No Comment — July 7, 2009, 11:05 am

Shostakovich in Oxford

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Ratio of money spent by Britons on prostitution to that spent on hairdressing:

1:1

A German scientist was testing an anti-stupidity pill.

A Twitter spokesperson conceded that a “Frat House”–themed office party “was in poor taste at best.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“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.”

Subscribe Today