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Classical 101

The Noise of Time: The Inner Life of Shostakovich


Julian Barnes's recent historical novel The Noise of Time attempts to re-create the inner life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich. 'Dmitry Dmitryevich' would be a good choice for such an excursion. 

His life in the Soviet Union balanced astonishing creativity with relentless scrutiny. It was no easy thing, being the most famous composer-perhaps a tie with Prokofiev-in Stalin's Soviet Russia. Flying under the radar might have kept one safe. It would also keep a creative force impoverished and ignored.

The screw driver in the face. The boot in the eye. Barnes is far too subtle to subject his reader to such hyperbole. It would seem that the young composer was doing just fine until his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk​ was produced in 1934. The opera wasn't a flop. Far from it. Two years after the premiere there were four productions playing in Moscow alone.


And why the trouble ? The opera had been vetted by the usual apparatchiks prior to production. Nikolai Leskov's novel was in print. Shostakovich's razor like depiction of boredom, sex and murder in the Russian hinterlands was great entertainment.

The problem began when Stalin went to the opera. He left before the finale. Not a good sign. Within a week, Shostakovich's music had been denounced in Pravda: "Singing is replaced by shrieking. The music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps...the epitome of good music to enthrall the masses has been sacrificed on the altar of petite bourgeois formalism."

That was it for Lady Macbeth and almost the end of Shostakovich. The composer's desperate attempt to stay afloat in Soviet Russia, even to stay alive is the impetus for the tortured, cynical and lovely thoughts depicted in Barnes' novel. Especially chilling is the composer's 1948 visit to New York, where he read a speech prepared for him denouncing Stravinsky, a composer he and the world of music, adored.


Shostakovich never reached a point where he could be at peace with the government hierarchy. Even after Stalin's death his music was usually assigned meanings the composer did not intend. A rollicking march was a great victory. An adagio a symbol of oppression. Piano music based on Bach was formalistic. Like all creative people "above the radar" every stroke of the pen was interpreted by those who were tone deaf and semi literate. Except their opinions where what counted.

Shostakovich never considered leaving Russia. Barnes has us believe the composer wouldn't have been truly comfortable anywhere, but its clear that in Russia he was at least "at home". With all the spying and scrutiny, and the need to say nothing, to go along to get along, that Shostakovich left us a huge and magnificent body of work is incredible. That he nearly lived to be seventy, chain smoking all the while, is a bloody miracle.