Daniel Finkelstein comments: "I am now going to recommend a book that a large proportion of you wouldn't dream even of picking up in a bookshop to scan its contents. But you should read it anyway. Even you, Oliver Kamm."
I see what he means. The book is Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald. As Daniel describes it: "It is a song by song account of the Beatles' recording career. And on the surface of it, that is all it is. But I think it is really a very profound book indeed." Among its profound characteristics is "the light it sheds on a very old controversy. Is the personal behaviour and political view of an artist relevant when assessing their artistic output? MacDonald answers in the affirmative and goes on to make his case song by song."
Now, there are issues on which my knowledge is minimal; and there are issues on which my ignorance is so expansive that not even the most rudimentary general knowledge may be assumed on my part. Among this second group of issues, football and popular music are prominent. These are particular interests of Daniel's (he writes a weekly football column for The Times), and I'm grateful for his efforts at expanding my reading. And indeed, I haven't read Revolution in the Head.
But oddly, I do recognise the argument and I have views on it, for I have read another book by the same author. The late Ian MacDonald was a music journalist of eclectic taste and range, and he wrote an influential biography nearly twenty years ago entitled The New Shostakovich. MacDonald was much infuenced by the picture of Dmitri Shostakovich that emerged from what purported to be the great Soviet composer's memoirs, published under the title Testimony and edited by Solomon Volkov. The controversy over these memoirs is long and convoluted. They show a man deeply disaffected with the regime, and expressing his protest in his music. (There is also an impressive film based on these memoirs, in which Ben Kingsley takes the part of Shostakovich.) Yet the evidence is now beyond serious dispute that the work is spurious. The musicologist Laurel Fay has demonstrated that large sections of the work were lifted from previously published articles.
MacDonald's book starts from the premise that, whatever the problems of authenticity of Volkov's document, the picture of the tormented composer is essentially true. MacDonald then goes on to find evidence substantiating this picture of Shostakovich in the music itself (such as the bombastic Fifth Symphony, which MacDonald interprets as intentional irony). It is a misconceived way of approaching the subject, and the book is a failure as a result. As one reviewer put it (Malcolm Hamrick Brown, "Ian MacDonald's The New Shostakovich", Notes, March 1993, and republished in A Shostakovich Casebook, edited by the same author, 2004, pp. 257-64): "MacDonald seems not to know that creative artists like common folk wear masks appropriate to the occasion, disguising parts of a 'whole' personality, not always with the intention to deceive so much as to facilitate."
The connection between an artist's political views and his output is indeed a vexed question. I have had exactly this argument with Daniel's and my common friend Stephen Pollard, who cited Shostakovich as an example of a composer whose work is illuminated by what we can infer from his biography. It is a bad example and a flawed case - a fallacy, in fact, because we can't gain direct knowledge of an artist's intentions, and even if we could then it still wouldn't necessarily be a reliable guide to the art. Art is independent of politics; we can make sense of a work of art only in its own terms, and not by inferring from it the intentions of the composer, author or artist.