The Shostakovich Variations
[NOTE: “The Shostakovich Variations” has been revised, updated, and re-published in A Shostakovich Casebook (Indiana University Press), just out in paperback. Get it here on Amazon.ca, or here on Amazon.com.]
Lingua Franca, MAY/JUNE 2000
See also: Wishful Thinking
The idea that Shostakovich was a ‘secret dissident’ remains powerful — but the actual evidence suggests otherwise.
The Nation, May 3, 2004
- Why Testimony is a Fraud
- Testimony: The Defense Never Rests
- Fake But Accurate: Shostakovich and “Truthiness”
There is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I insist that she is, by her nature, equivocal. I shall not be going too far in saying at once that she is politically suspect.
–Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
If the epic tragedy of Soviet history were ever made into a film, the music of Dmitri Shostakovich would surely provide its soundtrack. At the piercing blast of a factory whistle (courtesy of Shostakovich’s Second Symphony), peasants and workers would crowd the squares of 1917 Petrograd. The madcap 1920s, when Soviet Russia’s last capitalists flaunted their wealth and Western tastes, might be accompanied by the inspired silliness of “Tea for Two” from the ballet The Golden Age. And as the bitter night of Stalinism spread its gloom over Soviet Russia in the 1930s, an oboe would sing out in quiet anguish from the Fifth Symphony’s Largo. Finally, the Seventh Symphony’s “invasion theme”–an insipid scrap of a tune plucked out on hushed strings–would build gradually and inexorably into an earsplitting military march, as Hitler’s armies approached and then encircled Leningrad. In fact, with music this powerful, making a film might be superfluous.
Shostakovich speaks a musical language that is familiar as well as evocative. He is heir to Gustav Mahler rather than Arnold Schoenberg. His melodies may not be hummable, and his harmonies may be sharp and astringent, but his music remains rooted in the grand symphonic tradition of the nineteenth century. Though he experimented with twelve-tone composition in his later years, he embraced tonality. He was the last great composer to work almost exclusively in the traditional genres of classical music: the symphony, the concerto, the string quartet, the keyboard prelude and fugue. The result is a body of work of both emotional power and technical achievement. Shostakovich is that rarest of breeds: a genuinely popular twentieth-century composer.
Perhaps because the music is so accessible, audiences have wondered about the man–and the troubled age in which he lived. Born in 1906, Shostakovich spent his entire creative life as a citizen of the Soviet Union. When he died in August 1975, his Pravda obituary hailed him as a “loyal son of the Communist Party.” The London Times agreed. Shostakovich was the “greatest figure in Soviet music over the last two decades,” the Times wrote, who “saw himself equally as a Soviet citizen and a composer.” Perhaps it was inevitable that his music came to be understood as a faithful reflection of pro-Soviet politics. He composed a song for the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to sing in outer space and signed a letter denouncing Andrei Sakharov. His best-known musical offerings–the fifteen symphonies–were in many cases burdened with dedications that invited such a political reading: “October,” “The First of May,” “The Year 1905,” “The Year 1917.”
But in October 1979, four years after the composer’s death, Harper & Row published a book that cast doubt on his Soviet credentials. A manuscript purporting to be the memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich had been smuggled out of Russia by a young Soviet music journalist who claimed to have interviewed the aging composer at length. It would become one of the most explosive documents of the Cold War and one of the most controversial books on music published in the twentieth century. The Shostakovich who emerged from its pages was not the legendary “loyal son of the Communist Party” but a bitter man who despised Soviet power. Audiences, it seemed, had got the political message in his music exactly wrong.
“The majority of my symphonies are tombstones,” this Shostakovich told his interlocutor. “Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin…. I haven’t forgotten the terrible prewar years. That is what all my symphonies, beginning with the Fourth, are about, including the Seventh and Eighth.”
Testimony, the book’s dust jacket read, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov. But are the memoirs genuine? And if so, what do they tell us about the music? After twenty years of debate, scholars of Shostakovich seem more bitterly divided than ever.
Solomon Volkov was a sixteen-year-old student at the high school affiliated with the Leningrad Conservatory when he met his idol. In 1960, after writing an enthusiastic review of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, Volkov was introduced to the fifty-four-year-old composer. It was the start of a relationship that would be marked by respect and trust, if not close friendship.
Several years later, in the late 1960s, Shostakovich agreed to contribute a preface to Volkov’s first book, a study of Leningrad’s young composers. Volkov reports that he interviewed Shostakovich at length about his former composition students, prodding the reluctant and notoriously private composer to reminisce about his youth. Volkov claims he “had to resort to trickery: at every convenient point I drew parallels, awakening associations” in order to overcome Shostakovich’s reserve. Unfortunately, Volkov says, the Soviet censor expunged these biographical details when the book was published in 1971.
According to Volkov, this act of censorship provided the “final powerful impetus” for the creation of Testimony. The self-effacing and hesitant Shostakovich was transformed into an eager memoirist. “‘I must do this, I must,’ [Shostakovich] would say. He wrote me, in one letter: ‘You must continue what has been begun.'”
At first, Volkov says, he and Shostakovich met at a retreat belonging to the Union of Composers in Repino, near Leningrad. Later, when Volkov became a senior editor at Sovetskaya muzyka, the official journal of the Union of Composers, Shostakovich invited Volkov to his Moscow apartment, which happened to be in the same building as Volkov’s office. They used no tape recorder, since Shostakovich would “stiffen before a microphone like a rabbit caught in a snake’s gaze.” Volkov scribbled down the composer’s words in shorthand.
As the “mound of shorthand notes” grew higher, Volkov says, he “divided up the collected material into sustained sections, combined as seemed appropriate…. Shostakovich read and signed each part.” In this way, Volkov says, the manuscript of Testimony took shape. This piecemeal method is reflected in the book’s digressive, rambling style. But the composer apparently liked it, for he affixed his signature, along with the Russian word chital (read), on the first page of each of the manuscript’s eight chapters. According to Volkov, the composer’s only demand was that the book be published after his death.
Shortly after Shostakovich died, Volkov immigrated to the West. His precious manuscript had already been smuggled abroad. The original shorthand notes were left behind and have never been located.
Speaking from his New York home almost thirty years later, Solomon Volkov still considers the book a miracle. Testimony was “a product of this crazy era, with all the anxieties and all the imbalances that were typical of it,” he reflects. “I was nervous because I was a young neophyte music journalist. Before me was a genius who was also under a lot of pressure, and this colored the whole situation irrevocably.”
Western critics greeted Testimony with enthusiasm, praising its depiction not just of Shostakovich and his music but of cultural life in the Soviet Union generally. Harold C. Schoenberg raved about it in The New York Times Book Review, calling it a “serious indictment of past and present Russia, as well as the recollections of a life apparently spent in fear and despair.” The London Times called it the “book of the year.”
In the Soviet Union, however, the book was denounced as a fraud. Just two weeks after Testimony was published, the Moscow weekly Literaturnaya gazeta printed a letter signed by six Soviet composers–students and friends of Shostakovich’s–declaring it a “pitiful forgery.” When a New York Times reporter visited the composer’s widow, Irina Antonovna, in her Moscow apartment, she claimed that Volkov had only met with her husband “three or maybe four times,” clearly not frequently enough to create a book-length manuscript. But Westerners suspected that these public denunciations were coerced–an example of the double life Soviet citizens were compelled to live, and to which Testimony‘s Shostakovich bore witness.
One of Volkov’s earliest supporters was Berkeley’s Richard Taruskin, then a young assistant professor of music at Columbia University. In 1976, after meeting Volkov and discussing the memoirs, Taruskin wrote a glowing letter of reference to support Volkov’s application for a research fellowship at Columbia’s Russian Institute. It was a letter Taruskin would come to regret.
Laurel Fay was a graduate student in musicology at Cornell University when she heard rumors of Testimony’s impending publication. In April 1978, while finishing a dissertation on Shostakovich’s late string quartets, Fay eagerly wrote to ask if she could be of any assistance to Volkov. “I understand that you have unique material concerning Shostakovich,” she wrote. “Is it possible that you have an autobiography?”
The letter was “very naive,” she now admits. Shortly after she began reading Testimony, her attitude changed. “Something just didn’t feel right,” she says. “It was all just a little too convenient, both in terms of the explanation of the genesis and the background and then in the actual text itself.” The tone also puzzled her. Testimony is filled with biting sarcasm, bitter recrimination, and gossipy asides. Apart from a warm tribute to his mentor, Alexander Glazunov, Shostakovich says nothing about his life’s happy moments and expresses little gratitude. And why would Shostakovich, a devoted father and husband, recklessly endanger his family by agreeing to publish such a frontal attack on the Soviet system?
But there was something even more troubling. “I began to realize that I’d read some of this material before,” Fay says, though at first she couldn’t identify where. The breakthrough came in November 1979, when the critic Simon Karlinsky published a review of Testimony in The Nation. Karlinsky noted that two substantial passages in Testimony–a book said to derive entirely from interviews with the composer–had already appeared in print under Shostakovich’s name in Soviet publications. “Then it all began to click for me,” Fay says, “and it didn’t take me very long then to find another five passages.” She presented her findings in April 1980 at a meeting of the Midwest chapter of the American Musicological Society. Indiana University musicologist Malcolm Hamrick Brown invited her to publish her research in Russian Review, an academic journal put out by Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institute.
The article, titled “Shostakovich Versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?” appeared to deliver a shattering blow to Volkov’s credibility. For example, one passage in Testimony, the composer’s reflections on Stravinsky, reproduced an earlier text verbatim. Paragraph breaks, parentheses, dashes, and quotation marks remained in their original positions. Other passages paraphrased the material they reproduced, but the borrowing was no less egregious: Shostakovich’s reflections in Testimony on the Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold apparently derived from an article he published in Sovetskaya muzyka while Volkov had worked there as a senior editor. As Fay has recently pointed out, the introduction to the original Sovetskaya muzyka article was attributed to none other than “S. Volkov.”
Incredibly, Volkov claims never to have heard of the original sources of any of the material reproduced in Testimony. “No, no,” he insists over the phone, “if I did I wouldn’t have included it of course.” Asked about Shostakovich Sovetskaya muzyka article about Meyerhold, for which Volkov apparently wrote an introduction, Volkov responds: “I can assure you that there wasn’t a single staffer who would read the current issue of the magazine in its entirety. Material dealing with Shostakovich was appearing in almost every issue.”
Adding to the mystery, almost every borrowed passage in Testimony appear on the first manuscript page of a chapter–on the only pages that Shostakovich actually signed. (The manuscript pages in question were reproduced in the German and Finnish editions of Testimony.) In other words, Shostakovich’s authentications appear where no authentication was necessary. After the page is turned, the text begins to diverge, sometimes dramatically, from its original source. A striking example occurs in chapter 5, during Shostakovich’s discussion of his Seventh Symphony. “I wrote my Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad,’ very quickly,” Testimony’s Shostakovich says at the chapter’s start, quoting a previously published article. “I couldn’t not write it. War was all around. I had to be with the people, I wanted to create the image of our country at war, capture it in music…. I wanted to write about our time, about my contemporaries who spared neither strength nor life in the name of Victory Over the Enemy.”
On the next page, however, the composer says something radically different: “The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ‘invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme.” As Fay asked in her article, “Is it possible that Volkov misrepresented the nature and contents of the book to Shostakovich just as he may be misrepresenting them to the reader?”
Volkov did not reply to an invitation by the editors of Russian Review to respond to Fay’s allegations, and he has tightly controlled access to the manuscript. According to Volkov, it is now in the hands of a private collector.
Although many academics considered Testimony discredited, it continued to be a much-cited source throughout the 1980s. Despite its disputed origins, it provided an alternative to the Soviet-sanctioned image of Shostakovich as a “loyal son of the Communist Party.” Some of the book’s revelations had been whispered about in the Soviet Union for years: The Fifth Symphony’s radiant finale was “forced rejoicing”; the marching and gunshots in the Eleventh Symphony (“The Year 1905â€³) alluded to the Soviet suppression of Hungary in 1956.
Whether or not Testimony was the authentic voice of Shostakovich, it seemed true to a widely shared understanding of him. After Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son and a world-renowned conductor, defected in 1981, he was reluctant to disavow Testimony, because of his hatred for the greater distortions imposed on his father’s memory by official Soviet biographers such as Sophia Khentova. “I hate, I khhhate her book,” he told David Fanning in a May 1991 Gramophone interview. “She makes him look like a genuine son of the Communist Party.”
It became common for writers to acknowledge the inauthenticity of Testimony, while vouching for its basic message. For instance, in The New Shostakovich, Ian MacDonald, a British journalist, stated outright that Volkov’s book was a “dishonest presentation.” But MacDonald then offered evidence of political dissidence in Shostakovich’s music. An example of MacDonald’s style is his description of the Fourth Symphony, which the Party pressured Shostakovich into withdrawing: “A little strutting promenade for bassoons and giggling piccolo leads us into the hall where thrumming harps call the [Party] conference to order. A wan waltz (the composer?) enters and sits dejectedly while flute and piccolo trill the opening remarks in a mood of schoolboy hilarity….”
There is little doubt that Shostakovich could express political sentiments in musical language. Perhaps the most poignant example is his Eighth String Quartet (1960). Dedicated to the “victims of fascism and war,” it opens with and obsessively quotes the composer’s musical signature, the four-note sequence D, E-flat, C, and B. (In German musical notation, the names of these notes are D, S, C, and H, which spell out “D. Sch.,” the Germanized form of Shostakovich’s initials.) Snatches of earlier works by Shostakovich are heard, including his banned opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the revolutionary song “Tormented by Grievous Bondage” (one of Lenin’s favorites). Shostakovich was telling his listeners, as clearly as he could, that he was fascism’s victim, too.
But none of the composer’s other published works expressed political ideas so literally, and Shostakovich seems to have resented such easy paraphrase. In the Slavic Review in 1993, Taruskin upbraided MacDonald with a 1933 quote from Shostakovich himself: “When a criticâ€¦writes that in such-and-such a symphony Soviet civil servants are represented by the oboe and the clarinet, and Red Army men by the brass section, you want to scream!”
Since the fall of Communism, new information about Shostakovich has come to light. In 1994, the British writer and cellist Elizabeth Wilson published Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, a collection of oral and written reminiscences by the composer’s friends and colleagues. It is a largely sympathetic portrait of a man tormented by his struggle to conform to political demands. Venyamin Basner, a close friend, argues that we should “discount the articles and statements that Dmitri Dmitriyevich ‘signed’; we knew that they were meaningless acts to him, but served him as a public shield. His many courageous actions were taken in private.” Galina Vishnevskaya, the great Russian soprano and the wife of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, echoes this justification, and adds that Shostakovich “didn’t worry about what people would say of him, because he knew the time would come when the verbiage would fade away, when only his music would remain.”
But not everyone Wilson interviewed was so forgiving. Some felt Shostakovich crossed the line when he added his name to a letter denouncing Andrei Sakharov in 1973. “I felt that he had every right to refuse to write or sign such a letter,” the composer Edison Denisov told Wilson; “in fact he was duty bound not to do so.” After learning that Shostakovich had signed the denunciation of Sakharov, the theater director Yuri Lyubimov refused to shake the elderly composer’s outstretched hand after a concert at the Union of Composers.
Two years ago, Volkov’s Testimony appeared to be destined for oblivion. Shostakovich, it seemed to many, had not dictated his memoirs, nor had he been much of a dissident. But in 1998, Allan Ho, a professor of musicology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Dmitry Feofanov, a concert pianist and practicing lawyer, published a book whose dedication was a call to arms: “To Solomon Moiseyevich Volkov,” it read. Ho and Feofanov’s Shostakovich Reconsidered (Toccata Press) brought the controversy over Shostakovich’s memoirs back to life.
Ho and Feofanov met at the University of Kentucky in the 1980s. Ho was completing a dissertation on the piano concerto as a genre, and Feofanov was teaching. Their first collaboration was a reference work, Biographical Dictionary of Russian/Soviet Composers (Greenwood, 1989). They asked Volkov, then at work on a book of conversations with the choreographer George Balanchine, to write the entry on Shostakovich.
In the early 1990s, when they first began work on Shostakovich Reconsidered, Feofanov and Ho again approached Volkov, inviting him to contribute a thirty-page defense of Testimony. Volkov declined. “He was not the right person to do it,” Ho says now, “because people wouldn’t believe what he said.” Instead, Ho and Feofanov took on the task themselves.
Of Shostakovich Reconsidered‘s 787 pages, 300 refute Laurel Fay’s twenty-year-old ten-page article. The book’s structure parallels that of a trial, and its conclusions are harsh: It convicts Fay and her supporters of “subjective and selective editing of the facts,” “inept scholarship,” and “historical ignorance.” It alleges that Fay has “difficulty reading plain English.” Some of the evidence Ho and Feofanov have uncovered corroborates the picture of Shostakovich presented in Testimony. Like most Soviet citizens, Shostakovich hid a complex private life behind a mask of Communist loyalty. The composer loved, for instance, to mock the stilted and formalistic language of Soviet bureaucratese in his letters to friends. Other evidence buttresses Testimony’s claim to authenticity. Ho, Feofanov, and a research assistant in Moscow have collected written and oral statements by several of Volkov’s former colleagues who say they knew of Volkov’s Shostakovich project at the time.
Then there is the piece of evidence that Ho calls a “smoking gun.” In 1996 Shostakovich’s close friend Flora Litvinova reported that the composer had once told her he had been meeting “constantly” with an unnamed young Leningrad musicologist who had “dug everything up, even my youthful compositions…. I tell him everything I remember about my works and myself. He writes it down, and at a subsequent meeting I look it over.” Shostakovich may, however, have been telling Litvinova about the interviews he granted for the preface of Volkov’s first book.
Responding to Fay’s observation that Testimony reproduced passages previously published elsewhere, Ho argues that Shostakovich’s prodigious memory allowed him to quote himself at length. He points out that Shostakovich often repeated certain stock phrases verbatim. (For instance: “That Sonata of yours is an interesting, good music. I liked it, I would say, a lot.”) He also notes that the composer often retold the same stories, though not verbatim. But could an aural memory reproduce texts so exactly and at such length? And if it could, would a note taker punctuate it the same way twice? Even Ho recognizes the difficulty: “I think I’ll always have some doubt,” he reflects, “because these recyclings are hard to explain with 100 percent certainty.”
In the case of Dmitri Shostakovich, musicologists have not always debated in a cool, scholarly tone. In fact, both sides have been insulting. Malcolm Hamrick Brown, the Indiana musicologist who encouraged Fay’s research back in 1980, has written openly that he believes “Solomon Volkov lied about how he put Testimony together.” Though she now regrets it, Fay once referred to MacDonald’s book as a “moronic tract” at an American Musicological Society meeting. Taruskin, as any reader of The New York Times or The New Republic knows, is a polemical writer and has compared his opponents to both Stalinists and McCarthyites–sometimes on the same page.
But Ho, Feofanov, and their supporters may be winning this race to the bottom. Insults and invective crop up on virtually every page of the opening essay of Shostakovich Reconsidered. Ho and Feofanov regularly call into question Fay’s scholarly integrity. In a fifty-thousand-word review posted on his Web site , MacDonald has dismissed Fay’s recent biography of Shostakovich as a “dismal, devious, and at times dishonest book,” since he believes she methodically erases evidence of the composer’s political dissidence. MacDonald even claims to discern in the book “telltale signs of a pro-communist attitude.” In January 2000, an impressive new low was reached by the British journalist Norman Lebrecht, who compared Laurel Fay to a Holocaust revisionist in the Daily Telegraph. When I mention Lebrecht’s charge to Ho, he chuckles, then suggests that it was tit for tat: “This name-calling has been going on for some twenty years, coming from them against us.”
In Fay’s case, that may be unfair. She rarely mentions her opponents in print. (When she spoke last month at Princeton and New York University, it was her first public response to Ho and Feofanov.) In Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford, 2000), Fay coolly presents verifiable details about her subject in a manner that downplays his engagement with politics. Her Shostakovich is a man nearly broken by the political demands imposed on him, but he does not assume the heroic proportions of a Solzhenitsyn. Fay refuses to portray his compromises with authority as secret attempts at political subversion.
In The New York Times last February, Joseph Horowitz called Fay’s approach as “inordinately dry-eyed.” For example, Fay’s opponents have characterized Shostakovich’s 1948 song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, as a valiant attempt to denounce the Soviet government’s increasingly murderous sponsorship of anti-Semitism. Fay, however, sees it as the composer’s good-faith attempt to abide by his pledge to the Composers’ Congress to write melodies “infused with the essence of folklore.” As Fay wrote in The New York Times in April 1996, “It was his rotten luck that of all the available nationalities, great and small, he just happened to pick the wrong ‘folk’ as his inspiration.”
Like Fay, many Russians who knew the composer have been doubtful of Testimony’s authenticity. Of Shostakovich’s close friends and family, his daughter Galina has offered the most convincing endorsement. “I am an admirer of Volkov,” she told Ho and Feofanov. “There is nothing false in [Testimony]…. It represents, fairly and accurately, Shostakovich’s political views, although there is too much ‘kitchen talk’ and anecdotes.”
Her brother Maxim has been far more cautious. Shortly after his 1981 defection, he told the London Sunday Times that Testimony was “not my father’s memoirs. It is a book by Solomon Wolkow [sic].”5 Less than two years ago, he told the Los Angeles Times that although he liked Testimony, “There are a lot of rumors in it, and like all rumors, some are true and some aren’t.” He singled out Testimony’s claim about the scherzo in the Tenth Symphony as an example: “Father never said it was a portrait of Stalin.”
Many others have also refused to vouch for Testimony, among them Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaia, Manashir Yakubov (the curator of the Shostakovich Family Archive), and the composer Boris Tishchenko. Tishchenko, who was Shostakovich’s most prized pupil, helped arrange Volkov’s interviews with the composer, and attended at least one of them. Volkov thanked him in Testimony as “my distant friend who must remain nameless.” Yet in his recently published correspondence with Shostakovich, Tishchenko condemns Testimony as “not the memoirs of Shostakovich, not even a book by Volkov about Shostakovich, but a book by Volkov about Volkov.”
Tishchenko was one of the six Soviet composers who denounced Testimony in Literaturnaya gazeta in 1979, in the letter that most Western observers then believed to have been coerced. Apparently it wasn’t. In June 1999, the daughter of another signatory wrote to Izvestiya that her father had been familiar with Testimony and had firmly believed it was a fake. Ho and Feofanov claim that yet another signatory, the Azerbaijani composer Kara Karayev, had been “undergoing treatment for a heart condition, [and] had been ordered to sign or be kicked out of the hospital.” Yet Karayev’s son, Faradzh, has emphatically denied this account to Laurel Fay.
Shostakovich’s sixty-five-year-old widow, Irina Antonovna, also remains a skeptic about Testimony. Reached at her Moscow apartment, Irina stands by the story she told more than twenty years ago. “Dmitrich wanted to write his memoirs himself,” she says, “but this had nothing to do with Solomon Volkov.” Volkov met with her husband three times, she said, and the meetings lasted between ninety minutes and two hours. Since Shostakovich was ill and Irina was acting as his personal secretary and often his nurse, she rarely left him alone. The interviews were supposed to be published in Sovetskaia muzyka. “The rest,” she insists, “came from Volkov himself.”
Asked about the Russians whose memories contradict Volkov, Feofanov responds by discrediting the individuals in question. He says that Irina Antonovna and Boris Tishchenko “in essence don’t know what they’re talking about.” Irina’s published interviews, Feofanov says, suggest that she is “primarily concerned about money, so maybe not getting money has something to do with it.” About Maxim’s guarded comments, Feofanov asks, “Does Maxim read English enough to read the book? I don’t think so. I’ve heard him speak…. And with all due respect to Slava [Mstislav] Rostropovich, I happen to know that his English is not so hot either.” Competence in English is an issue, because Testimony has never been published in Russian.
Shostakovich’s widow raises an entirely different concern about Volkov’s method. “So many of his books have been published after the deaths of those about whom he is writing,” she says. “After the death of Brodsky, after the death of Balanchine, after the death of Mitya–it’s a very strange thing…. And the dead are unable to respond.”
Indeed, Volkov has made a career for himself as amanuensis to Russia’s dying cultural elite. He has published books of conversations with Balanchine (Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky, 1985), the violinist Nathan Milstein (From Russia to the West, 1990), and the poet Joseph Brodsky (Conversations With Joseph Brodsky, 1998). His study St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (1995) relies heavily on these collaborations. Volkov’s current project is a book of interviews with the great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who died just over ten years ago. Volkov is likable and well read, and he seems to have an extraordinary ability to win the confidence of interviewees. He attributes this to a “device” he has perfected over the years. If you want “to do a book with a star,” Volkov said in 1992, then “tell him to start remembering about his friends. Then inevitably he will tell something about himself as well.”
Volkov has admitted that collaboration is not without its tensions. As he wrote in the Russian weekly Ogonyok in 1991, “Sometimes, of course, bitter failures and resentments occur. The ‘stars’ make a fussâ€¦ and torment you.” But Volkov believes he has learned a great deal since his book on Shostakovich. “If I’d known that [Testimony] would be such a controversial book for which accounting of day-to-day activities and material would be needed, maybe I would at least have tried to preserve all this material,” he said at a press conference in New York City last year. “[I]t was my first big project in this genre. If I’d been wiser by twenty-five-plus years, then probably I would have handled it better. My book of conversations with Joseph Brodsky–my personal belief is that it’s structured better than Testimony.”
But structure was never the issue with Testimony. Authenticity was. And as Irina Antonovna points out, there are unsettling parallels between Testimony and Conversations With Joseph Brodsky. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Volkov interviewed the Russian poet on several occasions, and Volkov’s accounts of the interviews appeared in the Ã©migrÃ© Russian press in Paris and New York. As Volkov himself admitted, the texts he published were the result of “long and careful ‘montage’ and editing.” When Volkov approached a Russian-language publisher in New Jersey in 1987 about printing his interviews as a book, Brodsky wrote to the publisher about what he called “Volkov’s little interviews [interv’iushek].” Brodsky insisted on “look[ing] them through before they’re printed. THERE IS A MASS of purely stylistic RUBBISH.” The deal fell through.
Volkov never showed Brodsky a manuscript of his book. The poet died in January 1996. Just a year later, a Free Press catalog for autumn 1997 announced the impending publication of Conversations With Joseph Brodsky, almost half of which consisted of previously unpublished material. In an advance version of the book sent to magazine and newspaper editors in July 1997, Volkov’s preface referred to Brodsky as one of his “collaborators.” Brodsky’s literary executor, Ann Kjellberg, protested to the Free Press that the word was inaccurate, and the published preface does not call Brodsky a collaborator. “[A] completed book project,” Volkov wrote, “is sustained by the belief of both parties involved that this particular arrangement is vital.” Vital to Volkov, certainly, not to mention lucrative: He is the sole owner of copyright for both Testimony and Conversations With Joseph Brodsky, and he has never consulted with or offered any compensation to either the composer’s or the poet’s heirs.
Like the Shostakovich shorthand notes, the tapes of Volkov’s conversations with Brodsky remain unavailable. (He plans to donate them to St. Petersburg’s Anna Akhmatova Museum sometime in the future.) Meanwhile, Dmitry Feofanov, acting as Volkov’s lawyer, has issued Kjellberg a cease-and-desist order and has threatened to sue her for defamation if she persists in objecting to the book as unauthorized by Brodsky.
What is Testimony? It is a book based in part on at least some face-to-face interviews with Shostakovich. It is a vivid portrait of a brilliant composer living in difficult times. And it is a collection of rumors and anecdotes, many of which were such common currency in the Soviet Union of the 1970s that Fay and Taruskin heard them when they visited as exchange students. But can it be considered the authentic “memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich”?
Testimony‘s defenders commonly portray the dispute as a final skirmish in the Cold War, a last desperate stand by Soviet apologists. “It’s a matter of common knowledge,” observes Feofanov, “that the last refuge of true Marxists is American academia.” Somewhat dramatically, he also declares that the dispute is a “struggle for Shostakovich’s soul.”
In fact, the dispute is about a way of listening to Shostakovich’s music, and to music in general–a way that Testimony encouraged. Testimony‘s defenders become most enthusiastic when they discuss music in which they discern a dissident “message in a bottle”: the Eighth Quartet, the Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies, and the Antiformalist Rayok, Shostakovich’s vicious (and unpublished) caricature of his Stalinist persecutors, apparently written in the 1950s and 1960s. Feofanov has recently become intrigued by the possibility that the Twelfth Symphony “encoded” Stalin’s initials.
But can anything be more impoverishing of music than a search for literal paraphrase? Once, after an evening spent performing his Seventh Symphony on the piano for friends, all of whom understood it to be “about” fascism and the war with Germany, Shostakovich confided to Flora Litvinova: “Fascism, of course. But music, real music, is never attached literally to a theme. Fascism isn’t simply National Socialism. This music is about terror, slavery, the bondage of the spirit.” Ironically, Ho and Feofanov have seized on Litvinova’s recollection as evidence that the “invasion theme” of the Seventh Symphony “depicts Stalin and his henchmen.”
Although deeply skeptical of Testimony, Margarita Mazo, a Russian emigree now teaching at Ohio State University’s School of Music, finds the dispute over its authenticity unseemly. “For many of us [in the Soviet Union] listening to a new piece of Shostakovich was a sacred experience,” she says, her voice breaking. “Was he a dissident or was he not? Was he a Communist or was he not?… He was so much more complex than that.” She pauses, then adds, “Besides, can you tell music with words? Can you say with words what this music is about? If so then why do you need music?”