The Noise of Time is a fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and his fate as a composer living under Stalinist rule. The major themes of this book, as we might expect, are the relationship between art and state control (the capitalised “Power” in Barnes’ book), and the problems of maintaining personal and musical integrity in the face of such Power, as well as the nature of both courage and cowardice, and of course music itself, both as a form and as an art.

The book is split into three sections, each of which follows Shostakovich through a significant event or moment in his life, wherein he experiences one of his “conversations with Power”. The first section focusses on the nights following a damning review of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Pravda: the official newspaper of the Communist party, which he spent waiting on the landing of his apartment building in full expectation of his own arrest. It was 1936, and the beginning of what became known as the Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed as enemies of the state. The second section follows his galling diplomatic trip to America where he read a pre-prepared statement, before being questioned on his personal beliefs by a CIA plant in the audience. He was forced to publicly agree with the Party line, which included condemning his own earlier work, and the work of one of his heroes, Igor Stravinsky. In doing this, he was exposed as a coward, and a mouthpiece for a regime he didn’t support. The final section sees an older Shostakovich in the back of a chauffeur driven car, where, strong-armed into becoming a member of the Party and the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, he falls deeper into shame and regret, just when to all outward appearances his successes seem so assured.

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising to find that the form of Barnes’ novel, as well as some of the narrative passages, have clear musical influences.

As a composer, Shostakovich is known for the way in which he draws on a range of modes and influences to inform his compositions, particularly the less conservative compositions he was condemned for.

In his book, Barnes invokes the musical ear of Shostakovich, attuned to the sounds of daily life as well as of music, both classical and popular, in one of the opening passages.

“The cacophony of sounds in his head. His father’s voice, the waltzes and polkas he had played while courting Nita, four blasts of a factory siren in F sharp, dogs outbarking an insecure bassoonist, a riot of percussion and brass beneath a steel lined government box” (p8).

These sounds are pulled from various periods within Shostakovich’s biography: from his childhood, his marriage, his own compositions, and two ill-fated performances of his works; one made ridiculous as it set dogs barking, the other made dangerous by the disapproval of Stalin in his steel lined government box. The coalescence of these disparate sounds brings some of Shostakovich’s compositional methods into Barnes’ narration in a really interesting way, as well as foregrounding some aspects of his biography that will reappear later in the book.

As an example of the kind of sound Shostakovich could produce, this section from Lady Macbeth of Mtensk is particularly interesting, accompanying as it does a rather raunchy scene within the drama of the opera.

For scenes such as this, the Pravda article condemned Lady Macbeth as formalist, “coarse, primitive and vulgar”. However before this condemnation, this opera was deemed a huge success, both in Russia, and overseas. It is perhaps its very success in the West that led to its downfall within Stalinist Russia. Formalism and experimentation were the calling cards of bourgeois capitalism, and as such were deemed anti-Soviet. Russian music was the music of the people, it was popular, uplifting, optimistic, the kind of music to be whistled on your walk home from work. It was not therefore, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Pressured into conservatism by the musical ideologies of Stalin, Shostakovich became just as well known for his film scores as his symphonies. An example still popular today is The Second Waltz , Op. 99.

The popularity of this tune owes much to the popularity of its style, and the uplifting rhythms of the waltz itself. It is also a solid example of one of the elements of Jewish music that Shostakovich found so appealing; its ability to bring joy out of sombre melodies. The Second Waltz takes a minor mode tune and passes it around the orchestra, where it is punctuated occasionally by a humorous march. Of course, much of Shostakovich’s Jewish inspired music was heavily supressed during Stalin’s regime. His song cycle From Jewish Poetry, which was composed in 1948, remained unperformed until after Stalin’s death in 1953, along with other forbidden works.

Taking the relationship between Barnes’ text and musical composition a step further, it may be useful to see the three parts of Barnes’ novel as three distinct movements in the musical sense of the term, with each taking different images; that of the landing, the plane, and the car respectively, as their central focus.

From the static limbo of the landing, where Shostakovich’s life, and the lives of his family and friends are in a perpetual, unspoken danger, we progress into the detachment and distance from reality symbolised by the plane, in a section where Shostakovich’s public speech runs counter to his private thoughts, and finally to the interior space of the car, which is “chauffer-driven”, signifying this complete takeover of the self that joining the Party has enacted. These images; the landing, the plane, the car, recur throughout their named sections. Sections which come together within a larger composition that takes the idea of Art and Power as its central preoccupation.

If the idea of musical movements doesn’t appeal, then the three part structure certainly echoes the musical triad: three notes sounding together. This notion is foregrounded in the framing narrative. This framing narrative describes a train journey undertaken by Shostakovich during the Second World War. While waiting on the platform his carriage is approached by a war veteran and double amputee, who is now a beggar. Shostakovich, an unnamed companion, and the beggar share a couple of glasses of vodka. This moment of friendliness, relaxation, and enjoyment amidst the outbreak of war, and of typhoid, cuts through the horrors of personal experience to something more profound, and it is captured in the ringing out of the three vodka glasses, filled to different levels. The sound of their toast: a perfect triad.

“…a triad put together by three not very clean vodka glasses and their contents was a sound that rang clear the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything. And perhaps, finally, this was all that mattered’ (180).

This final realisation is both hard-won, and in the context of the novel, tinged by pessimism. Is it a true triumph for art over power, or like Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, are we as readers simply “those with asses’ ears to hear […] what they wanted to hear” (p58).

In the battle between art and power, exemplified in this novel between Shostakovich and the Communist Party of Soviet Russia, music is represented as a means of propaganda and control in the glorifying pieces written in honour of the revolution, as a means of subverting that propaganda, and as a pure art form, free from the petty politics of history.

In relation to the idea of subversion, Shostakovich is thought to have exploited the abstractions of music to introduce irony and mockery into his supposedly glorifying works. Barnes’ novel describes Shostakovich’s triumph at the hidden meaning in his Fifth Symphony, perhaps one of his greatest works:

“The phrase also permitted those with asses’ ears to hear what they wanted to hear. They missed the screeching irony of the second movement, that mockery of triumph. They heard only triumph itself, some loyal endorsement of Soviet music. Soviet musicology, of life under the sun of Stalin’s constitution” (p58).

But in the battle between art and power, this triumph is short lived. As an older Shostakovich ruminates:

“A farm boy throws an apple-core at a passing, chauffeur-driven car. A drunken beggar pulls down his trousers and bares his bottom to respectable folk. A distinguished Soviet composer inserts subtle mockery into a symphony or a string quartet. Was there a difference, either in motive, or in effect?” (p174).

This pessimism is tempered by the moments of the novel where the greatness and purity of music are celebrated:

“When all else failed, when there seemed to be nothing but nonsense in the world, he held to this: that good music, and great music was impregnable. You could play Bach’s preludes and fugues at any tempo, with any dynamics, and they would still be great music, proof even against the wretch who brought ten thumbs to the keyboard. And in the same way, you could not play such music cynically” (p124).

So what is music in relation to Power? A battleground for competing ideologies, or a pure and timeless form that outlives its formative conditions? I would like to believe in the clarity of the triad ringing out from the clinking of dirty vodka glasses, but in the greater context of this novel, that might be too optimistic.

Barnes’ novel is superbly crafted and masterfully written, and worth reading on the strength of that alone. It is also an interesting read for anybody interested in Stalinist Russia, Russian music, or Dmitri Shostakovich himself, as the biographical elements and historical context have clearly been well researched.

The main criticism I have of this book however, is that it feels very detached and distant from its subject. The character of Shostakovich, while very sympathetic and relatable, is always at arm’s length, and at times that made the reading experience feel more like biography than fiction. While the fictional elements, particularly as regards the form, certainly add something to the biography that makes it a worthwhile read, the purpose of a fictional biography would seem to me to be capturing that sense of interiority in the voice of the character, which you don’t get in non-fiction works, and that was what was missing. While this criticism does not diminish the achievement of Barnes’ novel as a piece of writing, it did diminish the reading experience for me.

 

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
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