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'He (Stalin) doesn't belive in rockets. He needs me to be wrong', General Tukhachevsky had confided in the composer. 'You are the one voice by which the truth might be heard, and the people know. You must stay alive for that. When Leningrad is naked to bombardment from the air thank Stalin -- and remember me.'

As the siege of Leningrad rages the composer is pressured to a photoshoot wearing a defender's fire helmet -- newsreels trumpet -- 'Music from the flames to set America aflame with the sounds of liberty' and the incongruous image appears on a Time magazine cover.

At times the music is juxtaposed with symbolic images of Soviet military-economic planning; steam locomotive wheels and pistons propel the action while Shostakovich is pictured fleeing, caught up in the wartime maelstrom -- as if pursued -- through steel foundries and vast deserted mills.

Stalin's capricious purges multiply and the denunciations by both him and his successors bedevil Russia's foremost composer, consequently key images, scraps of earlier conversations, and Shostakovich's own troubled inner musings recur adding to the unsettling impact of Palmer's graphic biodoc.

A scene from 'Testimony'. Screenshot © 1987 Isolde Films
A scene from 'Testimony'. Screenshot © 1987 Isolde Films

Hard on the heels of war in Europe and Russia the March 1949 International Peace Congress (New York) culminated in a painful American press conference. One after another the American universities canceled the composer's engagements -- his minders' concluded -- 'Stravinsky is behind the snubs. He has the universities "sewn up"'. Prior to the Soviets' departure for the USA Stalin stood logic on its head; 'No works are banned in Russia', he demurred, 'but there are contexts in which performances are unwise'.

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Copyright © 26 August 2007 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand


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