The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes review – Shostakovich in fear

[from The Guardian]

Grim humour abounds in this deftly written fantasia on the life of the composer in Stalin’s Soviet Union

There’s a moment in this fantasia on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich when the composer recalls Stalin’s visit to his 1932 opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin’s box was placed above the percussion and woodwind, and the performers, presumably from nerves, played far more loudly than Shostakovich’s score demanded. The resulting musical imbalance was what drove Pravda to describe the opera as “muddle instead of music”. “A composer first denounced and humiliated, later arrested and shot, all because of the layout of an orchestra,” as the novel, imagining the possibilities running through Shostakovich’s mind, puts it.

This is the book’s mise-en-scène: the composer standing outside the lift of his apartment block, a packed suitcase resting against his calf, waiting for arrest. He waits there so that the NKVD do not disturb his wife and children. The terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union is not something that needs to be dwelt too much on: Barnes’s chief interest is how genius compromises under power, whether it wilts or thrives or finds some cunning means of survival and expression. But the reader, too, can feel a clammy sweat break out early on, when Shostakovich is summoned for questioning at the Big House (we do not need to be told what “the Big House” is) in Leningrad. The composer had been friendly with Marshal Tukhachevsky, a much-decorated military man and keen amateur violinist, now deemed due for purging by Stalin. Shostakovich is asked to supply details of the plot to assassinate Stalin that must have been discussed at the soldier’s home, but he can remember no such plot.

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