Dmitri Shostakovich’s truths versus Richard Taruskin’s falsehoods

ShostakovichRichard Taruskin’s review of The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich, is awful – but not from my selfish viewpoint.

I have a weakness for writing that provokes thought, even by negative association. One such thought is about the pitfalls awaiting experts in one field venturing into other pastures.

Taruskin is an excellent musicologist, and his books contain interesting insights. One such is his analysis of Beethoven symphonies as performed by great conductors, from Furtwängler to Mravinsky. Taruskin debunks today’s obsession with maintaining the same tempo from beginning to end, which should make the book required reading for modern performers.

Yet this expertise doesn’t automatically qualify Taruskin to enlarge on novels about Shostakovich, which he goes on to prove.

Taruskin describes Barnes’s book as “a beautifully written botch”, and that’s a possible view, though I quite liked the novel. But then he gets terribly lost delving into such issues as historical versus artistic truth, Shostakovich’s interplay with Stalin’s regime and Tolstoy’s treatment of history in War and Peace.

Holding Tolstoy up as an exemplar of historical veracity, Taruskin objects to Barnes’s portrayal of Shostakovich as a martyr. He approvingly quotes Tolstoy’s view that reliance on facts would “force me to be governed by historical documents rather than the truth.”

Indeed a historical novel is different from a historical treatise. Historians start with historiography and often end there. Great historians, however, turn history into philosophy, finding kernels of eternal truths in the yellowing documents.

A novelist turns history into art, which is seldom possible to do without taking liberties with documents. But the example Taruskin uses to criticise Barnes doesn’t work.

For Tolstoy’s version of 1812 is animated by ideology, not a search for truth. He extols the demiurgic powers residing in every Russian breast, which supposedly makes the Russian commander Kutuzov a military giant to Napoleon’s pygmy.

Yet the historical Kutuzov fought a do-nothing campaign that could easily have ended in disaster. He lost the only major battle of the war and as a result surrendered Moscow. However, Tolstoy argues that Borodino was a Russian victory because Napoleon ended up losing the war. That’s like claiming that the French defeated the Nazis in 1940 because de Gaulle triumphantly entered Paris in 1944.

Tolstoy’s jingoism found a receptive audience with every subsequent Russian government, making the 1812 war the only historical subject taught in school on the basis of a fictional account, rather than historical truth.

While allowing Tolstoy a tonne of licence, Taruskin denies Barnes even an ounce of it. Without suggesting that Barnes even approaches Tolstoy’s artistic genius, one still has to demur – especially since Barnes doesn’t deviate from history as much as Taruskin thinks.

To be sure, Barnes bends the odd fact, though never to Tolstoy’s customary breaking point. But his portrayal of Shostakovich’s mental tortures at Stalin’s hands rings true both historically and psychologically. By contrast, Taruskin’s view of Shostakovich as an unprincipled conformist who “behaved not like a saint but like a politician” is inane.

Taruskin understands what great composers do, but evidently not why they do it. He misses the main point: for such men music is their life and, for most, their God. That life must be lived, and that God worshipped, above everything else.

How they go about it is often at odds with bourgeois notions. But genius has to survive in a world hostile to genius, which has never been easy.

Bach wrote fawning letters to assorted margraves, Haydn was a liveried servant to a nobleman, Mozart played lickspittle to patrons, Beethoven – for all his reputation for rebelliousness – ditto. Yet none of them lived in the hell surrounding Shostakovich.

Those gentlemen had to make a living. Shostakovich had to stay alive, and Taruskin obviously doesn’t realise what incessant fear for his life can do to a man of Shostakovich’s sensitivity.

Each Pravda article attacking his work wasn’t musical criticism. It was a sentence of death, suspended at the last moment.

The first such sentence came in the 1936 article Muddle Instead of Music, assailing Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The composer was accused of “left deviationism in opera” and threatened that “it might end very badly”. Such harangues were at the time usually followed by a midnight knock on the door.

The second death sentence came in 1948, when Stalin’s bloodhound Zhdanov attacked Shostakovich’s ‘formalism’. People were then shot for less, and only a miracle saved the composer yet again.

Taruskin can’t imagine the torments of a man pursuing his destiny while squinting at the sword of Damocles above his head. The sword didn’t come down, but Shostakovich was a martyr nonetheless.

Of course he had to compromise, of course he did a few dubious things. Shostakovich had to work, and therefore he had to stay alive. Yet by contemporaneous standards he did nothing particularly immoral. For example, unlike many of his lesser colleagues, Shostakovich didn’t write denunciations.

Shostakovich’s music reflects his torments. His every note is a condemnation of the Soviet regime: not because of any literal subtexts but because work of that magnitude denies evil by its very existence.

Shostakovich ends many of his great pieces by almost cutting them off in mid-phrase, uncertain which way life would go, fearful it could only get worse. For all his seeming conformism, he was more profoundly anti-Soviet than most dissidents – and, though he didn’t get killed, he suffered horrible tortures as a result.

As a fellow artist, Barnes elucidates Shostakovich’s essence more perceptively than do Taruskin’s turgid musings. Stick to musical analysis, would be my advice.

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