Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is a unique study of the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich, based on reminiscences from his contemporaries: family members, friends, fellow musicians and other prominent figures of the time.

Elizabeth Wilson covers the composer's life from his early successes to his struggles under the Stalinist regime, and his international recognition as one of the leading composers of the 20th century.

She builds up a detailed picture of Shostakovich's creative processes, how he was perceived by contemporaries and of the increased contrast between his private life and public image as his fame increased.This revised edition, produced to coincide with the centenary of Shostakovich's birth, draws on many new writings on the composer.

This provides both a more detailed and focused image of Shostakovich's life, and a wider view of his cultural background.

A particular aspect of Shostakovich which is revealed in this new edition is his sardonic and witty sense of humour, displayed in many of his letters to close friends.

Shostakovich: A Life Remembered provides fascinating insight into the complex personality and the musical life of this great composer, and examines his position as one of the major figures of cultural life in 20th century Russia.


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Elizabeth Wilson's biography of Shostakovich is a brilliant and convincing portrait of the Soviet-era composer. Based on letters, diaries, and interviews with and of his contemporaries, Wilson weaves together a sort of 'external/internal' picture of Shostakovich that is credible because it stems from the people who knew him and, to whatever extent, understood him. In an article for the New Yorker, Louis Menand suggested that "the premise of biographies is that the private can account for the public". In a sense, Wilson takes this assumption and turns it around, repositioning the public in the forefront -she allows Shostakovich's public persona, and the reception of that persona, to lead the narrative. This is effective because it situates us, the reader, within the historical moment(s) of the USSR, of developing 20th century music. By showing us the composer's miluex, Wilson strings together something perhaps more credible and ultimately more interesting than a potted history intersected with diary entries and personal thoughts. To be sure, Shostakovich's voice does enter the text here and there -the odd diary entry, etc-, but it is mainly through reports of his own conversation that his speech and mannerisms are portrayed.I think an interesting point, perhaps only to the oral historian, is to the extent which Wilson has edited and/or modified these entries. Some were taken from long, personal interviews with Shostakovich's contemporaries. I also wonder how it is that Shostakovich's speech, when repeated in sections of interview (etc), reported by his contemporaries, seems largely consistent. Perhaps it portrays these individual's good memory?I can think of two weaknesses with the text. Firstly, there is an unevenness in Wilson's study of his works. Often, she will describe in rich, musicological terms the nature and effect of his symphonies and other compositions. At the same time, certain works don't recieve this detailed treatment. These descriptions, while very detailed, are more than a little incomprehensible to the non musical expert. I picked up this biography because I have a fascination with Shostakovich's music -I have for many years listened to his quartets, his symphonies. My main interest is in Russian literature and culture in the Soviet 20s and 30s. I just didn't know much about the politics and atmosphere of that era's music (except a little of its film scores and jazz). As such, then, these sections in the text are a little bewildering, assuming knowledge that I don't have and would struggle to acquire. The only other missing link is, I think, the absense of a complete musical bibliography in the back end of the text for Shostakovich. A dated list of all of his completed and incomplete works would have been very useful indeed, as well as recommendations about various quartets (Borodin, Beethoven, etc) who have variously played his music. Perhaps the best thing that I have taken from this work is a deeper understanding of musical interpretation, of the subtle ways in which different players and conductors and singers 'interpret' the music of a composer. It has also spurred me to sit down and listen to different versions (or, that is, interpretations) of the same piece, such as the piano concertos.Ultimately, this is a sage, literary, and engaging work that, despite its massive length, I have read through very quickly (for some reason, it has made excellent train reading).

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