function get_footer() { echo "test"; } September 26, 2006

Published on Tuesdays



A Guide to the
Bay Area's Classical
Music Scene
Sept. 26 – Oct. 9

By Lisa Hirsch, Mary VanClay, Mickey Butts, Scott MacClelland, Jeff Dunn, and Heuwell Tircuit



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In Memoriam ...
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And More

By Janos Gereben



A Tenor Who
Sets the Tone

By Robert P. Commanday

Rolando Villazón
September 24, 2006


Championing Shostakovich's
Chamber Music

By David Bratman

"Shostakovich Mini-Festival"
Alexander String Quartet
Roger Woodward
Robert Greenberg
September 24-25, 2006


Unconquerable Musicianship

By Heuwell Tircuit

Meng-Chieh Liu
September 22, 2006


Musical Imaginings

By Jules Langert

September 18, 2006


Poetry and Camp

By Heuwell Tircuit

Mack McCray
September 19, 2006


The Mirror Has
Two Faces

By Jason Victor Serinus

Kiri Te Kanawa
Frederica von Stade
September 21, 2006


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Shostakovich at His Centenary, Part II

By David Bratman

In our previous installment, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (born on September 25, 1906), apparently a loyal Soviet citizen, found his music condemned and ignored by the Western critical community. Four years after his death in 1975, this changed with the publication of Testimony, a book released by former Soviet music journalist Solomon Volkov that claimed to be the memoirs of an embittered, angry Shostakovich. In Testimony, the composer-narrator says he used his works to wreak secret revenge against his oppressive government. Suddenly, the popular view of Shostakovich changed from Soviet lackey to secret hero.


There was only one problem. Testimony is a fake. A hoax. Made up by Volkov. Shostakovich never wrote it, and probably never saw any of its spectacular charges.

That's a startling thing to say. Volkov had photos of himself with Shostakovich, inscribed by the composer. He had his Russian typescript. Each chapter, he said, was signed by the composer with his name and the Russian word for "read" (past tense). He wouldn't show the entire typescript, but he did release a copy of one chapter's first page, with the signature on it.

It was that page that confirmed the discovery. A few readers, including an American music historian named Laurel Fay, had noticed something familiar about some of the chapters' opening passages in the published translation. The Russian original page proved it. They were word-for-word copies from the beginnings of innocuous short memoirs — generally considered to have been ghostwritten — published under Shostakovich's name in Soviet journals at various dates in his life. The text of Testimony departed from these articles as soon as you got to the end of the typescript page with Shostakovich's signature on it.

Volkov's Testimony

Even before seeing that one page, and without further help from the (unavailable) typescript, Fay identified, from the published English Testimony, innocuous old Shostakovich articles that were the sources of the openings of all but the first chapter. It had also turned out to be difficult to find anyone who could testify that Volkov knew the composer any more than briefly and casually.

A mortifying conclusion was becoming evident: Volkov seems to have perpetrated a gigantic hoax on the entire music world. Had he typed up a bunch of these old articles, told the composer he was planning to reprint them as a book, got him to approve the typescript by signing each, and then removed everything but the signed pages, substituting a lurid narrative of his own composition written on the same typewriter? Voilà, a fake book with a genuine imprimatur? This seems far more plausible than any of the strained explanations offered by his defenders.

The Shostakovich wars

Fay published her discovery in an article in The Russian Review in 1980, and for the next two decades an unpleasant war broke out among Shostakovich scholars over Testimony. Fay stuck mostly to historical scholarship, publishing a biography of the composer in 2000 that, by emphasizing his fear, earned the scorn of the Volkovites. Fay's bulldog was Richard Taruskin of UC Berkeley, who argued — most notably in a 2001 article in The New Republic — that hailing Shostakovich as a secret hero was as reductionist and flattening as condemning him as a Soviet stooge had been. Shostakovich was both hero and craven, Taruskin said, and you won't fully understand him unless you appreciate this. (Both Fay's and Taruskin's articles are reprinted in A Shostakovich Casebook, edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown, Indiana University Press, 2004.)

This was a bit subtle for Volkov's defenders. Volkov himself stuck doggedly to his story and stayed out of the arguments, but he had some tough bulldogs of his own. The anti-Volkovites were subjected to some astonishingly ignorant criticism from advocates of Testimony's picture of Shostakovich. Robert Greenberg, who lectured at last weekend's San Francisco Performances Shostakovich festival (see SFCV's review), opined at another SFP lecture a few years ago that Fay and Taruskin were making an undue fuss over an obscure and insignificant question of provenance. Norman Lebrecht suggested that they were fighting a hopeless rear-guard battle to reduce Shostakovich to pure Soviet lackey again for unfathomable reasons of their own.

The late Ian MacDonald initially tried to split the difference, admitting that the text of Testimony was a fake but insisting that its portrait of the composer was real, but later he recanted his doubts about Volkov's honesty, under the influence of the most belligerent of all of Volkov's defenders, musicologist Allan Ho and pianist Dmitry Feofanov. Previously known mostly as coeditors of a biographical dictionary of Russian composers, they laid out their arguments in a book titled Shostakovich Reconsidered (Toccata Press, 1998). (Some of its materials are reproduced on MacDonald's Web site, hosted by Ho.) Long, rambling, and reading rather like a conspiracy theorist's Web site in print, Shostakovich Reconsidered roundly abused Fay and Taruskin, otherwise-respected scholars, as incompetent boobies who knew nothing about the Soviet Union or Shostakovich.

Shorn of its verbiage, Shostakovich Reconsidered had two main arguments in defense of Testimony's authenticity. Volkov had said that he typed the book up from shorthand interview notes. Ho and Feofanov claimed, preposterously, that it was simply Shostakovich's good memory that caused these to duplicate his old articles word-for-word for the first page of each chapter, and depart from them just when Volkov's typescript happened to get to the end of that page. And besides, Ho and Feofanov said, what about Chapter One? That begins not innocuously but with one of the book's most searing indictments of the Soviet system.

Despite repeated requests, Volkov would not let dissenting scholars see the original Russian typescript of Testimony. But a photocopy, apparently one he had given before publication to an emigre for commentary, finally became available for study a few years ago. And guess what? It turns out that Shostakovich didn't sign the first page of chapter one. He signed the third page, which is — you guessed it — a word-for-word copy, down to the punctuation marks, from an old published article of extreme inoffensiveness. The complete typescript also revealed what had happened in one transcript, where an omitted sentence would have revealed that the article was written in 1960, more than 10 years before Volkov did his interviewing. That sentence was typed, but correction tape was pasted over it. Fay's documentary evidence for all this is in A Shostakovich Casebook; Alex Ross summarized the case for The New Yorker.

Backdating the past

That's it. The game's up. If Volkov's defenders have any shame, they'll slink away in complete embarrassment. Norman Lebrecht already has; he wrote recently that "the heat has gone out of the historians' row," without bothering to mention how it came out. Volkov has turned out to be the reincarnation of Anton Schindler, the glutinous fanboy who made himself useful as Beethoven's gofer in his last years and then, as soon as the great man was dead, forged entries in his conversation books and published a spurious memoir. Scholars spent decades sorting out the historically reliable from that which had no known source other than Schindler's imagination. And Schindler still echoes down the ages. Most music lovers will recall having been told that the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth are "fate knocking at the door." Beethoven never said that. Schindler made it up.

Similarly, it may take decades to extricate Volkov's imagination from Shostakovich's life. Testimony is not going away. Despite its debunking, it was reissued in a "25th anniversary edition" (Limelight Editions, 2004), without any sort of reader's advisory. Program note writers still turn reflexively to its juicy pages for quotations, the same way that they sometimes still turn to Schindler on Beethoven. Robert Greenberg is still quoting from Testimony as if Shostakovich wrote it.

And perhaps turning to Volkov is not entirely unwise. Some debunkers of Testimony are taking the position that, since it's fiction, it can have no possible relevance to Shostakovich's life. But that seems to be washing one's hands of Volkov a little too vigorously. Fiction, even if purely imaginary, can tell us something about real life; if it's to be more than simple entertainment, it has to. It can be especially useful on historical periods if documentary evidence is scanty or absent, as it would be for a totalitarian regime. Persons seeking to understand Soviet Russia turn as eagerly, and reliably, to the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as to his nonfiction, and even to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel that vividly depicts the feel of Soviet life, all the more remarkably as it is set in an imaginary future and written by an author who'd never been to the Soviet Union.

On a lesser level of literary achievement, so it may be with Testimony. It is the nature of the story of Soviet terror that it may only be told in secret, or after the fact. The criticism of some lesser anti-Volkovites, that Shostakovich said nothing publicly along the lines of Testimony, is misplaced. The whole point of Testimony is that he couldn't express his honest feelings in public. That in itself would not prove the book reliable, but it is now well-documented that secret dissident readings of Shostakovich's music were in fact widespread. This is what Richard Taruskin had encountered in Russia in 1971 that had so puzzled him. He discusses the phenomenon in the Soviet music chapter of his new Oxford History of Western Music (Oxford University Press, 2005). Numerous affidavits to Shostakovich's own loathing and fear of the Soviets, and the hidden agenda in his music, may be found in the memoirs of his friends and colleagues collected in Elizabeth Wilson's oral history, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Princeton University Press).

The music under critique — again

In the end, what we have is the music, and the music is why we are interested in Shostakovich in the first place. The works that those baffled critics dismissed in the 1940s are the same ones that are heard with such rapture today. What seemed like lapses of taste now come across as gripping, searing realism. The New Yorker's Alex Ross, who has been exemplary in trying to rise above the controversies that have been consuming this subject, points out that however you interpret it, the music remains the same. It hasn't changed. Only we have.

For people learning their way into a composer's music, a story — even a fictional one — can serve as a doorway. So long as one does not mistake the doorway for the actual room, this can be useful. Amadeus is complete fiction, full of grotesque distortions of Mozart's life, but it is not without value as a guide to appreciation of his music. Maxim Shostakovich's opinion that Testimony is a book about his father, not by him, seems the view to take. If one reads it as Volkov's tale in Shostakovich's voice, rather in the way Gertrude Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, then learning an appreciation of Shostakovich's characteristically dark Russian voice through it cannot be altogether a bad thing.

We do not know, and will probably never know, how much truth there is in Testimony, but the nonscholarly reader may at least gain from it a dim glimpse of an important part of the truth. Certainly Testimony, for all its flaws, has brought an intuitive understanding of Shostakovich's music to a large audience, and not just through publicity or notoriety. What matters is that Shostakovich could write longer stretches of dark, lugubrious music than any of the many Russians before him, and something about that music touches many people's souls, once they find a context in which to listen to it.

The benefit to listeners, and musicians, of an increased knowledge and understanding of Shostakovich's work has been immense. His bleak, occasionally manic, technically plain writing has tremendous emotional power. His cycle of 15 string quartets — begun in his early 30s and completed just before his death — challenges Bartók's as the most significant of the century, matching the Hungarian's work in variety and surpassing it in quantity. Critical opinion seems to be settling on the highlights of the cycle: the Second and Third Quartets for dramatic, scornful midperiod Shostakovich; the Seventh and Eighth as a contrasting pair of quartets, one fleeing from the grief of his first wife's death, the other succumbing to the depths of anger and mournfulness; and the subcycle of the Eleventh through Fourteenth, each dedicated to one of the founding members of the Beethoven Quartet, who had premiered most of the earlier quartets.

Much the same may be said of his 15 symphonies, with the Fourth, Eighth, and Eleventh rising to match the Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth in the height of critical esteem. Earlier I mentioned the Fifth Symphony's finale as a key work for judging the interpretation of Shostakovich's music. Listen to the Fifth for yourself, and tell me what you think of that rousing finale. Is it a triumphal rejoicing after struggle, which is what the composer said publicly at the time, and what Soviet critics said? Is it an unsuccessful attempt to depict triumphal rejoicing, a blemish on an otherwise fine symphony, which is what pre-Volkov Western critics said? Is it a person pretending to rejoice because the government stuck a gun to his head and said, "Your business is rejoicing," which is what Volkov's Testimony says? Is it just an exciting finale in D Major, never mind what the composer intended, which is what Alex Ross says? Or is it all of these at once, which is what Richard Taruskin says?

Let the conversation about Shostakovich continue into his second century.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)


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©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved.


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From September 1, 1998, to Sept. 26, 2006, SFCV has published, in addition to our weekly features, Music News, and Listening Ahead columns, 2,515 reviews of Bay Area performances by: 53 symphony orchestras (521 reviews), dozens of recital presenters (438 reviews), 42 opera companies (353 reviews), 94 chamber groups (297 reviews), 39 new-music ensembles and programs (267 reviews), 53 early-music ensembles (198 reviews), 37 choral groups (159 reviews), 17 music festivals (119 reviews), 24 chamber orchestras (97 reviews), six musical theater groups (17 reviews), as well as numerous world music groups (14 reviews), youth music ensembles (13 reviews), and other organizations (13 reviews).


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