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Shostakovich, the musical conscience of the Russian Revolution - Part One

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This year is the centenary of Dimitri Shostakovich, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, a giant who gave voice to the sufferings and triumphs of the Soviet people in one of the most turbulent and revolutionary periods in history. In this two part article, Alan Woods attempts to show Shostakovich as he really was: a great Soviet artist who used music to express the terrible and inspiring events of the period in which he lived, a man of the people who believed in the possibility of a better world under socialism.

Introductory note:

Dimitri Shostakovich This year is the centenary of two great composers. One of them, Mozart, is universally known and loved. The second is Dimitri Shostakovich, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, a giant who gave voice to the sufferings and triumphs of the Soviet people in one of the most turbulent and revolutionary periods in history.

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on 25 September 1906 and died in Moscow, on 9 August 1975. His life therefore encompasses the October Revolution, the Civil War and two World Wars, as well as the horrors of Stalinism, which changed the whole course of his life, as it changed the destiny of the Land of October, trampling underfoot the hopes and dreams aroused by the Bolshevik Revolution. Such titanic events call forth music on a comparable scale, and they find a fitting echo in the mighty symphonies of Shostakovich.

Artists cannot remain aloof from life, even if they wish to. And Shostakovich certainly did not wish to. Behind the exterior appearance of a timid and retiring person blinking through his spectacles, this was a very courageous and resilient personality - a man determined to make his voice heard at all costs and who took enormous risks to do so.

Despite all the attempts to belittle this great composer, and to distort his real ideas and purposes for different reasons, history will establish his reputation as one of the greatest - if not the greatest - composers of the 20th century, as a heroic and tragic figure who provided posterity with a most moving, and true, record of the history of the times in which he lived, created and fought.

Shostakovich was a child of the Revolution and would never have achieved what he did without it. Throughout his life, despite all the attempts by reactionary and malicious commentators, he remained loyal to the ideals of socialism and October. But he detested Stalin and the bureaucracy. This cost him dearly. As a result of his principled stand, he had a hard life, full of tragedies - both his own and the far greater tragedies suffered by his people - the people of the Soviet Union.

All the sufferings of his native land are expressed in his music. Therefore, at times, it seems "difficult" music. This is particularly the case with his last three symphonies, written at the end of his life, when Shostakovich was embittered and increasingly obsessed with the idea of death. Even so, his music was never pessimistic but tragic, and profoundly humanistic.

The origin of the present article was some notes I wrote a few years ago to explain in general outline the meaning of Shostakovich's symphonies, as I see it, to my dear friend Miguel Fernandez, a veteran of the Spanish workers' movement in the struggle against the Franco dictatorship, as well as a talented poet and lover of classical music.

In writing this piece I am conscious that I have not done justice to the genius of Shostakovich the composer and only very superficially dealt with certain aspects of Shostakovich the man. As a Marxist, I am mainly interested in the events of his life insofar as they impinge on politics and the complex relationship between the composer and the tragic fate of the October Revolution. I am not concerned with his personal life except where it enters as a factor into this complicated and contradictory equation.

I only refer in passing to the controversy surrounding the "autobiography" of Shostakovich written by his former pupil Solomon Volkov that appeared in the 1970s in the USA under the title Testimony. This book is very interesting for anyone who wants to understand Shostakovich and the terrible events in the USSR under Stalin. However, since the subject of this book is no longer alive to vouch for its authenticity, we shall never know for certain.

My own opinion, based on a careful reading of the book and other material leads me to the conclusion that Shostakovich did dictate large parts of it to Volkov, but that the latter has added to it and has interpreted the opinions of the composer according to his own point of view, which does not necessarily coincide with that of Dimitri Shostakovich.

There are two serious problems here. One is that Shostakovich was not a man who easily opened up to people. In addition to his own rather timid and retiring character, the heavy blows that rained on his head all his life and threatened his very existence taught him to be reserved and cautious. That explains his frequently enigmatic statements about his works. When asked what they meant he would shrug his shoulders and say, in so many words: "You guess."

The other, more serious problem is that, particularly at the present time, there is a ferocious campaign to discredit the ideas of socialism and to "prove" that the Russian Revolution was a gigantic aberration, a historical mistake that achieved nothing. That is entirely false. For all the horrors of Stalinism, the October Revolution proved in practice the superiority of a nationalized planned economy. It proved that it was possible to run the economy of a vast country without landlords, bankers and private capitalists. In the words of Leon Trotsky, it proved the superiority of socialism, not in the language of Marx's Capital but in the language of cement, iron, steel, coal and electricity.

The USSR also made notable strides forward in science, art and culture. It is true that grievous harm was inflicted on Soviet culture by the corrupt and counterrevolutionary bureaucracy and that in the end, that voracious bureaucracy undermined and destroyed the nationalized planned economy, leading the land of October back to capitalism. Nowadays, the former leaders of the CPSU who used to talk about "socialism" and "communism" are singing the praises of market economics. They have every reason to, since they have plundered the state and converted themselves into the owners of big private monopolies.

Today, the great majority of the professional scribes who yesterday fawned before Stalin and Brezhnev and attacked Shostakovich for his opposition to the Stalinist regime have joined the chorus of the capitalist counterrevolution. And in the West the unprecedented ideological offensive against socialism and the October Revolution loudly proclaims the worthlessness of Soviet culture, as they proclaim that the USSR never achieved anything of value in the field of economics, science and technology.

Although it contains much valuable information, Volkov's book commits the gross mistake of attributing to Shostakovich (at least implicitly) an anti-Soviet and anti-Communist outlook. That is to say, it confuses his rejection of Stalinism with rejection of socialism and the October Revolution in general. That is incorrect. Shostakovich was well aware of the colossal cultural potential of the October Revolution, which he wholeheartedly supported, along with all the best intellectuals of his generation.

Even worse is the position of the critics of Volkov's book, who regard Shostakovich as a stooge of the Stalinist establishment, a cowardly opportunist, little better than an agent of the KGB. These ladies and gentlemen can never accept that the Soviet Union produced great composers, writers and scientists. For these intellectual prostitutes of the bourgeoisie, the USSR never produced anything worthwhile in art and culture, just as it never achieved anything economically.

What they cannot explain is how a nation that in 1917 was more backward than Pakistan today managed to transform itself very quickly into the second most powerful nation on earth, how the USSR succeeded almost single-handedly in defeating Hitler's Germany with all the resources of Europe behind it, and how after the War it succeeded, without the benefit of Marshall Aid, in rebuilding a country that had lost 27 million people - more than all the other countries put together.

And what have these admirers of capitalism got to say about Russia today? The restoration of capitalism has not conferred any benefits on the peoples of the former USSR. As Trotsky predicted, the return to capitalism in the Soviet Union has caused an unprecedented decline in the productive forces and culture. Its effects in all spheres of science, art, music and culture, have been catastrophic.

It is time to call a halt to this attempt to hijack Shostakovich for the camp of the capitalist counterrevolution. The present article attempts to redress the balance, to show Shostakovich as he really was: a great Soviet artist who used music to express the terrible and inspiring events of the period in which he lived, a man of the people who believed in the possibility of a better world under socialism, an idealist who hated all injustice and inequality, a product of the October Revolution who hated Stalinism as a perversion and a betrayal of the true ideals of Lenin.

From a strictly musical point of view, the scope of the present work is limited. I deal here almost exclusively with Shostakovich's symphonies. This does not mean that he wrote nothing else. The first cello concerto and violin concerto, the quintet and the string quartets, the songs and piano music, all contain works of genius. But, in the first place, to deal with all of Shostakovich's vast output would require a book not an article. In the second place, Shostakovich is known internationally first and foremost as a symphonist.

It is my belief that anyone who listens to his symphonies carefully can obtain a deep insight into what it was like to live through the terrible but inspiring events that the people of the USSR experienced from 1917 to the 1970s. Getting to know and love these wonderful works is a deeply rewarding and moving experience.


“I am a Soviet composer, and I see our epoch as something heroic.”

“I consider that any artist who isolates himself from the world is doomed.”

(Shostakovich)

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fragment here

Born in St. Petersburg, Shostakovich was the second of three children. His family on his father's side was of Polish origins (the original family name was Szostakowicz). His paternal grandfather Boleslaw Szostakowicz participated in the unsuccessful uprising against Russian rule in 1863 and was sentenced to lifelong exile in Siberia. These facts must have had a profound impact on the mind of the young Shostakovich, who, although not active in politics, always had a burning hatred of tyranny and a deep sympathy for the sufferings of the victims of oppression.

His family was politically liberal, and it is known that some of them participated in the underground movement against tsarism in the early years of the 20th century. One of his uncles was a Bolshevik. One year before he was born, the First Revolution of 1905 was drowned in blood. It is no accident that one of his finest symphonies (the Eleventh) is based upon this tragic page in Russian revolutionary history, or that it makes use of old Russian revolutionary songs, including the songs sung by political prisoners and Siberian exiles.

The vicissitudes of his tragic life closely followed those of the October Revolution. That Revolution ended a thousand years of tsarist oppression. It aroused the masses to political life, and provided inspiration to a whole generation. Nowadays, in an age of apostasy and cynicism, when the very idea of building a new and better world is met with knowing sneers from the tribe of Pharisees and intellectual prostitutes, it is difficult to imagine the spirit of liberation that was born out of the Russian Revolution. In order to put this into words, we must quote the famous lines with which the young poet Wordsworth greeted the French Revolution:

"Bliss ‘twas in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young were very heaven
!"

The democratic and socialist ideals of October did not only attract the exploited and oppressed masses. They also inspired the best of the artists and intellectuals, who were irresistibly drawn to the cause of the Revolution. Even if they did not understand the ideas of Marxism, talented people like the poets Alexander Blok and Sergei Yesenin sympathised wholeheartedly with the Revolution. Among the composers, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky remained abroad, bitterly hostile to the Revolution, but others, like Alexander Glazunov, remained, as did the famous Russian bass singer, Fyodor Chaliapin, putting up with considerable physical hardship to serve the people. The greatest Russian bass of all time was frequently paid for his performances in flour and eggs.

Another great Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, also went abroad. He later recalled that Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar for Culture and Education, encouraged him to stay: "You are a revolutionary in music as we are in life. We should work together. But if you want to go to America, I will not stand in your way." Prokofiev left for the United States in May, 1918. Nobody tried to prevent him from leaving - a glaring contrast to the situation under Stalin and Brezhnev. He later returned at a time when Stalin was already in power, and paid a heavy price for it.

The years of revolution and civil war were years of hunger and terrible material hardship and suffering. In a period when survival and the search for bread became the first priority, artistic and cultural pursuits were relegated to a secondary plane. Nevertheless, a new generation of young Soviet artists, writers and composers was being formed, seeking creative responses to the challenges raised by the revolution. Some of them pursued radical and innovative lines of creation in line with the spirit of revolutionary iconoclasm of those years.

Lunacharsky was not afraid to enlist the services of the young generation. Given the hostility of a large part of the old, privileged intellectuals, he did not have much choice. Arthur Lourié, the futurist composer, was appointed head of the newly formed music department of Narkompros. He was twenty-five years old. He wrote about the years after the October Revolution: "There was no bread, and art took its place. At no time and in no place have I seen people, not listening to, but devouring music with such trembling eagerness, such feeling as in Russia during those years." (Quoted by Amy Nelson in Music for the Revolution)

Shostakovich's talent for music became apparent from an early age. He began piano lessons at the age of nine. In 1919, he entered the celebrated Petrograd Conservatory, headed by Glazunov. Although the latter was, musically speaking, a conservative with his roots firmly in the world of Tchaikovsky and the 19th century, he helped the young Shostakovich, who in later life always spoke warmly of him.

Shostakovich was a representative of a new musical trend that reflected the revolutionary spirit of the age. He was following in the footsteps of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, who reacted against the romantic spirit of the 19th century and wrote music often with a violent streak that was more in consonance with the iron character of the age: music like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which caused a riot in the Paris theatre where it was first performed shortly before the First World War, or Prokofiev's Scythian Suite. Many music lovers were shocked and repelled by these dissonances. But they were only a pale reflection of the very real violence and barbarism that the 20th century was preparing for humanity.

The 1920s in the Soviet Union were an exciting time. The lava of the Revolution had not yet cooled and hardened to produce a crust of bureaucratic conservatism, as was later the case with the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. A young generation of writers, artists and composers was born out of the storm and stress of the October Revolution. Very few of them had a political ideology or a firm grasp of Marxism, but they instinctively gravitated towards the October Revolution and Bolshevism, which in some way corresponded to their own rebellious spirit, the emphatic rejection of the old and a striving after new forms of artistic expression. These writers, artists and composers were "fellow travellers", to use the graphic expression invented by Trotsky (one of the few important Bolshevik leaders who paid serious attention to the new schools of art and literature, about which he wrote in his brilliant polemic Literature and Revolution).

The acmeist poets Osip Mandelshtam and Anna Akhmatova and the symbolist Alexander Blok all participated in the debates on art and literature, together with Bogdanov and the other representatives of Proletkult. Boris Pilnyak experimented with new styles in the writing of novels. The architect and designer Vladimir Tatlin made bold innovations in the art of constructivist architecture. His design for a monument to the Communist International is famous, but remained on paper.

In music, the new "proletarian" trend was represented in its most extreme form by Mossolov, whose impressive evocation of factory life Zavod (The Iron Foundry) gained a certain notoriety. One can have different views as to the artistic value of this, and other works of the period, but they undoubtedly possess a certain vigour and sincerity, and they represented an honest attempt to achieve a new voice for Soviet art and music.

At this time there could be no question of the Party or the state ordering writers or composers what they could or could not write. Of course, the Party could not be indifferent to artistic trends and engaged in a lively polemic, criticising certain trends as bourgeois or petty bourgeois. But this was a friendly and constructive dialogue, and not a bureaucratic monologue in which an all-powerful State, with the Father of the People at its head could dictate not only how men and women should act, but also how they should think and feel.

The first symphonies

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the First Symphony

Shostakovich's first major musical achievement was the First Symphony, premiered in 1926, written as his graduation piece. The success of the First symphony made its author famous at the early age of 19. Musically, it owes a debt to earlier composers like Scriabin and Mahler, but it already has a musical language all of its own.

It is very much the symphony of a young man who has just embarked on an exciting journey, full of self-confidence and adventure. It recalls the words of the revolutionary Bolshevik-poet, Mayakovsky in his early work A Cloud in Trousers:

"Your thoughts,
Fantasizing in a sodden brain,
Like a bloated lackey sprawling on a greasy couch, -
With my heart's bloody tatters,
I'll mock at again and again, until I'm content,
I will be merciless and galling.

"There is no grandfatherly tenderness in me.
In my soul there is not one grey hair.
Shaking the world with my thundering voice and grinning,
I pass you by,
Handsome, twentytwo years old."

Some bourgeois critics, who, fifteen years after the collapse of Stalinism, are still fighting the Cold War, have attempted to attribute to Shostakovich a negative attitude to the Bolshevik Revolution from the very beginning. There is no basis whatsoever for such a view. While not a political activist, the young Shostakovich clearly sympathised heart and soul with the October Revolution. This is reflected in his music. In 1927 he wrote his Second Symphony subtitled To October. It was followed by the Third Symphony, dedicated to May Day, the international proletarian festival.

The second symphony was written in 1927 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. There can be no question of the young and idealistic composer setting out to ingratiate himself with the Soviet authorities. If he wrote about this subject, it was because he believed in it - passionately. It includes the text of a poem about Lenin by Alexander Bozyensky. Introduced by a factory siren, it ends with the words October, the Commune, Lenin.

One can say that these early works - with the exception of the masterly First Symphony - contained much that was immature, clumsy and unsuccessful. The Third Symphony, first performed in Leningrad in 1930, was, on the whole, a forward-looking work. But it is really a fairly incoherent jumble of ideas that does not amount to a satisfactory whole. The young composer was still finding his way, groping for a style that would be all his own. And it is the sacred right of any young writer or composer to write badly sometimes. Only through trial and error does youth learn the way to live life, let alone to write works of music and literature. No great artist ever became great by reading cook-books on how to write or compose.

He also wrote major works for the ballet (The Age of Gold, The Bolt) and the cinema (New Babylon). This was the beginning of a long association of Shostakovich with the cinema. All these early works are experimental and modernist in character, and fully in the spirit of the times in which they were written. We see in these early works the influence of Prokofiev, but also of Stravinsky, Hindemith and Krenek. There was no question at that time of condemning a young composer for writing "difficult" music, for experimenting or for using foreign models. He even set to music a western popular song of the time, Tea for Two, which he called Tahiti-Trot, which he included in his ballet The Limpid Stream.

But by the end of the 1920s, the whole political and cultural climate in the USSR was changing. The defeat of the socialist revolution in Europe as a result of the betrayals of the Social Democratic leaders, led to the isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of the most frightful backwardness. In place of the earlier revolutionary enthusiasm, the Soviet workers relapsed into exhaustion and apathy. After the death of Lenin in 1924, the Soviet bureaucracy, headed by Stalin, became increasingly assertive. A new caste of bureaucratic careerists pushed the workers aside and occupied key positions in the state and Party. The defeat and expulsion of the Left Opposition at the 15th congress of the CPSU set the official seal on the bureaucratic political counterrevolution that placed power in the hands of Stalin and his faction.

Stalinist reaction

In 1930 the most famous Soviet poet, Mayakovsky, who was known as "the drummer boy of the Revolution", committed suicide. In his moving last poem, written shortly before he took his own life, Mayakovsky wrote: "I feel myself slowly growing grey." These words, in sharp contrast to the youthful optimism of A Cloud in Trousers, reflect the despair of a revolutionary poet at the creeping bureaucratic reaction that was spreading like a poison through Soviet society, paralysing all initiative and strangling every element of workers' democracy at the same time as it suffocated artistic freedom. Mayakovsky could not reconcile himself to Stalinism. His suicide was an act of protest.

By the time he was 30, in 1936, Shostakovich was known for two operas and three full-length ballets, besides numerous scores for the theatre and films, whereas only one purely orchestral symphony had been performed, and one string quartet. But after this meteoric rise to fame, Shostakovich now found himself hopelessly (and increasingly dangerously) out of step with the new spirit of the times. He had already started work on his Fourth Symphony, with its dark and ominous tones. But events were to force him to abandon the project, and the symphony was consigned to a drawer, and received its first performance three decades later.

While still working on his second symphony, Shostakovich struck out in a new direction: opera. This archetypal bourgeois medium now became the object of his fertile experimentation. He wrote a satirical opera The Nose, based on the famous story of the same name by the great Russian-Ukrainian novelist Nikolai Gogol. The theme of this short story has very clear anti-bureaucratic undertones. The story appears to be pure fantasy: a bureaucrat wakes up one morning to find his nose is missing. He searches for it everywhere, and eventually catches up with it, only to discover that it is dressed in the uniform of a superior official. Eventually, it mysteriously reappears on its owner's face. In Gogol's story this is the end. But in Shostakovich's opera there is an epilogue in which the bureaucrat says: "This was only a nightmare, but reality is even worse."

In a debate on the opera, Shostakovich was asked whether he was worried it would be understood. He replied: "To judge by today's audience, yes: there was a lot of applause and no hissing or boos." He went on to say specifically that this was an opera against bureaucracy, and that, as a Soviet artist, he was only interested in writing music for the workers and peasants. "Everyone is thinking about his own ‘nose', when what we should be thinking about is the common cause." (The interview is reproduced in an interesting Soviet film about the composer called The Sonata for Viola)

This got the young composer into his first spot of trouble with the Soviet authorities. The times had already passed when a Soviet artist or composer could use his talent to ridicule the new caste of bureaucratic upstarts with impunity. The Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky promoted artistic freedom. Openly counterrevolutionary writers might find their works banned, but this was the exception, and on political, not artistic grounds. One must bear in mind that the country was only just recovering from a bloody Civil War. Yet it never occurred to Lenin and Trotsky to inflict totalitarian state control over literature and art. They confined themselves to polemicising against those tendencies in art that they considered to be negative.

Under Stalin all that changed. Having suppressed all opposition inside the Communist Party (the Bolshevik Party was always characterised by its lively internal life and free debate, even in the most difficult periods), Stalin began to introduce bureaucratic control of the arts, of which he was deeply suspicious. The setting up of RAPM (Rossiskaya ?ssociatsiya Proletarskykh ?uzikantov, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) was an attempt to exercise the same control over Soviet composers that had already been imposed over writers through a similar association (RAPP). In 1929, Shostakovich's opera was criticised as "formalist" by this Stalinist musicians' organisation, and was subjected to hostile reviews. The criticism of The Nose was ferocious but it was only a mild anticipation of the ideological attacks that were to fall on the composer's head before long.

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

The occasion of his fall from grace was his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Based on a novel by the 19th century Russian writer, Leskov, it was first performed in the Maly theatre in Leningrad in January 1934 and was immediately successful, both with the Soviet public and, at least at first, on an official level. It was said to be "the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party" and that such an opera "could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture." But the storm clouds were already gathering.

Lady Macbeth Modern performance of
Modern performance of Lady Macbeth

The very year when Lady Macbeth first appeared dramatic events were being prepared in the Soviet Union. Stalin had won the inner-Party conflict. But like any usurper, he felt insecure. He saw enemies on all sides, particularly the secretary of the Leningrad Party organisation, Kirov. In 1934 Stalin organised the assassination of Kirov and then blamed it on a non-existent "Trotskyite-Zinovievite Centre". The Kirov assassination was the signal for a wave of repression that led to the arrest of hundreds of thousands of people, including loyal supporters of Stalin, who were accused of Trotskyism and unceremoniously dispatched to prison or labour camps.

An atmosphere of terror was being created that was to hang like a nightmare over Soviet society. But at this stage Stalin was still cautiously feeling his way. He did not even feel confident enough to execute his old rivals, the Old Bolsheviks, Kamenev and Zinoviev. After they had once again confessed to crimes they had not committed and poured dirt over their own heads in Stalin's show trials, they were "rewarded" by being allowed to stay alive - in prison. But not for long. By 1936, the consolidation of the bureaucratic ruling caste demanded new and harsher methods. New show trials were organised, in which not only Kamenev and Zinoviev but the whole Leninist Old Guard was physically exterminated.

The year 1936 was a fateful one for Shostakovich and for the people of the USSR. Lady Macbeth was now put on at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. It could not have been staged at a worse time. The year began with a campaign of attacks on Shostakovich in the pages of Pravda, which was instigated by Stalin himself. The first ominous warning was when the Father of the People attended a performance of Lady Macbeth and walked out. An article appeared in Pravda entitled Muddle Instead of Music, which condemned Lady Macbeth as formalist. "All is coarse, primitive and vulgar," the article stated, "The music quacks, grunts and growls". It is very likely that the author of this article was Stalin. In the climate of the times this was equivalent to a long sentence to hard labour - or worse.

Stalin's objections to the opera were only partly aesthetic. It is true that his artistic and musical tastes, like those of the bureaucratic caste he represented, were primitive, philistine and conservative. The bureaucratic reaction against the storm and stress of the October Revolution was expressed in the Stalinist establishment's aversion for experimentation and innovation in art, literature and music. Here, bad taste is not a personal characteristic but the reflection of social trends, political changes and class and caste interests.

But it was not only the modernist music Stalin disliked. It was the subject matter. Throughout the history of class society, the enslavement of women to men has provided a firm basis for the family, and the family has provided a firm basis for the state, that is, for the organised oppression of one class (or caste) by another. The October Revolution inscribed on its banner the emancipation of women, and it kept its promise. As in every other sphere, the victory of the bureaucratic counterrevolution meant the liquidation of the political conquests of October. Lust, illicit love affairs and murder were not the most appropriate themes for the Stalinists who were preaching the need for a "new" and "socialist" (that is to say thoroughly conservative and bourgeois) morality, based upon the family.

The central character, Katerina Izmailova, who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a merchant and murders him, is shown in a sympathetic light, as a victim of circumstances. But there was far worse than this. In Shostakovich's opera, the police and authorities are displayed in a negative light. The police are heartless bullies, involved in extortion and blackmail (just as they are in Russia today). Worst of all, a party of prisoners appears on stage in chains, being dragged across the endless steppes of Russia to Siberian exile. In the year 1936, this was not the kind of thing the Stalinists wanted shown on the stage.

Shostakovich attempted to defend himself and his opera. "My understanding of Lady Macbeth is that the crimes of Katerina Izmailova are a protest against the atmosphere in which she lives: against the dismal, stifling atmosphere of the merchant milieu of the last century." But the mentality and morality of the bureaucratic milieu of Stalinist Russia was really not so very far removed from that same milieu. The typical Russian bureaucrat of Stalin's time was as crude, ignorant, narrow and provincial as the average merchant in Leskov's novels. Stalin himself shared the mentality, morality and tastes of this milieu. The Stalinist political counterrevolution had its psychological roots in a petty-bourgeois reaction against October.

"Enemy of the People"

The liquidation of Leninist workers' democracy was necessarily accompanied by the imposition of totalitarian norms at every level of social and cultural life. The first victim of the new bureaucratic-totalitarian regime was artistic freedom. The bureaucracy required obedience and conformism, not originality and free debates about art. Moreover, in a totalitarian regime, where political debate and criticism is silenced and opposition is persecuted with the heavy hand of the state, art, literature and music can play the role of an underground opposition in which criticism of the bureaucracy is conveyed in a cryptic language that people accustomed to reading between the lines can understand. The Soviet Composers' Union was specifically formed to police the composers and turn them into the obedient servants of the bureaucracy.

Immediately after the appearance of the Pravda article, Shostakovich began to feel the effects. The Party hacks in the Composers' Union began to denounce not only Lady Macbeth but other works by Shostakovich such as The Nose and The Limpid Stream. Commissions for his music began to dry up, and his income fell by about three quarters. On those rare occasions when his works were publicly performed, his name appeared on advertising posters as "Dimitri Shostakovich - Enemy of the People". The Fourth Symphony got as far as the rehearsal stage, but in the current political climate performances were out of the question. It did not receive its first performance until 1961, although a piano reduction was published in 1946.

Shostakovich was now in grave danger. The first condemnation of Shostakovich coincided with the beginning of the Great Terror, in which hundreds of thousands of people disappeared into Stalin's Gulag, most of them never to re-emerge. Many of the composer's friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed. In 1937-8 Stalin's Purge reached a bloody climax. The celebrated Soviet theatre director Vsevolod Meyerholt, with whom Shostakovich had collaborated, was sent to a concentration camp, where he was murdered in 1940. Other notable Soviet writers and artists also fell victim to the Purges, including Isaak Babel, the author of Red Cavalry, the poet Osip Mandelshtam and many other lesser known figures. Mosolov, the composer of The Iron Foundry, was also imprisoned.

The Purge extended to the tops of the Red Army. Among the victims was Marshall Tukachevsky, the hero of the Civil War and military genius. Since he had befriended Shostakovich, this was a moment of extreme danger. From this time on, he was walking a precarious tightrope over a bottomless abyss. At any moment he could be swallowed up by it and never seen again. He used to carry a small suitcase with him in readiness for the arrest he expected from one hour to the next.

The Fifth Symphony

The composer's response to his denunciation was the Fifth Symphony, the musical idiom of which was more conservative and less modernist than his earlier works. Nevertheless, it is a work of utter genius. It was an immediate success, and remains one of his most popular works. This temporarily silenced his critics. It is said that the composer described the Fifth Symphony as "a Soviet artist's reply to a just criticism." This is a lie. Shostakovich never uttered these weasel words, which were the invention of some boot-licking Stalinist hack or other. This noble work certainly marked a change of direction of the composer's musical style, but certainly no decline in standards. As a matter of fact, despite its apparently triumphant ending, it has a profoundly tragic character.

This was a particularly black period in the history of the Soviet Union, when Stalin spoke of "the happy life", while the madness of forced collectivization caused a man-made famine that killed as many as ten million people. Stalin systematically trampled on every principle of Leninism and Soviet democracy. Yet the Stalin Constitution of 1936 was hailed as "the most democratic constitution in the world". Irony was therefore implicit in the whole situation.

The victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy found its expression in the field of art in the so-called theory of "socialist realism". This expression was a contradiction in terms. It was neither socialist nor realist, but rather a kind of dreary conformism and conservatism that presented Stalin and the bureaucracy with the kind of undemanding and superficial "art" that their limited understanding and narrow outlook could cope with, while at the same time it painted Soviet life in rose-tinted colours. Stalin himself liked to watch films in a special cinema inside the Kremlin. He particularly liked to watch films showing contented and well-fed collective farmers at a time when the countryside was in the grip of a terrible famine in which millions were dying of starvation.

In general, such art did not rise far above the artistic level of the average chocolate box cover. Today the smug, comfortable images of contented workers and smiling collective farmers surrounded by a sea of waving cornfields arouse no interest other than curiosity or dismissive laughter. But it suited the purpose of the bureaucracy, for which art was only just another department of the totalitarian propaganda machine.

How did "socialist realism" apply to music? The authorities did not object to contradictions in music (after all, the Father of the People had stated - in flat contradiction to Marx and Lenin - that the class struggle would intensify as communism grew nearer). But all such contradictions must be satisfactorily resolved in the last movement. In the same way, all Soviet films and novels must have a happy ending. The fact that in life not every ending is happy and that under Stalin many people ended up badly, was of no concern to the bureaucratic censors and bloodhounds of the Composers' Union.

The Fifth Symphony is not a celebration of the "happy life". It is a work full to the brim with the most intense tragedy and suffering. It is not merely the personal tragedy and suffering of an individual, although it is an intensely personal statement, but it is the far greater collective tragedy suffered by the whole Soviet people at this time that is reflected in every bar and phrase. The first movement is like a man traversing a barren and desolate landscape, like the landscape of the moon. But it is the sublime slow movement ("Largo") where the sense of tragedy becomes almost unbearable. Only the last movement gives the impression of a "happy ending" with its onward-moving march theme. But this is an ironical statement. It bears as little relation to the rest of the symphony as Stalin's speeches about the "happy life" had with the grim reality faced by the majority of Soviet citizens at this time.

The irony of the ending of the Fifth Symphony was understood by many people. The celebrated conductor Kurt Sanderling, assistant to Mravinsky during 1941-1960 has said: "I think that for us contemporaries who knew and worked with Shostakovich, it has never been difficult to interpret his works along with their double meanings. For us, it was all very clear... The Fifth Symphony was the first contemporary work with which I was confronted (in the USSR) and I got the impression: yes - that's exactly it - that's our life here... The so-called 'triumph' at the end - we understood what he was saying. And it was not the 'triumph' of the mighty, those in power."

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The contrast between official proclamations and the lives of the people was the greatest irony of all. This was reflected in Shostakovich's music. The composer later said of the ending of the Fifth Symphony that it was as if somebody was beating us on the head, shouting: "You must rejoice! You must rejoice!" In other words, it is pregnant with irony and a double meaning. From now on irony became an essential part of Shostakovich's music - especially the symphonies. It is no accident that it was at this time that Shostakovich composed the first of his string quartets. The more intimate world of chamber music allowed him to experiment and express ideas which he could not risk in his symphonies.

From the composer's own comments, it is known that, just before the Second World War, he was preparing to write a "Lenin Symphony" on a large scale, with choruses, on the lines of Beethoven's Ninth, and words based on Mayakovsky's epic poem Lenin. He even wrote to a Soviet journal that he had begun "a task of tremendous responsibility, to express in sound the immortal images of Lenin." But the symphony was never written. According to the anti-Communist critics, this was because Shostakovich was "allergic" to writing music about Lenin. This is entirely false. Shostakovich was bitterly opposed to Stalin and everything he stood for. But he remained faithful to the ideals of socialism and the October Revolution.

There is absolutely nothing to suggest that he identified Stalin with Lenin, the usual slander the present-day bourgeois historians, determined to blacken the name of the Bolsheviks by linking them with the crimes of Stalin. These falsifiers of history conveniently "forget" one small detail: that, in order to consolidate his bureaucratic regime, Stalin had to destroy Lenin's party and exterminate almost all of its leaders. The reason why Shostakovich never wrote his "Lenin Symphony" was that the contrast between the ideas of Lenin and the October Revolution and the ugly reality of Stalinism was too great, the images of the anti-Bolshevik Purges too recent and too painful, to allow him to do this. Shostakovich was a man of principle, and hypocrisy was entirely foreign to him.

As we have seen, Shostakovich got round this in the Fifth Symphony by writing a tragic work with a pseudo-happy ending. It can be said that all his symphonies after the Fifth (and including the Fifth) contain in some way a criticism of the Stalinist regime. When the Sixth Symphony was performed in November 1939, together with Prokofiev's marvellous cantata Alexander Nevsky, the audience was disappointed. They looked hard to find some traces of Lenin in it, but there are none. The Sixth Symphony is a strange work, both as regards form and content.

It begins with a lengthy and tragic first movement, in which the composer peers into the abyss and stares at hell itself. This is followed by shorter and enigmatic movements, full of sinister and menacing overtones, in which the initial contradictions cannot be said to have been resolved. On the contrary, they are more glaring than in almost any other of his works. The main characteristic of these movements is biting sarcasm - one of Shostakovich's main weapons. There is no hint of "repentance" here, no concessions to "socialist realism", just an open act of defiance. This was definitely not what the authorities had in mind when they talked of "a Soviet artist's reply to a just criticism." But in the meantime, dramatic events were being prepared on the world stage that would thrust all such questions into the background.

The Second World War

After the nightmare of the Purges, new and even greater horrors were being prepared for the Soviet people. Stalin's criminal policy of "social fascism" led to the victory of Hitler in Germany, which posed a deadly threat to the USSR. Later, his betrayal of the Spanish Revolution removed the last obstacle to a new war in Europe. His attempt to avoid a clash with Nazi Germany by signing a pact with Hitler collapsed in 1941, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, inflicting terrible losses on the Red Army, which was completely unprepared. When he heard of the attack, Stalin initially refused to believe it and ordered the Red Army not to fight. As a result, many Soviet planes were destroyed on the ground and millions of Red Army soldiers were captured without firing a shot and sent to Nazi death camps from which few emerged alive.

Shostakovich on the cover
Shostakovich on the cover
of Time Magazine

One of the most horrifying and at the same time inspiring episodes in the War was the siege of Leningrad. Shostakovich courageously remained in Leningrad during the siege, when many people starved to death or perished from cold or German bombs. Although he could have left the city, Shostakovich decided to remain and share the fate of his people. The composer even enlisted in the fire brigade. He was featured on the cover of an American magazine, complete with fireman's helmet. At this time he achieved international fame through his Seventh Symphony (nicknamed Leningrad). He wrote the first three movements in his besieged native city. Only when directly ordered by Moscow to leave Leningrad did he reluctantly agree to be evacuated.

Some "clever" interpreters have maintained that it really represents an attack on Stalinism, or totalitarianism in general. Some of these commentators have even maintained that Shostakovich would have welcomed a German victory! To such insane conclusions does fanatical anti-communism drive some people. The very idea that Shostakovich could have welcomed the victory of Hitler is a scandalous libel on a man who all his life defended progressive ideals and was a convinced Soviet patriot, despite his hatred of Stalin and the bureaucracy. Immediately on hearing the news of Hitler's attack on the USSR, he volunteered for army service, but was refused on the grounds of his poor eyesight. He actively participated in the Soviet War effort, serving as a fire warden in the besieged city of Leningrad, and delivering a radio broadcast to the Soviet people. Finally, in October 1941, the composer and his family were evacuated to Kuybishev (now Samara), where the symphony was completed.

Shostakovich in 1943 Anyone who watches Shostakovich speaking on a platform denouncing the Nazi aggression against the USSR (in the film Sonata for Viola) can be left in no doubt about his passionate hatred of Nazism and determination to defend his homeland and its people from Hitler barbarism. That is the central meaning of this outstanding symphony. Shostakovich was expressing his deepest feelings about the War. He said: "the music surged out of me. I could not hold it back". He worked feverishly to finish the symphony, remaining at his desk day and night even during air raids. All but the last movement was written inside the besieged city and is a moving expression of the sufferings and heroism of the people of Leningrad and of the whole Soviet Union.

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of the march-like theme

The first movement of the Symphony includes a celebrated passage in which a march-like theme is constantly repeated, getting ever louder, somewhat in the manner of Ravel's Bolero. The theme is said to represent the advancing forces of the Nazi army. The theme itself has a banal character, reflecting the spiritual emptiness and mindlessness of fascism. The powerful final movement is dominated by a sense of struggle against superhuman odds, in which the human spirit finally triumphs against tyranny and barbarism. It frequently quotes from the four notes that in Morse code signify "v" for victory, and which, by coincidence, are also used by Beethoven in the celebrated first movement of his Fifth Symphony.

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Listen to the final movement
of the 7th symphony

It achieved instant success, not only in the USSR but internationally (its US premiere was conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini) and it became a symbol of the heroic resistance of the Soviet people to Nazi barbarism. But for Shostakovich it was much more than this. He entitles the last movement: Victory and the Beautiful Life in the Future. Thanks to the superhuman efforts of the Soviet people (faithfully reflected in this music) and the superiority of the nationalized planned economy, the USSR was indeed victorious. But the composer's hope that this would mean a better life in the future was soon to be dashed.

London, 16 December, 2006.

To be continued...


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