Julian Barnes does not so much wear his scholarship lightly as hit you over the head with it. I only recently finished his essays on art. Here he writes in the same didactic tone on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. This is not to condemn the book. It is especially good on the fate of the musician in the Ssviets under Stalin who must continually compromise and lose all moral compass to produce his work. It is just that Barnes standpoint tothe reader is “look how clever I am”.
The book begins by Shostakovich waiting all night by the lift of his apartment block because he does not want to te taken by Stalin’s police in front of his wife and children. His opera Macbeth at Mdensk has been denounced . Somehow he does survive snd composes what is generally regarded as inferior film music for Stalin. Under Kruschev he is “offered” the Presidency of thr Musical,Union which he reluctantly accepts. Now his reputation has suffered asa stooge of a hideous regime. It’s hard to think what he could have done about it. As Shostakovich says, it’s all very well Picasso and Sartre advocating communism but they do so from the safety of Western democracies. Stravinsky became an American citizen. Rostropovich put up more of a fight but he was a wonderful global performer as cellist and less of a composer. The grim fact was that if you wanted to carry out your musical profession you needed to toe the line.
This is not a biography of Shostakovich but the story of his life. Conversations take place which might have happened but we do not know if the actual words are accurate. Unlike his art essays Barnes does not attempt to evaluate the artistic weight of his subject more his moral dilemma. I could now tell you that Shostakovich was a qualified football referee, did not join the party until he was strong armed into the Presidency of the Musical Union , was married three times, died in 1975, but how his musicianship compard to Prokofiev and Stravinksy I would not venture. . I suspect Barnes does not know either.