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3.6 out of 5 stars
The New Shostakovich
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on 21 November 2015
Book arrived promptly and in new condition. A very thoughtful and readable account about Shostakovich's personal and creative life in the context of Stalin's repression. Central to the book is MacDonald's well evidenced argument that Testimony, Shostakovich's account of his own life, is genuine and not a fabrication by Volkov, the author who knew Shostakovich over many years and compiled the biography from notes and recordings of meetings with the composer.
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on 24 November 2012
Very interesting, and for a long time unobtainable, except with difficulty and expensively on the second hand market. Good to have it back in print. I bought three copies, one for myself, and two as presents for other Shostaloonies.
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on 28 August 2009
British musicologist Ian MacDonald's "The New Shostakovich" first appeared around the world in hardcopy about 1990 and was revised this decade by Hugh Clarke with a foreward from Vladimir Askhenazy, additional material, footnoted and corrected information, and other extras that help you understand the history, times and music of Soviet composer Dmitri Shotakovich (1906-75), whose dark and despairing music hides its messages better than Solomon Volkov told you in Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, the mind-bending biography from Shostakovich that turned everyone's ideas about the man and his music upside down in 1975.

To this end, it is actually two different books; MacDonald did not survive to make the 2006 revisions. While much of the content is the same, the original edition does not believe "Testimony" to be authentic and takes issue with its characterization of the composer and his work. The later account turns 180 degrees and credits "Testimony" as a potent and accurate account of the composer's life, beliefs and feelings during his days as the Soviet Union's greatest composer. For this reason, it is important that purchasers buy the later edition, which my review covers.

The book is divided into the sections of the composer's life, from his earliest family life and influences to his years in academy, the great Stalin purge of the 1930s, his isolation in the post-Stalin years and his assertive period at the end of his life. What best characterizes MacDonald's book is the way he dissects the composer's music, both musicologically and sociologically, and explains the meanings that come through under the guise of masterful counterpoint and training. While many of these messages were made clear by the composer himself in "Testimony", there is secondary evidence here that, using native folk tunes and other devices that deliver subliminal messages, Shostakovich was clearly a dissident voice in the Soviet Union going back at least as far as the composition of the Symphony No. 4 in the early 1930s.

Here is an overview of what MacDonald tells you about the 15 symphonies:

No. 1 -- this is the youthful composer's graduation exercise from the Soviet music academy. He uses subtle tactics from Stravinsky with fateful themes from Tchaikovsky to create one of the greatest first symphonies ever written.

Nos. 2 and 3 -- laboring under the heavy hammer of totalitarian, Shostakovich created nonsensical music dedicated to the revolution. This pair of symphonies should be abandoned by anyone with serious interest in this composer.

No. 4 -- this is Shostakovich spreading his wings, mimicking his admired Mahler, and beginning to tell you how horrible things were for him in the USSR. The cacophonous sections of the first movement are a musical expression for those what awaited a nighttime visit by the secret police, who were then taken off to the gulag for imagined crimes. Shostakovich himself feared such an event, sometimes sleeping in the hallway of his apartment to spare his family the torment of seeing him taken away.

No. 5 -- Shostakovich's famous response to "just criticism", this is the second of what MacDonald calls the "terror" symphonies -- those written during Stalin's regin of terror from the early 1930s until his death in 1953. A seeming paean to Soviet greatness, it's hidden message was explained eloquently by the composer in 'Testimony.' The famous ending, with what the composer called its forced rejoicing, was described by Galina Vishnevskaya as an expression of the sons and daughters of Russia being torn from its soil by Stalin. The composer described it this way: "...what exultation could there be? I think it is clear what happens in the Fifth," he said in 'Testimony.' "The rejoicing is forced, created under a threat...It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing' and you rise, shakily, and go marching off muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing,'" a capsulized comment on the goals of Socialist realism in USSR art.

No. 6 -- an intense, dramatic three movement edifice that heralds the platform of both the Violin Concerto No. 1 and Cello Concerto No. 1, it again calls forth the exegises of Soviet totalitarianism. Its lighter, later momments call forth Shostakovich as yurodivy, the clown price whose light message hides much darker secrets.

No. 7 -- written as the Nazis approached Leningrad and given worldwide recognition, MacDonald expounds on the composer's admission in "Testimony" that he was thinking about "other enemies of mankind" besides the Nazis when he wrote this, namely Stalin.

No. 8 -- the first great masterpiece symphony, MacDonaled explains that this is indeed about totalitarianism and the terror, with its unrelenting darkness and drive today better understood in these terms than during the war years.

No. 9 -- the yurodivy masterpiece, the absurd celebration of success in World War II with the section of Stalin puffing himself up like a frog, that Shostakovich survived over Stalin's disappointment.

No. 10 -- perhaps his greatest symphonic edifice, this music is a characterization of Stalin and his times with the second movement a caricature of the dictator.

No. 11 -- renewing the composer's comments in "Testimony", MacDonald further explains the parallel's between the Russian 1905 pre-revolution of the score and the Soviet military flattening of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

No. 12 -- written ostensibly to fete Lenin, this is more a bombshell dropped on the shortcomings of the revolutionary hero, with its underground message about repression carried forth from 1917 throughout Shostakovich's life.

No. 13 -- Baba yir is a selection of poems about Jewish represssion the composer set to music during the first thaw under Kruschev. While poet Yevtushenko was forced to rewrite some of his harsher rhetoric -- the Soviet state officially believed there was no ill treatment of Jews -- this is a dissident landmark for Shostakovich, who sympathized with Jews as a repressed minority.

No. 14 -- the songs of death hold numerous keys to second messages in one of the most fascinating sections of the entire book.

No. 15 -- while on its face this is about Shostakovich fiddling with favored music and expanding into serialism under Brezhnev, MacDonald tells you how this is a hidden expression of the composer's anger at the end of his creative life, having lived through the Stalin terror, seeing hundreds of his friends and intellectual equals disappear in the night, and being disappointed by two subsequent dictators, especially the echt-Stalinist Brehznev.

And this without citing a word about MacDonald's discussion of the composer's second-greatest group of compositions -- the string quartets -- and what he had to say about Soviet society in his vocal music. Appendices tell you about the 1948 musical denunication, the relative closeness to real Soviet society depicted in George Orwell's "1984", and other interesting and important slices from Shostakovich's life under the iron fist of Soviet rule. MacDonald skillfully merges musicology with history to give you a three-dimensional view of the composer's life and times, and how the two resulted in his musical visions.

While MacDonald's prose can sometimes be heavy seas on the eyes and mind, the discoveries awaiting the interested reader are worth the occasional literary mudslide. This isn't easy reading and it becomes a trial for a non-musician to understand in some sections, but it builds as it goes on and helps delineate the complex creations of the 20th century's greatest symphonist. Anyone investing in this little book will be rewarded with new understanding, even if they've read "Testimony" countless times.
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on 12 September 2007
Unfortunately, when dealing with Shostakovich, politics becomes inextricably bound up with the fact of his survival and the shape his career took by that very act of surviving. After the hot breath of official reprimand by Stalin no less, Shostakovich's sarcastic edge and spontaneity became blunted by an internalised self consciousness. The sarcasm was still there, but not on obvious display, it had been encoded, otherwise he would not have survived. The plea for less politicisation of music is a worthy one but with composers from the Soviet Union during the first half of the twentieth century, this is virtually impossible when narrating their achievements. Even a strenuously apolitical composer such as Prokofiev was constantly caught up in the political quagmire much to his disillusionment. This is a music biography from a political perspective that helps decode some of Shostakovich's perplexing and ambiguous music, enabling us to enter more deeply into his disturbing yet very moving soundscape, loaded as it is with irony and emotion: Highly recommended!
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on 11 March 2009
This book was not written for an audience with me (a general appreciator of Shostakovich) in it - nor should it have been. It does however pack a huge punch in the realm of music history academy. More than anything, this amalgamation of comprehensively researched essays serves to educate, although the incessant opinions around decoding of the works can become tiresome as they can be nothing more than subjective in reality - one man's interpretation, so to speak. I listened to the works whilst reading the description of them and whilst I bow to McDonald's far superior education (indeed I doff my cap), did not always feel that the hypothesis matched my own. I recommend this book to anyone who has the time and desire to entrench themselves in the psychological influences of this fine composer's works. If you don't have time and are looking for a general biography I would recommend an alternative.
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on 25 June 2009
You won't read many books better written than this, on any subject, and it's certainly a lot less dry than the telephone-directory style Laurel Fay biog. While one may disagree with some of McDonald's analyses (isn't music a subjective thing?) there's no questioning his passion, learning, and insight - to say nothing of the style, which is refreshingly clear and opinionated. As a narrative, it's gripping, and as for his main thesis - Shostakovich as closet dissident - he certainly convinces me and doubtless will convince many others.
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Ian MacDonald's "The New Shostakovich" was first published in 1990 and received criticism from scholars for its heavily revisionist stance, nowhere near sufficiently nuanced to give a balanced view of Shostakovich's life and music. After MacDonald's death the book reappeared in 2006 in this new edition, comprehensively revised by the English pianist Raymond Clarke, who has explained in an eight-page introduction his approach in undertaking the many changes that were necessary.

For most readers familiar with the original edition, the most radical change will appear to be the removal of MacDonald's "musical codes"; as Clarke points out in his introduction, MacDonald's assignment of supposedly hidden symbolism to the presence of tiny motifs that are fundamental building blocks of music - without which no composer would be able to compose anything anyway - is no more logical than a literary critic assigning hidden symbolism to the presence of small words such as 'to', 'it' or 'the' in a text. Another noticeable change is that whereas in the first edition MacDonald treated the authenticity of Solomon Volkov's 'Testimony' (a book which claims to be the memoirs of the composer) with a pinch of salt, the new edition proceeds from a viewpoint of fully accepting Volkov's book; Clarke mentions in his introduction that this reflects MacDonald's change of view in his last years, though one has the distinct impression that Clarke himself is not convinced by Testimony but is too tactful to state so unequivocally.

However, these surface changes pale into significance next to the main difference between the editions, which is that an overwhelming number of errors in MacDonald's original text have been corrected. If one compares analogous passages in the two editions, it becomes apparent that Clarke has (as far as is practical) retained the wording of MacDonald's text while discreetly removing far more mistakes than any of the book's critics realised were in the original edition. Checking up on the numerous discrepancies between the two editions, invariably I found that the 1990 text was wrong and that the 2006 text was correct.

Many of MacDonald's mistakes show utter incompetence: on p. 100 of the 1990 edition, he quotes comments that he attributes to Maxim Gorky, but in the equivalent passage in the 2006 edition (p. 120), Clarke has altered this to make it clear that the comments were by Andrey Zhdanov - a character who played a very different role from Gorky's within the Soviet arts. Casual inaccuracies abound in the 1990 edition, where on p. 224 MacDonald tells us that Boris Schwarz wrote disapprovingly about Shostakovich’s Pravda article of 7 September 1960, quoting Schwarz’s words from p. 336 of the 2nd edition of his "Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia", but actually Schwarz was commenting on a different Pravda article by Shostakovich which appeared on 17 December 1962; Clarke spots this error and corrects it on p. 246 of the 2006 edition.

Clarke also seems to have been reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's writings to ensure that MacDonald's quotations from these are accurate, as he removes some of the extraordinary misrepresentations of the Russian writer that appeared in the 1990 edition, such as MacDonald's claim that Solzhenitsyn referred to the USSR Writers' Union as "a rabble of hucksters and moneychangers" (p. 233); actually, Solzhenitsyn wrote exactly the opposite: in "The Oak and the Calf", he tells us that his fellow underground writers were mistaken in regarding the Writers’ Union as “a rabble of hucksters and moneychangers littering and defiling the temple”, and in the next sentence he says that he was 'overjoyed' by what he read of the literature produced by some of the Union's members. On the same page of the 1990 edition, Clarke has removed MacDonald's nonsensical reference to Rodion Shchedrin’s music as "morally rotten art", a comment that clearly betrays that MacDonald was not familiar with Shchedrin's noncomformist work. Even the Anna Akhmatova quotations used as epigraphs for the chapters have needed correction: on p. 245 of the 1990 edition MacDonald misread Akhmatova's poem, writing 'inaudible' instead of 'audible' (in the 2006 edition this has been corrected on p. 272) and he even gave the wrong title of the poem in the source notes in 1990 (in the 2006 edition this is corrected on p. 421). He gives the wrong date for the famous Andrey Sakharov letter in Pravda; again, Clarke tacitly corrects this in the 2006 edition (p. 283) - the list of blunders is enormous. There are literally hundreds of similar mistakes in the 1990 edition that have been corrected in 2006.

I don't remember encountering a more inaccurate book than the 1990 edition, though it's only been by comparing it with the 2006 edition that the mistakes have become apparent to me. As the 2006 edition seems to be factually accurate, it might be argued that the mistakes in the out-of-print 1990 edition are now irrelevant, but I don't think the judgment to be made is as simple as that. Clarke may have cleared up the mess MacDonald made over errors, but it is not (as Clarke acknowledges in his introduction) within his remit to change the general direction of MacDonald's opinions. And why should any reader trust the opinions of a writer who shows such contempt for factual accuracy?
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on 25 June 2010
Tough going in places but taught me as much about 20th century Russian history as about Shostakovich's works, which I now listen to in a totally new and more informed way.
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on 12 February 2010
This book was published in 1990 and was lightly revised after the author's death by someone else. MacDonald was not a musician or music scholar. He was not a historian. He knew nothing of music theory. He knew no Russian. He was not an intellectual. He observed no academic standards and basically hacked this book together based on borrowing from other authors and prejudice. That hackwork by a journalist gets an airing in our culture is no surprise, but anyone looking for seriously researched and seriously reasoned work on Shostakovich must look elsewhere. Actually a real shocker, and a minor disgrace that it is in circulation again in this fatuously 'revised' edition (the reviser, himself with no known scholarly qulaifications, basically disassociates himself from the book in his preface). Avoid, and ignore the praise from readers who feel enlightened by it: they have no reference point.
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