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Was He or Wasn't He?

The Soviets claimed Dmitri Shostakovich as a true believer; others say he was secretly a dissident. The answer may lie in his work.

November 29, 1998|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles is a Times staff writer

When Dmitri Shostakovich died in 1975, he was lauded as one of the leading composers of the 20th century. He had burst upon the scene in 1925 with an amazing First Symphony, written when he was still a 19-year-old student at the Leningrad Conservatory.

His Fifth Symphony, composed in 1937, had become a concert staple, and his "Leningrad" Symphony, written in 1941 to commemorate that city's resistance to the Nazis, had achieved almost sacred status with his countrymen. It was first played and broadcast to the world even as bombs were falling on the besieged city.

Equally settled seemed the question of his political orthodoxy.

The New York Times expressed the general view. It described him in its obituary as "a committed Communist who accepted the sometimes harsh ideological criticism to which his modernistic works were periodically subjected."

"He was a child of the Russian Revolution," the Times declared. "He had been brought up and conditioned by the Soviet ideology and considered his music an expression of the Russian people, in line with the doctrines espoused by the Central Committee of the USSR."

But did he?

Within four years of the composer's death, musicologist Solomon Volkov, a Russian emigre, published a bombshell book: "Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich." An as-told-to biography "related to and edited by" Volkov, "Testimony" portrayed a bitter and frightened Shostakovich who cooperated with the Communist regime only as far as he felt was necessary to survive.

"I had thought that my life was replete with sorrow and that it would be hard to find a more miserable man," Shostakovich said. "But when I started going over the life stories of my friends and acquaintances, I was horrified. . . . All I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses. I'm not exaggerating, I mean mountains. And the picture filed me with a horrible depression."

It would be the first volley in a war of Shostakovich revisionism that hasn't ended yet.

Just this month, at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Boston, a debate over the veracity of Volkov's book--and a "'struggle for Shostakovich's soul," according to one participant--raged into the wee hours. Volkov's first critic, musicologist Laurel E. Fay, has a new and presumably more complete Shostakovich biography in the works. A recent documentary--shown in Orange County in October--prominently features famed conductor Valery Gergiev coming down on the side of the composer as more a closet dissident than a Communist collaborator.

And on CDs and in concert halls around the world, the music is being listened to in the light of all this talk. In fact, in the next few weeks in the Southland, as famed Russian emigre cellist Msistlav Rostropovich brings Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 to Los Angeles, and the composer's son Maxim conducts the Pacific Symphony in Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, we'll get our own chance to consider the question of the great composer's true nature.


The barest facts of Shostakovich's career underline the difficulty of answering the which-side-was-he-on question. It is true that he was celebrated by the Soviet state. He won the Order of Lenin--the nation's highest civilian award--twice, and the Stalin Prize twice. He was secretary of the USSR Composers' Union for eight years in the late '50s and early '60s, when he also became a member of the Supreme Soviet. In 1966, he received the title "Hero of Socialist Labor," the first composer to be so honored.

But it was also true that the Soviet authorities scathingly criticized him, more than once. In an ominous 1936 editorial, Pravda denounced his popular but controversial opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District," in which the lead character conspires to murder her tyrannical father-in-law. It was common knowledge that Stalin was responsible for the editorial.

A second negative editorial followed 10 days later, after Stalin attended a ballet called "'Bright Stream," set to music by Shostakovich.

Said Shostakovich in "Testimony": "Two editorial attacks in 'Pravda' in 10 days--that was too much for one man. Now everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed. And the anticipation of that noteworthy event--at least for me--has never left me."

The composer responded with his Fifth Symphony, subtitled "Creative Reply of a Soviet Artist to Just Criticism." This work was hailed by the Soviet press as "free from error."

In 1948, he again came under attack, this time for "formalistic perversions and anti-democractic tendencies." He redeemed himself by writing a series of works that adhered to the party line, which led to a Stalin Prize in 1950.

Even after Stalin's death in 1953 and the end of the USSR's most extreme years of repression, Shostakovich came in for sanctions. His Thirteenth Symphony, based on the text of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar," about Jews killed at Kiev, got an official, anti-Semitic cold shoulder.

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