Shostakovich as diarist, in tribute to Bach

Music history is flush with moments on which we might have loved to eavesdrop. High on my list would be one night in 1958.

Oxford University was conferring an honorary doctorate on Dmitri Shostakovich, and the host for his visit was none other than Isaiah Berlin, the great political philosopher and historian of ideas. In a letter recounting the event, Berlin makes clear that Shostakovich left a deep impression on him, both in the composer’s physical bearing (“small, shy, like a chemist from Canada”) and in his state of constant nervous agitation (“a twitch play[ed] in his face almost perpetually — I have never seen anyone so frightened and crushed in all my life”).

As it turned out, the French composer Francis Poulenc also received an honorary doctorate the same year, and not long after the ceremony, both men attended a musical soirée in their honor. While Poulenc, ever the boulevardier,

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