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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shostakovich: Another Perspective

Thoughts of Dmitry Dmitriyevich Shostakovich the man conjure up images of a pale, bespectacled, expressionless face; and memories of his role in denouncing Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, his embrace of the Communist party and his apparent willingness to be paraded before the world as a symbol of Soviet art and culture.

Against this stands the vision of Shostakovich the composer, whose prodigious output of music, over more than half a century of Communist rule, cries out in protest, with mockery and with a profound understanding of the human condition.

Elizabeth Wilson's new book "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered," goes far toward explaining these contradictions.

The heart of the matter seems to be that Shostakovich saw himself as living in the midst of a farce, a farce from which were excluded only his family, in particular the son and daughter to whom he was ferociously devoted, his closest friendships and, above and beyond all, his music.

In one of the book's most telling moments, Wilson quotes soprano Galina Vishnevskaya: Shostakovich "didn't worry about what people would say of him, because he knew the time would come when the verbiage would fade away, when only music would remain. And his music would speak more vividly than any words. His only real life was his art.... It was his temple: When he entered it, he threw off his mask and was what he was."

"Shostakovich: A Life Remembered" is no ordinary biography, but rather a series of reminiscences by relatives, friends, students and passing acquaintances, tied together by Wilson's succinct and informative narration. Wilson herself spent seven years at the Moscow Conservatory studying the cello with Mstislav Rostropovich.

In her narrative passages, Wilson not only displays a professional's knowledge of music, but also profound understanding and insight into the political and social world which surrounded Shostakovich. The personal recollections come from nearly five dozen sources. Many were taken down in personal interviews. The rest are drawn from articles which Wilson herself commissioned and from published and unpublished memoirs. Composers, performing musicians and musicologists are represented in abundance. Most are good story-tellers, although Wilson's translations tend toward a certain monotony.

Each one of Shostakovich's major works -- the 15 symphonies and 15 quartets; the pairs of concertos for piano, violin and cello; the song cycles; the one major opera, "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," later known as "Katerina Izmailova"; the valedictory Viola Sonata -- is treated in some special way, usually through recollections of those who played in or were present at its first performance. A reader with Shostakovich in his or her record collection will no doubt put the book aside more than once for a newly informed encounter with the music itself.

Wilson's book, however, is not just for musicians or music lovers. What emerges from its pages is the engrossing story of an artist and human being, extraordinary in both respects, forced to live and cope with the burdens imposed by the Soviet regime.

On two occasions, in 1936 and again in 1948, Shostakovich's music was condemned by the Communist Party. Composer Yury Levitan relates how, in early 1949, a year after Zhdanov's so-called "historic decree" denouncing Shostakovich for his "formalism," Dmitry Dmitriyevich received a telephone call from Stalin, with the request that he travel to the United States for a Soviet-inspired Congress of Peace and Culture.

"Of course I will go," replied Shostakovich, "but I am in a fairly difficult position. Over there, almost all my symphonies are played, whereas over here they are forbidden. How am I to behave in this situation?" Stalin responded: "How do you mean forbidden? Forbidden by whom?" "By the State Commission for Repertoire (Glavrepertkom)," answered Dmitry Dmitriyevich.

Stalin assured Shostakovich that this was a mistake, which would be corrected. A few days later, Shostakovich was presented with an order of the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers rescinding Glavrepertkom's order.

A decade later Shostakovich was induced, after much persuasion, to apply for membership in the Communist Party. On the eve of his formal induction, the composer fled to his sister's home in Leningrad. "They can only take me to Moscow by force, only by force." Two years later, however, at the personal behest of Nikita Khrushchev, Shostakovich did at last become a Party member. Yet only a few months afterward came the suppression, after two public performances, of Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony, with its setting of Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar."

Although the Brezhnev regime permitted Shostakovich greater freedom to express himself publicly, the torment remained, and was perhaps expressed most eloquently of all in the Viola Sonata, a work completed only days before the composer's death. "The Viola Sonata," writes Wilson, "can be regarded as a fitting requiem for a man who had lived through and chronicled the scourges of a cruel age."

"Shostakovich, A Life Remembered" by Elizabeth Wilson, Faber & Faber, 550 pages, ?25.00.