an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Interpreting Shostakovich

PostClassical Ensemble’s month-long “Interpreting Shostakovich” festival, in DC, began with a screening of Grigori Kozintsev’s 1970 film version of King Lear, with music by Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak’s Shakespeare translation. If ever there was a film that cannot be viewed at home in TV, this is it. On the wide screen of the National Gallery of Art’s film auditorium, and a superb sound system, Kozinstev’s Lear was the most powerful Shakespeare experience I can recall, on stage or screen.

In the course of a long and interesting post-film discussion, an audience member praised Kozintsev for his fidelity to Shakespeare. But I do not find the film Shakespearean. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is an obvious point of inspiration. Like Boris, the Kozintsev Lear is in equal measure personal and epic. Lear himself – his repentance, sorrow, and death — is Boris. Mussorgsky’s truth-telling Holy Fool is Lear’s Fool. But Shakespeare’s play contains nothing like the film’s vast wastelands – rock and dirt and sullen skies – or its huddled or processional human hordes, a complex mass protagonist at once powerful, dangerous, and pathetic. No less than Mussorgsky, Shostakovich underlines the magnitude of the terrain and its strewn inhabitants. Serendipitously, late Shakespeare here mates with late Shostakovich: a musical idiom as spare and dissonant as the imagery and action at hand.

“Shostakovich and film” was one focus of our festival. Its featured participants included the Shostakovich scholar Solomon Volkov, who in his book Shostakovich and Stalin explores the Soviet dictator’s hands-on management of Soviet film, and speculates that Shostakovich’s usefulness as a film composer insured his survival. The festival booklet included a seminal essay, by Peter Rollberg and Roy Guenther (both of George Washington University), arguing the importance of Shostakovich’s film scores as a fresh and vital topic, notwithstanding the composer’s own denigration of this component of his creative output.

The National Gallery of Art showed three other Shostakovich-scored films, including – at the opposite extreme from Lear – Joris Ivens’ 1954 documentary Song of the Rivers, in which workers of the world unite for more than 90 minutes. Shostakovich’s potboiler music includes a proletarian song (words by Bertolt Brecht) in the style of Eisler, performed by Paul Robeson.

We also showed Tony Palmer’s 1988 film adaptation of Volkov’s Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, starring Ben Kingsley as the harrowed composer. Both Palmer and Volkov were on hand to comment. The film concludes with a fantasy: Stalin posthumously visits the dying Shostakovich and claims, “you needed me.” Shostakovich, in the book Testimony, admits no such thing; he treats Stalin with hatred and contempt as a bloodthirsty philistine. But Volkov agrees with Palmer’s Stalin. Stalin, in Volkov’s view, was a master propagandist who stage-managed the sensational success of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in the West.

The festival’s music was supplied by violinist Dmitri Berlinski, the cellist Andrei Tchekmazov, the pianist George Vatchnadze, and PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez. Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra transcription of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet was unforgettably reshaped by Gil-Ordonez as a Brucknerian essay in sorrowful breadth and repose – a reading in which the Washington Post’s Stephen Brookes plausibly found “unearthly luminosity.”

An ongoing debate, permeating the festival, questioned whether such iconic Shostakovich creations as the Eighth Quartet are necessarily to be understood and experienced in the context of the Stalinist conditions that imposed their morbidity. I am old enough to remember a time when Shostakovich was widely perceived in the West as a composer whose precocious genius was distorted and diluted by Soviet aesthetic dictates. (The New York Times obituary called him a loyal Communist.) After that, conventional wisdom – influenced by Testimony – shifted toward an appreciation of Shostakovich as a subversive chronicler of Soviet suffering, an ironist whose double meanings were endlessly exhumed. In Volkov’s view, such readings as Gil-Ordonez’s in DC (which he called “better than Barshai”) suggest a new chapter in Shostakovich reception history, canonizing the composer with scant lingering regard for the political circumstances shadowing his odyssey.

In any event, three decades after Shostakovich’s death, his music continues to resonate disturbingly. Pertinent, it seems to me, is Shostakovich’s discomfort (in Testimony) with a Stravinsky “personality flaw” – that he “always spoke only for himself.” Shostakovich also says, in Testimony: “Meaning in music – that must sound very strange for most people. . . . What was the composer trying to say? . . . The questions are naïve, of course, but despite their naivete and crudity, they definitely merit being asked. And I would add to them, for instance: Can music attack evil? Can it make man stop and think? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to various vile acts to which he has grown accustomed?”

The twentieth-century view that saw Stravinsky and Schoenberg towering over the contemporary musical landscape has never seemed more remote.


  1. I was very happy to read your fine final sentence. I’ve been feeling this way since my student days in the 1980s.

  2. The best text on Shostakovich and film has to be John Riley’s ‘Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film” ( Do please check it out.

    As for ‘Testimony’, its status as unreliable witness is all too well documented – views imputed to Shostakovich (or to Stalin, for that matter) are best taken with a large dose of salt.

    Thanks though for the recommendation of King Lear. It is an amazing film. ‘Hamlet’, Kozintsev & Trauberg’s other Shakespearean film with Shostakovich, is equally revelatory. Enjoy (if that’s the right word)!

an ArtsJournal blog