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Amidst a climate of prevailing joylessness the composer could only wonder at Joe Stalin's remonstrations and paucity of vision. 'A symphony must rejoice', says our leader, 'to give us a good life and gain his approval.'

In April (just eleven months before) during the Soviet Composers' Union Congress, Shostakovich had been compelled to publicly repent compositions decreed as failing to serve the state. 'To reach the people, that is the question', he concluded; 'but how is it to be done? I should have said no at the beginning, like Mandelstam', he muses privately.

Elsewhere, as Stalin vets NKVD files, we witness him scoring out poet Osip Mandelstam's name -- the poet once wrote: 'Only in Russia poetry is respected -- it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?' But poetry was just one of innumerable motives. Army general, Tuchachevsky (died 1937) [watch and listen -- chapter 5, 14:47-16:07]; poet, Mandelstam (died 1938); Theatre producer-director, Meyerhold (died 1940) and a host of others became victims of the regime. Thankfully, in hindsight, Shostakovich survives.

'What are they afraid I'll do', Shostakovich reflects incredulously -- 'a harmony too problematic for the people ?'

Further highlights include home scenes at the piano with the Shostakovich children, Maxim (Mark Asquith, as a child / Nicholas Fry, as an adult) and Gayla (Magdalen Asquith, as a child) and, years later, a visit to Babi Yar ravine with daughter Gayla (Rowena Parr, as an adult).

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


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