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A Rare Specimen


A friend had played the joke on Dmitri Shostakovich. Given the opportunity, Shostakovich couldn’t resist perpetrating it on a conductor he found irritating.

Shostakovich grew up during the early years of the Soviet state. When he was about twenty he and some friends were obligated to take a test on Marxism-Leninism. Taking the test ahead of them was a young academician named Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky who reported that the test questions were incredibly hard. He said, for example, that the examiners wanted to know how Sophocles exemplified a materialist tendency. Young Shostakovich and his friends were scared to death until they realized that Sollertinsky was joking.

Somewhat later Shostakovich used the joke himself. Conductor Alexander Gauk and his wife were to be made Honored Artists of the Russian Republic. The title was bestowed upon very few, and Gauk and his wife gave a series of receptions to celebrate their new status. Shostakovich and Sollertinsky attended one of the parties, and amid the eating and drinking, Sollertinsky stood and gave a toast, congratulating his hosts and hoping that they would pass the test and be confirmed in their new titles.

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Gauk froze and asked. “What test?”

Sollertinsky feigned surprise. Didn’t his hosts know that passing a test on Marxism-Leninism was a prerequisite to receiving the title? In the sudden quiet Shostakovich and his friend finished eating and drinking, then departed, leaving the gloomy conductor and his wife at an empty table.

It was a cruel joke to be sure, but Shostakovich had an ax to grind. Gauk had lost the manuscripts to Shostakovich’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies, and in response to the composer’s objections, had replied “Manuscripts? So what? I lost a suitcase with my new shoes, and you’re worried about manuscripts?”

In his memoirs Shostakovich referred to Gauk as “a rare specimen of stupidity.”