Top critical review
3 people found this helpful
This hugely corrected 2006 edition cruelly exposes how grossly inaccurate the 1990 edition was
on 7 September 2016
ANOTHER ROYAL PROCLAMATION FROM HIS MAJESTY KING BONEHEAD IX, THE COSMIC TEDDY BEAR:
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?