Interview of Irina Shostakovich by Alexandre Brussilovsky

AB: Would you like to tell me a little about yourself?

IS: I was born in Leningrad in 1934 (that’s to say, a long time ago). My father came from a family of farmers, half Polish, half Byelorussian. He was a linguist, knowing all the Scandinavian and Slavic languages. At first, he was a teacher, then, after he arrived in Leningrad, he began his doctoral studies with Nicolas Yakovlevich on comparative linguistics. At the same time, he completed ethnographic studies and worked at the Russian Museum. He was the scientific secretary of the Ethnographic Museum which, before the war, was a division of the Russian Museum. As for Mother, she studied at the Herzen Institute and taught Russian and Literature. My father was arrested in 1937 and condemned to 10 years under Article 58. One year later, my mother died. I was raised by my maternal grandparents and my mother’s younger sister.  When the war began, we didn’t evacuate immediately because my aunt worked at the Max Heltz - nowadays called Linotype - factory.  During the war, the factory was put to producing mine launchers; my aunt was barracked, meaning that she had to live at the factory.  That was the beginning of the great famine, when the shelling and bombing started.  In the centre where we lived, the shelling was very intense; in the Mikhailov gardens artillery was deployed, trenches were dug, real battles were unfolding.  The military staff headquarters was installed in the engineering building on Rakov (Italy) Street where there was a military institute and the Germans tried to destroy everything by bombing.  In the course of that autumn, we experienced the full force of the siege.  Before the New Year, I was sent to a boarding school for orphans where they fed us as well as could be expected.  We were all very hungry, cold and terrified.

AB: You remained in Leningrad throughout the entire siege?

IS: No, we left by Lake Lagoda when that route was opened.  The trip was tragic; we took the commuter train to Lake Lagoda, continued our voyage by bus, crossed the lake, boarded another train and, after a large detour through the town of Vologda, we arrived at Yaroslavl.  Leningraders were received there (we were among the first convoys) and were housed in schools.  That year the schools were closed, serving as housing for Leningraders, who received equal rations.  We were all threatened by rickets, all going where they could. My grandfather and grandmother had scurvy.  My grandfather died along the route to Tikhvino while being evacuated by train, my grandmother died in Yaroslavl of scurvy and vitamin deficiency. The authorities wanted to place me in an orphanage, but I wouldn’t hear of it.

I was six years old, I knew how to write in printed letters, and I send a letter to my aunt who remained in Leningrad, writing the address a little in the style of Vania Joukov (1): “Region of Petrograd, Max Heltz (German Communist) factory”.

As strange as it may seem, my letter reached my aunt despite the blockade, and she contacted my uncle who was, at that moment, returning after having been evacuated to Moscow.  I was taken to the home of my mother’s elder sister, and I ended up living with her in Moscow.

I completed my studies at the Lenin Institute in the department of Russian and Literature, and, luckily or unluckily, at the time when we finished our studies at the institute, it was the turn of the students born in 1941 to enter the eighth grade.  There were few of them and professors didn’t have enough lecture hours.  It was proposed that we find independent employment, as was the possibility of teaching Russian as a foreign language in Central Asia.  I found myself in a publishing house that had just created The Soviet Composer.  At the start, I was an editing secretary, later carrying out the functions of literary editor, working on texts of songs and ballads, librettos of operas or operettas.  It was in this way that I met Dmitri Shostakovich while compiling the text of his opera Moscow-Cheryomushki.

AB: It was Dmitri Shostakovich who came to you?

IS: No, the reverse. The librettists of the opera, who had made some corrections on my advice, asked me to go and see Shostakovich.  I had to get the composer to accept these corrections, and furthermore, they wanted to add a text for which they proposed that Shostakovich write the music.  They told me that the composer had refused and that perhaps I would succeed in changing his mind.  Having assembled a thick dossier with the score of the operetta, I arranged a meeting with Shostakovich and I left to pay him a visit.  It was difficult for me to find his house, the house numberings having changed.  I arrived late. Concerning the new text, Shostakovich’s reaction was to say that he would write nothing new; as for my corrections, he looked them over quickly and approved them.  From time to time our paths crossed; one time I went to a concert at which Shostakovich was in attendance.  This was the concert of the Plenum of the Union of Composers.  I wanted to hear the miniatures on the text of Don Quixote by Kara Karayev.  For the members of the Union and employees, entry was free, and I’d arranged to go with a colleague who had promised to get me a ticket.  Just before the concert, he called me to say that he had fallen ill, and that he had not gone to the Party meeting and would not be going to the concert.  Nonetheless, so that I wouldn’t be sad and disappointed, he promised me to ask Shostakovich to get me into the concert hall.  Shostakovich really did get me in and stayed beside me during the concert.  After the concert, he accompanied me back to my home.  Then we again went without seeing each other for a long time.

I held tightly to my independence and, consequently, after my marriage to Shostakovich, I continued to word at editing.  When Shostakovich fell sick, suffering his first heart attack in Leningrad, I started to help in his affairs, copying out scores, meeting performers, writing his correspondence.  He kept me increasingly up to date on his affairs; he travelled a lot, and I began accompanying him, taking on the role of secretary.  I learned to drive, which turned out to be very practical, for, as a result, after concerts we could return to our house in the country.  I hadn’t really wanted to learn to drive, but it worked out well.

AB: Shostakovich himself didn’t drive?

IS: He got his permit during the war - I still have it at home - but driving made him very nervous.  Later, he directed me well, pointing out the route to me.  One day he told me one of the incidents which happened to him at the wheel, when, at a level crossing, his motor stopped.  This was before the war.  There wasn’t an accident; the car was moved out of the way. This incident left him very nervous and I didn’t like to drive.  During the war, all the privately owned cars were requisitioned, and there were only a very few.  After the war, Shostakovich always had a car at his disposal.

AB: In your life with Shostakovich, there were, it seems, a lot of coincidences.

IS: In fact, there were quite a lot of coincidences; like me, he had gone hungry (I hadn’t known what a horrible famine had hit Russia in the 20’s. Shostakovich gave me a book of the Leningrad writer Semyonov that described this period). Like me, he lost his young father, finding himself orphaned. We were both originally from Leningrad, from a milieu of intellectuals; we had both lived through the siege. Dmitri Shostakovich had been evacuated to Kuibyshev; I too, when they took me back through Yaroslavl, found myself in Kuibyshev - I was in prep school there, and it was there that I attended a Bolshoi performance for the first time.  Afterwards, we realized that we lived on the same street in Kuibyshev. These coincidences explain a large part of our mutual understanding which isn’t evident with our marriage not having happened in our youth.

AB: Irina Antonovna, will you tell us to what extent Shostakovich shared with you his creative ideas?

IS: You know, he didn’t share his ideas, not with me nor with any other person for that matter.  He developed a work, he set himself to writing, and, once his work ended, he played the composition at the piano (even when he had some difficulties with his right hand).  It’s at that moment that he had me come to hear the result of his work of creation.

AB: You were, then, his first audience?

IS: Yes, but I didn’t give my opinion. One day, he was thinking of writing a suite on the verses of Alexander Blok, and he asked me to tell him which verses I preferred. I agreed good-heartedly to this request, underlining the best-known Blok verses, but to my great disillusionment, Shostakovich didn’t even glance at my choice.  He studied one of the cycles of the early period of the poet, the cycle Before the light. He wrote his suite on these verses. At first, I was doubtful about the result, because, for me, the young Blok was rather remote from the composer. When Shostakovich played me this work, I understood with immense astonishment that it was this Blok that I loved. For example, Sviridov wrote beautiful ballads on poems of Blok but this is a rather trite Blok.

AB: You weren’t annoyed that Shostakovich had chosen verses completely different from those that you would have kept?

IS: Of course not; I realized that the result was excellent and I understood that these youthful works of Blok were really magnificent and the music brought out altogether personal colours from them. In general, I cannot say that he made me share in these projects. At the beginning of his work on the cycle of poems of Michelangelo, Shostakovich chose verses and asked me to take care of them on the typewriter.  I typed them on hard cardboard index cards and then we spread them out like in solitaire to decide in which order they would appear.  When Shostakovich finished his work, he called me to come to him.  I responded that I wasn’t a great music specialist. He replied that I was capable of reading, and I acquiesced. I came up to him and saw that he had dedicated this work to me. That was the whole story.

AB: Did Shostakovich show people other than yourself his works before they would be played onstage?

IS: Of course, to his friends, to prospective performers, to the secretariat of the Union of Composers. The fifteen quartets, for example, were played for the first time at the Union of Composers before the official premire.

AB: That was a sort of pre-première? I know, besides, that several symphonies had been played by Weinberg, the composer.

IS: Yes, those were transcriptions for piano. First of all, Shostakovich wrote the CONDUCTEUR in a single go. He wrote a little sketch on a single page that he alone could understand, then afterwards he tackled the CONDUCTEUR. From the CONDUCTEUR, he made the reduction for piano.

AB: If I remember correctly, it seems to me that these sketches were often played on the piano with the composer Weinberg.

IS: With Weinberg on four hands, the Ninth Symphony with Sviatoslav Richter, sometimes with the composer Boris Tchaikovsky. As his right hand gave him trouble, he often asked his friends to play for him.

AB: What were his relations with Weinberg?

IS: This composer, who just died, is at present experiencing a rebirth of interest. Shostakovich held him in very high esteem. Weinberg wasn’t a student of Shostakovich, but they were close friends. Their spiritual and creative bond was very strong. Shostakovich considered Weinberg to be an extremely important composer. Weinberg was also an excellent pianist. Before the war, he was going to pursue his piano studies with Paderewski, but his plans weren’t realized.

AB: Could we talk a bit about the work of Dmitri Shostakovich? Did he prefer certain of his works? Did he consider some pieces as failures?

IS: He practically never spoke of that, but, in fact, the fate of his works was very dear to his heart. Many among them, as you know, met with difficult fates. Beginning with Lady Macbeth. Quite often, premières met with numerous pitfalls, concerts were postponed. To cite an example, the Fourth Symphony wasn’t played until many years after its creation. The opera The Nose went a long while before being staged. In the same fashion, the First Violin Concerto was written long before being played. David Oistrakh was afraid to play it. The cycle inspired by popular Jewish poetry was also played after a considerable delay.

AB: The Thirteenth Symphony also met with some setbacks.

IS: Its path was strewn with obstacles. The première took place on the date planned, but by the next performance it fell into darkness. Ditto for the Fourteenth Symphony. And to begin with, some people asked why it spoke of death. What we needed was music full of gaiety and life. In the same manner for the Four Poems of Captain Lebyadkin, we didn’t know on the eve of the concert if the organs of censor would give it a free hand.

AB: And all that despite the official recognition Dmitri Shostakovich enjoyed, despite the decorations?

IS: Yes, despite that official recognition to which you allude. You know, there existed a list of works of which the performance wasn’t recommended.

AB: Who established this list?

IS: Well, by the LIT or by the Department of Culture of the Central Committee. Whatever the case, the orchestral management knew the works that could be played and those of which the production wasn’t desirable.

AB: How did Dmitri Shostakovich deal with all of this?

IS: In no way. He never initiated any steps so that his works would be played. If they were, so much the better; if they weren’t played, well, what could be done about it?

The journal The Russian Mind recently published an article devoted to Vitaly Katayev, former director of the Orchestra of Minsk. It describes all the ups and downs experienced by the Thirteenth Symphony. After Moscow, it was effectively handed to Minsk. It was truly the Thousand and One Nights. The eve of the première, they demanded the score be returned to Moscow and a courageous librarian declared that he was not planning to carry out this work in the near future and postponed indefinitely the dispatching of the score. During this time, the musicians copied their parts themselves, and it’s in this way that the première was able to take place. The same thing occurred in Moscow. The soloist was to have been Nyetchypaylo of the Bolshoi. The day of the première of this symphony, they gave him a role in Prince Igor.  The première was, however saved. Gromadsky, who stood in for Nyetchypaylo at the morning rehearsal, was not there, though previously, he rehearsed the symphony. When, at the evening rehearsal, it was obvious that Nyetchypaylo was busy in Prince Igor, they went to look for Gromadsky.

AB: It was truly a provocation. Who was the instigator of this? The Bolshoi? Or is it difficult to say?

IS: Oh no, it’s not difficult. The première was to have taken place the day after the visit of Khrushchev to an exposition at the equestrian centre. After Khrushchev’s virulent and scandalous remarks about contemporary artists, there was a meeting that lasted a very long time and ended in a big scene. D. Shostakovich returned very late from this meeting, near midnight. Kabalevsky had told him on this occasion, “You know, it really would be very good if you could cancel the première.” And the next day, the general rehearsal unfolded in a very tense atmosphere; then during the day Dmitry Shostakovich was summoned by the Central Committee.  All the same, the première took place.  Then they proposed to Yevtushenko that he modify the text; he made these corrections. And the symphony was performed in its new version. It was, unfortunately, published in this form in Russia (including in the complete edition of the works) even though Shostakovich had not taken account of these modifications in his manuscript. In the printed version, the text is denatured.

All the dedications given to artists having left the Soviet Union were suppressed, be they Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, Barshai or even Kondrashin. It was simply indicated that the work had been played for the first time on such-and-such a date under such-and-such a conductor. But not a word about the musician on the cello.

AB: In the scores that you intend to publish, do you plan to indicate these corrections?

IS: Yes, I would like to be able to do that.  We have founded a small publishing house for the works of Shostakovich for Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and also the formerly socialist countries. Shostakovich’s scores are virtually unavailable there. We plan first of all to publish what is frequently played, namely, the Preludes and Fugues, the Cello Sonata. Only after that will we get down to the rest. The complete edition of the works offered by the Muzyka publishing house is not, to be honest, entirely complete. At the moment, we are bringing out the piano scores of three ballets that had not previously been published. This new edition will place itself at the level of the best Western editions, with pocket scores, commentaries - we will add corrections to censorings, etc. Nowadays it’s not easy to carry this out in Russia; there is no money for music publishing. It is hard to say how much paper will cost; we have not yet finished dealing with the technical aspect of this project.

AB: I would still like to know if Dmitri Shostakovich had a preference for some of his works or if he considered some others as failures?

IS: When one asked Shostakovich this question, he answered something along the lines of, “If I hadn’t liked my works, I would not have written them, and anyway, a mother and a father always consider their baby to be the seventh wonder of the world.”

AB: What did Dmitri Shostakovich think of transcriptions? What were his relations with performers? Who visited your home?

IS: Dmitri Shostakovich was very lucky with his interpreters. He accorded a great deal of importance to the way in which his works were performed in public. He participated in all the rehearsals preceding premières. All the musicians were exceptional, be they Oistrakh on violin, Rostropovich on cello or again the voice of Galina Vishnevskaya. Dmitri Shostakovich liked the singer Boris Gmyria very much. He wished that the Thirteenth Symphony would be sung by Gmyria. As for Gmyria, being a prudent man he “asked the advice” of the Central Committee. They replied that of course he could sing this work, but it wouldn’t be performed in the Ukraine.

AB: How were instrumentalists chosen? Did the author himself make proposals to them?

IS: Certainly, he invited interpreters, he showed them his new works. Some performers  constantly collaborated with Shostakovich. The premières of the quartets were always entrusted to the Beethoven Quartet; they maintained excellent relations formed since before the war. They understood and appreciated one another. I remember happily a duo by Richter-Oistrakh; what pleasure they had in playing together! The public couldn’t not feel it.

Dmitri Shostakovich himself often played before his hand problems cropped up. He himself took part in the première of the cycle On Jewish Folk Poetry.

AB: He had very strong relations with the conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky?

IS: Several things linked them. For a start, the city in which they had both grown up, and then the milieu from which they came. They had a similar view of life. It’s understandable that under these conditions, Mravinsky was among the first interpreters of Shostakovich.

I must tell you that all the performers maintained fantastic, incredibly touching relations with Shostakovich. Numerous performers came to the house. Shostakovich was very attentive to their advice, conveying some corrections to his scores. I remember when Oistrakh and Richter visited us to rehearse the violin sonata, they were accompanied by Nina Lvovna Dormak, Richter’s wife, who turned the pages. Before the arrival of the Richters, whom I didn’t know, Shostakovich explained to me that they were our kind of people.

There was a circle of intimate friends to which Shostakovich was very deeply linked; I’m referring to Sollertinsky, Glikman, Shebalin, Arnstam. They were not all musicians, picturing the film-maker Arnstam, but these were very strong relations between human beings.

AB: What do you think of Solomon Volkov’s book?

IS: To be frank, not much. It makes frequent falsifications; material comes from different sources: from articles by Shostakovich, from conversations, from commentaries by other people, from articles. The desire to settle scores with certain people certainly played a role. In fact, he didn’t know Shostakovich very well, even though the general tone and the description of the times corresponds to reality. This book is published in several languages excluding Russian; that means something. If a Russian version existed, it would be easy to determine the article from which he drew for such-and-such an episode. I think that Volkov is quite simply afraid to publish this book in Russian. In reality, he visited D. Shostakovich three times, their conversation was not taken down in shorthand, he didn’t have a tape recorder, he contented himself with making some notes in his notebook. He was thinking of publishing this in the magazine Russian Music for which he worked. He showed his notes to Shostakovich; they took up a small packet. Shostakovich didn’t read them. I know that because at that moment I returned to his office. During this episode, Volkov irritating him continually, Shostakovich signed each page without sitting down and without reading it. When Volkov left, I asked him why he had signed all these pages. To which he replied that there was a rule that demanded that each page be signed in Shostakovich’s hand, otherwise they wouldn’t have accepted Volkov’s texts. I told Shostakovich that if he wanted his memoirs to be written, he would have to do it himself. And Shostakovich asked me to buy him an index notebook in which he wrote the list of people of whom he wanted to speak in his memoirs. He didn’t have time to realize this project. Of course, Volkov’s book has played its role in the description of the general atmosphere in which the life of Shostakovich’s generation unfolded. But it is not possible to place one’s confidence in it completely.

A remarkable book by Glikman, entitled Lettres à un ami, just came out. The tone is completely different, it’s a different man expressing himself. Shostakovich had his own style that’s difficult to imitate, a style perhaps not always notable for its beauty; it wasn’t always flawless but it was concise and easy to grasp.

AB: What were his tastes in literary material?

IS: The essentials were Chekhov, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Zoshchenko; literature of a very particular style. Shostakovich had a remarkable memory, fluently reciting extracts from this literature. As for poetry, his favourite authors were Blok, Tsvetayeva and Michelangelo.

AB: Could we talk a little about the Centre Chostakovitch?

IS: This centre, fostered by the Pôle Universitaire Léonardo da Vinci, is of great usefulness not only for musicians but also for all those who are interested in Russian culture. Researchers can consult the archives of the composer’s family just as at different private Western archives. This centre has, moreover, the mission of centralizing the different Shostakovich associations that exist around the world and to offer them a very responsive communication network. It publishes a journal entitled DSCH Journal. It doesn’t restrict itself to the work of Dmitri Shostakovich but is also interested in that of his friends and disciples.

Interview with Alexandre Brussilovsky
Russian to French translation by Edith Lalliard
French to English translation by W. Mark Roberts

(1) Hero of a Chekov novel who wrote from the city to her grandfather to tell him her troubles, addressing her envelope to, “Village of my grandfather”.