The holy fool

Shostakovich and Stalin

Solomon Volkov, translated by Antonina W Bouis <em>Little, Brown, 370pp, £

For most people, the question of Shostakovich's agonised relationship to Stalin and Stalinism is not an issue. He stands alongside Britten and Poulenc as one of the few composers in the postwar period who have won our affections. The Fifth and Tenth symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the Eighth Quartet, the Piano Trio and Quintet, the preludes and fugues, are as accessible as the works by Brahms and Beethoven with which they rub shoulders on orchestral programmes.

But step inside academe and it is a different matter. There, the "Shostakovich Wars" are in full swing. On one side are those who think he at best silently acquiesced in the Stalinist Terror, and at worst was the Soviet system's "most loyal musical son", as Richard Taruskin once described him. There is some evidence to support this view, such as Shostakovich's strange decision to join the Communist Party in 1960, and the patriotic cantatas he wrote during the 1940s praising the history of the revolution.

On the other side are the revisionist historians and musicologists who see Shostakovich as a lifelong dissident, a man who satirised and excoriated Stalinism with an irony so subtle that Stalin's cultural commissars never even noticed. For this group, the failure of any western critic to spot the true message is unforgivable, tantamount to continuing beyond the grave the repression and misunderstanding that Shostakovich had to endure in life. They rely on a different sort of evidence, less "hard", more open to interpretation. They point to the way his triumphal finales go too far, parodying what they purport to glorify, and to the sly symbolism of the many quotations in Shostakovich's music, which always have an air of the grotesque.

The man who stirred up all this odium theologicum was Solomon Volkov, who in the mid-1970s published a book, apparently based on conversations with Shostakovich during the final years of the composer's life, in which he revealed his intimate thoughts on Stalinism. In Testimony, we appeared at last to have the truth, without the veil of irony and "Aesopian" double-talk that we find in Shostakovich's letters and music. And a shocking picture it was, the composer emerging as a man infinitely wearied, embittered and terrorised, gripped with loathing for Stalin and all his works. Some of Shostakovich's intimates supported the book; others fiercely denounced it. Volkov himself has maintained a digni-fied silence. So it is a surprise to find him now re-entering the fray. In tracing Shostakovich's nearly 30-year-long game of cat-and-mouse with Stalin, Volkov makes surprisingly few references to Testimony. But it soon becomes clear that the new book is an attempt both to explain the puzzles and inconsistencies in his earlier picture of the composer, and to raise him up from the abject posture of total defeat that the earlier book gave us.

Here, Shostakovich is no longer the terrorised victim. He faces Stalin on what appear to be almost equal terms, and even scores a few victories. In a fascinating introductory chapter, Volkov shows how Stalin's stance towards Shostakovich was prefigured in the strange, ambivalent relations between Aleksandr Pushkin and Tsar Nicholas I, the tsar veering between oppression and indulgence towards the poet's rebellious stance.

Stalin, too, could be capricious, in a way that was more terrifying and demoralising than consistent repression. During the Great Terror, he protected the ideologically suspect Boris Pasternak, saying: "Don't touch that cloud-dweller, that unworldly one." But he hardened after the Second World War. As Pasternak said of the new repression, "It used to be a lottery, now it's a queue." As for Shostakovich, he was permanently under suspicion after his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was denounced in Pravda as "Muddle instead of music". Volkov makes a convincing case that Stalin himself was the author of the article, which overnight turned Shostakovich from successful composer to pariah, under constant fear of arrest.

According to Volkov, Shostakovich saved himself by adopting the three roles of the poet, as exemplified in Pushkin's Boris Godunov: the Chronicler of events; the Holy Fool, who seems too innocent to be a threat to authority; and the Pretender, who mouths the words that those in power want to hear, but makes it clear to others that he does not mean them. In using his music to chart the rise of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, Shostakovich was clearly play- ing the part of Chronicler. But Volkov's attempt to see his humiliating appearance at the Waldorf peace conference in terms of both the Holy Fool and the Pretender is less convincing.

Volkov is so keen to rescue Shostakovich from charges of defeatism or cowardice that he goes to the other extreme, giving the all-too-fallible human being an aura of mythical infallibility. But if the thesis convinces only in part, the narrative of an extraordinary relationship is enthralling.

It is a shame this fine book is marred by execrable translation, which bafflingly describes KGB operatives as "gendarmes" and at one point states that "neither Stalin nor Nicholas I spared money for propaganda", when the context makes it clear that what Volkov meant was the opposite - "spared no expense when it came to propaganda". It is a tribute to the passion and cogency of Volkov's prose that his book survives more or less unscathed.

Ivan Hewett is the author of Music: healing the rift (Continuum)

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The new global elite