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Will The Real Shostakovich Please Stand Up?
15 Sep 2011
Inside the Classics

Sarah and I are in the early stages of scripting our first Inside the Classics show of the season, which goes up in early November and features Shostakovich’s always crowd-pleasing 5th symphony. And from a narrative perspective, this should be one of the easiest scripts I’ve ever written. There may not be a more fascinating and controversial character from the world of 20th century music than Dmitri Shostakovich, who spent his entire career navigating the treacherous path of being a major public figure in a brutal Communist dictatorship that made a point of devaluing the individual. At various times in his life, Shostakovich was blacklisted by his own government, threatened (either explicitly or implicitly) with death or incarceration in Stalin’s notorious gulags, and accused by some in the West of being nothing more than a stooge for the Communist Party.

So there’s a lot we can talk about come November. (Too much, actually – the show as it exists in my head at the moment is roughly four hours long.) Still, what makes creating this script a unique challenge isn’t a dearth of available source material, it’s the often contradictory nature of the historical record, and the ongoing controversy over who Shostakovich really was and what he was trying to accomplish with his music.

I’ve been a huge Shostakovich nerd since junior high, and I have a habit of going on and on about him at the slightest provocation, but I’ll try to summarize this as succinctly as I can. Like I said, during Shostakovich’s life, many music scholars in the West tended to dismiss most of his work as being little more than Socialist Realist trash ordered directly by the Kremlin. (This charge was not without some merit, though it’s vehemence was exacerbated by the fact that the USSR was considered a dangerous enemy by most Western nations at the time.) But a few years after Shostakovich died, a man named Solomon Volkov came forward with a manuscript that he claimed was Shostakovich’s autobiography, as transcribed by Volkov. The memoir was published under the title Testimony, and it prompted a wholesale reevaluation of the composer’s work. In the pages of Testimony, Shostakovich appeared to detail his internal torment over the direction of the Soviet Union and even to insinuate that much of his music was meant as either a challenge to or a parody of the Party leaders, especially the brutal Josef Stalin.

But as time went on, a number of scholars, notably Laurel Fay, openly questioned the authenticity of Testimony. Shostakovich’s own family appeared to have their doubts, and his widow noted that Volkov hadn’t spent enough time with the composer to have taken down an entire book’s worth of memories. Nobody was saying that there might not be some truth contained in the pages of Testimony, but a lot of people were saying that a memoir written in the first person should probably actually have been written by the person whose voice it is in if scholars are to be expected to take it seriously. A musical and literary firestorm had been ignited, and to this day, there’s a lot of debate over which portrait of Shostakovich is the accurate one. Fay and her supporters don’t necessarily dispute everything in Testimony, they just argue (convincingly, in my opinion) that scholarship demands more than storytelling.

And of course, that’s exactly my problem. As far as Inside the Classics goes, my job title might as well be “Chief Executive Storyteller.” The entire point of the series is to find new and interesting ways to tell you the stories behind the music we play and the people who create it. And I’ll be honest: Volkov weaved one hell of a story. Testimony is such gripping reading that, years after Fay and others essentially discredited it (at least as a historical resource,) I’ve heard countless conductors and lecturers use Volkov’s version of events as the basis for their remarks to audiences. It’s one of those cases where the myth has overpowered what we actually know of the man, and it’s hard (especially in America, where memories of the Cold War are still fresh and “Communist” is second only to “Nazi” on the list of political pejoratives) not to hear only what we want to hear in Shostakovich’s music.

So my challenge between now and November is to sort through all the storytelling and come up with a narrative that is both entertaining and true. Fortunately, there’s a lot of source material to work from when it comes to the events surrounding the composition and premiere of the Fifth Symphony, and most of it is pretty reliable stuff. But I think I’m going to have to beg off providing my own answer as to what Shostakovich’s social and political motives were, and how they may or may not have infiltrated his music. Reality is usually too untidy for a traditional narrative arc, and when you’re trying to create a story out of the life of a wildly creative man straining under a yoke of violent suppression, you just have to accept that your protagonist probably isn’t going to resemble John Wayne, or even Alexander Solzhenitsin. Them’s the breaks.

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