Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1979 (Solomon Volkov, editor; Antonia W. Bouis, translator)
Pisma k drugu, 1993 (Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941–1975, 2001)
Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (shahs-tuh-KOH-vihch) was one of the foremost Soviet composers of the twentieth century. His musical works include fifteen symphonies, three operas, eight string quartets, twenty-four preludes and fugues for piano, and sonatas and concertos for violin, viola, cello, and piano. This composer’s prolificacy and genius survived Vladimir Lenin’s October Revolution, Joseph Stalin’s purges, a civil war, and two world wars. In his memoirs, dictated to and edited by Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich tells the story of his struggle between artistic pursuits and obligations to the Soviet state.
Shostakovich’s father, Dmitri Boleslavovich, was a successful engineer and a talented amateur musician; his mother, Sofia Vasilyevna, was a pianist. The young Shostakovich spent many a musical evening with his parents and two sisters, and at the age of nine he began taking piano lessons from his mother. In 1919, in the midst of the Civil War, he began to attend the Petrograd Conservatory and to compose pieces for piano, strings, and orchestra. He wrote his first symphony when he was nineteen years old, in 1925, as his graduation composition from the conservatory, but his studies had been interrupted when his father died in 1922, at which point Shostakovich had helped support his family by playing the piano in silent-movie cinemas.
In Testimony, Shostakovich reminisces less about his family than about his teachers and moments spent at the conservatory. He recounts anecdotes about his involvements with such prominent members of the intelligentsia in the 1920’s as the composer Sergei Prokofiev, the satirical writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, the famous avant-garde theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and Alexander Glazunov, the director of the conservatory and Shostakovich’s beloved composition teacher. These artists were inspiring influences on the young composer, and they contributed to the vitality and relative freedom of artistic expression that marked the first half of that decade.
After Stalin’s rise to power in 1924, the Communist Party ideologist Andrei Zhdanov began to impose increasing pressure on artists. As a result the 1930’s and 1940’s were years filled with hardship, fear, and political persecution for Shostakovich. He married Nina Varzar, a physicist, in 1932, and their first child, Galya, was born in 1936. That was also the year that Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady MacBeth. The Soviet leader was incensed by the production, which recalled prison camps and portrayed characters with no hope or future. A damaging article titled “Muddle Instead of Music” immediately thereafter appeared in the official party newspaper, Pravda, through which Stalin denounced the composer’s creation. Though Shostakovich, unlike many of his contemporaries, was never arrested, this event established the political and social climate that defined his artistic production. His entire career was ruled by the threat of arrest and the fear of displeasing the state leader. The composer tells of Stalin’s anger with the praise that his Symphonies 7 and 8, his “war symphonies,” attracted from the West. The Stalinist epithet used to condemn artists to life in the gulag was “formalist,” and Shostakovich strove to compose music that would be invulnerable to this attack. At the same time, he realized the need to remain true to his musical self.
Shostakovich begins his memoirs by noting that they are less about him than about others; he ends his 277-page testimony by declaring that all public and political acts are lies and by observing that his life and those of his friends were sad and gray. By telling his story, he hopes to save young people from the disillusionment he suffered.
Shostakovich’s official image was that of a proud Leninist who strove to meet the needs of socialist realism through his work. His work reflects ambiguity and duality: The Communist Party called upon him to represent the Soviet state with his musical compositions. However, he tried to survive in the deceptive, duplicitous, and unpredictable political system and also to maintain professional integrity, be true to his talents, and uphold his ideas on art. In Testimony Shostakovich contests his official conformist image and reveals scorn for the Soviet horrors and bitterness because of his personal ideological defeat. Although some critics have questioned the authenticity of these memoirs for being too much at variance with Shostakovich’s previous words and deeds, others interpret what he dictated to Solomon Volkov as reflecting at least some of the composer’s discouragement with the system in which he lived and worked.