Startling, often eloquently bitter revelations from the Soviet Union's late, great, seemingly tame State-composer...


TESTIMONY: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich

Startling, often eloquently bitter revelations from the Soviet Union's late, great, seemingly tame State-composer (1906-1975) -- buried, however, within repetitious, often formless blocs of rambling monologue; editor Volkov, who contributes a helpful biographical introduction as well as essential footnotes throughout, put this book together from hand-transcribed interviews conducted during the composer's last, ill years. ""Looking back, I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses."" So Shostakovich begins -- and everywhere here, except in tributes to beloved heroes like Mussorgsky and Chekhov and Glazunov, there is that same tired, flatly lamentational, sometimes mordantly ironic tone. About friends (like Meyerhold) who were eliminated: ""No one entered into aesthetic discussions with them . . . Someone came for them at night. That's all."" About the West: ""The Americans didn't give a damn about us, and in order to live and sleep soundly, they'll believe anything."" About anti-Semitism (though he is heartened to see that the Russian intelligentsia remains intractable despite ""years of trying to enforce anti-Semitism from above""). And, above all, about his own career as a sometime showpiece, sometime ""state criminal"" -- caught up in the great, idiotic debates about ""formalism,"" burying his real moral themes deep inside his much-misinterpreted symphonies. (The so-called Leningrad Symphony is ""about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off."") He was cautious, suspicious (""the larger the audience, the more informers there are""), but ""I never tried to flatter the authorities with my music . . . I was never a favorite, though I know some accuse me of it."" And he describes coming close to elimination (during a film-score assignment) by Stalin, whom he draws as an utter Caligula -- half-mad, superstitious, ignorant, transparent, envious of one and all. (""Having destroyed the family unit, Stalin began resurrecting it . . . It's called dialectics."") Self-serving rewritten memories? Perhaps. But most of this rings absolutely true, with no false heroics: ""I answer honestly that I was afraid."" So, although there is much to be gleaned here by music-lovers -- on the operas, on Prokofiev, Stravinsky, et al. -- most readers will wade through these (well-translated) thickets to find glimmers of The Way It Really Was, and of one life-sized artist's agonizing dilemma.

Pub Date: Oct. 31, 1979


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1979