Shostakovich: Was He a Soviet Dissident?

Roundup: Talking About History

Vadim Prokhorov, in the Moscow Times (Aug. 12, 2004):

Leon Trotsky once wrote that anyone with a hankering for the quiet life had made a mistake to be born in the 20th century. For some public figures who made that mistake, the 21st century has been no more tranquil.

One such person is Dmitry Shostakovich, whose life and output have once again become the subject of heated debate in anticipation of his centennial in 2006. It's a debate that began at the height of the Cold War and that is marked to this day with the cultural deceptions, false impressions and hidden agenda of those times. This Friday, the Bard Music Festival in upstate New York will re-air those tensions with a three-week program of concerts and talks as the polarized American musical community tries to get to the heart of the composer's identity. Was Shostakovich a Soviet loyalist or a dissident in disguise? What is written between his music's lines?

Throughout the composer's life and for half a decade after his death, Western musicians thought they knew the answer, accepting the official line that Shostakovich was a faithful Soviet citizen and interpreting his music accordingly. Then, in 1979, a text purporting to be the composer's dictated memoirs that had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union was published in the West -- written by a young musicologist named Solomon Volkov, who emigrated shortly thereafter.

In Volkov's "Testimony," we read that Shostakovich suffered under the communist dictatorship and that he deliberately reflected his revulsion toward Josef Stalin's brutal regime in his compositions, turning them into a musical commentary on the events he witnessed. "Testimony" portrays Shostakovich as a silent dissident, and not a communist marionette or Stalinist servant, as he had regularly been depicted in the Soviet and U.S. media.

This came as no news to Russian musical audiences, who had long detected an underlying dissidence in Shostakovich's music: "the contrapuntal commentary of an outraged humanity," as British music historian and journalist Norman Lebrecht wrote in a recent commentary. And the idea of a silenced genius fit in well with Cold War cultural politics. While party-line Soviet music historians hurriedly dismissed "Testimony" as a forgery, American musicologists such as the eminent Richard Taruskin took up its cause, greeting the memoirs as a sign of a new era in Shostakovich studies.

The book did usher in a new era, but its consequences were mixed. In 1980, the young musicologist Laurel Fay took the side of the Soviet establishment, dismissing the memoirs as a fake. Substantial passages of the memoirs had already appeared under Shostakovich's name in other Soviet publications long before Volkov's interviews with the composer took place, Fay pointed out. Many, including Taruskin, were swayed to her side.

Clashes between the revisionists and the counter-revisionists have been escalating ever since, with Taruskin, Fay and others insisting at various points that the composer was "perhaps Soviet Russia's most loyal musical son," "a wuss," and "a mediocre human being" who "toadied and cringed before his Soviet bosses," and Volkov supporters Allan B. Ho and Dmitry Feofanov making a case for the authenticity of "Testimony" in their 1998 book, "Shostakovich Reconsidered." Volkov, for his part, remained silent all these years, speaking out only once, at a 1999 conference at Mannes College of Music in New York, to call "Testimony" "an absolutely honest book."

Over the past year, however, the controversy exploded again with a new book by Volkov and two collections of essays by members of the Fay camp....

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Dmitry N. Feofanov - 8/28/2004

Folks, everyone is doing false alternatives on the subject of DDS. Was he a dissident? Of course not, and neither Allan Ho nor I ever claimed he was. On the other hand, he detested the Soviet regime, and expressed so, sometimes in unambiguous terms (by use of hidden quotations, etc.) in his music.


Dmitry Feofanov