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Classical Music

The music is heard high above the fray

Was Shostakovich a secret Soviet dissident? As his centenary approaches, it's still debated. Meanwhile, his works are winning their case.

September 17, 2006|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

THIS is a time of long-sought vindication for the devotees of Dmitri Dmitryevich Shostakovich, whose 100th birthday is Sept. 25.

Not since the ballyhoo over the "Leningrad" Symphony during World War II has Shostakovich enjoyed a higher profile. His 15 symphonies -- not just the perennially popular Fifth -- are gradually finding a permanent place in the symphonic repertoire. It is now apparent that his 15 string quartets are the single most imposing body of chamber music of the 20th century, outpointing even those of Bartok and Schoenberg. His Second Piano Trio, with its searing Jewish-flavored finale, is programmed about as often as the trios of Schubert and Dvorak.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic just concluded a five-year survey of the symphonies and quartets and will launch a follow-up in 2007, "Shadow of Stalin." Valery Gergiev will deliver a Russian viewpoint in five symphonies next month in the new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

And Russia, which tormented and honored Shostakovich with cunning unpredictability during his lifetime, has just issued a two-ruble silver coin commemorating his centennial (this new piece joins a curious gallery of recent Russian coins honoring once-banned or denounced native composers like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Stravinsky).

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Shostakovich program: An article last Sunday about composer Dmitri Shostakovich incorrectly said that the Kirov Orchestra would play Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 6 and 11 on Oct. 10 at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The Kirov will play Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Shostakovich program: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about composer Dmitri Shostakovich incorrectly said that the Kirov Orchestra would play his Symphonies Nos. 6 and 11 on Oct. 10 at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The Kirov will play Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6.

But let's look back just a bit to see where we've been -- to 1979. The Schwann record catalog -- then a pretty good barometer of the popularity and reputation of a composer -- shows that in July of that year, the number of recordings of Shostakovich's music in print had stayed roughly the same or even declined a bit in the four years since his death.

There was only one available recording of each of his two violin concertos, two or three listings of most of his 15 symphonies -- and none for the Third. The Fifth actually showed a drop from 1975. Only the quartets, still little known at the time, were on a mild upswing, thanks mostly to the emerging cycle from Britain's Fitzwilliam Quartet, and the first recording of the original uncensored "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District" had just come out.

The party line in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union -- and in the West -- held fast: that Shostakovich was a committed soldier of the Revolution who wrote parade-ground symphonies about Lenin, October and 1905. In Western musical circles, he was regarded as a "conservative," not worth taking seriously because he failed to approach the shrine of serialism on bended knee. The withering epithet "bureaucratic composer" -- used in an obituary about his colleague Aram Khachaturian the year before -- could have also been applied to Shostakovich then.

That autumn, everything changed.

A book called "Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich," smuggled out of the Soviet Union and edited by Solomon Volkov, hit the bookstores. "Testimony's" most publicized passages -- showing that the composer may have been a secret dissident, railing against Stalin and his henchmen as well as some of the composer's own colleagues and the naive Western press, embedding codes in works masked as Soviet flag-wavers -- startled most Westerners.

The Soviets and many Western academics struck back at Volkov, particularly a coterie of Americans who tried to prove, with sometimes disturbingly credible evidence, that the memoirs were a fake. The Soviets trotted out a variety of figures, including the composer's widow, to discredit Volkov. On Volkov's side were streams of Russian emigres who vouched for the truth of the memoirs' depiction of Shostakovich's personality and musical life in the Soviet Union.

Even after the smoking gun hinted at in "Testimony" -- the hysterically funny, Stalin-mocking cantata, "Antiformalist Rayok" -- finally came out of hiding in 1989, the war continued.

Both sides were still at it as recently as 2004, with dueling books by Volkov ("Shostakovich and Stalin") and the opposing tag team of Laurel Fay, Richard Taruskin, Malcolm Brown and company ("A Shostakovich Casebook"). As the smoke cleared yet again, "Testimony" had been hit hard but remained standing, for the doubters could not discredit the content of the book -- as opposed to the source. And all the while, interest in Shostakovich's music continued to grow, as curious listeners drawn in by the politically charged debates found much greatness in this misunderstood man's music.

For me, "Testimony" rang true from the first reading for one simple, intuitive reason: The book reads the way Shostakovich's music sounds -- with all of its bitterness, sarcasm, bleakness, corrosive and weird humor, compassion, self-obsession and reverence for tradition. Contrary to claims that it's just a cranky, anti-communist diatribe, "Testimony," on careful reading, reveals aspects of a more rounded, all-too-human Shostakovich -- the depth of his feeling for his fellow Russians, his identification with the Jews that turned up in his music at great personal risk.

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