'The Noise of Time': Julian Barnes imagines how Shostakovich made great music under Stalin's tyranny
May 15, 2016 12:00 AM
Liverpool Hope University
"The Noise of Time," by Julian Barnes.
By Michael Magras
Dmitri Shostakovich completed his Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad,” in December 1941, three months after he and his family had been sent along with other evacuees to the provincial capital of Kuibyshev in the early years of the war. The first movement includes the famous “invasion” theme, which Soviet propagandists called a dramatization of the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad. But as Shostakovich told Solomon Volkov in “Testimony,” a biography published four years after the composer’s death, the movement was instead about “the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.”
"THE NOISE OF TIME"
By Julian Barnes Knopf. ($25.95).
Shostakovich couldn’t have made that admission while Stalin was alive because of Soviet control over him and his work. It is this repressive political environment and its effect on one of the 20th century’s finest artists that Julian Barnes explores in his excellent new novel, “The Noise of Time.”
Mr. Barnes has divided his fictionalized account into three sections, each one highlighting one of Shostakovich’s “conversations with power.” The first occurred in 1936, after an anonymous Pravda writer, presumably one of Stalin’s lieutenants, condemned the composer’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” in the article “Muddle Instead of Music.” Certain that the secret police would come to his home to arrest him, Shostakovich prepares for the visit by keeping all-night vigils at his building’s elevators so that the authorities won’t wake his wife and baby daughter.
He isn’t arrested, but an interrogator later requests information about Marshal Tukhachevsky, Shostakovich’s patron and a man thought to be part of a plot to assassinate Stalin. Shostakovich knew nothing about a plot, although he recalls that the Marshal once offered to write to Stalin on his behalf but started sweating the moment he picked up his pen.
The second conversation occurs in 1948, when Stalin sends Shostakovich to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. Among the sentiments in the speech Soviet authorities write for him is a condemnation of Igor Stravinsky, whom Shostakovich considered the greatest composer of the time. But not even this humiliation is as great as his “most ruinous conversation with power” when, in 1960, he is forced to become chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers and to join the party, an association he had long rejected.
Mr. Barnes focuses on the political environment in which Shostakovich worked, an emphasis that may disappoint readers more interested in the composer’s music. But anyone who has read Mr. Barnes’ previous works won’t be surprised to discover that he uses Shostakovich’s story as a meditation on death, one of the author’s recurrent themes.
In “The Noise of Time,” Mr. Barnes writes not only of mortality but also of an artist’s legacy. In Mr. Barnes rendering, the elderly Shostakovich contemplates “the problem of living beyond your best span, beyond that point where life can no longer bring joy, instead only disappointment and dreadful happenings.”
Further, he states that Shostakovich didn’t trust posterity to calibrate quality, to distinguish good art from bad. His main hope was that, one day, “an audience might be silently moved by one of his string quartets.” One imagines that an author in the later years of his career — Mr. Barnes is 70, one year older than Shostakovich was at his death in 1975 — would wish for a comparable fate.
And that’s the author’s achievement here: to not only capture the mood of fear under which Shostakovich worked but also create a tribute to the struggle of all artists. Few artists conceive their works under repressive political regimes, but every creator will understand Shostakovich’s lament that “all he had ever wanted to give them was music. If only things were so simple.”
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and BookPage.
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