In a previous post I posed this question: “more people are followers than leaders, so isn’t it more important to cultivate effective followership than effective leadership?” In reality the distinction between leading and following isn’t very interesting. The goal of each member of a group should be to contribute to individual and shared goals in a balanced manner and promote the dignity of group members. In every group effort, whether business, charity, sports, or anything else, everyone leads and everyone follows.
I recently read Testimony, Solomon Volkov’s controversial publication of the memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich, the great 20th century Russian composer. There were three different individuals in the book who demonstrated three different ways of “leading”, or behaving with character within a group. (See the note at the end of this post on the question of authenticity)
The Cheerful Individualist
Volkov presents Modest Mussorgsky, known to most of us today as the composer of Pictures at an Exhibition, as an eccentric but cheerful individualist who would listen attentively to criticism as “everyone who felt like it harangued and criticized him…When he was criticized, he kept quiet, nodded, almost agreed. But the agreement lasted only as far as the door; once he was outside, he took up his work again, like one of those dolls you can’t knock down.” Mussorgsky was a unique individual with a unique musical voice, and in Volkov’s account had the confidence to overcome negative reaction to harsh feedback.
Alexander Glazunov, known as the “Russian Brahms,” was head of the Leningrad Conservatory from 1906 to 1928. Glazunov was Shostakovich’s mentor during his time at the conservatory. Glazunov enjoyed the company of young musicians, “performers came to his house every day”. From Shostakovich’s account of Glazunov I’m reminded of a teacher I had who didn’t seem to teach at all, but by being welcoming, cheerful, and obviously talented and passionate about the subject matter, created an atmosphere in which we couldn’t help but learn. More importantly, Glazunov saved lives during years of starvation and repression in Russia by “giving away his salary to needy students” and saving Jewish musicians from repression in their home towns by signing petitions for them to live in Petersburg without having them play for him. As Volkov atrributes to Shostakovich after relating this story: “All things in life can be separated into the important and the unimportant. You must be principled when it comes to the important things and not when it comes to the unimportant.”
The Supportive Subversive
Volkov’s Shostakovich lived bemused in a world of individual and institutional stupidity. For example, one official order demanded “a quartet of 10 musicians.” In this world Shostakovich trod a fine line but never crossed far enough over to draw retribution. Finally Shostakovich (among others) was denounced as a “decadent formalist” at the first Composer’s Congress in 1948, perhaps in part due to his 8th Symphony. It was a solemn response to the end of World War II rather than the expected victory celebration.
Life during the Stalin years and World War II was characterized by deprivation and repression. Many of Shostakovich’s friends and associates were denounced, exiled to Siberia, or killed in mysterious circumstances. As a leading Soviet composer Shostakovich provided the soundtrack for the regime. However, to the careful listener it seems not to celebrate the Stalinists but rather to channel the anguish of the people. A telling example is his Fifth Symphony, ostensibly a joyous tribute to Party but arguably a veiled protest (see this analysis by Michael Tilson Thomas).
Volkov’s Shostakovich seems to have blundered on in spite of the worst possible conditions, sublimating his genius into musical irony and thereby doing what little he could in small ways to help his fellow Russians.
Many question Testimony’s authenticity, but this from the Wikipedia entry on the book might sum up a reasonable assessment: “the book gives a true picture of the political situation in the USSR and correctly represents his father’s political views, but [Maxim Shostakovich] continues to speak of the book as being ” ‘about my father, not by him.’ ” I’m neutral on whether or not Testimony is authentic, and whether Shostakovich was a toady of Stalin’s regime or an undercover dissident. This post reflects subjective impressions from the book, nothing more.