How red do you like your composer?

By Tim Luckhurst (THE TIMES, 26/09/06):

SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY displayed few signs of aesthetic sensibility in his short, bigoted life. But if he contemplated the world yesterday from wherever dead commie-baiters go when they die he must have been delighted by reaction to the centenary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich. Instead of discussing the power and range of his 15 symphonies or the enduring grace of his chamber music, Britain was wrangling about whether the great Russian composer was a Stalinist.

He lived his entire adult life under the most enduring dictatorship of the 20th-century. Just to survive demanded compromise with the regime. But there is evidence that Shostakovich went further. Twice denounced in Pravda as a composer of “muddle, not music” he became a Communist Party member in 1960. By the time of his death in 1975 he had joined the ranks of the Supreme Soviet and was considered a loyal Soviet artist. Does the description reflect the contents of his soul?

Interpreting private motives under a reign of terror is notoriously hard, but the right answer must surely be that it does not matter. Shostakovich did not present himself for interpretation as a politician. He does not need to have been a tortured dissident to win our approval. As his widow, Irina Supinskaya, demands, he deserves to be judged on his music, not his ideology.

Given the power of great art to move us, it is comforting to imagine that it is only made by morally superior human beings. But that is patently untrue. The term “artistic temperament” would not exist if creative people were not capable of atrocious behaviour. Richard Strauss was an official of the Third Reich. One of his conductors, Arturo Toscanini, offered the appropriate response when he said: “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.”

Of course it is hard to observe such a firm distinction. Confusion has reigned since the 1960s when academics opted to interpret the artist instead of the art. But the distinction is crucial. Literature, art and music did not escape the prejudice that they must serve a moral or didactic purpose only to be trapped afresh by the delusion that artists must be morally pure.

Of course personal lives inform creative expression. Fiction, as that most private of novelists Thomas Pynchon has written, is “made luminous, undeniably authentic” by having been mined from its writers’ most profound and intimate experiences. But that does not mean that we need to know anything that the artist does not reveal through his work. In fact such extraneous knowledge may occlude our vision.

The Pianist does not become a worse film when the viewer learns that its director, Roman Polanski, has been convicted of statutory rape. Care not whether Shostakovich was a comrade. What matters is whether his charismatic and paradoxical music moves you.