A man is waiting with his suitcase near the elevator, every night. In this way he can spare his family from seeing him being arrested by the secret service. The man is Dimitri Shostakovich and the year is 1936.
He was one of the best known composers in the Soviet Union, but that would not help him. Stalin walked out during the performance of his last opera, so arrest and deportation were very much possible. Stalin’s terror was at its height and nobody was safe.
That year the secret agents did not come for him, but it did take Shostakovich a couple of years to climb back to success. Only to get into trouble again a couple of years after the war when his works were deemed not uplifting enough.
Dimitri Shostakovich was born in 1906 in St. Petersburg and soon he became a well-known composer. During the twenties he was involved in the avant-garde modernist groups of artists, only when Stalin came into power Art had a new purpose. This was for all forms of art: literature, painting and music.
From now on had had to lift up the workers, convey communism and glorify the Revolution. There was no room for individual and bourgeois experiments anymore. If you composed the wrong kind of music, you were declared an enemy of the people and your works were forbidden.
Living in the Soviet Union was like living in a rollercoaster. You had to be able to switch in actions and mind in a heartbeat because what was considered good one day, could be considered bad the next day. In meant never being able to express your own opinion, always living in fear and believing ridiculous complot-theories, because reality was often even more ridiculous.
When you were considered a bad composer it meant that your work could not be performed, you lost your teaching positions, colleagues had to denounce you and you were thrown out of the composer’s league, meaning you also lost the right to but music- sheets. Everybody who praised you before had to take back their words and declare you confused them with your bourgeois experiments.
So, how you do keep your integrity as an artist in such a society? Where every truth is a lie and every lie is told as a truth.
Is using irony enough, as Shostakovich thinks, or should he have done more, as he fears at the end of his life.
Because how can you resist and stay true to yourself, when resistance will only break you? As it says in the book, there are only two kinds of composers in the Soviet Union, frightened ones and dead ones.
In short, how can you write music when the noise of time will always be louder than any music you compose?
I do not know much about classical music and before I read The noise of time I knew nothing of Shostakovich.
During the reading I did listen to some of his work and although not all of it is easy to listen to, there are some things that did appeal to me very much. I do want to know more about him and his work now.
And that is very much due to this beautiful book Julian Barnes wrote. The noise of time is a fictional biography of Shostakovich. He does not only tells the story of the composer’s life, but also writes very well about the madness that was life in the Soviet Union. His writing style is beautiful and often he makes observations that will make you think for a long time.
When you know Shostakovich, this book will give you new insights, and when you know little or nothing about him, you immediately want to know more.
The noise of time was an absolute masterpiece as far as I am concerned and I can already say it will be high in my reading top-ten for this year.
Published in 2016