G. Ustvolskaya — D. Shostakovich

I am writing these notes to finally assert the TRUTH about my relations with Dmitri Shostakovich. To state the TRUTH about Shostakovich himself as a composer and a person.

I am not writing anything in detail. Details could have far-reaching consequences. It is high time to move on from the steadfast, stupid point of view on Shostakovich.

On my part I would like to say the following: never once during the years, even during my studies at the Conservatory which I spent in his class, was Shostakovichs music close to me. Nor was his personality.

I would be even more candid: I bluntly refused to accept his music, as in the following years. Unfortunately, Shostakovichs personality only deepened my negative attitude towards him. I do not feel it necessary to further dwell on the subject.

One thing remains clear: it would seem that such an outstanding figure as Shostakovich was not outstanding to me. On the contrary, it was painful and killed my best feelings.

I begged God to give me strength to create and now too I ask God the same.

Galina Ustvolskaya
St. Petersburg, 1 January 1994

See this text in German

* * *

"Shostakovich's music always left me depressed. How the music such as this was called and is still called genius? It dims over time. One episode says a lot. Once around 1939 or 40, Shostakovich came to me and told me that he had almost finished his Seventh Symphony. A few finishing touches were all that remained, and he mentioned that he did not know whether it should be called "Lenin" or "Leninskaya". Dmitri Dmitriyevich respected V.I. Lenin very much and always wanted to dedicate one of his works to him". (O. Gladkova "Galina Ustvolskaya: Music as Bewitchment", SPb, 1999, P. 31).

Solomon Volkov develops Ustvolskaya's memoirs: "Of course, we cannot know which of his preliminary were used in the final version. But the supposition of the existence — at least in his head — of such a preliminary version confirmed by the fact that the Seventh Symphony was made part of of the planned concert season of the Leningrad Philharmonic for 1941/42, announced in the spring of 1941: that is, before the war. Precise and punctual in these matters, Shostakovich would not have permitted such an announcement if he had not been perfectly clear about what the new work would be like by then. [...]
Musicologist Ludmila Mikheyeva (daughter-in-law of Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich's closest friend) recently revealed that the composer played these variations ['invasion' episode] to his students at the Leningrad Coservatory before the war with Germany began". [...]
The 'invasion' episode is compositionally built à la Ravel's Bolero and the theme itself was borrowed by Shostakovich "from Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow (the entrance song of Graf Danîlo), which was very popular in Russia: 'Da geh'ich zu Maxim'. As the perceptive Arthur Lourié characterized this 'trite, intentionally silly motif': 'This tune can be whistled by any Soviet man on the street; there is something of Zoschenko's character about it'." (Solomon Volkov Shostakovich and Stalin, 2006, P. 204)

Arturo Toscanini said on his own performance and recording of the Seventh Symphony by Shostakovich: "I asked myself, did I conduct that? Did I spend two weeks memorazing that symphony? Impossible. I was stupid! Did I really learn and conduct such junk? (A. Ho & D. Feofanov "Shostakovich reconsidered", Toccata Press, 1998, P. 110).

* * *

Ustvolskaya is unceasingly called a pupil of Shostakovich. Almost every text about her starts with this "important observation". As like if she would not have been his pupil, her music would be less significant or interesting. She was deeply exasperated and hurt that even at 80 she was still called a pupil. Why is it suggested that Shostakovich still leads her by the hand? Ustvolskaya wrote: Why don't they say about Schedrin, that he is Shaporin's student? About Slonimsky, that he is Evlakhov's student? Why is the only thing I hear about myself that I am a Shostakovich's student, a Shostakovich's graduate?!. She saw that too many musicologists and journalists around the world refuse to really listen to her music, to recognize its independent existence. This prompted Ustvolskaya to a desperate step — the publication of explicit material about Shostakovichin the Gladkova's book “Music as Bewitchment”. Ustvolskaya did not care about “political correctness”, she demanded justice the way she understood it and the way she considered necessary at that time. This publication caused anger and confusion among many. Olga Gladkova writes: "Ustvolskaya's uncompromising stance towards her teacher does not seem harsh, if one looks at her Catalog: all her works are written from an internal impulse. The teacher did not instill his student with his main qualities: pliability, eclecticism and prolificacy. And Ustvolskaya seems to be not a successor of Shostakovich, but rather his antithesis not only in the content of music, but also linguistically".

How often do you see people looking for Schönberg in the works of Webern? or for Rimsky-Korsakov in the works of Stravinksy? Or calling Webern or Stravinksy someone's pupil? Ustvolskaya is one of the most original composers of all times and still many people cannot recognise that. They start to compare her with others and to look for her roots in order to tame her music. But Ustvolskaya is the most rootless composer. Her only root is Spiritus Sanctus. That's why a cold analysis cannot grasp her. If you take her Concerto (1946) you can indeed hear the influence of Shostakovich in it. But its finale grandioso is completely hers. Only a year later, the First Sonata leads away even further from his influence. And if you take her later works, starting from the Grand Duet, especially Compositions and Symphonies you will not find there any trace of Shostakovich or any other composer. Shostakovich himself admitted, writing to Ustvolskaya: Its not you who are under my influence, its me who is under yours. The myth of Shostakovich being a great composer was largely created by the massive soviet propaganda which promoted his works for many years in any possible way and made his authority indisputable. Nowadays his name is supported de facto by many and, as a rule, without much thought. And Ustvolskaya is usually regarded as a lesser composer of his circle or in his shadow. We witness an eternal story: those who work for authorities and write for the general public get earthly glory and those who recognise the prime importance of Spiritus Sanctus are respected by only a few.

Ustvolskaya's rejection of not only the persona of Shostakovich but also of his works is proved by the following document signed by hand by Ustvolskaya — it is a letter to her from Viktor Suslin on August 25, 1994.

Victor Suslin's letter to Galina Ustvolskaya concerning Dmitry Shostakovich

Authorized translation from Russian

Dear Galina,

I would like to tell you what I think of Shostakovich.

When Jesus told his disciples: "Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No'. Anything more than that comes from evil.", the word "evil" refers to a very specific character well-known to Christ and not to some kind of poetic metaphor. "More," here means: "yes" or "no" at the same time, or neither "yes" nor "no", or "yes" turning into "no" or "no" turning into "yes." In short, from the evil one arose that which much later was called "dialectic" (our story has nothing to do with what Greeks meant by this word, it was Hegel who abused it, thus fulfilling the role of "the evil one").
So, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, I think, found the philosopher's stone, allowing him to compose a great amount of very mediocre music and to appear a genius not only to others but to himself also. This opportunity was provided to him by the dialectic.

It also gave him another splendid opportunity: to sign dozens of party policy articles in the central press; to sign political denunciations (Sakharov in 1973); to sit next to the bandits in the presidiums, voting for any bandit proposal with alacrity worthy of Shchedrin's automaton fool [Suslin refers to a satirical tale of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin — translator's comment]; and at the same time to pass for a symbol of internal resistance to the regime, not only in the Soviet-liberal circles, but in his own soul. I do not even refer to other countries, they understand little of our Soviet-Russian affairs. When I first heard the name Shostakovich in 1948, I was 6 years old. I was then very surprised that the adults around me, infinitely distant from the music, endlessly argued and debated about Shostakovich, Prokofiev, formalism, as if in a war-torn, starving country there were no issues more important than that. It seems to me that even in those days Shostakovich was only marginally less popular than Stalin, and undoubtedly more popular than Churchill, Truman, etc.

Then, when I was twenty, I saw that Shostakovich is enveloped by an almost religious reverence among the so-called "real musicians" (i.e. those for which, in addition to Budashkin and Mokrousov [Soviet composers — translator's comment], there were Hindemith, Berg, etc.). My professor Nikolai Ivanovich Peiko always held him up as an example of not only a musical ideal, but also a human one. He called Shostakovich the musical conscience of our time. Now I'm inclined to think that Peiko was right in a sense: Shostakovich was indeed a musical conscience of his time, a time devoid of any conscience. What time is, such is the conscience. I believe that God judges human actions and deeds rather than intentions and motivations.

Shostakovich's deeds are as follows:

  1. The crucified sufferer's mask Shostakovich wore did not prevent him at all from doing great business according to all the rules of Soviet society. He was undoubtedly the trump card of party ideology. The cynical Moscow and Leningrad intellectuals who "understood everything" willingly forgave him the signing of the ideological articles ("he didn't write it, he just signed","he was forced to", etc.) But the coin has another side: what should the young people of Kemerovo, Semipalatinsk, Chelyabinsk, have been thinking while reading this rubbish? It wasn't signed by some unknown party yard dog, but by an acknowledged genius, who was, in addition, considered to be our "musical conscience". So then it can only be truth. Woe to those who "cause one of these little ones".

  2. Speaking of Shostakovich's works, one often uses words such as "musical dramaturgy", "musical prose", etc. But no one uses the words "journalism", or "pulp fiction", although in many cases they would be quite appropriate. There's no denying that many of his works are entertaining. For example, even in the 12th symphony where the well-known trite motif of "Dies irae" sticks out almost everywhere like giving you the finger, but in the pocket. Dialectics!

    As for his acts, full of "civil courage", I've never heard from anyone that the cycle "From Jewish Folk Poetry" or the 13th Symphony are remarkable events in terms of music. Even the most fanatical admirers of Shostakovich are silent about them and prefer to talk big about the public response, about the courage of the author breaking social taboos. But in the same tone we can speak of "a bold article" in the "Literaturnaya Gazeta" ["Literary newspaper" admired by Soviet intellectuals — translator's comment], and not of a musical masterpiece. Besides, one can draw the following conclusion from the "socially courageous" opuses of Shostakovich: in Stalin's Russia, besides the "Jewish question", there were no serious problems, and that seems to me something of an exaggeration.

  3. Nobody can take away from Shostakovich what God gave him: his ability to create from musical "garbage" something individual, his ease of writing, his phenomenal diligence and ear for music, his theatrical and dramaturgical ingenuity, his paradoxes. Dialectics, apparently, were in his blood. They do not interfere at all with "common sense": by passing through the Korsakov-Steinberg training [Suslin refers to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and Maximilian Steinberg — translator's comment] (of good quality but one-sided), and by learning that "decently orchestrated composition sounds good when performed more or less correctly and sounds amazing when performed well", Shostakovich created a vast repertoire which became a real balm for the soul of conductors and musicians who neither have the time nor the inclination to rehearse. Judge yourself: rhythmic difficulties are almost zero, the intonation problems are more than modest, the ensemble is simple (two-voice — tutti), and psychologically there are no issues with this music: it consists of familiar ingredients, with few exceptions. The lineup of the orchestra is extremely traditional, and the music is both entertaining and temperamental: one can show himself off effectively without undue effort.

    It's done well, but the question is: what is it?

  4. Philip Hershkowitz once called Shostakovich "a slag in a trance". Although it was said maliciously, it contains a certain truth. Indeed, his music contains both components: slag and trance. Trance is undeniable: otherwise only slag would remain, and there would be no Shostakovich. He had the unique ability to fall into a trance with the help of this slag, and this elevates him above most of his Soviet colleagues: they did not fall into trances, they often simply grunted. It seems to me that Shostakovich fell into a trance in two situations: violence and fear. In these two cases, he approached most closely to genius and created real masterpieces (You know the examples better than I). I personally find him at his most unpleasant when he falls into "noble pathos" or becomes deeply "profound" with diminished fourths and octaves — this kind of musical chewing gum for cellos and double basses fills dozens of minutes in his symphonies.

Although Shostakovich is more than conservative when choosing the instrumental "flesh" for his ideas (in the end, the orchestra — this mastodon of the XIX century, the extinction of which was only partly delayed by composers like Shostakovich), he was "a progressive" in the sense that his genesis is strongly associated with such a novelty of the 20th century as the cinema. He brought the poster from cinema to music, the inclination to modest yet publicly available symbols, the borrowed motives, allusions, exaggerated gestures.

Everyone can come to the cinema, and most often the audience has neither the time nor inclination to notice the musical subtleties. If music would not be blatantly, gaudy, and poster-like, it has little chance of being noticed. Besides, there is no time to experiment in cinema, there is time only for banality on the highest professional level (meaning, first of all, athletic speed in writing the score, and the absence of problems with performance during recording). And these plebeian-proletarian virtues were completely transferred by Shostakovich to his orchestral works. His symphonies are "publicly available pulp fiction" at a very high professional level. They are moderately entertaining, moderately boring, and moderately profound. Enough for the ex-proletarian in a tie and a white collar to attest his involvement in "high culture" by attending a concert hall rather than a pub. My God, how faded with time "the great" Fifth Symphony!

How much ink has been spilled, how many sublime words were said! Some have heard in the final coda of timpani strokes a victorious step into a a brighter future, while others saw it as caricatured and forced apotheosis — like the election of Boris Godunov to the throne, and still others as an optimistic tragedy...

And what's left? What remains is a fairly gray and mediocre music, as it gradually lost all its socio-hysterical (not historical) cock feathers, and it now appears before us in a plucked form. Of course, there was an event in 1937, but in no sense a musical one.

V. Suslin

I, Galina Ustvolskaya, am in full agreement with the above article by V. Suslin. 25 VIII 1994 .

Victor Suslin's second letter to Galina Ustvolskaya concerning Dmitry Shostakovich

Dear Galya:

What I wrote to you in a letter on August 4 about Shostakovich is, first of all, an attempt to understand what repels me in this music. This is not criticism: Shostakovich died, and it would have been relevant to criticize him during his lifetime, but not now.

My rejection of the poetics of Shostakovich is due to my inability to understand a musician for whom music, in all likelihood, was not the highest thing on earth. Music was a way for him to say something else, and moreover, which could be expressed by non musical means. And this something else of Shostakovich was by no means ethereal. Something else is the earthly morality (completely devoid of all religious overtones), earthly justice that is, problems that can be resolved by social or political means. Shostakovich is the most politicized of all the major composers known to me. The idea of immortality was not just alien to him, no, it irritated him and provoked polemical attacks on his part (see his commentary on the 14th symphony!).

Shostakovich as a moralist, Shostakovich as the conscience of Russian music has long seemed to me a very doubtful figure: the gap between words and deeds is too big here. I dont know which of the great composers of the past could be called the conscience of German music or the conscience of Italian music. Obviously, neither Bach, nor Beethoven, nor Monteverdi, nor Palestrina fit this definition. Many of them worked daily for the church, and their "moral" was to do this work as best as possible. It is ridiculous to call them moralists: they themselves embodied morality the most conscientious workers for the glory of the Lord and for the glory of their art, even when they composed their pavans and minuets.

Moralists in music appear when morality leaves life. This becomes quite obvious if we try to compare the morality of, say, Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin with the mores of some offspring of the Soviet era in music (Khrennikov, Ashrafi): the values are not just different, but incommensurable. Pushkin, Glinka, Tchaikovsky could have fun and lead a dissolute lifestyle, but in those days there were simply fewer jerks than in the 20th century. Therefore, I consider it quite fair to call Shostakovich the musical conscience of an era devoid of any conscience.

V. Suslin

27 IX 1994. [Handwritten comment by Ustvolskaya:]
Again, as in your previous letter, I agree with you on everything!!!! Your Galya

Victor Suslin and Galina Ustvolskaya were not alone in their "blasphemy":

From a letter by Igor Stravinsky

"I heard 'Lady Macbeth' by Shostakovich A well-organised advertising campaign bore its fruit, exciting all the N.Y. snobs. The work is lamentably provincial, the music plays a miserable role as illustrator, in a very embarrassing realistic style Marches brutally hammering in the manner of Prokofiev, and monotonous – and each time the curtains were lowered, the conductor was acclaimed by an audience more than happy to be brutalized by the arrogance of the numerous communist brass instruments. This premiere (and I hope dernière) reminds me of the performances of Kurt Weill two years ago in Paris and all the première-goers and the snobs of my new country [France]"

"I regret being so hard on Shostakovich, but he has deeply disappointed me, intellectually and musically. I regret it the more because his [first] Symphony favorably impressed me two years ago, and I expected something very different from a man of twenty-seven. 'Lady Macbeth' is not the work of a musician, but it is surely the product of a total indifference towards music in the country of the Soviets."

(A letter to the conductor Ernest Ansermet, written from New York in 1935)

From the Edison Denisov's notebooks

Denisov usually explained that he was repulsed by Shostakovich's "cowardice" and "conformism", "lack of character" and "unscrupulousness" now and then passing into "cynicism" and "dishonour". Denisov saw that these personal human qualities were reflected in his music. "All the creative output of D. Shostakovich — is the most distinctive example of egocentrism", he wrote. "The basic feature of Shostakovich is a continuous irritation". In the opinion of Denisov "there is too much rubbish in Shostakovich's music", it is "anti-vocal" and "angular", "ugly" and "unnatural", it lacks "the plastic and natural beauty of form", which was "replaced by automatic 'battering' and enormous intrusion into the music of anti-spiritual mechanical tendencies, caused by the loss of faith and by the idolization of material values".

(The Notebook I (1980/81—1982) from "Neizvestnyi Denisov" — "Unknown Denisov", Moscow, Kompozitor, 1997, p. 48)

From "Conversations with Joseph Brodsky"

Volkov. I remember, back in Moscow, Nayman told me about going to see Shostakovich in connection with your case. Nayman came with Akhmatova. Shostakovich's first question was, "Did he meet with foreigners?" When Nayman confirmed that fact, Shostakovich became very gloomy. For him, during that period, contact with foreigners that was not sanctioned by the authorities was a serious infraction of the rules of the game. Later his views changed, but at that point Shostakovich proceeded from a presumption of guilt in a situation like that.

Brodsky. Lord! That we should be discussing these categories now what Shostakovich did or didn't proceed from. This is all absolute drivel. The trouble with the state of morals in our homeland is precisely this endless analysis of all the nuances of virtue or meanness. In my opinion, everything has to be either-or. Yes or no. I realize that circumstances have to be taken into account, and so on and so forth, but all this is utter nonsense because when you start taking circumstances into account, it's already too late to talk about virtue. And just the right time to talk about meanness.

Volkov. This is the maximalistic position.

Brodsky. I think the individual should ignore circumstances. He should proceed from more or less timeless categories. When you start editing your ethics, your morality — according to what is or isn't allowed today — then you're already courting disaster.

(Solomon Volkov "Conversations with Joseph Brodsky", Free Press, 1998, p. 105)

Pierre Boulez

Boulez never conducted the music of Shostakovich. "I have to tell you that I have very mixed feelings about this music. It is often said that Shostakovich is the `more recent' equivalent of Mahler; but I would say that to compare Shostakovich with Mahler is like comparing Meyerbeer with Wagner. The musical substance of his work is trivial. Okay, I can accept that he worked under great pressure, that he was afraid and that he rebelled discreetly. But, for me, that's not enough of an excuse." (Independent, 29 Jan 1999)

"Don't speak to me about this man. [Laughs] I really cannot understand the success of it, because that's so trite. Thats a kind of collection of clichés which is really embarrassing sometimes." (from «Gustav Mahler: The Conductors Interviews» Edited by Wolfgang Schaufler, Universal Edition 2013)

"Well, Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It's like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler." (Alex Ross' blog).

Dr Mark Berry, Senior Lecturer, Department of Music, Royal Holloway University of London

I have to admit that I thought well of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk when I first heard it. When I have heard it since, I have apparently heard less in it than I did before. It seems to me that many listeners - whether they realise it or not - seem to respond to the autobiographical element in Shostakovich rather than to any musical substance, which is often distressingly thin. Of the symphonies, I rather like the first and last, but otherwise, whatever his flaws, I should generally much rather listen to Prokofiev. Nowadays, however, Shostakovich almost seems to be a saint, so it was splendid to hear Boulez questioning this status.


Esa-Pekka Salonen

In the 1980s, the Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen was critical of Shostakovich and refused to conduct his music. For instance, he said in 1987:
"Shostakovich is in many ways a polar counter-force for Stravinsky. [...] When I have said that the 7th symphony of Shostakovich is a dull and unpleasant composition, people have responded: "Yes, yes, but think of the background of that symphony." Such an attitude does no good to anyone."
(Salonen, Esa-Pekka & Otonkoski, Lauri: Kirja puhetta musiikitta, p. 73. Helsinki: Tammi).

Robin Holloway "Shostakovich horrors"

Robin Holloway, English composer and musicologist
"Shostakovich horrors"

The frenzy of performances marking the 25th anniversary of Shostakovich's death reminds me how awkward it is to be in a minority. The dissident doesn't want to be perverse. He wants to enjoy the comfort of shared convictions rather than the vulnerability and paranoia of being out in the cold. Above all, not to miss out on artistic experiences that might enhance mind and spirit.

From earliest musical discoveries, through to middle age, I've been puzzled by the enormous reputation of Shostakovich. When excited by the wonderful colourists of the early 20th century, he seemed drab; when electrified by high modernism, dowdy and conservative; when settling down into sobriety and formalism, so obviously inferior to the intended comparisons – Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler. There simply hasn't been a Shostakovich-shaped niche. Inaudible to me was any allure – the beauty, intensity, depth, content, that give an entree to a creator's particular world. What I heard instead was neutral or indeed repellent: battleship-grey in melody and harmony, factory-functional in structure; in content all rhetoric and coercion, exercises or instructions in communal lament and celebration, rendered by portentous slow music and mirthless fast music, nearly identical from work to work, coarsely if effectively scored, executed with horrifying fluency and competence, kept unflaggingly going long after its natural cut-off point had passed; music to rouse rabbles, to be seen from far away like slogans in letters 30ft high, music without inner musical necessity.

Thus for the symphonic output which might be said to have been wrung from him unwillingly. So what about smaller genres? I'd been startled by the compositional poverty of the preludes and fugues for solo piano wishfully deemed a contemporary complement to Bach. But what about the string quartets? Fifteen works in a medium congenial to intimacy and essence that must preclude the rant and bombast of the large orchestra. Here the horrors are different; a rapid degeneration from innocent cheerfulness via terse grimness to the long-drawn-out torture by excruciation and vacancy of the final works. Astonishing that this cycle is now as a matter of routine compared with Beethoven's; like comparing a housing estate to the Acropolis.

In fact the 15 symphonies, for all that they contain the worst of him (outside copious commercial/functional jobs), are far more various in range as well as quality. No.1 still remains a perfect product of adolescent genius, setting up all his later routines with effervescent freshness and brevity – perky, energetic, hectic, sentimental, tragic – before they set in cement. The wild constructivism of the next two and the sheer bravura excess of the 4th can sweep all before them provided one doesn't look too closely. This early phase now stands as Shostakovich's clear high-point, its twin peaks the two operas, The Nose, a masterpiece of zany Dada, and the great but equivocal Lady Macbeth. For the problems begin before the official repression. Was Stalin so wholly wrong about this work? The prevalence of parody, `wrong-note' strains used equally to make frenzied murder and incompetent policemen look absurd, and above all the massed bands accompanying the guilty adulterous bed, are deeply subversive and offensive and are meant to be. Lady Macbeth knocks us for six, but humane it is not, till in the closing scene the defensive grimace subsides and such overwhelming pity is evoked that reproach is abashed (unfortunately Stalin had long since left the theatre in disgust).

Now comes trouble: the central bulk of the output, where toeing the line in fear while inwardly demurring in coded protest and genuinely representing populist patriotic fervour in times of desperate struggle, all become indistinguishable in the churning mills of compulsive mass production. Light glimmers again with No.ll, which relinquishes argument in favour of loose-weave atmospheric fresco depicting scenes and moods from the 1905 Revolution with the resources, and the mastery, of a good film score. The next landmark is the 14th, frankly a song cycle after Mahler and its dedicatee Britten. Shostakovich had always excelled in songs, with piano alone, with small instrumental forces, with orchestra. I believe that some of these – among them settings of Jewish folklore, of Blok, of Michelangelo – will remain potently expressive when efforts like the `Leningrad' or 10th symphonies have sunk without trace. Supreme among them is this 14th symphony. A good performance `in the flesh' vindicates every jot of Shostakovich's habitual harshness, meanness, over-emphasis. The nakedness of its desolation, the ferocity of its anger, truly `make the flesh creep'; they could not have been effected by any other means. Here, at least, is necessity and a Shostakovich-shaped niche. Once only: a triumph of purposeful exiguity; but to do it again and again, as in the subsequent late works, exploits the audience's willingness to endure a hairshirt for the good of the soul.

The terrible nature of Shostakovich's circumstances mustn't prevent a balanced response to his actual notes. If it does, emotional blackmail is committed, which for all its rewards involves illusion and delusion – a flattering identification with suffering heroism, a holier-than-thou priggishness in the rush to empathise with oppression. To deplore this is to risk appearing stony-hearted. But what else is there to go on, in works of art, but their artistic workmanship – in music, the actual notes? All human experience can be encompassed and expressed in music's actual notes, when they show themselves to be capable of containing what's entrusted to them. Chez Shostakovich I submit that the intrinsic quality of most of the oeuvre is not strong enough to carry the weight currently put on it – which suggests in turn that what is required of it is lightweight too.

Copyright Spectator Mar 7, 2009.


From the letters of D. Shostakovich to I. Glikman

December 19, 1958

I am behaving very properly and attending rehearsals of my operetta [Cheremushki, Moscow]. I am burning with shame. If you have any thoughts of coming to the first night, I advise you to think again. It is not worth spending time to feast your eyes and ears on my disgrace. Boring, unimaginative, stupid. This is, in confidence, all I have to tell you.

* * *

July 19, 1960

As hard as I tried to rough out the film scores which I am supposed to be doing, I still haven't managed to get anywhere; instead I wrote this ideologically flawed quartet [No. 8] which is of no use to anybody. I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself. The title page could carry the dedication: "To the memory of the composer of this quartet."

* * *

September 24, 1968

Tomorrow is my sixty-second birthday. At such an age, people are apt to respond coquettishly to questions such as "If you could be born over again, would you live your sixty-two years in the same way?" If I were to be asked this question, my reply would be: "No! A thousand times no."

* * *

February 3, 1967

I am thinking about life, death and careers. In this connection, recalling the life of certain famous (I do not say necessarily great) people, I arrive at the conclusion that not all of them died at the time they ought to have. For instance, Mussorgsky died before his time. The same can be said of Pushkin, Lermontov and several others. Tchaikovsky, however, should have died earlier than he did. He lived slightly too long, and for that reason his death was a terrible one, or rather his last days were.

The same applies to Gogol, to Rossini and perhaps to Beethoven. They, like a great many other famous (great) people, and people who were not famous at all, outlived their true span and crossed over that boundary into life beyond which it (life) can no longer bring joy but only disappointment and dreadful happenings.

I expect you will read these lines and ask yourself: why is he writing such things? Well, it's because I have undoubtedly lived longer than I should have done. I have been disappointed in much, and I expect many terrible things to happen.

I am also disappointed in myself. Or rather [I have become convinced] that I am a dull, mediocre composer. Looking down from my 60 years on "the path travelled", I see that I have twice in my life been the focus of publicity... this had a great effect. But when all the dust settles and you see things in their true perspective, it is clear that actually Lady Macbeth and the 13th Symphony were nothing but "fook" [rubbish], as they say in The Nose.

[...] Nevertheless, the urge to compose pursues me like an unhealthy addiction. [...]

D. Shostakovich condemns A. Sakharov


Having familiarized ourselves with the letter of the members of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, published in Pravda on August 29, we, Soviet composers and musicians, entirely agree with their estimate of the activities of A. D. Sakharov, directed against the policy of the Soviet Union on relieving international tension, and his libellous statements regarding socialist reality. It is no coincidence that the reactionary Western press rapturously seizes on these anti-Soviet "revelations".

We feel profound indignation at the actions of A. D. Sakharov, which are incompatible with the lofty title of Soviet citizen and public figure in Soviet science. His publications in the Western press are a disgrace to the honour and dignity of the Soviet intelligentsia (all the thoughts and aspirations of which are always continuously connected with the building of a new society) and the fight of the Soviet people for peace and for the extension of scientific and cultural cooperation with all countries.

Among us, representatives of Soviet art who are ever faithful to the high humanist ideals of rapprochement and mutual cooperation between nations and who unanimously support the policy of our Communist Party, the behaviour of A. D. Sakharov evokes a feeling of indignation and angry condemnation.

D. Kabalevskiy, K. Karaev, P. Savintsev, G. Sviridov, S. Tulikov, A. Khachaturyan,
A. Kholminov, T. Khrennikov, D. Shostakovich, R. Shchedrin, A. Eshpai, B. Yarustovskiy

"Pravda", September 3, 1973

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