Shostakovich, Kadaré and the Nature of Dissidence: An Albanian View

By Koço, Eno | Musical Times, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Shostakovich, Kadaré and the Nature of Dissidence: An Albanian View


Koço, Eno, Musical Times


THIS ARTICLE CONCERNS THE EFFECT of the communist totalitarian system on two great artists: Dmitri Shostakovich, who lived under Soviet rule before and after the Second World War, and the Albanian author Ismail Kadaré, whose career developed over the last 40 years of the 20th century. In this context readers may need to be reminded of the remarkable isolation of Albania during the post-war communist regime; and it is also worth recalling that most composers throughout the ages have encountered some form of artistic constraint - consider, for example, Bach, Haydn and Beethoven, each of whom had to compose some of their works to order, however benevolent their patrons. The constraints imposed by communist regimes were an extreme example of this master-servant relationship, although one much harder to explain or justify.

In 1958 I went to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to study the violin at the Rimsky Korsakov Central Music School. One of my room-mates from 195961 was Solomon Volkov, whose 1979 book, Testimony: the memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, has provoked much heated dispute; another was the viola player Misha Eppelman. In the same close social group were fellow-pupils and friends such as the violinist Vladimir Spivakov and the conductor Mariss Jansons. This group organised frequent visits to a kind of concert hall on the outskirts of Leningrad, near the famous locomotive which brought Lenin from abroad, ready to start the revolution of October 1917. This hall was the only place in the city where concerts of avant-garde music took place. There I heard for the first time performances of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Krenek, Berg and Webern.

When I came to live in the west, some 13 years ago, I encountered two schools of thought in the evaluation of Shostakovich. One, as Christopher Norris puts it, is that Shostakovich 'had come to accept, and gradually to forestall, the edicts of Soviet cultural policy'. The other is expressed by Solomon Volkov: 'Shostakovich was perfectly aware of composing a work whose hidden anti-Stalinist message would one day be heard for what it was.' It is with Volkov that I agree. When I first read Testimony, I sensed its essential truthfulness and sincerity. Volkov begins his Preface: 'My personal acquaintance with Shostakovich began in 1960, when I was the first to review the premiere of his Eighth Quartet in a Leningrad newspaper. Shostakovich was then fifty-four. I was sixteen. I was a passionate admirer.' It is certainly true that Volkov - Monchik as we used to call him - was a passionate admirer. It was he who insisted on taking Eppelman and me to the premiere of the Seventh and Eighth quartets in Leningrad, at the Philharmonic Maly Zal, in 1960. Volkov had previously told me of his intention to write a review of the Eighth Quartet, and also that in future he would prefer to write rather than to play the violin.

Because of the breakdown in relations between Albania and the Soviet Union, I did not see Volkov again after 1961. More than 30 years later, when I moved to the west, I wanted very much to find out about my room-mates. I knew that Volkov had written a book about Shostakovich but I could not get hold of it in Albania. Reading the book now, I can feel the real Shostakovich, his thoughts, judgements and feelings, expressed so transparently by Volkov. I also believe that because of Volkov's unorthodox and challenging stance, the world has learned much about Shostakovich. The logic of the book is the logic of the person whom I knew many years ago.

Questions of dissidence

I have lived in the west for more than a decade, and I have become more and more convinced that it is not easy for western musicians, in general, and some musicologists, in particular, to appreciate fully what was really going on in the musical circles in Russia during the communist period - not to mention in Albania, which was a completely unknown and, to a certain degree, an ignored country. …

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