Julian Barnes: full of understanding for the brilliant Russian composer

The music inside ourselves

Max Grierson reviews: Julian Barnes, 'The noise of time' Vintage, 2016, pp192, £7.99

As Marxists, we are the first to defend artistic freedom. But I am also interested in the distinction which must always be made between artists and their work. In the end it is the quality of the work which is the most important, not whether the artist is a socialist or not (just as well, because today there are so few!). Nevertheless I am fascinated by the artist’s ideological position and how this affects his or her work.

Take the novelist, Julian Barnes, on Brexit or anti-Semitism: apropos the former, he says, like a good cosmopolitan liberal, “I voted ‘remain’”, adding: “Ours [ie, the British] has been an entirely pragmatic membership [of the European Union], never an idealistic one. We never bought into Europe as a grand project, or even an expression of fraternity.” As for the other debate, he says: “Anti-Zionism may often disguise anti-Semitism’.1 He fails to see the converse: that Zionism has colluded with anti-Semitism in its own interests - just as he fails to put forward a socialist perspective on Brexit. So it is not surprising that he sees Stalinism as the inevitable outcome of Bolshevism.

Yet I greatly admire The noise of time, a fictional biography of Dimitri Shostakovich, because, like all Barnes’s novels, it is written with great humility and empathy for his character; in precise, beautiful prose (his hallmark). Irony just runs off the page. (So one is justified in quoting a bit more than usual! I can also reveal the facts, since this is the story of a life which most of us know about.) He begins his story thus:

He had been standing by the lift for three hours. He was on his fifth cigarette, and his mind was skittering ... They always came for you in the middle of the night ... Rather than be dragged from his apartment in his pyjamas. He could not sleep and neither could his wife, Nita. He also feared that the NKVD would take his daughter away and put her in an orphanage (pp7-15).

Dimitri and Nita? Despite his big ears and spectacles, Shostakovich had relationships with many women, including three marriages. As a young man he subscribed to the notion of free love: Apropos sex,

Now that the old ways were gone for ever ... someone had come up with the ‘glass of water’ theory ... when you were thirsty, you drank, and when you felt desire you had sex ... though it did depend on woman being freely desirous as they were desired ... But the analogy only took you so far. A glass of water did not engage the heart (p14).

Still, he remained faithful to Nita until death. She, however, took him at his word, having taken a lover. She was away with A when she died! When he visited her grave, it was covered in red roses; but they were not his! Dimitri then married a much younger woman. Yet it was Nita who was with him during his ordeal in 1936.

‘Enemy of the people’

Why was Shostakovich standing by the lift waiting to be arrested? It started with one performance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, on January 26 1936. On this occasion it was attended by comrade Stalin, along with comrades Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov:

They took their places in the government box. Which had the misfortune to be situated immediately above the percussion and brass ... In the entr’acte before Katerina’s wedding, the woodwind and brass suddenly took it upon themselves to play more loudly than he had scored. And then it was a like a virus spreading through each section ... Comrades Mikoyan and Zhdanov would shudder theatrically, turn to the figure behind the curtain and make some mocking remark. When the audience looked up at the box at the start of the fourth act, they saw that it had been vacated (p19).

In the Soviet Union, composers had a duty to write music for the people. They were “engineers of human souls”, employed by the state, and it was the state’s duty, “if they offended, to intervene and draw them back to greater harmony with their audience ...” The leftist students at the conservatoire were “determined to break the bourgeois stranglehold of the arts”. For these reasons, even “Tchaikovsky was decadent, and the slightest experimentation condemned as ‘formalism’” (p25).

Pravda knew that the opera had only succeeded outside of the Soviet Union because

it was ‘non-political’ and confusing, and because it “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music” ... derived from jazz; how it replaced singing with ‘shrieking’ ... As for the libretto, it deliberately concentrated on the most sordid parts of Leskov’s tale: the result was “coarse, primitive and vulgar” ... (This was “muddle instead of music”) (p27).

But how was the state being built? The answer is not ‘for the people’s benefit’. The White Sea Canal is a good example: Built in the early 30s by means of convict labour,

the convicts were not just helping the nation advance, but ‘reforging themselves’. Well there had been 100,000 labourers [but] a quarter of them ... died and those clearly had not been reforged. They were just chips that had flown while the wood was being chopped (p37).

It was unfortunate that, when Stalin came to see a performance of Lady Macbeth on that January night in 1936, the circumstances were not conducive to his enjoyment. For Stalin also considered himself an expert on music; therefore, irrespective of the official line, approved by himself; if he had enjoyed the opera, then Shostakovich would have been all right. But he did not enjoy it at all. So now the composer would have to be condemned as a dangerous bourgeois ‘formalist’. Unlike music per se, opera was a dangerous mix of music, literature and theatre: a means to criticise and satirise society. By contrast - and this was another irony - Dimitri was inspired with revolutionary idealism (certainly in his youth). He merely wanted to have the freedom to “help his fellow souls to develop and flourish”.

Suddenly Pravda, which had praised the opera for the previous two years, found it a threat - it was too formalist and cosmopolitan. Pravda attacked Shostakovich as “an enemy of the people”. After humiliating him ‘Power’ took away his livelihood. In the spring of 1937 he was ordered to report to the ‘Big House’ in Leningrad (the equivalent of the Lubyanka in Moscow). ‘Power’ wanted a face-to-face with him, in the form of his interrogator, comrade Zakrevsky. But being a formalist was not enough. Zakrevsky knows that Marshall Tukhachevsky is his friend and patron. The ‘Red Napoleon’ is a threat to Power and must be eliminated. He is accused of treachery (what else!). So Zakrevsky gives Shostakovich 48 hours to think about it: “On Monday ... you without fail will remember everything ... regarding [Tukhachevsky’s] plot against comrade Stalin, of which you are the chief witness ...” The truth is they both enjoyed chasing pretty women. Dimitri told Nita everything - “and he saw beneath her reassurances that she agreed he was a dead man ...” (p46-47).

Now for a bit of black farce:

On the Saturday night, and again on the Sunday night, he drank himself to sleep. It was not a complicated matter ... On the Monday morning he kissed Nita, held Glaya one last time, and caught the bus to [the Big House. There] he presented himself to the guard at reception. The soldier looked through the roster but could not find the name ... “What is your business? Who have you come to see?” “Interrogator Zakrevsky.” The soldier looked up and said, “Well, you can go home. You are not on the list. Zakrevsky is not coming in today, so there is nobody to receive you.”

Thus ended the First Conversation with Power ... Between the Saturday and the Monday, Zakrevsky himself had fallen under suspicion. His interrogator interrogated ... Three weeks after the Marshall’s arrest he was shot, together with the elite of the Red Army. The general’s plot to assassinate comrade Stalin had been discovered just in the nick of time [!] (pp49-50).

Tukhachevsky was the first of the old Bolshevik heroes to be to be executed, which marked the beginning of the great purge of 1937-38.

“[Shostakovich] waited for Power to resume its conversation with him. But he never heard from the Big House again.” If he was to continue living, then he had to work. But what and how should he compose? Thus there began a battle with his conscience in the face of Power. He would show signs of cowardice by his willingness to conform; to produce the prescribed music at the party’s behest; even become an ambassador for Soviet music abroad. Cowardice? Surely we are not entitled to judge him. What would we have done if we were Dimitri?

His Fifth Symphony marks a turning point. First premiered in late 1937, it is conventional in form; yet it is brilliant for all that: it has great emotional power; it is heroic (a symbol of what the revolution might have been). Irony follows upon irony:

A journalist described it as “a Soviet artist’s creative reply to just criticism”. Shostakovich never repudiated the phrase ... These words turned out to be the most famous he ever wrote - or, rather, never wrote. He allowed them to stand because they protected his music. Let Power have the words, because words cannot stain music. Music escapes from words; that is its purpose and its majesty (pp57-58).

But Shostakovich was to have trouble again in the future. His Eighth Symphony, written to commemorate the war, was again castigated for its formalist overtones. It was imbued with tragedy and individual pessimism. Whereas war, according to the musical bureaucrats, is to be celebrated as something “glorious and triumphant”.


... after a year of yet more disgrace, he had his Second Conversation with Power. “The thunderclap comes from the heavens, not from a pile of dung”, as the poet puts it. He was sitting at home with Nita ... on March 16 1949 when the telephone rang ... Stalin is about to come onto the line ...

“Dimitri Dmitrievich”, the voice of Power began, “how are you?” “Thank you, Iosif Vissarionovich, everything is just fine. Only I am suffering from stomach ache.” “I am sorry to hear that. We will find a doctor for you.” And so it went on. Comrade Stalin could not have been more accommodating, anxious to satisfy the ‘arch reactionary’s’ every need. Why? His music was famous abroad. Therefore Shostakovich was required to attend the forthcoming Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York [accompanied by a Soviet orchestra].

“Over there, [my music] is often played, whereas here it is not played. They might ask me about it. So how am I to behave in such a situation?” “What do you mean ...?” “It is forbidden ... in the Union of Composers.” “Forbidden? ... by whom?” “By the State Commission of repertoire ... I am in effect blacklisted ...” “No,” the voice of Power replied. “We didn’t give that order. It is a mistake. The mistake will be corrected. None of your works has been forbidden. They can be freely played ... There will have to be an official reprimand.”

When it came a few days later, the official correction was signed, “Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, I Stalin.” And so he went to New York. (pp79-81).


Barnes is spot on when it comes to Shostakovich’s relations with “famous western humanitarians”:

The singer [Paul] Robeson, loud in his applause for political killing. Roman Rolland and Bernard Shaw, who disgusted him more [because] they had the temerity to admire his music, while ignoring how Power treated him and all other artists ... Shaw was the worse of the two: “Hunger in Russia? ... Nonsense, I’ve been fed as well as anywhere in the world ... You frighten me with the word ‘dictator’.

And the credulous fool hobnobbed with Stalin and saw nothing ... How many martyrs would it take to prove the regime’s wickedness?

Not long after his return to Moscow, Shostakovich read an article in the Soviet magazine New World:

... he read of the congress’s huge success, and of the state department’s furious decision to cut short the Soviet delegation’s stay ... “Yes [he thought], the rulers of Washington fear our music, our speeches on music - fear them because truth in any form hinders them from organising diversions against peace” (pp107-11).

Spot on again, Mr Barnes - although the tragic divisions of the cold war, for the world working class, would continue for a quite a few decades more (the Korean war was just around the corner). Stalinism’s poisonous legacy needed a bit more time to finally sink in.

Despite his meeting with Shaw and his reflections about that, Shostakovich continued to compose rubbish as well as great music. After New York, he composed an oratorio called The song of the forests, based on a text about the regeneration of the steppes,

and how Stalin, true Leader, Teacher, the Friend of Children, the Great Helmsman, the Father of the Nation, and Great Railway Engineer, was now also the Great Gardener. “Let us clothe the Motherland in Forests!” ... The work’s thunderous banality had ensured its immediate success. It helped him win his fourth Stalin Prize: 100,000 roubles, and a dacha. He had paid Caesar and Caesar had not been ungrateful in return. He also received the order of Lenin at ... regular intervals. Yet he kept beside his bedside always a postcard of Titian’s The tribute money (p117).

Fear and cowardice as a means to stay alive has its price - deep personal guilt (cf the Kapos who kept the Nazi gas chambers working day and night).

A decade or so has passed. It is the Khrushchev era. Under his rule, as Akhmatova said, “Power had become vegetarian”! Shostakovich kept on asking himself:

Why had he survived being named enemy of the people by the newspapers? Why had Zakrevsky disappeared between a Saturday and a Monday? Why had he been spared, when so many around him had been arrested, exiled, murdered or had disappeared ... One answer would fit all these questions: “Stalin says he is not to be touched.”

But fate could always turn against him. Meanwhile, he had his little victories. As poacher turned game-keeper or as a fellow examiner at the Conservatoire, he came across a young student, who, like himself, was terrified of saying the wrong thing, so she was unable to complete her orals. His colleague called for a break to calm her down. While he was out of the room Shostakovich decided to get the most difficult aspect out of the way:

“Let’s put all those official questions to one side. Instead I’ll ask you this: what is revisionism?” ... The girl reflected for a while, and then answered confidently, “Revisionism is the highest stage in the development of Marxism-Leninism.” Whereupon he smiled, and gave her the best mark possible (p124).

Well, Mr Barnes, you would say that, wouldn’t you? A Marxist would substitute ‘the Stalinist school of falsification’ for ‘Marxism-Leninism’.

Shostakovich and Stravinsky? Compare and contrast artist and man.

(I refuse to add Prokoviev: he wrote music which was different; but he was just as great a composer as Shostakovich. At least he came back to the Soviet Union and was confronted with the same threats and dilemmas as his rival. But here is another tragic irony: poor Sergei died aged 50, just a few hours before Stalin; therefore he would never know that the tyrant was gone for ever. His family then had the misfortune of waiting most of the day for the Chief’s funeral procession to pass, before they could lay their beloved Prokoviev to rest. Shostakovich did not attend.)

Back to Stravinsky:

When the thaw came, [his] music was played again, and Khrushchev, who knew as much about music as a pig knows about oranges, was persuaded to invite the famous exile to return for a visit ... But Stravinsky had some fun. For decades he had been denounced by the Soviet authorities as a lackey of capitalism. So when a musical bureaucrat came towards him with a fake smile and an extended hand, Stravinsky, instead of offering his own hand, gave the official the head of his walking stick to shake ... who’s the lackey now?

[But for Dimitri] it was one thing to humiliate a Soviet bureaucrat once Power had grown vegetarian; another to protest when Power was carnivorous. And Stravinsky had spent decades sitting on top of his American Mount Olympus - aloof, egocentric, unconcerned [about Soviet barbarism. But] did he utter a single public word of protest while breathing the air of freedom? (pp132-33).

Hero or coward?

Still, and quite rightly, Shostakovich “revered Stravinsky the composer [as much] as he despised Stravinsky the thinker”.

For Dimitri, being a hero was easier than being a coward: “To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment - when you took out the gun, threw the bomb”, etc.

But, to be a coward, you had to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You could never relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, ... and the state of your own fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change - which made it a kind of courage ... The pleasures of irony (p158).

So did it matter when he finally joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (another fiction)? Did he join out of fear or opportunism?

The theme of personal cowardice as an alternative to premature and violent death haunts this novel. It is what makes it so human and great (whither ourselves?) - although we are in the age of ‘vegetarian’ Power. Now he is a party member, Shostakovich is free to relax and be a bit more daring ... Well, there were limits. After The nose, he toyed with the idea of setting Gogol’s The portrait to words and music too. But that was as far as it got.

The thing was, it haunted him:

It was the tale of a talented young painter called Chartkov, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for gold roubles: a Faustian pact which brings success and fashionability ... In The portrait there is a clear, two-way choice: integrity or corruption. Integrity is like virginity: once lost, never recoverable. But in the real world, especially the extreme version of it he had lived through, things were not like this. There was a third choice: integrity and corruption.

You could be like Chartkov or Galileo.

As a counterbalance to cowardice, Shostakovich played the secret joker. According to Barnes, the final movement of his Fifth Symphony is “the equivalent of painting a clown’s grin on a corpse”. Would the Power be wise to it? The same year that he joined the party, he completed his Eighth Quartet, which he said in private was “dedicated to the memory of a composer”. If the musical authorities had known this, they would have condemned it as “unacceptably egotistical and pessimistic”. But the dedication on the published score reads: “To the victims of fascism and war.” Maybe you can take irony too far: ie, when “irony curdles into sarcasm”.

Then again, it is only western commentators who insist that such works are primarily protests against the regime. Might they also be an expression of the failure of the socialist dream, upheld by the young Shostakovich - except that under the Stalinist regime the dream could not be made reality? The utopian attempt to build socialism in one country could only lead to the barbarism of the gulag, the enforced starvation of millions of people, culminating in that excrescence, the great purge of the old Bolshevik leaders.

As for his defence of art, I think that Barnes gets it slightly wrong:

Render unto art that which is art’s. Such was the creed for art’s sake, of formalism, egocentric pessimism, revisionism, and all the other ‘isms’ thrown at [Shostakovich] down the years. And Power’s reply would always be the same: “Repeat after me.” it would say, “Art belongs to the people - VI Lenin. Art belongs to the people - VI Lenin.

Well, no! we cannot leave it at that. We have to say that Lenin was wrong about this; it was his own - misguided - view of art, but this did not mean that he had a prescriptive view of art. (As an earlier article in this paper says about the Russian avant garde, Lenin defended the right of artists to experiment with form and content, even at the height of the civil war.)

We are now getting glimpses of how Barnes himself views the Russian Revolution and communism in general. It is simplistic and erroneous:

[Shostakovich] had also written that, however much you scrubbed a Russian, he would remain a Russian. That was what Karlo-Marlo and his descendants had never understood. They wanted to be engineers of human souls; but the Russians, despite their faults, were not machines. To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. [The regime and its musical bureaucrats, via newspaper editorials, kept telling everyone] that what they wanted was an “optimistic Shostakovich”. Another contradiction in terms (pp70-71).

Barnes is also cynical. Communism is a great idea, but will it ever work in practice? During the New York episode, he introduces an imaginary, sardonic conversation between a Soviet musician and Power on the Russian Revolution itself:

Citizen Second Oboe: “Yes it’s a wonderful revolution ... But I just wonder, from time to time ... I might be completely wrong, of course, but was it absolutely necessary to shoot all those engineers, generals, scientists, musicologists? To send millions to the camps, to use slave labour and work it to death, to make everyone terrified, to extort false confessions in the name of the Revolution?”

Power: “Yes, yes, I see your point. I’m sure you’re right. But let’s leave it for now. We’ll make that change next time round” (p83).

Nevertheless, Barnes deserves to have the last word. About two thirds of the way through, he gets to the heart of the matter - which also explains the book’s title: What was it that made Shostakovich one of the greatest composers of the 20th century:

If music is tragic, those with asses’ ears accuse it of being cynical. But when a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic, that means that he believes in something. What could he put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves - the music of our being, which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. This was what he held to (p125).

The noise of time should have won the Mann-Booker Prize in 2016 .


1. ‘Diary’ London Review of Books p42, April 20 2017.