Shostakovich vs Stalin - a glimpse into cultural and artistic life inside the Soviet Union

To hear what it was like to live through Stalin’s Russia, you have but to listen to the changing music of Dmitri Shostakovich.

The 1917 revolution that would change the worlds of government and economics also played out in the arts. Under the Communist regime, composers such as Shostakovich were expected to glorify the achievements of the working class in a new style that came to be known as socialist realism, as directed by the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Some artists, such as the composer Igor Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, fled to the West. Certain others who stayed, such as the composer Dmitry Kabalevsky, put their art second to the regime’s requirements.

Shostakovich, coming of age amid the ferment, seemed determined to maintain artistic independence — setting him on a collision course with the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin.

Born in 1906 in St. Petersburg, Shostakovich entered the Petrograd Conservatory at 13. His Symphony No. 1 in F minor, written at 18, was his graduation piece. He came to prominence in Russian cultural life, initially as a concert pianist. His compositions won him the admiration of legendary conductors Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski, who premiered his First Symphony in Berlin and Philadelphia, respectively.

Inside Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, where Stalin attended Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth. By Theefer (Theefer) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Inside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, where Stalin attended Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth. By Theefer (Theefer) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

His success rose with a hit opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov that drew its title from Shakespeare’s murderous female character. Shostakovich’s adaptation tells how Katerina, a bored merchant’s wife, takes one of her husband’s employees as a lover, then sets off on a string of killings including her husband, father-in-law, her lover’s new mistress and finally herself.

On Jan. 26, 1936, Shostakovich arrived at the Bolshoi Theater for a performance of the opera, to find Stalin and the Politburo in the audience. Seated in a box above the orchestra, the officials shuddered during the opera’s loud passages and laughed at its love scenes.  The dictator walked out after the third of four acts.

Two days later, an unsigned review appeared on page 3 of Pravda, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, under the headline “Muddle Instead of Music” (a translated version is carried by history website historyinanhour). In 10 paragraphs describing the work, the anonymous editorialist used “coarse,” “coarsest” and “coarseness” five times, and “vulgar” four times.

“The music quacks, grunts, and growls,” borrowing from jazz that “tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.” Shostakovich “scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete ‘formalists’ who had lost all their wholesome taste,” the article said. “He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life.”

Ironically, Lady Macbeth had been critically well received and acclaimed for its adherence to “socialist realism” prior to Stalin’s visit to the Bolshoi and the subsequent Pravda article – with one Moscow publication, Sovetskaya Muzyka, calling it “the best Soviet work, the chef-d’oeuvre of Soviet creativity.”

Pravda’s view seemed to have been at least partly inflamed by the opera’s moral stance. The review condemned the sympathetic portrayal of the murderess. “Some critics call the glorification of the merchants’ lust a satire,” it said. “But there is no question of satire here. The composer has tried, with all the musical and dramatic means at his command, to arouse the sympathy of the spectators for the coarse and vulgar inclinations and behavior of the merchant woman Katerina Izmailova.”

To judge from the review, Stalin may also have had a problem accepting or even comprehending Shostakovich’s complex, nuanced musical language.

“From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound,” Pravda said. “Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this ‘music’ is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.”

To be denounced in this way was no idle matter. Within months of the review, what came to be known as the Great Purge was under way, bringing accusations of political crimes and conspiracies, torture, show trials, labor camps and executions. By the time it ended in 1938, an estimated 200,000 to 600,000 people died at the hands of the government.

At the time the review appeared, Shostakovich was writing his Fourth Symphony and had planned its premiere for later that year. Rehearsals with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra had already begun when he withdrew the work.

Whether he did so on his own, or under pressure, is debated. With its Morse-code-like percussion “signals” at the end of the second movement and, above all, its somber ending, with a long-held C-minor chord from the strings and the celesta, the Fourth Symphony was grim and foreboding. It would be almost a decade after Stalin’s death before it was finally performed in 1961.

Shostakovich, to keep a low profile, for two years wrote film music — a medium considered safer to work in, as it was both favored by Stalin and devoid of political content — even as he was preparing his Fifth Symphony, which premiered on Nov. 21, 1937.

The composition reverted to a more conservative form, structure and harmonic and melodic style. Biographer Elizabeth Wilson, in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, said even Kabalevsky, who had distanced himself from Shostakovich at the time of the Pravda editorial, now congratulated him for “not having given in to the seductive temptations of his previous ‘erroneous’ ways.”

A few days before the Fifth Symphony’s premiere, an article appeared in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva, describing the work as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.” It was seen as Shostakovich’s recantation, and returned him to official approval.

The article was purportedly written by the composer. Whether Shostakovich or someone more closely connected with the Party actually wrote it is open to question, but the phrase “justified criticism” has been associated with the symphony ever since.

While musically more conservative than his previous works, the ending to the Fifth Symphony is still ambiguous. Its triumphant chords, brass fanfare and timpani notes gave the impression of following the Soviet model, due, in part, to their tonal, excessive reiteration of the D major key, for a pleasing, celebratory finish.

But the repeated string notes, the B flat notes (instead of the more conventional B natural) in the brass and the insistent drum blows, which continue right until the very last notes of the symphony, paint a picture of suffering.

In a world where ambiguity could be a key to survival, it was perhaps the best response Shostakovich could make to the “muddle instead of music” episode – a tale he literally lived to tell.

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