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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.

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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 1960, asked Volkov to work with him on his memoirs beginning in 1971 after the latter had published a prominent work on Leningrad composers. Volkov suggests that Shostakovich chose him because of his youth and his devotion to music. He believes that Shostakovich decided to record his memoirs in order to justify himself, as he had been criticized for many years for not speaking out against the Soviet authorities. In an introduction following the preface, Volkov gives an overview of Shostakovich’s life and work.

The text of the memoir is divided into eight untitled and unnumbered chapters, sustained sections appropriately combined by Volkov with Shostakovich’s approval. The first deals with Shostakovich’s reasons for recording his memoirs and his early training. In the second chapter, he talks about his life at the Petrograd Conservatory and his relationship to his teacher Aleksandr Glazunov. The third chapter concerns the late 1920’s, when Shostakovich was at the Moscow Art Theatre; he reminisces about his relationship with Vsevolod Meyerhold and Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The fourth chapter is chiefly about the period during which Shostakovich was in disgrace (1936-1941) because of his opera Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo (1934; Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District). The next includes some reflections on the harshness of the 1930’s and on Glazunov. The last three chapters contain more of his reminiscences about Soviet and foreign intellectuals and their attitudes toward Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930’s and 1940’s. These recollections, however, do not proceed in strict chronological order; throughout, Shostakovich refers to incidents from his past out of sequence. He only briefly touches on experiences he had after World War II. Furthermore, Shostakovich does not discuss his music very much except as it affected the society and politics of the time. This is a work portraying Russian society, not a technical monograph on musicology.

Testimony

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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 personal intensity, the deep sorrow, and the manic liveliness that characterized his music implicitly criticized a regime which discouraged personal expression. To survive, Shostakovich adapted to Stalin’s tyranny in three ways. First, he wrote a great deal that was ephemeral and meretricious: forgettable music to forgotten films. This need to provide a screen of “ideologically correct” music helps account for the uneven quality of Shostakovich’s output. Second, he pretended to be involved in the composition of works glorifying the regime, works he had no intention of composing:people still ask me when I am going to complete my opera The Quiet Don. I’ll never finish it because I never started it. . . . You tell the administration that you’re working on the opera Karl Marx or The Young Guards, and they’ll forgive you your quartet when it appears. They’ll leave you alone.

Third, Shostakovich avoided criticism by acquiescing to misinterpretations of his work. The Seventh Symphony, for example, was officially interpreted as a reaction to the Nazi invasion, although it had in fact been planned before the war.

Some doubt has been cast on the authenticity of these memoirs. According to Volkov, Shostakovich agreed to talk to him about the past because of the need to set the historical record straight. Volkov took notes on the conversations and wrote them out; Shostakovich then approved and signed each chapter. Presumably, then, an examination of the manuscript would establish authenticity beyond a doubt. In the meantime, there is nothing in the memoirs inconsistent with what is known from other sources; moreover, the memoirs shed an interesting light on Shostakovich’s oeuvre. His fear of death, clear from his later works, is made explicit: “We can’t allow the fear of death to creep upon us unexpectedly. We have to make that fear familiar, and one way is to write about it.” His feeling for Jewish subjects and themes is echoed in his staunch attack on anti-Semitism: “I often test a person by his attitude toward Jews. In our day and age, any person with pretensions of decency cannot be anti-Semitic.”

Much will undoubtedly be made of Shostakovich’s idiosyncratic dislikes. He was not very fond of either Prokofiev, Toscanini, or the poet Mayakovsky. In the cases of Prokofiev and Mayakovsky, the dislike was clearly personal. In this work, Prokofiev is criticized also for his poor orchestration, and Toscanini is singled out as a particularly obnoxious example of a conductor-tyrant. Quoted out of context, these opinions may make Shostakovich seem needlessly opinionated, but in fact, they are no more than the frank animadversions of the unbuttoned professional mind, cranky but honest. Moreover, these negative views are balanced by a deep appreciation of the composers Mahler and Berg, and of Stravinski, “one of the greatest composers of modern time.” Among those of an earlier generation, Mussorgski receives the highest praise. Glazunov is praised also, but more as a human being, compassionate and courageous, than as a musician.

The general reader will want to skim rather than study these memoirs. Repetitive and disjointed, they nevertheless give insight into the plight of creative genius hemmed in by political tyranny. By luck, evasion, and force of personality, Shostakovich triumphed over his oppressors and wrote some of the imperishable musical works of the century. As he expressed it, he tried to writebrave musicin which the composer expresses his thoughts truthfully and does it in such a way that the greatest possible number of decent citizens in his country and other countries will recognize and accept that music, thereby understanding his country and people.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

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.

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