Testimony (book)

Testimony (book)

"Testimony" is a book (ISBN 0-87910-021-4) that was published in October 1979 by the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov. He claimed that it was the memoirs of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. From its publication, its portrayal of the composer and his views was controversial: the Shostakovich of the book was sometimes critical of fellow composers, and most notably was strongly anti-Soviet in his views. The book also contained comments on his own music, indicating that it was intended as veiled criticism of the Soviet authorities and support for the dissident movement. The authenticity of the book is still disputed.

Volkov’s claim

Volkov said that Shostakovich dictated the material in the book at a series of meetings with him between 1971 and 1974. Volkov took notes at each meeting, transcribed and edited the material, and presented it to the composer at their next meeting. Without being asked to do so, Shostakovich then signed the first page of each chapter. Unfortunately it is difficult without access to Volkov's original notes (claimed to be lost) to ascertain where Shostakovich ends and Volkov begins.

Recycled material

The strongest criticisms of the book were raised by Laurel Fay first in 1980, then in 2002 (when she claimed to have finally managed to access an original MS of "Testimony" in Russian, which, in fact, is not the original MS, but a publishing house copy, which differs significantly from the real original MS). She found that passages at the beginning of eight of the chapters duplicate verbatim material from articles published as Shostakovich’s between 1932 and 1974. Critics of the book therefore claim that Volkov persuaded Shostakovich to sign each page containing the composer’s own material, before attaching to it fabricated material of Volkov’s own. An interesting point is that despite translation into 30 different languages the Russian original has never been published. Doubters ask the question: was Volkov covering his tracks by not permitting the Russian-language version? This question was answered by Dmitry Feofanov in 1997, when, at the local meeting of the AMS, he demonstrated form publishing contracts, which customarily vest copyright and publication rights in a publisher, and not an author. Thus, assuming Volkov signed a standard contract, he would have no say whatsoever in whether an edition in this or that language appears; such decisions would be made by his publisher.

Contrary to previous reports that Volkov never responded to this criticism, he in fact made himself available in 1999 at a press conference at Mannes College to answer any and all questions regarding Testimony. None of his critics showed up. Moreover, supporters of the book’s authenticity have two arguments. Firstly, they provide evidence that Shostakovich had a photographic memory, which allowed him to recite long passages verbatim. Secondly, they note that not all the pages which Shostakovich signed are of recycled material. In particular, he signed the first page of the book, which contains unrecycled and controversial material. Unfortunately for Volkov supporters the second point has been answered by Dr Fay in her second article. In fact, Shostakovich didn't sign the first page of the manuscript. His signature is only found on the third page, which again consists entirely of recycled material. Thus, the Shostakovich signatures have absolutely no bearing on Volkov's case.

hostakovich and Volkov

A second argument against the book is that Volkov did not meet Shostakovich often enough to have received the material. Shostakovich’s widow, Irina, has stated that Volkov met him only three or four times. His ill-health at the time meant that she rarely left him, so that she would have known about any other meetings.

However, some other witnesses support Volkov’s version. In particular, the composer’s friend Flora Litvinova recalls Shostakovich saying, in reference to an un-named Leningrad musicologist (Volkov was from Leningrad): “We now meet constantly, and I tell him everything I remember about my works and myself. He writes it down, and at a subsequent meeting I look it over.”

Friends’ attitudes

Each side of the debate has amassed statements opposing or supporting the book’s authenticity. In 1979, a letter condemning the book was signed by six of the composer’s acquaintances: Veniamin Basner, Kara Karayev, Yury Levitin, Karen Khachaturian, Boris Tishchenko and Moisey Weinberg. The book was also criticised by the composer’s son, Maxim. Irina continues to reject the book.

Supporters of the book discount the statements of those who were still in the USSR at the time as extorted or fabricated. They point to endorsements of the book by emigres and after the fall of the USSR, including Maxim and Galina Shostakovich, Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

However, it should be noted that endorsing the factuality of the book does not necessarily mean endorsing it as what it claims to be, i.e., the authenticated memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. For instance, Maxim Shostakovich has said that the book gives a true picture of the political situation in the USSR and correctly represents his father's political views, but continues to speak of the book as being "about my father, not by him". Others who endorse the book are not necessarily even aware of the questions about Shostakovich's signatures raised by Laurel Fay (see above, Recycled material) and therefore their competence in judging the book's authenticity as Shostakovich's memoirs (as opposed to its factual authenticity) is in question. Also, they include musicians whose personal acquaintance with Shostakovich was extremely limited (e.g., Vladimir Ashkenazy).

The claim that the condemnation of the book by the six Soviet composers was extorted or fabricated is also questionable. None of the five composers who were still living in the 1990s has disassociated himself from the condemnation after the fall of the USSR. Kara Karayev died in 1982, but his son Faradzh Karayev has testified in 1999 that his father had read the German translation of Testimony and told his family that "Mitya [Dmitri Shostakovich] couldn't have written this, let alone allowed its publication. It is clearly a fabrication". (This claim is also supported by Kara Karayev's diary entries from the same period.) In an article written in the same year, "The Regime and Vulgarity", Elena Basner has told that her father Veniamin Basner, Mieczysław Weinberg (both of whom died in 1996), and Boris Tishchenko were also acquainted with (and indignant about) the book before signing the condemnation.

ignificance of the debate

There is no necessary connection between accepting "Testimony's" provenance and accepting that Shostakovich was a dissident, or vice versa. The spectrum of opinion on these issues includes some who believe that Volkov may have faked "Testimony", but that it accurately reflects Shostakovich's views (e.g. Elizabeth Wilson). They point to the fact that Volkov is known to have met with Shostakovich, and that he could have obtained further accurate information from other of the composer's acquaintances. Others (e.g. Richard Taruskin) have suggested that the book does reflect what Shostakovich told Volkov, but that it was Shostakovich's attempt to reinvent himself as a dissident to protect his image after his death.

Further reading

* Brown, Malcolm Hamrick (ed.): A Shostakovich Casebook. Indiana University Press 2004. ISBN 0-253-34364-X
* Fay, Laurel: Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony? – The Russian Review, vol. 39 no. 4 October 1980 pp. 484–493.
* Ho, Allan B. and Feofanov, Dmitry (ed.): Shostakovich Reconsidered. Toccata Press 1998. ISBN 0-907689-56-6 .
* Litvinova, Flora: Remembering Shostakovich in Znamya (The Banner), December 1996.
* Volkov, Solomon: Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator; Knopf 2004. ISBN 0-375-41082-1
* Ian MacDonald: The New Shostakovich, Pimlico (2006); ISBN: 978-1845950644

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