Composing History

Daniel Asia

In an exam I give to incoming graduate students in the University of Arizona’s music department, I ask what twentieth-century composer wrote fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets. Most know the answer—Dmitri Shostakovich—which wouldn’t have been the case for students in the seventies and eighties. Back then, Shostakovich was considered too retrogressive by those in the academy, and too modern for many musicians who played the mainstream repertoire. There was also the question of politics—Shostakovich was considered to be the Soviet composer. In the last thirty years or so the edge has dulled, the political question has become marginal, and Shostakovich has again become a highly respected mainstream figure, even if his music isn’t played as regularly as that of other twentieth-century Russians such as Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

Like no other composer in history, Shostakovich’s days and art were framed and affected by living within a particular and oppressive regime—communism in the Soviet Union—for his entire life. Born in 1906, he was only a boy at the time of the Russian Revolution. He died in 1975, with communism seemingly still in ascendancy. Throughout his lifetime Shostakovich functioned within a totalitarian and murderous society in which composers were seen as extensions of the State; for as Lenin said: “Art belongs to the people.” Never before did an artist have to deal with such an overwhelming bureaucracy, one that held all levers of power, that wished to control all creative output, that was willing to censure and kill without provocation or reason.

This relationship between the composer’s creative life and the Soviet state has been at the center of the conversation regarding the “meaning” of Shostakovich’s music. Does a particular piece correspond with a particular occurrence in his life, and does this affect the music? Do some pieces contain subtle commentary on his “situation”? Can music carry that kind of burden, and can it speak to us in this manner? What are we to make of the vicissitudes of such an artist’s life?

These questions are at the center of Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, which is called a novel. It is partly that and, in a way, not that at all, but rather a mixture of biographical details of the composer’s life and a dramatization of settings and events that either did, or could have, happened. The book is a smooth and absorbing read, but one of its fraught elements is the slippery relationship between fact and fiction.

Barnes was born in Leicester, England, on January 19, 1946, and currently lives in London. He has worked as a reviewer and literary editor, and then as a television critic, for various English magazines and newspapers. He has written novels, short stories, and essays, and won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending. Three other novels of his were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and he has won many other awards and prizes.

The book’s three parts are narrated in a third-person interior monologue and move back and forth in time. Part one, “On the Landing,” takes us from Shostakovich’s birth to the point when he begins to feel the pressure of Stalin’s reign of terror, where he waits nightly at the landing before the elevator, dressed and with his overnight bag, so as not to bother anyone, for the authorities to take him away to interrogate or kill him.

Shostakovich’s mind wanders to the past as he waits. Memories of his bucolic youth in the country move to reflections upon his first patron, Marshal Tukhachevsky, who keeps Shostakovich safe until his own demise, when he is murdered by the state in one of its numerous and convulsive purges. The narrator ruminates on Shostakovich’s modest character, his retreat into self (as all artists must do to create), and his early bout of tuberculosis, for which he must spend time at a sanatorium where he meets his first, short-lived love.

Shostakovich began playing the piano at nine, struck gold with his first symphony at the tender age of nineteen, and first got into big trouble with the authorities at thirty with his only opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. By this point in the narrative, some artistic friends and patrons have already been shot by the state, and Shostakovich understands that his life and career are provisional and continue at the whim of Stalin and his henchmen. That he is able to compose under such extreme psychological pressure is an extraordinary feat: “From now on there would be only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead.”

Part two, “On the Plane,” takes place as Shostakovich and his artistic brethren return from the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace, a propaganda effort sponsored by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, held in New York in March 1949. This setting allows for more reverie, including reflecting on his survival of World War II, during which the hounding of artists diminished as the Soviet Union fought for its own survival, and on his denunciation thereafter by the state-controlled Union of Composers, who take him to task for indulging in “unhealthy individualism” and “pessimism” in his Eighth Symphony.

Part two also recounts a telephone conversation between Stalin and Shostakovich that is part of the historical record, although not perhaps in the detail presented by the narrator. Shostakovich has declined the invitation of the Union of Composers to attend the congress. Stalin has called to “help” him change his mind. Shostakovich is supposed to attend as the USSR’s foremost composer, and is expected to praise the glories of Soviet music and the political structure that promotes it, despite the ban on his music at home. During the conversation Shostakovich bargains for two items: that his music be unbanned, and that he be given a “tail-suit” to wear so that he will look proper if he performs on piano or conducts one of his pieces. Stalin agrees to both, stating that the banning of the performance of his music was surely a “mistake” and that it is likely that a tailor can be found to make him such a garment.

Shostakovich finds the conference “to be a place of the purest humiliation, and of moral shame” as he reads speeches that he has not written that contain homages to the greatness of music in the Soviet Union and that vilify the West, including his hero Stravinsky, who lived his life in exile, in Western Europe and then the United States, following the Russian Revolution. There are also “tangential” musings, when Shostakovich considers suicide, the limits of irony in a totalitarian society, and that same society’s hatred of poetry and theater, since those arts put a mirror up to the face of despotic barbarism. He admires those who confront power head-on, but he cannot follow this path himself. Shostakovich is scared to die and to put his friends and family in jeopardy, and he recognizes himself as a coward.

Throughout these musings Shostakovich chastises those in the West who are his supporters and gentle adversaries, and vilifies those who champion or bolster the Soviet regime—those who want more of him as an artist and those who are dupes of communism. His supporters and fans revere his music but simply do not understand the constraints under which he works. None among such people recognize “the one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth here and live.” One passage strikes at the heart of any artist: “In the imaginary conversations he sometimes had with these disappointed supporters, he would begin by explaining one small, basic fact of which they were almost certainly ignorant: that it was impossible in the Soviet Union to buy manuscript paper unless you were a member of the Union of Composers. Did they know that? Of course not.”

Part three, “In the Car,” takes place toward the end of Shostakovich’s life as he is being chauffeured about by a state-provided driver. He recalls how he witnessed Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917, has outlived Stalin and Khrushchev, who died in 1953 and 1964, and is now an honored citizen artist of the Soviet state. He thinks of all the awards he has garnered, including six Stalin prizes and three Orders of Lenin. Given what Shostakovich has gone through, a reader might imagine him thinking, as Charles Ives did, that “prizes are for boys.”1

Shostakovich is also fêted with honors from the West and meets Stravinsky upon the latter’s return visit to the motherland in 1962. But what he remembers most vividly is when, under Khrushchev, he is asked to be chairman of the Union of Composers, which entails one small matter—Shostakovich must, after all these years, become a member of the Party. He accedes in 1960, to his great moral shame, as he is old, tired, and spent. It is among the last in a long line of shameful acts in order to remain alive and to be allowed to compose.

All three parts of The Noise of Time are framed by states of transit. This is also the nature of real music, which is an art form defined by movement—from beginning to middle to conclusion—and thus is a three-part metaphor for our lives. We live as best we can and the composer creates music as best he can. Shostakovich knew he wasn’t the most moral of men, but that he was a composer of some moment. All he wanted from life was to write music, love, and be left alone. His music said all he had to say. “When listening to his own music, he would sometimes cover his mouth with his hands, as if to say: Do not trust what comes out of my mouth, trust only what goes into your ears.”

The book’s title is referenced in two contexts. In the first, music and art are described as that which rises above the pervasive clutter of the world: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” The second is similar: “What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.” The hope of every artist is that his work will be among that which survives the test of time: “History, as well as biography would fade….And then, if it still had value—if there were still ears to hear—his music would be…just music. That was all a composer could hope for.”

“Just music”? The Noise of Time gives the lie to that possibility in totalitarian regimes, where art must serve “the people” and the production of the artist is calculated on a basis similar to that of a factory worker—and life and art are always in jeopardy. Shostakovich wrote much music that will stand the test of time, and some that just did the job necessary at the time. It is impossible for a composer’s music not to reflect in some sense his internal state at the time of its composition. Or is it? The act of composition may allow the composer to rise above, or even transcend, the physical and mental travail he is experiencing. So finally, the music must be experienced, and judged, as nothing other than music. While this book leads us through the mind of Shostakovich, as imagined by Barnes, it is Shostakovich’s music that allows us to understand his heart. I hope that readers of this handsome book will be encouraged to engage the music itself, perhaps starting with those fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets.

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