Shostakovich: three books about a Soviet composer

In the second year of my undergrad, I took a Russian history course on a whim. Not too much of it stuck with me, to be honest – except an enduring love for Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

I’ve recommended his memoir to several people I know, with limited success. For some reason, biographies of soviet-era classical composers tend to be a hard sell to friends and family.

But with Shostakovich starring in two recent novels – written by an award-winning YA novelist and a Man Booker Prize-winning author, respectively – I think I might have more luck pushing his excellent memoir on the people around me.

In celebration of this trend, here are three excellent works about an excellent and oft-underrated Russian composer.

Testimony Shostakovich cover

Testimony: the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich / As related by Dmitri Shostakovich, edited by Solomon Volkov, and translated by Antonia W. Bouis

This is the book that started my passion for Shostakovich – a set of anguished and lyrical memories of a time of fear, poverty, and creativity in Stalin’s Russia. Overall, this memoir spins the tale of a man who struggled to endure, to write music that still felt true and beautiful despite confining political conditions. Shostakovich was quietly revolutionary in a time when it could have easily gotten him killed – and yet it was as if he couldn’t help himself. In some ways he served as a sort of Holy Fool in Soviet-era Russia – a figure who spoke the truth without consequence, but also without anyone taking him too seriously. It’s a tricky and terrifying balance, and a beautifully written recollection of a dangerous time.

Symphony for the City of the Dead Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad / M. T. Anderson

Anderson has been a favourite author of mine since I discovered his work a decade ago. He has an almost-unnerving knack for getting to the soul of an era – whether it’s set far in the future or deep in the past, we’re talking about spot-on manoeuvring in language and slang. I don’t normally greet historical fiction with such gusto, but I can’t wait to get my hands on this one.

Symphony focuses on the creation and history of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, inspired by the great and myriad tragedies of the Siege of Leningrad. Audiences connected with the work on a core level, weeping in their seats. As Shostakovich wrote in Testimony, “Of course they understood, they understood what was happening around them and they understood what the Fifth was about.”

And while this novel is technically YA – published by Candlewick and nominated for a National Book Award in Young People’s Fiction – it doesn’t seem overly aimed in that direction. I expect, as with most of Anderson’s works, it can be equally enjoyed by adults.

The Noise of TimeThe Noise of Time / Juilan Barnes

This novel begins with Shostakovich standing outside his apartment building, waiting for the authorities to take him away. He has suffered a brutal denouncing at the hands of critics – and since critics follow the opinions of Stalin, Shostakovich’s fate seems inevitable. A labour camp, perhaps, or worse.

But while he waits patiently with his briefcase and his terror, the authorities never arrive. Life continues.

This is a true story, as the best stories always are. The Noise of Time clocks in at a mere 196 pages – but with a Man Booker Prize-winning author at the helm, that’s plenty of space to break a reader in half. It feels a bit like I’m betraying M. T. Anderson, but I think I’m more excited for this one than for Symphony for the City of the Dead. 



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