A Life Remembered


In the twenty years since his death, musical scholarship has focused on two approaches to merging an understanding of Shostakovich the public composer with Shostakovich the private man trapped in a totalitarian political system. The first is to ignore history completely; to accept his work, especially the symphonies, as "pure" music, thus ignoring any events that may lead one to grapple with the political contradictions in the composer’s life. While this approach vitalizes the music, it ignores the epoch from which the composer’s art was forged: repression, denunciation, political terror, and (perhaps most importantly in the context of creative art), the betrayal of one’s fellow artists. The second approach is to look at the music totally within the historical context; that is, to apply specific concrete meaning to specific musical forms. For example, the percussion ensemble at the end of the Fifteenth Symphony in this mode of thought might be interpreted as representing the tapping of prisoners on pipes communicating with one another in the labor camps. This approach runs the risk of overlooking the aspects of Shostakovich’s achievement as a universal artist.


As each year goes by we get closer to Shostakovich as a historical figure, and his work becomes less attached to the political leavings that were inevitably attached by musicologists, writers and party hacks in both the East and West. This aura of objectivity has been long awaited, and will allow for us to view Shostakovich’s musical achievement in the context that it deserves; in comparison to the other members of the "Pantheon", (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, et. al.) Additionally we are now beginning to see the publication of biographical material that strips away both the political veneer, and the controversy that resulted from the publication of Testimony, the composer’s alleged memoirs. The most recent of these that has come to my attention is Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, a magnificent collection of oral remembrances of the composer.


In this compelling book, hundreds of reminiscences are printed in chronological order, strung together with cogent commentary by the author. The list of contributors includes Mstislav Rostropovich, Galena Vishnevskaya, Aram Khachaturian, Rudolf Barshai, Tatyana Nikolayeva, Peter Pears, Oleg Prokofiev and many others. All the sources in the book were drawn from previously published material, diary entries or other work as yet unprinted, interviews conducted by the author, or were specially commissioned for the book. All of them are intensely vital and go to the heart of Shostakovich the man. For those who already have an understanding of the composer’s life this book will reveal many new facets. For those who are just beginning an exploration of his music it will open many doors. Copious photographs from Shostakovich’s public and private life are also included.


Many of the pieces are anecdotal, and provide fascinating snippets of information concerning Shostakovich’s working habits. We learn that entire symphonies were written and composed within his head, and that the act of composition itself was simply a process of recording the music that had already firmly evolved within his imagination. Virtually no drafts and no changes of any kind took place once the notes had been placed on score paper. Yet during the process of rehearsal the composer remained open to comment by the performers. One gets the sense that he was very much a "musician’s composer." If a musician received a call from Shostakovich asking for permission to compose a piece for him, generally that meant that the piece was already finished and ready for rehearsal. The first phone call would be followed by another several days later, asking the performer to appear at the composer’s apartment for a run-through. The chamber works were always polished under Shostakovich’s supervision, and his loyalty to those performers and conductors to whom he gave his premieres was firm and unyielding. (We also learn the reasons behind his falling out with Mravinksy, after that conductor’s refusal to premiere the Thirteenth Symphony.)


[DSCH] To my mind the most lucid memories are the grateful ones by young composers who were supported and spoken for by the master. Sofia Gubaidulina, in her contribution concerning Shostakovich commenting on one of her early works, says: "He listened to it, and made some remarks, generally praising the music. But what struck me most was his parting phrase: ‘Be yourself. Don’t be afraid of being yourself. My wish for you is that you should continue on your own, incorrect way.’ " She later says: " I believe that Shostakovich’s music reaches such a wide audience because he was able to transform the pain that he so keenly experienced into something exalted and full of light, which transcends all worldly suffering." For many years people have been quick to point an accusing finger at Shostakovich’s entry into the Communist Party late in his life, and his purported attacks on Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, but these pages reveal a complex man who also stuck his neck out time and time again for many other individuals who were in trouble with the authorities, or who needed money, or a job or some other kind of support.


One can argue for or against the need for biographical sources to comprehend an artist’s creation. I have always felt that a view into the life of an artist will reveal light within the art itself, and will also help expose the human elements within ourselves. I was left with a strong feeling of "knowing" the composer after I finished Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. In listening to his music over the years I have always felt him reaching out to that human part of me that lived in another time, and another place, but in broad musical terms that could not be specific. Now, in knowing how he felt after a successful premiere, how he laughed, smoked and drank with his friends, about his didactic punctuality, I sense the personality within the music even more profoundly, and wish that I had had the opportunity to meet him myself and say, "thank you Dmitri Dmitriyevich, for making me glad to be a human being."


There is more information on Shostakovich in the Sierra Chamber Society Home Page.

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