922), but it was also an Aesopian fable lamenting contemporary conditions. Stalin was not fooled. After its debut, Shostakovich—on tour in Northern Russia having just returned from Turkey as an honored Soviet cultural figure—read an article titled “Muddle Instead of Music,” attacking his opera. Some thought and still think that this vituperative piece was written by the hack David Zaslavsky, but Shostakovich is convinced that it was written by Stalin himself. Immediately, Shostakovich became an outcast, but he survived and indeed once more rose to the highest honors, even during the time of Stalin.
World War II was a period of liberation for Shostakovich. In the 1930’s during the purges the intellectuals had to be silent, but when the war came they could openly grieve for their losses—not only for those killed in the war but for the victims of the purges as well. The world, Shostakovich maintains, does not understand his seventh and eighth symphonies, which constitute his interpretation of Anna Akhmatova’s poem Rekviem (1963; Requiem, 1964)—a requiem for friends swept up in the terror.
During the war Shostakovich’s international reputation grew. At one point he was the subject of a cover story in Time magazine (July 20, 1942). His standing in the Soviet Union also was restored. Later, however, Shostakovich aroused Khruschev’s displeasure by introducing Jewish themes in his works. He had a keen interest in Jewish folk music and a great love for the pathos of Jewish folksongs. He also had a deep hatred of anti-Semitism, Russian as well as German. Although he was not Jewish, he had many Jewish friends and students.
The leaders of the Soviet Union move in and out of Shostakovich’s autobiography, especially Stalin, the bogeyman of the Soviet intellectuals. (Indeed, Stalin rather than Shostakovich may be the central character of the work.) Shostakovich did not know any of these political leaders personally except the great general Marshal Tukhachevsky, whom Stalin had executed in 1937. Shostakovich in his bitterly ironic style castigates Stalin as the friend and spiritual brother of Adolf Hitler, but shows more personal contempt against those who claimed to be tricked by him. (“[ W]ho was tricked? An illiterate old milkmaid?”)
Stalin was exceptionally suspicious and, probably as a result of his early seminary training, had a great fear of priests. Shostakovich tells the story of how the eccentric pianist Maria Yudina, Shostakovich’s classmate, once wrote an insulting letter to Stalin but survived because of its religious message. Shostakovich also dwells on the love of the Soviet intelligentsia for William Shakespeare’s plays, particularly his favorites Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Macbeth, and King Lear. Stalin, however, disliked Shakespeare—because of the violence against leadership in Macbeth and Hamlet, Shostakovich suggests.
Shostakovich does not have kind words for the West either. He visited the United States and Great Britain several times and was neither happy nor particularly impressed. Indeed, Shostakovich is frequently harsh in his judgments, and his barbs wound some of the greats of this century—Soviets and foreigners alike: Arturo Toscanini as well as Sergey Prokofiev; George Bernard Shaw as well as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He is particularly intolerant of hypocrites and snobs. On the other hand he is a staunch defender of his friends and his mentors, many of whom suffered greatly during the purges of the 1930’s.