Nikil Saval at The New Yorker:
Julian Barnes’s new novel, “The Noise of Time,” is about Shostakovich, and it begins with the composer enduring the humiliation and misery of his exclusion from musical life, in 1936. “All that he knew was that this was the worst time,” the first part opens. Barnes has Shostakovich repeat it twice more, at the beginnings of the novel’s two other sections, in response to fresh sources of persecution in 1948 and 1960, bringing to mind Edgar from “King Lear”: “The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ “ The novel’s title comes from the nineteenth-century poet Alexander Blok, who used the phrase to describe history. The Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam chose it for the title of his memoir, published in 1923—Mandelstam, who would indeed suffer Stalin’s worst. For Barnes’s Shostakovich, “the noise of time” is counterposed to “that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music.” Real artists, Barnes has Shostakovich say, protect that private part of themselves against history, but if the music “is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time” it is “transformed into the whisper of history.” So we watch as Shostakovich struggles to live a life devoted to music, with history constantly intervening.
What Shostakovich’s music had to do with history has been one of the most fraught questions in the history of music. He lived through the most terrifying decades of the Soviet Union to become its most celebrated composer. Despite his transgression with “Lady Macbeth,” many of his compositions—such as the Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), performed in 1942 in the midst of the devastating siege and broadcast over loudspeakers into no man’s land—served the purposes of official propaganda (though the music itself was more multilayered than its use would suggest).