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Written from the composer’s viewpoint, but avoiding technical talk, Julian Barnes’s new novel delivers a fascinating account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich.

In Russia, since all composers were employed by the state it was the state’s duty, if they offended, to intervene and draw them back into a greater harmony with their audience, observes Barnes. The Noise of Time deals with just such an intervention: one day in 1936, Joseph Stalin went to the opera to hear Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The resultant Pravda editorial carried a review describing the work of Shostakovich as ‘muddle instead of music’. That condemnatory phrase recurs through the narrative.

The first part of the novel deals with the first half of the composer’s life. The second describes a surprise personal phone call from Stalin, commanding that Shostakovich travel to New York as a member of a soviet cultural delegation. He obeys. In America, Shostakovich hears the New York Philharmonic under Stokowski. He meets Aaron Copland, Arthur Miller and playwright Clifford Odets. We are told of Shostakovich’s low opinion of Paul Robeson, ‘loud in his applause for political killing’, and his disgust with Romain Rolland and Bernard Shaw.

In a New York conference, the émigré composer Nicolas Nabokov stands up and asks Shostakovich mercilessly if he means his description of Stravinsky as a ‘capitalist lackey’, referring to Shostakovich’s remark made earlier in Russia. In the words of Barnes: ‘It was, he supposed, just possible that Nabokov, in some elaborate way, was being sympathetic to his plight, was trying to explain to the other delegates the true nature of this public masquerade. But if so, he was either a paid stooge or a political imbecile.’

The comment is made that, during his final years, Shostakovich increasingly used the instruction morendo in his quartets: ‘dying away’, ‘as if dying’. It’s a perceptive, symbolic, observation, appropriately placed, and one entirely characteristic of Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time is an essential read, and not only for musicians.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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