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The Noise of Time
Jonathan Cape. 184 pp. Hardback, £14.99
Written from the composer's viewpoint, but avoiding technical talk, Julian Barnes's new novel delivers a fascinating account of the life of Dimitri Shostakovich. In Russia, since all composers were employed by the state it was the state's duty, if they offended, to intervene and draw them back into a greater harmony with their audience, observes Barnes. The Noise of Time deals with just such an intervention.
Shostakovich was a brilliant nineteen-year-old. His first symphony was quickly taken up by Bruno Walter, then by Toscanini and Klemperer. But by 1929 the composer was denounced. He was told that his music was straying from the main road of Soviet art. The dedicatee of his First Symphony, Misha Kvadri, one of the composer's friends and associates, was arrested and shot. One day in 1936, Joseph Stalin went to the opera to hear Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The resultant Pravda editorial carried a review describing the work of Shostakovich as 'Muddle Instead of Music'. That condemnatory phrase recurs through the narrative.
In three sections, the first part of the novel deals with the first half of the composer's life. The second describes a surprise personal phone call from Stalin to Shostakovich, commanding that Shostakovich travel to New York as a member of a Soviet Cultural Delegation. He obeys. The flight takes thirty hours. In America, Shostakovich hears the New York Philharmonic under Stokowski. The Philharmonic plays a programme that includes music by Panufnik, Virgil Thomson, Sibelius, Khachaturian and Brahms. Shostakovich receives a scroll signed by Artie Shaw, among others. Shostakovich meets Aaron Copland, Arthur Miller and playwright Clifford Odets. We are told of Shostakovich's low opinion of Paul Robeson, "loud in his applause for political killing", and his disgust with Romain Rolland and Bernard Shaw, who: "had the temerity to admire his music while ignoring how power treated him and all other artists."
In a New York conference, the émigré composer Nicolas Nabokov - whose biography A Life in Freedom and Music was, coincidentally, published in Britain only last year - stands up and asks Shostakovich mercilessly if he means his description of Stravinsky as a 'capitalist lackey', referring to Shostakovich's remark made earlier in Russia, at a time when Shostakovich felt obliged to toe the party line. In the words of Barnes: "It was, he supposed, just possible that Nabokov, in some elaborate way, was being sympathetic to his plight, was trying to explain to the other delegates the true nature of this public masquerade. But if so, he was either a paid stooge or a political imbecile."
The comment is made that, during his final years, Shostakovich increasingly used the instruction morendo in his quartets: 'dying away', 'as if dying'. It's a perceptive, symbolic, observation, appropriately placed, and one entirely characteristic of Julian Barnes.
The Noise of Time is an essential read, and not only for musicians.
John Robert Brown
First published in Classical Music Magazine, Spring 2016. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.