in Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

"Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time."

Pravda editorial, "Muddle instead of Music" (1/28/1936)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

TIMELINE of Events for Shostakovich and the Soviet Union:

(Based on the end chart in The New Shostakovich by Ian McDonald)

Shostakovich: Life Events & Major Works
Events in the Soviet Union
First recital.   Bolshevik coup.
Accepted at Leningrad Conservatory, grant from Borodin Fund, malnourished.   Civil war, Red Terror, concentration camps, cult of Lenin, 10 million die between 1918-1920.
Continued malnutrition, pianist diploma, job at College of Choreography, father dies, enters TB sanatorium, meets Tanya,   Famine kills 8 million people, good harvest (1922) Lenin's 3rd stroke ends his government work.
Plays in cinema, graduates from Leningrad Conservatory, writes Symphony #1 — premiere is a success.   Lenin dies, Stalin in power, Trostsky expelled from Party, permissive rules in USSR (re free sex, divorce, abortion).
Writes Symphony #2, Symphony #3 controversial, premiere of opera (The Nose) is savaged, interviewed by New York Times.   Communist Party purge begins, torture is institutionalized, collectivization begins, Russian borders sealed.
Marries Nina, Hamlet premiere a scandal, film scores a success, joins composer union, initial success of opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.   End of 1st 5-Year Plan, internal passports restrict peasants to farms while townsfolk may travel, one million die in purges (1931-33), huge cult of Stalin, famines kills 7 million, 8 million die during collectivization.
Defends against charges of formalism of Lady Macbeth in Izvestia, concert tour in Turkey, Pravda attacks Lady Macbeth, gives tutorials at Conservatory, daughter Galena is born.   40,00 from Leningrad deported to Siberia, The Great Terror begins, millions disappear, new marriage codes and anti-abortion law, show trials.
Toscanini conducts Symphony #5 in NYC, son Maxim born, becomes professor at Leningrad Conservatory, receives Order of the Red Banner for films.   Massacres of officials, 2 million+ shot, 7 million arrested (1936-39), Russia expelled from League of Nations, Russia-Nazi trade agreement, Finland surrenders to Soviets, Russia invades Baltics.
King Lear a success, Quintet wins Stalin Prize, Symphony #6 harshly criticized, family flown from Leningrad siege, writes Symphonies #7-8, ill with gastric typhoid.   Germany invades Russia, Siege of Leningrad (630,000 die), Battle of Stalingrad, 3 million soldiers die (half POWs), Warsaw uprising. Siege lifted.
Writes Symphony #9, receives Order of Lenin, Simple Folk banned as "un-Soviet and anti-people", Chairman of Leningrad Composers Union.   End WWII, Cold War begins, severe famine in Ukraine
Condemned with Prokofiev and others as "formalist," sacked from teaching jobs, attends Defense of Peace conference in NYC and plays Scherzo from 5th Symphony in Madison Square Garden, gives recitals to earn money.  

Mass arrests, anti-Semitism becomes official, first Soviet A-bomb test, mass execustions in Gulag.

Writes 24 Preludes & Fugues, gives recitals in Baltics, Symphony #10 controversy.   Stalin more and more paranoid and finally dies in 1953, H-bomb test, power struggles and new mass terror.
David Oistrakh premieres the Violin Concerto, mother dies, receives Order of Lenin, made Secretary of the Union of Composers, Symphony #11 success, receives Lenin Prize.   Warsaw Pact formed, de-Stalinization by Krushchev, Hungarian uprising crushed.
Cello Concerto premiered, visits US, buys dacha, writes Quartets #7 & 8.   Krushchev visits US, beginning of detente.
Symphony #12, grandson born, becomes member of Party, visits Edinburgh Festival & Benjamin Britten, writes Quartets #9-11, receives Order of Lenin, has first heart attack.   Limited Test Ban Treaty, move to rehabilitate Stalin, political trials.
Oistrakh premieres Violin Concerto #2, writes Quartets #12-13, hospitalized twice, writes Symphonies #14 & 15, 2nd heart attack, visits Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh.   Prague Spring, Soviets invade Czechoslavakia, Sakharov protests lack of intellectual freedom, Nixon visits Moscow.
Radiation therapy, writes Quartet #14 & Michelangelo Songs, hospitalized. Writes Viola Sonata, dies August 14.   Soviet-American agreement to prevent nuclear war, bad harvest and massive grain imports from US, Helsinki Accord on Human Rights.



"And art made tongue-tied by authority." — Pasternak (The Noise of Time, p. 93)



1. Shostakovich, Sonata for Cello & Piano in D minor, Op. 40 (1934, Allegro, 3 minutes)

Mstislav Rostropovich, cello YouTube
Elena Rostropovich, piano

The cello sonata is an early work, written in 1934 when the composer was 26.
The energy of the performance of the 2nd movement by the great cellist, Rostropovich, a lifelong collaborator with Shostakovich, is riveting. (The Noise of Time, p. 15)


Leningrad Conservatory


2. Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Op. 29 (1924, 1 hour 56 minutes)

Brief discussion of opera YouTube (3 minutes)
Excerpts YouTube (3 minutes)
Complete opera
YouTube (2 hours) with Katerina Ismailova & Galina Vishnevskaya (subtitles in English)

The opera is in 4 acts with 9 scenes and is based on a novel by Niolai Leskov. The piece is dedicated to the composer's first wife, Nina, and was premiered in 1934 at the Leningrad Maly Operny. The story tells of an unhappily married woman in 19th-century Russia who falls in love with one of her husband's workers who, with her help, murders her husband.

After initial success and 200 performances, the opera became an infamous example of Soviet censorship, initiated in an article in Pravda condemning the work ("fidgety, neurotic music"; also, see above, photo of article). The opera was banned for nearly 30 years. (The Noise of Time, p. 17)



Leningrad, Maly Operny



3. Shostakovich, Symphony #5, Op. 47 1937, (51 minutes)

"I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing …’” words attributed to Shostakovich years after the premiere

Finale, Allegro non troppo YouTube (11 minutes)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Complete Symphony YouTube (51 minutes)
Frankfort Radio Symphony

David Afkham, conductor

"The shadows of both Beethoven and Mahler hang over the first two movements, the first movement displaying great ingenuity in the control of tempo from slow to fast and back, and the second couched in a folksy idiom, with traces of the jocular spirit of all scherzos. The third movement is notable for the fine quality of the string writing (the brass are not involved) and its intensity of expression. In contrast the finale gives the brass and percussion a chance to flex their muscles and hammer home the message of... what? Triumph in the major key, perhaps; pride in a populist regime, perhaps; the mask of jollity concealing the tears beneath, perhaps. The language of music remains forever inscrutable.

While he publicly described the new work as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” he reportedly said privately that the finale is a satirical picture of the dictator, its exuberance hollow." — Hugh Macdonald

* * * * *

A listner's response to the audience after the premiere reported that: "Only once in his lifetime had he witnessed such a vast and insistent ovation...when Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony." (The Noise of Time, p. 60)

" They missed the screeching irony of the final movement, that mockery of triumph." (The Noise of Time, p. 60)



Philharmonic Hall, St. Petersburg



4. Shostakovich, 24 Preludes & Fugues, Op. 87 ( 1950)
"an intimate diary of Dmitri Shostakovich" so stated by the composer regarding his feelings about the music to Tatiana Nikolayeva to whom the work is dedicated

Tatiana Nikolayeva,piano
Complete performance
YouTube (2 hours 48 minutes)
Pianist's recollections & performanee of portions (discussion begins at 1:30 )
YouTube (14 minutes)

The piece consists of 24 pairs of preludes and fugues inspired by J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

The discussion (see link above) outlines the pianist's first meeting with Shostakovich at an international Bach Festival where he was a judge and she the winning pianist. A long friendship and collaboration ensued. When the composer gave a preview performance himself of half of the pieces for the Composers' Union, many were displeased with the dissonances and "archaic" use of fugue.


Always a photograph of Stravinsky on his desk
"It urged him to write the best music he could."
(The Noise of Time, p. 193)


5. Documentary: Shostakovich against Stalin The War Symphonies (1 1/2 hours)

Shostakiovich, "The Leningrad Symphony is not only about Leningrad during the siege, it's about the Leningrad Stalin has systematically been destroying and that Hitler is merely trying to finish off....My symphonies are tombstones."

by Larry Weinstein: YouTube (1 hour & 16 minutes)

Superb and moving documentary on the composer. Includes film clips of Lady Macbeth, of composer Aram Katchaturian, sections quoting the coomposer. some of the 4th Symphony where you can hear the terror and #7 "Leningrad" performed during the siege that was a symbol of resistance, an interview with the daughter of Shostakovich (Galina).


"On his bedside table, always a postcard of Titian's The Tribute Money."
(The Noise of Time, p. 25


6. Shostakovich, String Quartet #8, Op. 110 ( 1960)

Shostakovich: "Music remained a secret language which allowed you to smuggle things past the wrong ears..." (The Noise of Time, p. 93)
Dedication: "to the victims of fascism and war."

St. Lawrence String Quartet YouTube (23 minutes)

The most loved of the quartets, it was written in Dresden and premiered in Leningrad in 1960. The music critic Erik Smith wrote in the notes of the Borodin' Quartet's1962 recording that "The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room."

Five movements: Largo, Allegro molto, Allegretto, Largo, Largo
The first movement opens with the DSCH motif (first letter of 'Dmitri' and three of 'Shostakovich' = D, E-flat, C, B) which was Shostakovich's musical signature.


Portrait of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin kept at his dacha
"it urged him to throw away inferior work"
(The Noise of Time, p. 193)


7. Shostakovich, Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op. 145a (1976)

Shostakovich: "a triad put together by three not very clean vodka glasses...was a sound that rang clear of the noise of time and would outlive everyone.." (The Noise of Time, p. 197)
Dedication: "to the victims of fascism and war."

Yevgeny Nesterenko (bass) Complete
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra
Maxim Shostakovich
Complete recording YouTube
(43 minutes) (talk at beginning, music begins with trumpets at 7 min.)

Complete recording YouTube (41 minutes) (no talk, piano version)
Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Mikail Hvorostovsk Arkadev

Titles: Truth, Morning, Love, Parting, Anger, Dante
Anger YouTube (2 minutes) (very drammatic song)
Exile, Creation YouTube (7 minutes)
Night, Death YouTube (10 minutes)
Immortality YouTube (6 minutes)

When, at the end of his life, Shostakovich asked his son Maxim to let it be known that he considered his orchestral song-cycle 'Suite on Verses of Michelangelo' to be his Sixteenth Symphony in all but name, he was in no way being sentimental or grasping at straws. This is indeed a work on a symphonic scale, which pays tribute at one and the same time to two of his greatest musical heroes, Musorgsky and Mahler.

Shostakovich arranged his chosen texts from Michelangelo (translated into Russian) into a cycle of ten songs, with an eleventh hanging at the end, like a leaf about to fall from the tree. The ten songs trace a dramatic circle carefully worked out by the composer. Every text has to do with the life and work of the artist, with his achievements, his set-backs, his loves and his sense of destiny. The opening song about truth and lies, and the burden of being an artist, is followed by three bitter-sweet love songs. Then comes 'Anger', a passionate outburst against corruption and the abuse of power. Two further songs about the relationship between an artist and those in power lead to two meditations on the joy and limitations of creativity. Finally, 'Death' returns us to the music of the opening song, drawing all the poetic themes together as Michelangelo contemplates his end and balances his yearning for further life and love and artistic creation, against the dismal and hopeless prospect of the real world all around.

After this, the eleventh song, 'Immortality', enters like a strange ray of sunlight, or the sudden appearance of a child in the artist's mind. And that indeed is what it was, for in the opening bars, a curious little toy-march like a nursery-rhyme, Shostakovich is actually quoting something from his own childhood, a miniature piano-piece he had composed at the age of nine. Thus the dying artist looks back to his earliest youth. And Michelangelo's words make the significance of this moment for Shostakovich absolutely clear:

Here fate has sent me eternal sleep,
But I am not dead. Though buried in the earth,
I live in you, whose lamentation I hear,
Since friend is reflected in friend.

I am as though dead. But as a comfort to the world
With its thousands of souls, I live on in the hearts
Of all loving people. And that means I am not dust.
Mortal decay cannot touch me.

Note by Gerard McBurney


Michelangelo, The Last Judgment


My lord, if any ancient proverb is true,
it’s surely this one, that one who can never wants to.
You have believed fantastic stories and talk
and rewarded one who is truth’s enemy.

I am and long have been your faithful servant,
I gave myself to you like rays to the sun;
but you don’t suffer or care about my time,
and the more I exert myself, the less you like me.

Once, I hoped to rise up through your eminence,
and the just scales and the powerful sword
were what was needed, and not an echoing voice.
But heaven is the one that scorns all virtue
if it puts it in the world, and then wants us
to go and pluck fruit from a tree that’s dry.


2. Morning
How joyful is the garland on her golden locks,
so happy and well fashioned out of flowers
each one of which thrusts forward past the others
that it might be the first to kiss her head.

Throughout the day, that dress is gratified
which locks her breast and then seems to stream down;
and what they call a spun-gold thread
never ceases to touch her cheeks and neck.

But even more delighted seems that ribbon,
gilded at the tips, and made in such a way
that it presses and touches the breast it laces up.
And her simple belt that’s tied up in a knot
seems to say to itself, “Here would I clasp forever!”
What, then, would my arms do?


3. Love
Kindly tell me, Love, whether my eyes
really see the beauty that I long for,
or if it’s just in me when, looking around,
I see that woman’s face carved everywhere.

You must know, since you come along with her
to rob me of all peace, which makes me angry;
yet I wouldn’t want to lose even the smallest sigh,
nor would I ask for a less burning fire.

“The beauty that you see does come from her,
but it grows when it rises to a better place,
if through the mortal eyes it reaches the heart.
There it is made divine and pure and beautiful,
since what’s immortal wants things to be like itself:
it’s this, not that, that first leaps to your eyes.”


4. Parting
How will I ever have the nerve without you, my beloved,
to stay alive, if I dare not ask your help when leaving you?
Those sobs and those tears and those sighs
that came to you with my unhappy heart, my lady,
testified distressingly to my impending death and to my torments.
But if it is true that through my absence
my faithful servitude may be forgotten,
I leave with you my heart, which is not mine.


5. Anger
Here they make helmets and swords from chalices
and by the handful sell the blood of Christ;
his cross and thorns are made into lances and shields;
yet even so Christ’s patience still rains down.

But let him come no more into these parts:
his blood would rise up as far as the stars,
since now in Rome his flesh is being sold,
and every road to virtue here is closed.

If ever I wished to shed my worldly treasures,
since no work is left me here, the man in the cope
can do as Medusa did in Mauretania.
But even if poverty’s welcomed up in heaven,
how can we earn the great reward of our state
if another banner weakens that other life?


6. Dante
He came down from heaven, and once he had seen
the just hell and the merciful one, he went back up,
with his body alive, to contemplate God,
in order to give us the true light of it all.

For such a shining star, who with his rays
undeservedly brightened the nest where I was born,
the whole wicked world would not be enough reward;
only you, who created him, could ever be that.

I speak of Dante, for his deeds were poorly
appreciated by that ungrateful people
who fail to welcome only righteous men.
If only I were he! To be born to such good fortune,
to have his harsh exile along with his virtue,
I would give up that happiest state in the world.


7. Exile
All that should be said of him cannotbe said,
for his splendor flamed too brightly forour eyes;
it’s easier to blame the people whohurt him
than for all our greatest to rise to hisleast virtue.

This man descended to the just desertsof error
for our benefit, and then ascendedto God;
and the gates that heaven did not block for him
his homeland shut to his righteous desire.

I call her ungrateful, and nurse of her fortune
to her own detriment, which is a clear sign
that she lavishes the most woes on the most perfect.
Among a thousand proofs this one suffices:
no exile was ever as undeserved as his,
and no man equal or greater was ever born.


8. Creativity
If my crude hammer shapes the hard stones
into one human appearance or another,
deriving its motion from the master who guides it,
watches and holds it, it moves at another’s pace.

But that divine one, which lodges and dwells in heaven,
beautifies self and others by its own action;
and if no hammer can be made without a hammer,
by that living one every other one is made.

And since a blow becomes more powerful
the higher it’s raised up over the forge,
that one’s flown up to heaven above my own.
So now my own will fail to be completed
unless the divine smithy, to help make it,
gives it that aid which was unique on earth.


9. Night
The Night that you see sleeping in such a
graceful attitude, was sculpted by an Angel
in this stone, and since she sleeps, she must have life;
wake her, if you don’t believe it, and she’ll speak to you.
—Giovanni di Carlo Strozzi

Sleep is dear to me, and being of stone is dearer,
as long as injury and shame endure;
not to see or hear is a great boon to me;
therefore, do not wake me—pray, speak softly.


10. Death
Certain of death, though not yet of its hour,
life is short and little of it is left for me;
it delights my senses, but is no fit home
for my soul, which is begging me to die.

The world is blind, and bad example goes on
overcoming and drowning even the best of habits.
The light is extinguished, and with it all valor;
error triumphs, and truth cannot sally forth.

Lord, when will come what is awaited by those
who believe in you? For every excess delay
shortens hope and puts the soul in mortal danger.
What good is your promise of great light to all,
if death attacks first, and fixes them forever
in the state he finds them in, with no escape?


11. Immortality
Here my fate wills that I should slee ptoo early,
but I’m not really dead; though I’v echanged homes,
I live on in you, who see and mourn me now,
since one lover is transformed into the other.

Here I am, believed dead; but I lived for the comfort
of the world, with the souls of a thousand true lovers.
Although I have been deprived of my own soul,
I still live on in the souls of all those who loved and remember me.



Further reading::

Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich, A Life Remembered (2006)

Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich as related to Solomon Volkov (1979)
This memoir has been discredited, questioned then reinstated as largely accurate and affirmed by Maxim Shostakovich'.

Ian McDonald, The New Shostakovich (1990)