Shostakovich is a personal hero of mine. He walked a tightrope between the Gulag and compromise in the vortex of Stalinist Russia. But more than that, his music has brought me consolation, invigoration, provocation, and perplexity. Sometimes all at once. It is not for nothing that he was known as the ‘Red Beethoven’. He will never be one to leave us indifferent. So I’m always hungry for snippets of insight or personality.

I’ve been devouring Stephen Johnson’s astonishing memoir of how Shostakovich helped him in his own battles with mental illness: How Shostakovich changed my mind. I resonated with so much of it. But I loved this little chink of light into a man who was renowned by his close friends as a man of great humour. But in the darkest days, it was impossible to reveal that. One always had to smile, to prove one’s confidence in socialist hope, and to avoid committing a ‘face-crime’.

The ‘smiling public man’ had apparently decided that it was now safe to dispense with the smile: in official photographs from the late 60s and 70s, his lips are often pursed, his mouth turned down at the edges, his eyes hidden behind the impenetrably thick lenses of his glasses. his expression in these photographs is typically nervous, his posture self-protective, huddled, as though he were trying to occupy as little space as possible.

Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten at Union of Composers. March 1964
© 2009 Irina Antonovna Shostakovich

As usual, when the Krasnaya Strela (the ‘Red Arrow’ train) left Moscow, the PA system began to blare out a dire medley of military band music: heroic workers’ songs, tub-thumping patriotic hymns, all loud, bombastic, mindlessly insistent. Shostakovich got up and scuttled out of the compartment, as though rushing to the lavatory. Suddenly the music stopped dead. Shostakovich reappeared, sat back down, and once again retreated into himself–for a moment, that is. Then he looked up, leaning forward confidentially towards his companion as though he was about to say something; instead, he put his fingers into the top pocket of his suit jacket and lifted out a pair of pliers. There was a flicker of a smile before the pliers disappeared again, as Shostakovich’s face resumed its customary anxious mask.

Shostakovich with one of his closest friends, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (left, in concert; right, fulfilling socialist duties visiting a shipbuilding factory)

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