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Customer Review

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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