By Simon Behrman
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The Sound of a Soviet Tragedy

This article is over 15 years, 11 months old
Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich was born 100 years ago. Simon Behrman looks at the music of an artist whose life was intertwined with the fate of the 1917 revolution.
Issue 309

The failure of the Russian Revolution of 1917 to live up to the hope it promised was the greatest tragedy of the last century. Its effects were felt not just in the politics and subsequent history of the 20th century but also in the art and culture that surrounded it. Dimitri Shostakovich occupied a central position in these events, and more than any other composer his music explores the hopes and tragedy of this period of history.

Born in 1906, Shostakovich began composing in the feverish artistic atmosphere of post-1917 Soviet Russia. His early music is full of the exuberance and daring of the revolutionary period. The themes of his music include war, revolution, women’s oppression and anti-Semitism.

But it was not just his choice of subject matter that made Shostakovich an important composer. The 1920s were a crucial decade in the development of music. Two strands of modernism, developed by Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, were revolutionising European classical music. This fractured a fairly homogenous tradition stretching back two centuries. During the same period, from the US to France, jazz music was coming into its own.

These developments posed a dilemma for composers attempting to choose which path to follow, and decide whether any of these new forms were musically valid.

In the experimental atmosphere of post-revolutionary Russia, the young Shostakovich was able to absorb elements from all these movements into his music. And yet, even with his earliest pieces, he also found his own highly original style, which remained with him throughout his career. This style combined rhythmic vitality, a menacing, sometimes violent atmosphere and frequent satirical allusions.

His striking and compelling music won Shostakovich worldwide popularity. But his willingness to exploit new techniques was less popular with the Stalinist regime that was firmly entrenched in Russia by the 1930s. From then until his death in 1975 his relationship with the Soviet authorities was a tense one in which he struggled to maintain his artistic and political integrity.

Joseph Stalin and the new ruling class around him did not simply reverse the social and political progress of the Russian Revolution. They also clamped down on the cultural experimentation of the period.

The catalyst for the greatest crisis in Shostakovich’s musical and personal development was his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The opera was performed in Leningrad and Moscow to huge critical and popular success. It tells the story of a 19th century provincial woman driven to adultery and murder by the boredom and oppression of her life. Not only is it gripping drama, but the music is raucous, daringly modernist and highly original. It even has the most vivid musical description of an orgasm you are ever likely to hear.

Lady Macbeth and Stalin

The opera was performed more than 100 times in two years. Then Stalin went to see it. A month later a savage attack on Lady Macbeth, and Shostakovich’s music in general, was published in the newspaper Pravda. Among other things, Shostakovich was accused of being a “formalist” – someone more interested in playing with musical form and structure than in conveying a clear and simple meaning. The cultural experimentation of the previous decade had given way to the vacuous conservatism of socialist realism – in which art was to serve the needs of the new regime.

The Pravda article ended by warning ominously that if Shostakovich didn’t change his ways “things will turn out badly for him”. This was no idle threat. The article appeared in 1936, the year of the first show trials. Millions were “purged”, sent to labour camps and summarily shot. Throughout this period Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase by his front door, in readiness for the arrival of Stalin’s secret police.

The experience became a crucial turning point in his life. The composer thrived on writing for the stage, and his two operas – The Nose and Lady Macbeth – show an outstanding talent. He never completed another opera.

Instead he turned for the first time to writing string quartets. Opera is among the most public and high profile forms of music. The subject matter is expressed extremely clearly and concretely – using language and drama along with music. By contrast, string quartets are far more abstract in form, and aim at a more intimate level of expression, allowing the composer to elude censorship, at least up to a point. In addition chamber music such as string quartets is generally performed to smaller audiences and with less of a public profile.

The use of the ambiguities of non-vocal music is most strikingly demonstrated in his Symphony No 5, which was written in the wake of the Pravda attack. The symphony was a huge success at its premiere in 1937 and it remains to this day his most popular work. Stylistically it is a step back from the stark modernism of Lady Macbeth and his Symphony No 4, which had been withdrawn before its premiere for fear of further antagonising the authorities. As such, Symphony No 5 appeased the new guardians of Soviet art. Indeed Shostakovich accepted a critic’s remark that it was “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism” as an unofficial subtitle of the work.

Shostakovich’s patriotic works during the Second World War had removed his disgrace in the eyes of Stalin, but instead of enjoying such official favour he bravely asserted his independence. In 1945 he was commissioned by the regime to write his Symphony No 9. He was expected to write something appropriately triumphant and heroic. Instead he produced a light-hearted classical piece, featuring a hilariously pompous theme ruthlessly satirised in the first movement. Stalin was outraged and the piece was banned. But Shostakovich did not stop there. As Stalin began to whip up anti-Semitism in preparation for a new round of purges, Shostakovich responded by writing a set of songs based on Jewish folk poems.

Things came to a head once more with a hastily convened congress of the Union of Soviet Composers in January 1948. Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s “cultural commissar”, led a vicious assault on Shostakovich. When Shostakovich came to speak in his own defence, he ended by saying, “I suppose instructions will now be given.” This was a clear verbal expression of the sardonic pessimism that increasingly came to feature in his music. In the months following the congress, further attacks on him appeared in Pravda. He was sacked from his teaching posts, and all his works, except for Symphonies Nos 5 and 7, were banned.

For most of the next decade Shostakovich wrote little public music of any significance. Mostly it was hackwork for the regime in order to make a little money. But privately he continued his exploration of the string quartet. Stretching from the String Quartet No 3, composed in 1946, to his last, the String Quartet No 15, written the year before his death, his musical language becomes more and more introverted. His style in these pieces is also generally uncompromisingly modernist and experimental.

The death of Stalin in 1953 and the period of Nikita Khrushchev’s liberalising government brought him back into favour, and many of his more adventurous pieces were performed again. Even Lady Macbeth was resurrected, though with some changes. Shostakovich also seemed to have some hopes that this period would return Russia to what it might have been without Stalin. His Symphonies Nos 11 and 12 are explicitly celebrations of, respectively, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. This was the first time he had composed on the theme of the revolution since the late 1920s.

But he continued to use his music to express things not acceptable to the regime. His Symphony No 13 was written in 1962, a time when anti-Semitism was still prevalent. It is a setting of a series of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko entitled Babi Yar. The title is a reference to a ravine near Kiev where the Nazi SS massacred 34,000 Jews in 1941. But the poem is also an outcry against the history of anti-Semitism in Russia itself.

The symphony even invokes The Internationale – an anthem of revolutionary socialism – against such prejudice. The symphony was performed once before being promptly banned with renewed attacks on Shostakovich in the press. This was the last time he would openly challenge the dictatorship.

The last years of his life were deeply tragic. The liberalisation of Soviet society ended when Leonid Brezhnev took power in 1964. Once again composers, artists and writers were forced to strictly toe the party line. Although by now Shostakovich had the stature to withstand many of these pressures, he was very ill and slowly dying from cancer.

His late works, including the Symphonies Nos 14 and 15, and a series of songs set to poems by Michelangelo, are suffused with images of death and nostalgia. These works – and especially the late string quartets – are among his most difficult to listen to, precisely because they are so intensely personal and musically experimental. Though politically broken by the end of his life, he persevered in the spirit of musical experimentation that characterised both himself and the society of his youth. As a composer he is unique in expressing the great hope and eventual tragedy of the artistic and social revolution that shaped his life.


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