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As Washington’s attention turns to things Russian, the New York Review of Books publishes a selection from a forthcoming volume (Berlin’s Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960) of the correspondence of Isaiah Berlin. (sub. reqd.) The letter describes the June 1958 visit of Dmitri Shostakovich to Oxford to receive an honorary degree. (He had been selected for the honor together with Francis Poulenc.) Berlin recounts the arrival of Shostakovich’s embassy handlers and describes how he plotted to get Shostakovich free of them. Shostakovich was whisked off to a “musical evening” at the home of Hugh Trevor-Roper, while his minders were taken off to a party for undergraduates. “They may have had their hands dripping with Hungarian blood, but personally they were innocent, rather wooden peasants, who obviously at an order from above would have had no compunction in shooting one dead, but at the same time had a certain charm.”
Shostakovich is described as “small, shy, like a chemist from Canada (Western States), terribly nervous, with a twitch playing in his face almost perpetually.” Berlin quickly turns to a bit of amateur psychoanalysis: “Whenever the slightest reference was made to contemporary events or contemporary personalities, the old painful spasm would pass over his face, and his face would assume a haunted, even persecuted expression and he would fall into a kind of terrified silence.” But Berlin’s diagnosis may be far from the mark. In 1958, as Berlin is writing, Shostakovich had complained repeatedly about physical spasms which made it increasingly difficult for him to play the piano. After years of tests, he was diagnosed with polio.
Shostakovich had of course danced a difficult waltz with Joseph Stalin, a man whom he detested and feared. The most dramatic encounter came on a January evening in 1936, the best account of which has survived in handwritten notes by Mikhail Bulgakov. Stalin and his entourage went to the opera to hear Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Unfortunately, the Man of Steel had been seated too close to the brass section, a fact which seems to have soured him on the work. Or perhaps it was the plot itself, which could hardly have flattered one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century. Shostakovich was denounced in an unsigned editorial in Pravda and spent the balance of the winter fearing for his life. He could easily have been exiled, sent to a camp to near certain death. But as it happened, he suffered mere disfavor for a few years and a second denunciation in 1948, only to reemerge triumphantly with Stalin’s demise.
On that fateful evening in Oxford, Shostakovich’s joy at recognition by the elite of Oxford is balanced by his apprehension about the uncertain political state in Russia. A thaw has set in, but it could easily deteriorate once more into brutality. Shostakovich finds escape into himself. The decisive moment comes when the evening turns to music.
[Shostakovich] went to the piano and played a prelude and fugue—one of the twenty-four he has composed like Bach—with such magnificence, such depth and passion, the work itself was so marvellous, so serious and so original and unforgettable, that everything by Poulenc flew through the window and could not be recaptured… While playing, S.’s face really had become transformed, the shyness and the terror had gone, and a look of tremendous intensity and indeed inspiration appeared; I imagine that is how nineteenth-century composers may have looked like when they played. But I do not think it has been seen much in the Western world in the twentieth.
Berlin’s assessment of the essence of Shostakovich’s musical spirit is very telling. The works may be truly modern and may have a revolutionary varnish, yet they are filled with a romantic and conservative soul. They echo with church music—of Bach and from the Russian Orthodox tradition—and with the Russian nationalist spirit of composers like Mussorgsky. Shostakovich was, however, no quaking coward. He measured his heroics to the possibilities of the moment. And there is no mistaking his bitterness towards a regime that limited the possibilities of human achievement.
Berlin doesn’t tell us which of the preludes and fugues Shostakovich performed. There are 24 of them. But here’s number four in E Minor in a live 1956 performance by Sviatoslav Richter. Call it music for missile summitry.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”