Rostislav Dubinsky's Stormy Applause: making music in a workers' state
Rostislav Dubinsky was first violinist of the Borodin Quartet from its
formation in 1946 to 1975, after which he made his way to America where he
founded the Borodin Trio with his wife, pianist Luba Edlina, and cellist
Yuli Turovsky. Dubinsky's memoir of musical life in the Soviet Union Stormy
Applause was published in 1989. Now out of print, it was never widely
reviewed and remains little known. As bitter as Testimony, it tells much the
same story from a different angle. Yet its insight into the anti-semitism,
professional corruption, political arm-twisting, and general fear which
permeated the Soviet cultural scene during the period it describes (1949-75)
offers a vital complement to the parallel narrative in Testimony. Anyone
unaware of the extent of the resentment and Aesopian irony current in the
musical community under Soviet rule will find this book illuminating.
In a passage describing a visit by the Borodins to Moldavia in 1956,
Dubinsky recounts a concert performance of Shostakovich's Fourth Quartet:
"The first row was occupied by leading Moscow composers, with Shostakovich
himself in the center. Sitting in front, he probably thought no one could
see him, and his face unwittingly reflected what he had wanted to say with
his music. But I saw his face: the contorted mouth and the eyes of a
pursued, wounded animal. His face was the strongest impression I remember of
the whole festival, a sharp contrast to the officially lacquered lie with
which the authorities covered their crimes. Twice in his life - in 1936 and
in 1948 - Shostakovich had suffered a 'civil execution'. Stones flew through
his windows, accompanied by shouts of 'Formalist', 'Traitor', 'Trotskyite',
and even 'American spy'. The natural end of this 'ideological' campaign
should have been physical execution, but by some miracle that didn't happen.
The expectation of violent death, however, became the main theme in
Shostakovich's music and was stamped forever on his face.
"We played the fourth quartet with this subtext of life and death. We were
in no danger: the music was officially permitted, and the notes, after all,
were only innocent sounds, all sorts of F-sharps and B-flats. Even Mozart
and Beethoven played with them! Notes are not words, not yet - even in the
USSR! But playing now to Shostakovich about Shostakovich, we felt we were
not obedient Soviet court musicians but fearless unmaskers of evil and
hypocrisy. It's easy to be brave when there's no menace, but what kind of
courage must it take when you risk your life for the truth!
"The final pianissimo, like a last sigh, flew off into the hall and returned
to us as a barely audible echo. We tried to prolong the silence, but the
audience interfered. Destroying the fragile world of brief truth, uncertain
applause broke out in the hall. We rose slowly, bowed very low to
Shostakovich, and left the stage. The applause died out without gaining
" 'Well, to hell with all of you,' swore Berlinsky softly.
"'I agree,' I answered. 'To understand that music, they'd have to forget
about their Party card for half an hour.'"
After the concert, the Borodins joined Shostakovich and other composers and
musicians for a meal in a restaurant. Drink flowed freely and an oaf in a
black leather jacket tried to join their table, only to be thrown out after
proposing an anti-semitic toast. (To which Shostakovich replied "What
filth!".) Afterwards the company called for the Borodins to play the quartet
"We each took two instruments and two music stands and headed downstairs
without speaking. Four chairs were already waiting for us in a corner of the
room. I opened my case, got out the violin, checked the tuning... And
suddenly I felt an unusual lightness and freedom in both hands. What was it?
Surely not a glass or two of wine? If so, then such a creative path
threatened to become extremely dangerous.
"I looked at my colleagues. Alexandrov was tensely tuning his instrument and
probably cursing me. Shebalin and Berlinsky had clearly drunk to excess, and
it showed. The former wisely did not try to tune his instrument, but
repeated that he was a 'sportsman', while the latter's hands were visibly
uncoordinated. He tried his solo from the second movement, and at one point
his fingers turned up on one string while his bow was on another. He laughed
and turned to Shostakovich.
"'Dmitri Dmitrievich, forgive me if something is not just so...'
"'Everything will be "so", don't worry, everything will be "so"...'
"We began to play. In the first movement there were problems. Someone was
always late, and it proved impossible to lead the quartet; instead, it was
led by whoever played the slowest. The second movement went better. A
peculiar, drunkenly rhythmical balance, from which it was dangerous to
diverge, had settled in the music. We played fairly successfully up to the
recapitulation, where the initial melancholy melody reappeared. Several
voices began to sing along with us...
"It really means something if people sing Shostakovich's music!
"They sang along again in the scherzo, which we played in manner of a street
gang's song. With the discordant voices there appeared a particular musical
effect, which would be impossible to write into a quartet score. This seemed
to please Shostakovich, because he also started singing... This was
unexpected and even frightening. I never heard Shostakovich sing before or
after that evening.
"Gradually the quartet got used to the drunkenness, and by the 'Jewish'
finale we were all playing confidently. After the incident with the man in
the black leather jacket, it rang out in a somewhat different key... There
was neither applause nor praise, only the long silence that is necessary
after such music."
On another occasion in the early 1960s, Dubinsky describes rehearsing
Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio with his wife Luba Edlina and Valentin
Berlinsky, the quartet's cellist:
"At our first rehearsal I felt the change right away. A beautiful woman was
with us, and for that reason my colleagues had shaved painstakingly, put on
cologne, and dressed with taste. They smiled and spoke pleasantly.
Furthermore, without Alexandrov, Berlinsky seemed like a different person.
There was now a non-Party majority in our piano quartet, and it was possible
to relax for a while. This was especially noticeable when we rehearsed the
Shostakovich Trio in E minor. Berlinsky said that the officially accepted
program of the work did not correspond exactly to reality. My wife and I
only glanced at each other.
"The trio was written during the war, right after the Seventh or 'Leningrad'
Symphony. Soviet musicologists explained the complete absence of optimism in
these works as the result of the treacherous attack of the Germans on the
peace-loving Soviet Union and the ensuing war, unequaled in its brutality.
They conveniently forgot that the first movement of the Seventh Symphony
already existed a year before the war, back when Stalin was still Hitler's
faithful friend. And really, how could one openly say that Shostakovich's
music depicts the destruction of Russian thought and culture, their gradual
ruin, which Stalin began and Hitler only wanted to complete?
"To translate the sounds into words is an ungrateful task, all the more so
because every listener interprets music in his own way. But if, after the
performance of the trio, the whole audience is depressingly silent and
doesn't hurry to applaud, does it not suggest that the much-abused composer
has been heard and understood?
"And yet, if one wants to express the music of the trio in words, its very
beginning sounds like an anxious premonition of misfortune. It overwhelms
the listener without mercy, and eventually, in the second movement, in the
scherzo, there bursts forth a fiendish, destructive dance of death. In the
third movement, the passacaglia, one hears blood-curdling piano chords. Is
it not the sound of a hammer on a railway track which tells the prisoners of
the concentration camp that 'one more day in the life of Ivan Denisovich'
has started? While this evil sound reverberates across the hall, the violin
and cello weep and pray for the people who perished.
"The finale increases in tension, achieving in chamber music the rarely
attained dynamic fff. When it seems that all means of expression are
exhausted, the violin and cello unexpectedly become mute. As if in deathly
agony, a wail escapes from a throat strangled by an iron hand. The trio ends
with the initial Jewish motif, disappearing into nothingness, like a
question mark about the fate of the whole nation. It was the courageous act
of an artist who dares to tell the truth and who, for this, in four years'
time would be condemned to silence."
In 1970, the Borodins played for David Oistrakh, then recovering from
"We got our instruments, set up our music stands, and sat down. In an
artificial voice, as if addressing an audience from a stage, I said, 'We
shall play the third quartet of Shostakovich in F major, Opus 73, in five
movements, the fourth and fifth to be performed without interruption. The
quartet was written in 1944.'
"Oistrakh looked at us, smiling. We started to play...
"The Third is Shostakovich's best quartet, written in his wartime period. A
lot of sorrow had accumulated for the Russian intelligentsia during these
years of Soviet rule, from the 1917 revolution until the beginning of the
war in 1941. And it was only during the war that it found its emotional
outlet. This was particularly true in music. Like Shostakovich's Seventh
Symphony, this quartet was officially touted as anti-Fascist. But it was in
essence anti-Soviet, a disturbing musical tale about the destruction of
"The first movement of the quartet is a perfect sonata allegro, the last
bright day before an irremediable misfortune. The second: gathering clouds
and the approach of disaster. The third: the wild triumph of evil. The
fourth: a funeral march, a prayer for those who have perished. The fifth: a
sorrowful, moving story about Shostakovich himself and his pain and anxiety
about the future of humanity.
"We never played any concert as we did that evening for that one sick man.
In the fourth movement Berlinsky, who was seated facing Oistrakh, started
making signs to me. I glanced at Oistrakh. He was lying with his eyes
closed, tears running down his cheeks. Tamara brought him some medicine, but
he gently pushed her hand aside. In the finale, where the last muted chord
is like an unearthly choir against whose background the first violin rises
higher and higher and disappears, we made a long diminuendo, and the silence
that followed was like a confirmation of the music."
The Borodins also played the Eighth Quartet to Shostakovich himself in 1960:
"'Hello, how are you? Thank you for coming,' he said convulsively shaking
all our hands. Four music stands were waiting in the room. Shostakovich sat
down in an armchair and waited impatiently. We quickly opened our cases,
took our places, and immediately began playing.
"The five-movement Quartet No. 8 in C-minor, Opus l10, is played without
interruption. The slow fugato, with its theme, 'D-S-C-H'; the furious
scherzo, with the Jewish melody from his own second trio, Opus 67; the
agitated waltz; the requiem for those who perished; and once again the
original bitter fugato con sordino, with his initials.
"As he listened, Shostakovich picked up the score and a pencil, and then put
both aside, his head bent. What he must have felt at this moment, we could
only guess. Having openly said at the beginning of the quartet, 'This is
myself', he sat before us, tormented, listening to his story about himself,
his musical confession, the sorrowful cry of a soul, where each note weeps
"We tried hard not to look at him. We began the fourth movement, which
imitated either bombs falling from above and exploding on the earth or just
hearts breaking. Then came the old Russian song 'Tormented by Heavy
Bondage', and finally the culmination of the quartet, which came from his
opera Katerina Izmailova. In the last scene, when the prisoners are being
moved across a Siberian river, Sergei, for whose sake Katerina has
sacrificed everything on earth, betrays her with Sonetka. The impact of the
scene is that the entire audience, the orchestra, and all the characters see
this; even the gendarme spits at Sergei and Sonetka; only Katerina alone
knows nothing and is happy to meet Sergei. The insolent Sonetka appears, and
slowly the irremediable catastrophe reaches Katerina's consciousness. She
throws herself into the icy water, pulling Sonetka with her. Thus it happens
in the opera. The same melody sounds different in the quartet: here, it is
the loneliness of the composer himself and his premonition of his inevitable
"We finished the quartet and looked at Shostakovich. His head was hanging
low, his face hidden in his hands. We waited. He didn't stir. We got up,
quietly put our instruments away, and stole out of the room."