Art and Power

When Lenin returned from exile to Petrograd’s Finland station in April 1917, Dmitri Shostakovich and his schoolfriends rushed to see the revolutionary. It was a story the composer told many times over the years. But it was unlikely that a delicate, over-protected ten year old child had been allowed to go to the station alone. Perhaps he had really gone in the care of his old Bolshevik uncle, Maxim Laventryevich. He often told that version of the story too. But in The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’ account of the composer’s life, the middle-aged Shostakovich is unsure whether he even went to the station at all. Perhaps he had really taken a schoolfriend’s story as his own. He is a man filled with doubt, distrustful of his own memory: ‘he lies like an eyewitness, as the saying goes.’

In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes gives three glimpses into the life of Dmitri Shostakovich – three points on the path to his disputed reputation as a Soviet propagandist or a hidden dissident. In 1936, as Stalin’s Great Terror is just beginning, his music is publicly condemned for the first time by the Soviet regime. 1948 shows him caught in a game of cat and mouse: the composer publicly apologising for his lapse into ‘formalism’ before being hastily rehabilitated to serve as a cultural ambassador for Soviet Russia. The third act takes place in 1960, as the middle-aged artist uneasily enters the insecure comfort of the Khrushchev years. They are three glimpses into the collision of art with power. And in this fragmentary account of a contested life, Shostakovich himself weighs the balance of courage and cowardice in his actions over the years:

To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb… But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe… Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage. He smiled to himself and lit another cigarette. The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him. Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

This is a man who has become ‘a technique for survival’.

Some suspected Shostakovich of attempting, in later life, to re-write the record of his collusion with the Soviet regime. But if memory is unreliable, so too is the written record. In his later years, Pravda would regularly publish articles under his name: essays that he had never seen. He made public speeches that accorded with Soviet ideology, but he did so with debatable sincerity. As a Soviet delegate to the 1949 Congress for World Peace in New York, he publicly supported the denunciation of his idol, Igor Stravinsky. It was a moment of supreme humiliation – even more so as he was a man who understood intimately the consequences of such words. Only a year previously he had publicly apologised for his ‘formalist’ music when it was denounced by the cultural commissar, Andrei Zhdanov. He had achieved success and fame early in life, and that, perhaps, had made him particularly vulnerable. He had been one of the most prominent artists in Russia all through the worst years of Stalin’s rule. The consequence was a life lived in fear.

In Barnes’ fictional account, Dmitri Shostakovich is a man who lives with deep, abiding shame – and with coruscating doubt. Did he make wise and practical compromises with the regime, or was he a coward who too easily capitulated to its demands? In the Khrushchev era, when he was again celebrated by the Soviet elite, the composer would add his name to public condemnations of Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In 1960 he became a Party member in order to accept leadership of the Union of Soviet Composers. He dutifully attended every meeting of the Supreme Soviet, and on one occasion applauded when the Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers violently criticised him. Was he being ironic?, a friend asked. No. He had simply stopped listening.


Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘One to hear,’ Barnes writes in his epigraph. ‘One to remember. And one to drink.’ Shostakovich is the man who hears, but it is not the noise of time – all the troubling rush of history – that he is listening for. He is, firstly, a composer. He was only twenty when the premiere of his First Symphony in 1926 announced him as a prodigious talent. There were ten years in which to enjoy success, small controversies and official approval before the night in August 1936 when Stalin attended a performance of his celebrated opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Two days later the opera was sensationally denounced in Pravda. This was ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, the author wrote: it ‘quacks and grunts and howls’, it was ‘coarse, primitive and vulgar’. The criticism was echoed by many musicologists and critics who had previously praised the opera. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk would not be heard again in the Soviet Union for thirty years. Just as Stalin’s Great Terror was beginning, Shostakovich was suddenly and publicly vulnerable.

His first response was silence. The premiere of his Fourth Symphony was planned for December 1936; he withdrew it from public notice just before its first performance. There was nothing in this strange music that could placate the champions of socialist realism. But the composer’s rehabilitation would begin in 1937 with the first performance of his Fifth Symphony. More conservative in style than its predecessors, this new direction was heralded as a ‘Soviet artist’s response to just criticism’. Had the composer compromised himself with this work, or was he making an ironic show of conformity? In either case, it was made clear to the public that if the Party could condemn, the Party could also forgive. This was a cat and mouse game – one that was terrifying to play.

Just months before that successful premiere, the composer’s friend and mentor, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, was shot for his suspected involvement in an imaginary conspiracy. Shostakovich had also been brought in for questioning to the dreaded NKVD building on Liteiny Prospekt. But he never suffered a second round of interrogation. He was strangely lucky – his investigator simply disappeared one day, as so many did. No other policeman showed an interest in pursuing his close association with Tukhachevsky. But like so many others in the late 1930s, he continued to live in fear. Other composers and musicologists around him were shot; his brother-in-law was arrested; his wife’s family suffered too. The relationship with power was a dangerous one.

But when he was again in favour, Dmitri Shostakovich could be a powerful asset in the state’s cultural propaganda. In his lifetime it earned him a reputation in the West as a Soviet propagandist. With the publication of Solomon Volkov’s Testimony in 1979 – purporting to be a dictated version of the composer’s memoirs – that reputation was turned on its head. Now he was reinvented as a veiled dissident, entirely anti-Soviet in his beliefs; his music, he said, was veined with irony. But that image of Shostakovich is still a matter of controversy. The Fifth Symphony – the musical turning point that rehabilitated his reputation after ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ – is taken as evidence by both sides.

Famously, it received a rapturous reception at its Leningrad premiere in 1937. Some wept at its mournful Largo, an inescapable reminder of loss in a city where more and more families were being touched by executions, disappearances and exile. The audience answered its bombastic and triumphalist finale with a thirty-minute ovation. It was implied, at the time, to be a portrayal of Stalin. But were these people listening to a celebration of Stalin’s Russia or a subtle mockery of it? For The New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross, the question is moot. The debate over Shostakovich’s reputation – whether he was really a tool of the regime or a noble victim of it – has itself become ‘muddle instead of music’, he suggests. The artist who was once condemned in the West is now ‘canonized as a moral subversive, a conscientious ironist, a “holy fool”’:

The ending of the Fifth Symphony, which was once described as a paean to Stalin’s Russia, is now described as a sub-rosa denunciation of it… [but] the arbitrariness of the change - the music is still said to represent Stalin but, now, critically - suggests that the new interpretation may be no more valid than the old one. The Fifth has become a hall of musical mirrors in which our own unmusical obsessions are reflected. Alex Ross, 'Ruined Choirs: how did Shostakovich's music survive Stalin's Russia?' The New Yorker (2000)

As the noise of time changes, so does the music that is heard through it. Perhaps Shostakovich was neither a hero nor a coward, but simply a ‘fearful, accommodating figure’, as one scholar depicted him. The music itself, Ross implies, is simply music. Art serves its own purposes. Or perhaps, as Shostakovich muses here, it is ‘the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.’

In this novel the composer is certain of his music, and certain of little else. He does not know what to make of his life. Was it courage that saved him through all the years of Stalin’s Great Terror, when so many others were killed? Or was it cowardice? Did he serve his talent, writing great symphonies while churning out music palatable to the Soviet authorities, or did he leave too much work undone? He has lived through the revolutionary years, the Great Patriotic War and the Stalinist terror; he is undoubtedly a survivor. But he survives with a deep, abiding shame, and with a deep sense of doubt.

Every twelve years they come for him, he reflects; every twelve years he has a conversation with power. And every twelve years Barnes finds him in a different place, though they are all really the same. He is a man standing with a suitcase on a landing, a traveller suffering through a transatlantic flight, a passenger sitting uneasily in a chauffeured car. This is a man caught between places, and nowhere at home. As the novel opens, it is 1936 and he is standing by the lift in his apartment building night after night. He is waiting there so the police do not disturb his young family when they come to take him:

He did not want to make himself into a dramatic character. But sometimes, as his mind skittered in the small hours, he thought: so this is what history has come to. All that striving and idealism and hope and progress and science and art and conscience, and it all ends like this, with a man standing by a lift, at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away. Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

It was the poet Osip Mandelstam who wrote in his 1925 memoirs of ‘the noise of time’. By 1938 he had become a victim of Stalin’s prison camps. In contrast, Shostakovich was an artist for whom the police never came, in the end. But the ‘noise of time’ – all that striving and idealism and hope and progress – could still drown out the man as well as the artist. By returning to him every twelve years, Barnes depicts an individual who is slowly enveloped by the regime. There is the man whom terror forces into silence, the man pressured into speaking, and the man allowed to live too long. Which was the worst time: living in terror or surviving in shame? It is a mark of the subtlety of this novel that the question is largely left unanswered.

This review was first published in The Dublin Review of Books.

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