Between adaptation and resistance – the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich

On Julian Barnes’ novel “The Noise of Time”1

by Dr phil. Winfried Pogorzelski

“At that time, it did not really matter how the audience received an oeuvre. Nor did it matter whether the critics liked it. All this had no weight whatsoever. Something else was existential. How did the Leader like your opus? I emphasise: existential.”

Dmitry Shostakovich2

“Art belongs to everyone and nobody, art belongs to every time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and to those who enjoy it. Art belongs just as little to the people and the party as it once belonged to the nobility and the patrons. Art is the whisper of history that can be heard through the noise of time.”3
This is what the biographical novel “The Noise of Time” by British writer Julian Barnes says about Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975). In a limited space, the author shows vividly and precisely what it meant for the Russian composer to come to terms – to a certain extent – with the Soviet system, in order to be able to work at all, and at the same time to set unmistakable signs of protest against the Soviet dictatorship by your art. In diary-like notes, historically backed anecdotes, dialogues and essayistic reflections – arranged alternately and skilfully interlinked – it becomes clear that Barnes stands on the side of the composer, whose life between adaptation and resistance he discloses to us in an impressive, often oppressive way. Shostakovich’s life and work is in many ways exemplary for many artists – everywhere in the world and at all times – and that makes the reading so worthwhile.

Living and composing in a dictatorship

Barnes focuses his attention on two aspects in particular: What does it mean for a person in a dictatorship to constantly oscillate between adaptation and resistance in everyday life and work? What dangers, apprehensions, and fears, is he exposed to? What remorse does he feel, what justifications does he concoct? What are the things he can cope with, or not cope with? The second aspect concerns questions of art: what can an artist, who has decided not to go into exile, achieve under the given circumstances? What leeway does he have? Is a clear statement in his art possible, and if so, is there a chance that it will be understood, that it will have an effect?
The “noise of time” – is a metaphor for the political events and the changing course of Shostakovich’s life, in which he could never be secure. At the latest in the time of Stalin’s reign he puts himself in acute danger. His plays meet with no mercy from the dictator, or if they do, then only for the sake of appearance. Shostakovich is on friendly terms with other critics of the regime and he has to witness how relatives, friends and colleagues – including his protégé Marshal Michail Nikolajevitsch Tuchatschevski – fall victim to the Stalinist “purges”. Every day he fears for his life. Every evening he lies down fully clothed on his bed next to his wife, his suitcase fully packed at his feet ...

A reluctant figurehead

But he is spared. It is obviously his uncomfortable destiny – decreed out of self-interest by the powers that be – to live, namely to live in a dictatorship as an artist who does not deny art, admittedly at the price of constantly having to fear for his life. Power is always also arbitrary: Stalin does an about-face and denies that Shostakovich and his work have ever been criticised or that he knew anything about any black list on which the composer’s name appeared. The dictator obliges Shostakovich to participate in the “Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace” in New York.
More and more the composer is forced to fall between all stools: Against his will, he has to publicly read texts in the interests of Soviet propaganda – he does so without any inner sympathy. His relationship with the exile Igor Stravinsky is extremely ambivalent: in his opinion, he would have liked to meet the man whom he considered to be the greatest composer of the 20th century. But Stravinsky has it stated in a telegramme that he would not be able to receive any Soviet artists: “All my ethical and aesthetic convictions oppose this.4 It is true that Shostakovich accuses him of sitting on his American Olympus and remaining silent about the true conditions in the country of Stalin-style communism, e.g the hounding of artists. But what he then has to read out publicly goes beyond the limits: Stravinsky is accused of perversion, of nihilistic emptiness in his writings, of betrayal of his fatherland, “by joining the clique of reactionary musicians”.5
On the surface, Shostakovich’s trip to the USA is a success for him: he politely answers questions, poses for photos, allows himself to be treated well … He, who had assumed to be just one amongst hundreds of other congress participants, advances to become the outstanding star of the event: The Soviet delegation’s trip to the homeland of capitalism is a public success, but it ends in a personal disaster for the composer himself: he has experienced “the greatest humiliation of his life, felt nothing but disgust and contempt for himself”.6 A trap had been set for him, and he had no other choice but “to scurry like a rat through the brightly lit, labyrinthine corridors of some experiment […]”.7 And as if that had not already sufficed: at home, various articles about the World Congress appear under his name, of course entirely in the spirit of Soviet ideology.

Survival Strategies

At Khrushchev’s time, “power becomes vegetarian”8, as the poet Anna Akhmatova puts it; but it would also be possible to die from this, if vegetables were stuffed down one’s throat. “Nikita Kukuruz” (Kukuruz: Slavic for corn), who stems from a West Russian farming family, understands as much about music “as a pig about oranges”9. For him, Shostakovich’s music is “nothing but jazz – it makes you sick to your stomach. And I’m supposed to clap my hands?”10 A sudden liquidation is now less likely. Because the powers that be are still interested in him, still instrumentalise him. Shostakovich is urged to take over the chairmanship of the Russian Composers’ Association and, as a prerequisite, to join the party, which he then does – against his will. Once again it becomes clear that it is always just about the one thing: he perpetually has to pay for the preservation of his physical and artistic existence by means of constant adaptation. This trying to come to terms, this engagement with those in power, need justification before his own conscience, by means of countless mind games. So, for instance, there is the “theory of cowardice or of the coward”, when he thinks: “To be a coward requires tenacity, perseverance, the refusal to change – and that converts it to a kind of courage […]. The joys of irony have not yet left him”11 He signs articles for the “Pravda” and for the Sovietskaya Musyka (organ of the Association of Soviet Composers and the USSR Ministry of Culture), which are totally contrary to his convictions, and – even worse – he signs defamations on Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov in full awareness of what he is doing. Irony in a totalitarian state? No, that can have no positive effect when it comes to taking a stand as a person, as an artist: “You can’t sign letters and secretly cross your fingers behind your back and trust that others will guess that you didn’t mean it that way.”12 He excludes the “way out” of suicide for two reasons: Why do it physically when one has already committed it morally? But above all – so Shostakovich’s bitter realisation – he lacks the necessary self-respect to accomplish it.13

To whom does music belong?

In his novel, Barnes also deals with the question of how an artist can be authentic and truthful in his work, how he may critically present reality and thus encourage others. Shostakovich’s music forms a counterpoint to his forced manoeuvering. Although he tries irony here as well, he does not indulge in any illusion: Nobody appreciates his reference to Stalin’s favourite Georgian song “Suliko” in the form of a distorted satirical version in the final movement of the first Cello Concerto (E flat major op. 107), not even his pupil, friend and dedicatee Mstislav Leopoldowitsch Rostropowitsch, who blithely skims over the passage in question …
The situation is different when it comes to the Fifth Symphony in D minor, op. 47, which is completed in 1937, first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, and enthusiastically celebrated by the audience. This is a time when no one could possibly remain unaware of the terrible reality of life in the Soviet Union: Show trials, denunciations and the disappearance of people – including his sister and brother-in-law – were the order of the day during the Stalinist “purges”. A journalist, completely misjudging the facts, characterises the work as a “creative response of a Soviet artist to justified criticism”14, the critique of “formalism”. Formalism was the label by which “non-proletarian music” was defamed. Shostakovich does not contradict this, but lets his music speak: The brooding Largo, for example, with its long-lasting melody lines and economical instrumentation, moved many visitors to tears at the first performance – a rare event in that concert hall. This music reflects the mood of the people in the country who are in constant shock. Until then, Shostakovich was most notably known as a humorous, rather disrespectful composer (film music, suites for jazz and vaudeville orchestras, etc.). The final movement then, with its march-like main theme, brims with “shrill irony”, so that it cannot be heard other than as the “mockery of triumph”.15
But those listening with the heads and ears of a donkey heard what they wanted to hear, namely “[…] triumph itself, a profession of loyalty to Soviet music, to Soviet musicology, to life under the sun of the Stalinist constitution”.16
Listeners without blinkers heard what Shostakovich really wanted to say with this finale – in particular with the brass fanfares and the powerful drum beats – “[...] it is as if we were beaten with a stick and demanded: ‘You shall cheer, you shall cheer’”17 so the composer can be heard at the end of his life.
Music – the whisper of history
Barnes’ novel – based on carefully researched sources and completed with additions by the author18 – is a lesson in life management in a dictatorship. The author accuses the composer of neither adaptation nor martyrdom. Life, and man, is more complicated, there are no simple answers to difficult questions. Barnes lets the reader experience first-hand what it means to keep trying to manage the balancing act between adaptation and resistance, opportunism and steadfastness, cowardice and courage. The reward is to be able to take advantage of certain possibilities without immediately signing one’s own death sentence. The subject is also topical in our century, since there are still numerous states that grant neither freedom of art nor freedom of expression.
After reading the novel, the interested music lover will be able to hear Shostakovich’s works in a different way, namely as the composer actually meant them: “What could be set against the noise of time? Only the music that we carry within us – the music of our being – that some men transform into real music. And which, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, will transform itself over the decades into the whisper of history.”19     •

1    Barnes, Julian. Der Lärm der Zeit (The Noise of Time), Cologne 2017
2    Schostakowitsch, Dimitri. Jubeln sollt ihr, aus: Zeugenaussage. Die Memoiren des Dmitri Schostakowitsch (You shall cheer, from: Statement of a witness. Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich),
3    Barnes, loc. cit., p. 125
4    ibid. p. 90
5    ibid. p. 137
6    ibid. p. 93
7    ibid.
8    p.158
9    p.178
10    ibid. p. 174
11    ibid. p. 211
12    ibid. p. 222
13    ibid. p. 208
14    ibid. p. 80
15    ibid. p. 81
16    ibid. p. 80
17.    CD booklet: Dmitry Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 and No. 7, DECCA, 475065-2, p. 13
18.    cf. the comment of the author, Barnes, pp. 243
19.    ibid., p. 168

(Translation Current Concerns)

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