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Dinner with Shostakovich

by John Cobley

Sunday Apr 24th, 2016



Dmitri Shostakovich can’t have been happy to find himself in Moldavia in 1956. Famously uncomfortable in formal situations, he had been sent there by the Soviet government to represent the USSR at the Russian Music Festival. But while he found such propaganda assignments tiresome, the fact that he was there showed that he was returning to some level of acceptance. Back in 1948 his music had been officially banned, and only after the death of Stalin in 1953 did he start to be “rehabilitated.” Still, the intense pressure from the authorities had not nearly abated, and Shostakovich, having witnessed many of his colleagues disappear, still lived an uncertain life.


Part of the Russian Music Festival was to be a performance by the young Borodin String Quartet (BSQ) of his Fourth String Quartet. The members of the BSQ had known Shostakovich for quite a long time and had played all his quartets. The Fourth had been written seven years previously and had not been performed publicly until well after Stalin’s death in 1953. Even in 1956 it had been quite an achievement to get official permission to play it at the festival, especially since it had a rather explicit Jewish flavor. (The Soviet government was strongly anti-Semitic.)


Shostakovich himself was in the front row for the performance. Most of the program contained officially sanctioned compositions that the Borodin Quartet despised; it was their agreement to play this Soviet music that gained them permission to play Shostakovich’s quartet. Lead violinist Dubinsky remembers the contrast between the Soviet music and the Shostakovich: “In contrast to the toothless and anemic music, each note of Shostakovich spread through the hall like a voice crying out in the wilderness.” (114) The quartet had been written in what cellist Berlinsky called “the most difficult year for him.” (Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, p. 245) It was full of suffering. Dubinsky noticed the composer’s  expression while the quartet played: “the contorted mouth and the eyes of a pursued, wounded animal.” (114)


Clearly, the composer was reliving the tormented feeling he had experienced while  composing this quartet. After the performance, Shostakovich didn’t come backstage as expected. Nikolai Peyko, a composer who was sitting with Shostakovich in the front row came backstage instead to say to the quartet members, “Thank you for the music. Dmitri Dmitrievich was very moved by your playing. He couldn’t speak at all.” Peyko then invited the four players to a restaurant for dinner. They hoped that Shostakovich would also be there.


The quartet was greeted at the restaurant door by Peyko. He advised them that Shostakovich had come but that his official minder, a high-up official from the Culture Ministry called Gleb Schepalin, was also there.


Inside, Shostakovich rose to his feet to welcome the musicians. “Thank you for playing for me,” he said. Ten other composers were at the table with Shostakovich and Schepalin. There was a lot of vodka on the table as well as a dozen bottles of Fetyaska, a local Moldavian wine.


Once everyone was seated, Peyko rose and proposed a toast to the Borodin String Quartet. “Absolutely, to Borodin, of course, to the quartet,” Shostakovich added, spilling his vodka as he raised his glass. Schepalin, in his official capacity, then thanked the Borodins: “I wish to say that for a long time we have been following the growth of our quartet, and we are grateful for the assistance it has given to Soviet music.” To answer the toast, the quartet rose as one, down their vodka and slammed the glasses on the table in unison. After a while Shostakovich told a comic story about the bureaucratic mix-up over his trip to America. He had apparently flown to Iceland en route to New York only to be told that there was no visa for him. He had to fly home from there and never made it across the Atlantic.


Their dinner was interrupted for a few moments when a large man in a black leather jacket entered the restaurant and tried to gatecrash the party. He was ejected by the waiters. During this incident, some of the group moved from the table to try the Moldavian wine. Among this group was Boris Tchaikovsky, a composer who had sat with Shostakovich at the concert. He also told Dubinksy that Shostakovich had been so moved by the playing of the quartet that he couldn’t speak afterwards.


When everyone was back at the table , the leather-jacketed intruder appeared again, speaking with a Ukrainian accent: “Russian people! Would you let me sit with you a little at the same table?” Shostakovich, who according to Dubinsky “never refused anything to anyone,” (115) stopped the waiters from ejecting the man a second time: “Of course, of course, sit down with us.” The intruder thanked the group for not scorning an ordinary man and toasted the Russian people. Then, after pouring himself another glass, he started imitating a Jewish accent: “Abram! What front did you fight on? The Tashkent line? And how much did your medals cost? And how much did you sell them for?”


Shostakovich, who was a great sympathizer of the Jews, was the first to react: “You filth!” he shouted. The rest of the group were stunned to silence. Finally, Peyko, a small and skinny man who was sitting next to this intruder, looked him in the eye and said, “You, it turns out, are shit. We welcomed you to our table as a man and you…Get out!” The waiters soon dispatched him to the street.


Dubinsky thought he was the only Jew at the table. He looked around and saw everyone looking down and not speaking. “Around me were the kind of Russians who, at the least hint of anti-Semitism, are mortally offended.” (120) He felt he had to “save the evening,” so he impulsively suggested the quartet play the Shostakovich 4th once again right there in the restaurant. There was an enthusiastic reaction, and someone asked the composer  what he thought. “Well, why not. Go on, of course, very good. Let’s play it once more,” he said. (120) Berlinsky, the cellist, said that he was drunk and couldn’t play. Shebalin, the violist, said, “I’m drunk too, but I’m a sportsman!” This seemed to sway Berlinsky to try, but Alexandrov, the second violinist, pulled Dubinsky aside and took him to task for not consulting the members of the quartet before making the suggestion.


Finally the quartet was set up in a corner of the restaurant. “I looked at my colleagues,” Dubinsky recalled.  “Alexandrov was tensely tuning his instrument and probably cursing me. Shebalin and Berlinsky had clearly drunk to excess, and it showed.  The former wisely did not try to tune his instrument, but repeated he was a sportsman, while the latter’s hands were visibly uncoordinated.”(121)


Borodin String Quartet

Rostislav Dubinsky, First Violinist;

Yaroslav Alexandrov, Second Violinist;

Dmitri Shebalin, Violist;

Valentin Berlinsky, Cellist.


The first of the four movements had its problems. Dubinsky found it impossible to carry out his lead role. The quartet was led by “whoever was the slowest.” (121) The second movement went better:  “A peculiar drunken rhythmical balance, from which it was dangerous to diverge, had settled in the music.” (121) Berlinsky at one point played one string while his finger was on another string: “Dmitri Dmitrievich, forgive me if something is just not so…” Shostakovich replied, “Everything will be ‘so,’ don’t worry. Everything will be ‘so’…” (121) Near the end of the second movement, several voices began singing along with the quartet. The singing continued with the third scherzo movement. The quartet was now playing “in the manner of a street gang’s song.” (121) All this clearly pleased Shostakovich, and he too began to sing along.  “This was unexpected and even frightening,” Dubinsky wrote later. “I never heard Shostakovich sing before or after that evening.” (122)


By the last movement the quartet were playing well. The Jewish flavour of this movement—Shostakovich sometimes used “Hebrew modes”—was especially poignant for Dubinsky in view of the earlier anti-Semitic outburst. At the end there was no applause or comment, just the sound of people pouring drinks.


Dubinsky was aware that their emotional playing had strongly affected the Soviet official  Schepalin: “ I saw his frozen stare and his forehead covered with sweat. It was clearer                                     than ever, to him and to all of us, why this music had been banned, and not very understandable why they [the Ministry of Culture] had suddenly permitted it.” (122)


Almost at once, Schepalin stood up and suggested Shostakovich leave with him. The composer complied, repeating his thanks to the Borodins as he headed for the door. As the official and the composer left, the rest of the party toasted Shostakovich yet again.


All quotations but one are from Stormy Applause: Making Music in a Workers’ State by Rostislav Dubinsky, which was published in 1989.

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