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Shostakovich and the State

“People underestimate Stalin’s level of control,” says Solomon Volkov. “I once started to calculate how many people in the arts Stalin controlled personally — that is, read their writing, listened to their music, attended their performances. And it was close to one thousand. And not in some abstract way. This was an incredible, unprecedented amount of attention to the arts, which was Stalin’s habit. So that Shostakovich knew very well that he was under the constant observation of this most powerful person in the country.”

PostClassical Ensemble today continues its Sunday series of “More than Music” videos, in collaboration with The American Interest and WWFM The Classical Network. 

“Shostakovich and the State” presents commentary by Solomon Volkov, author of Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (1979). The musical focus is Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 (1960): a unique autobiographical document, capturing a moment both personally and historically fraught. The composer’s musical signature — the four-note motif D, E-flat, C, B – begins and pervades the entire work. Though inscribed to “the victims of fascism,” it is at the same time an encoded narrative of harrowing decades of Stalinist oppression.

The Eighth Quartet is also well-known in a string-orchestra version created by Rudolf Barshai. This PostClassical Ensemble video features a terrific concert performance led by Angel Gil-Ordóñez (at 6:10), prefaced and followed by Volkov’s remarks. As a young man, Volkov wrote the first review of the Eighth Quartet – it became his ticket of introduction to the famous composer. He tells this story, and also talks (at 2:55) about Stalin as culture-tsar. 

If you’re interested in taking part in a live Zoom chat with myself, Solomon Volkov, and Angel Gil-Ordóñez, click here. (This event is free, but registration is required.)

Next Sunday’s installment: Behrouz Jamali’s PCE film “Shostakovich in Time of War,” juxtaposing musical responses to World War II by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.

an ArtsJournal blog