Shostakovich, the musical conscience of the Russian Revolution – Part Two

"The Shostakovich centenary year has shown that, despite the sneering of ill-intentioned critics, his music is getting an increasingly wide audience. Shostakovich's music will live for as long as men and women love music, because, like his idol Beethoven, he was a man with something important to say." Here we publish the second and last part of Alan Woods' article on Shostakovich.

The post-war period

During the War, Stalin was compelled to relax, at least partially, his stranglehold. Red Army officers imprisoned in the Purges were hastily released and given positions of command at the front line, where they served with conspicuous bravery. As the Red Army gradually pushed the Germans back, reversing the tide and then marching into the heart of Europe, there was a general mood of optimism that things would get better after the War. But the illusion was not to last.

In spring 1943 Shostakovich and his family moved to Moscow. By this time the tide had already turned and the Red Army was advancing on all fronts. Stalin expected Soviet composers to write heroic patriotic music to inspire the people to fight. But Shostakovich's new symphony (the Eighth) was completely unlike the Seventh, which depicts a heroic (and ultimately victorious) struggle against adversity. By contrast, the Eighth Symphony of that year is an utterly bleak work. It is like the vast Russian landscape, devastated by the war, and not only by the war.

This very long movement steadily mounts to a shattering climax, which is like a cry of protest expressing unimaginable pain and sorrow. It is not what the authorities wanted to hear. What is this work really about? Its main themes are a mixture of dark tragedy and violent struggles. The fast and violent scherzo is said by some to be a portrait of Stalin. This is possible. Certainly the work was a challenge to the authorities, who recognized it as such. The symphony was banned until 1960. It was followed by the Ninth Symphony (1945) - yet another act of defiance. Stalin and the bureaucracy were expecting triumphal music - a "hymn of victory.

They had expected something altogether different. They had even suggested to Shostakovich that he should use large orchestral forces and a big chorus. Instead, Shostakovich composed the shortest of all his symphonies, only about 25 minutes long, whereas the Seventh and Eighth lasted over an hour. It is a work full of irony from the first line to the last. The Ninth Symphony is in turn, comical, ironic and even trivial. In the first movement it is like a naughty little boy, thumbing his nose at authority. But the slow movement is full of anxiety, while the other movements are sinister, menacing, even diabolical. The last movement resembles a gigantic belly laugh, as if to say: what do I care about all this pompous nonsense? The result was predicable.

In the bleak years after the end of the War, Stalin decided to clamp down yet again. In the field of the arts, he used the services of the notorious Zhdanov, who launched a savage attack on artists, writers and composers who were not complete lackeys of the regime. Prominent among those denounced were the two most outstanding Soviet composers, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. In 1948 Shostakovich was again denounced for "formalism". Immediately an army of scoundrels, third-rate composers, servile functionaries of the Composers' Union, critics and hacks of all sorts, threw themselves onto the victims of Zhdanov's attacks like a pack of hungry wolves straining to tear a defenceless animal to pieces.

After the Resolutions of the Communist Party Central Committee of the 10th February, numerous meetings (some of them lasting for weeks), rallies, and press publications were organised to denounce those belonging to the "anti-national, formalistic line in music." Shostakovich had to remain silent while buckets of filthy slop were poured over his head. He was called a composer with "an underdeveloped sense of melody", a maker of "disgusting" music, "cacophony", and "brain-twisters".

The critic Afanasiev described his Ninth Symphony as "a thoughtless, formless work, unworthy of our Soviet music. The composer Zakharov (whose works nobody remembers today) complained that what was needed was stirring patriotic music to inspire the Soviet working people to rebuild more quickly and demanded to know in what way the music of Shostakovich fulfilled that role. In vain the composer protested that all his works were intended to express the feelings of the Soviet people. That was not the answer his critics expected. The magazine Kultura I Zhizn' asserted that Shostakovich was "unable to reflect the spirit of the Soviet people." But the real aim of "socialist realism" was not at all to express the real feelings of the real Soviet working class, but to express the necessities and fulfil the orders of the ruling bureaucratic caste. The problem of Shostakovich's music was not that it failed to express the real feelings of the Soviet people, but that it expressed them only too well.

Shostakovich was sacked from his post in the Moscow Conservatory. Most of his works were banned, he was forced publicly to repent, and his family had privileges withdrawn. Yuri Lyubimov says that at this time "he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn't be disturbed". Shostakovich continued to compose chamber music, but did not write another symphony till the magnificent Tenth, written in 1953, the year Stalin died.

After Zhdanov's attack, Shostakovich was compelled to retreat from the public limelight. He wrote no symphonies and his compositions were divided into film music to pay the bills and "official" works aimed at securing his rehabilitation. For the next few years his serious compositions (which included such important works as the First Violin Concerto) had to be consigned to the drawer until more favourable times. Despite Zhdanov's condemnation, some of his film music was critically acclaimed - such as the Young Guard and Five Days and Five Nights - the latter about the German city of Dresden in the aftermath of the War. In the latter piece, Shostakovich quotes movingly from the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Even in this secondary piece, Shostakovich's humanitarianism shines through all the miseries of War.

The restrictions on Shostakovich's music and living arrangements were partially relaxed in 1949, in order to secure his participation in a Soviet delegation to the U.S.A. The Cold War was already well underway and the Soviet authorities were anxious to prove to the world the superiority of the USSR in the field of culture. If Shostakovich was as virulently anti-Soviet as some have maintained, here was a golden opportunity for him to defect. But throughout his life Shostakovich showed absolutely no interest in emigrating, nor did he express any particular admiration for the capitalist way of life. He showed a lively interest in the music of western composers like Britten and Hindemith, but this natural affinity for the work of his fellow musicians was the full extent of his interest in the West.

Those who attack Shostakovich from the standpoint of rabid anti-Communism point to the fact that he was obliged to make concessions to the regime in order to survive and earn a crust of bread. In fact, it appears that the only thing that saved Shostakovich from a prison camp (from which, given the fragile state of his health, he would probably not have emerged alive), was the fact that Stalin liked his film music. The Father of the People,as we have seen earlier, was a keen film fan and regularly watched films in his private cinema in the Kremlin. He particularly liked films in which he played a leading role - even when these bore no resemblance whatsoever to the historical facts. He needed a great composer to write the music for such films, and Shostakovich was the best candidate for the job.

He wrote the music for several films depicting Stalin in a flattering light. His cantata Song of the Forests praised Stalin as the "great gardener". In the film The Unforgettable Year 1919, for which Shostakovich wrote the music, Stalin is depicted as the leader of the Red Army in the Civil War, although in fact it was Trotsky who stood at the head of the Red Army. There is no doubt that the composer held his nose while making such concessions. But he really had no alternative if he wished to survive. Stalin's spiteful nature - which Lenin commented on in his Suppressed Testament - was shown by his treatment of the families of those he saw as enemies. Prokofiev's wife was sent to prison after her husband was denounced by Zhdanov.

It must be borne in mind that Shostakovich was not a political activist but a composer, albeit a composer with a deep sense of justice and a social conscience that made him express the most important problems of his times in deeply felt and imposing music. Despite being a shy and retiring man, he showed enormous personal courage and great integrity in fighting the Stalinist regime, while simultaneously producing works that represents the very summit of musical creation of the 20th century, not just in the USSR but in the world. But there were times when the burden of this lonely struggle proved too great for him, and he was forced to stage a tactical retreat.

Marina Sabinina dismisses his "falsely patriotic" choral works as having "very little in common with his real style" and describes Shostakovich's scores for such "repulsive, hypocritical movies as The Unforgettable Year 1919, The Fall of Berlin, and The Meeting on the Elbe as "compromises which repelled him as an artist and were bitter and humiliating for him". (She adds that he had to write these things, even though doing so "violated" him, because he had no other source of income at that time.) She confesses having had to throw out "whole passages" of her 1976 book on Shostakovich's symphonies in order to get it published: "I would have liked to show truthfully the tragedy of this genius who suffered persecutions from rude, uncouth nonentities who tried to crush and trample him; who had to buy the right to be himself with certain concessions."

The Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin wrote in the Gramophone magazine "You in the West sometimes have a very naive view. You think in black and white. Relations with the authorities were always complex, for Shostakovich and Prokofiev as well as others. I remember playing in a performance of Prokofiev's Zdravitsa [aka Hail to Stalin], for instance. But wouldn't you compromise if you had to save your family?"

Those reactionary anti-Communists who blame him for this are unjustified and ill-intentioned. If a man like Christian Rakovsky, that seasoned veteran of the revolutionary movement, a man with a profound grasp of Marxist theory, if even such a man capitulated to Stalin under intolerable pressure, how can one expect a man like Shostakovich to withstand the immense pressure of Stalin's repressive machine? Shostakovich bent under pressure, but he never broke. He remained true to himself and intransigently hostile to Stalinism to the end of his days.

Does this mean that Shostakovich was a pro-bourgeois opponent of socialism, as the other school of western thought maintains? There is not the slightest evidence to support this view. Shostakovich was neither a closet Stalinist nor an anti-Soviet counterrevolutionary of the Solzhenitsyn type. He was a loyal supporter of the socialist ideals of the October Revolution, but saw that these ideals were in open contradiction to the bureaucratic caricature of Stalinism. Stalin's death paved the way for Shostakovich's official rehabilitation. But it did not end his one-man struggle against the bureaucracy. He secretly started work on a cantata called Rayok in May 1948. This was a biting satire of the "musical activism" of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and it remained a closely guarded secret till after the composer's death in 1975.

Shostakovitch's fight against anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism featured prominently at every stage of the Stalinist political counterrevolution. As in tsarist times anti-Semitism was a useful weapon to distract the masses from their most pressing problems. Although, paradoxically, Stalin supported the setting up of Israel in order to weaken the control of British imperialism in the Middle East, he again used anti-Semitism as a cover for a new Purge after the War. The so-called campaign against "rootless cosmopolitans" (i.e., Jews) culminated with the notorious Doctors' Plot. Stalin's personal physicians, who happened to be Jewish, were accused of plotting to poison the Vozhd' (Chief), arrested and tortured to extract confessions. These confessions were used to implicate other people in the "plot" and so forth.

The October Revolution emancipated all the nationalities that had been oppressed by Tsarism (Lenin called it "a prison-house of the nations"), including the Jews, who were granted full political and social equality. All the old humiliating restrictions were removed. But under Stalin Russian chauvinism began to re-emerge, and with it all the old filth of anti-Semitism. Although this could not be openly expressed (the heritage of proletarian internationalism of the October Revolution was still too recent in people's minds), it was always present as an undercurrent, which from time to time emerged as a tool whereby the bureaucracy could divert the attention of the masses from their real problems.

After the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Russian bureaucracy attempted to establish good relations with the Nazi regime in Berlin. As part of this policy, prominent Jews were removed from public office. Litvinov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was Jewish and identified with the policy of rapprochement with Britain and France against Nazi Germany, was replaced by the Russian Molotov. They even issued an order to the concentration camps, instructing the guards not to use the word fascist as an insult against the prisoners. Stalin handed over German antifascist refugees in Russia to the tender mercies of Hitler.

In the memoirs of Shostakovich written by Solomon Volkov, it is pointed out that in this period the works of Wagner were first performed in the Bolshoi, commencing with Die Walkure. The director was none other than Sergei Eisenstein, who invited a Jewish colleague to take part in the production. The latter replied: "Don't you understand what this means? I cannot take part in this production because I am Jewish". Eisenstein did not believe it. But it was true. The opera was performed in the presence of the Nazi ambassador, and without Jews.

It was at this time that Shostakovich wrote his masterly and moving song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. Perversely, right wing critics like Fay argue that this was just an attempt of the composer to ingratiate himself with the authorities by writing in the style of folk music! But Shostakovich could have picked any kind of folk music - Russian, Georgian, Armenian, Uzbek or Kalmyk - but he specifically chose Jewish music and poems that underline the sufferings of the Jewish people under Russian Tsarism.

Fay argues that because the work was completed in October, 1948, and Joseph Stalin's campaign against Jewish institutions was not (in her phrase) "gathering momentum" until December, it does not count as protest against anti-Semitism. But anti-Semitism was not a new idea dreamed up by the Kremlin overnight. As early as the late 1920s, in the struggle against Trotsky and the Left Opposition, Stalin made use of anti-Semitism, putting into circulation the story that "the yids are stirring up trouble on the Central Committee."

Shostakovich was very interested in Jewish music, which appears at regular intervals in his work. But the timing of the work was significant. Was Shostakovich such a fool that he did not realise that this was dangerous ground to tread on? Not at all, he knew this very well because he had close ties with some of those affected by the anti-Semitic campaign. The subject of anti-Semitism was something he felt very deeply about and which continually resurfaces in his work, most famously in the Thirteenth Symphony (Babi Yar), which is a specific attack on Russian anti-Semitism.

Shostakovich detested tyranny in general and the oppression of defenceless people in particular. In the early 1960s, when there was evidence of a new outbreak of anti-Semitism in the USSR, the radical poet Eugene Yevtuchenko (himself a Ukranian) wrote a poem in protest against this, with the title Babi Yar, which contains a harrowing account of the atrocities committed against the Jews in Russia and the Ukraine throughout history. The poet affirms that this makes him ashamed to be Russian. Finally he says: "I am Russian. In my veins there does not flow a single drop of Jewish blood, but in the face of all this, I am a Jew". Shostakovich took these verses as a basis of his Thirteenth Symphony, which is an extremely outspoken protest against Stalinism and anti-Semitism.

The death of Stalin

The Father of the People was now showing all the signs of pathological paranoia. He was morbidly suspicious of everyone, even his inner circle. Khrushchov, one of the members of this circle later recalled that it was enough for Stalin to say to somebody "Your eyes look shifty today" for that person to be under suspicion. He accused his old crony Kaganovich of being a British spy and had the Jewish wife of his faithful lackey Molotov sent to a labour camp.

By 1953, it became clear that Stalin, with the help of his new stooge, the secret police chief Beria, was preparing a new Purge that would have liquidated the entire leading layer of the Party and state. This would have plunged the USSR into a deep crisis, at a time when the country was struggling to emerge from the horrific devastation of a war that cost it 27 million dead, and was locked in a bitter struggle with US imperialism. The leading clique therefore took the necessary steps to protect their lives and to eliminate the source of the danger, who was poisoned or otherwise disposed of by his comrades.

Death of Stalin 1953 also saw a stream of premieres of works Shostakovich had been keeping secret for years. This was the moment Shostakovich was waiting for. He celebrated the death of the tyrant as only he could. His Tenth Symphony features a number of musical quotations and codes, including a reference to Elmira [Nazirova], a female student he appears to have fallen in love with. But the most important of these motifs is the one based on the notes DSCH - his own name spelled out in music. This is not the only piece where Shostakovich "signs his autograph" in music (the Eighth String Quartet is one notable example). But it is surely the most significant.

Listen
Listen to the
second movement

This is surely Shostakovich's greatest symphony, alongside the Fifth. The stormy and savage second movement is said to be a musical portrait of Stalin himself. At the end the orchestra repeats the DSCH theme triumphantly, insistently. Half way through the last movement, he quotes from the Stalin theme of the second movement and cuts across it with the DSCH theme. It is like Shostakovich shouting: the monster Stalin is dead, and I am still here, still writing my music, still proclaiming the truth! It is one of the most inspiring and moving moments in all of Shostakovich's works.

Listen
The DSCH theme

Beginning with the 20th congress of the CPSU in 1956, Nikita Khrushchov attempted to find a way out of the blind alley caused by the bureaucratic control and administration of the nationalized planned economy in the USSR by reform from the top. Long ago Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that the most dangerous moment for a despotic regime is precisely when it tries to reform itself. Within months of Khrushchov's secret speech at the 20th congress denouncing Stalin's crimes, the Hungarian workers rose up, arms in hand, against Soviet and Stalinist domination. The Hungarian Revolution was put down in blood, although the Hungarian workers staged two general strikes and two insurrections, before and after the Russian military intervention.

The Eleventh Symphony

The Eleventh Symphony is an epic work. It lasts for over an hour and calls for a very large orchestra. Shostakovich wrote it in 1957, a few months after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. The timing is highly significant. 1957 was the 40th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, so the obvious choice of subject for a symphony would have been October, not 1905. Officially dedicated to the memory of the suppressed Russian Revolution of 1905, the Eleventh Symphony was privately interpreted as a protest against the crushing by the Soviets of the recent Hungarian uprising. Whenever asked, Shostakovich denied it; but that made no difference. His audience never asked.

Formally, the symphony is based on the events of Bloody Sunday, at the beginning of the First Russian Revolution on the 9th January 1905, when an unarmed workers' demonstration was fired on by the tsarist police and Cossacks, and a large number of people were killed. The whole work is based on Russian revolutionary songs, some dating back to the 19th century. They would have been well known to Soviet audiences, though not to concert-goers in the West. I was once present at a concert in London's South Bank Centre when the work was performed. It made a deep impact on the mainly middle class public, most of whom probably voted Conservative. How many of them realised that the sublime theme of the slow movement was in fact Eternal Memory, the old song that was always sung at the graveside of dead revolutionaries? None, I suppose.

Listen to the 11th Symphony
First movement of
the 11th Sumphony

The first movement is entitled The Palace Square and describes with tremendous power the tense atmosphere on the eve of Bloody Sunday. It is night, and the square is snow-covered and swept by glacial winds. But this is symbolic of a tyrannical society where, on the surface, everything is frozen solid as permafrost. However, beneath the surface, there is a seething discontent. The central theme is an old revolutionary prisoners' song from the 19th century called Listen! (Slushai!), which contains the following powerful lines:

"Like an act of betrayal, like a tyrant's conscience, the night is black."

The theme of Listen! is repeated throughout the work. The next theme, The Prisoner (Arrestant), is introduced by the double basses. This contains the words:

"The walls of the prison are strong; the gates are locked with two iron locks..."

This again is allegorical. In tsarist Russia - and in Stalin's Russia - the whole of society is likened to a gigantic prison. The dark night is the long night of arbitrary and despotic rule. The atmosphere of menace is increased by repeated drum-rolls and trumpet calls that recall the symphonies of Mahler. A mood of unbearable tension is created.

Second movement
Second movement of
the 11th Sumphony

The second movement is subtitled The Ninth of January. It begins with what can only be compared to a groan that issues from the depths of the people. It is a theme conveying the unbearable suffering of the masses, which is insistently repeated. The first theme expresses the people's plea to the Tsar. It is the musical expression of the petition that was to be presented by the demonstrators to the Tsar (Goy ty, tsar nash, batyushka), and which begins: "O tsar, our Little Father, look around you! Cannot you see that life has become unbearable for us because of the Tsar's servants?"

The theme that began almost as a whisper becomes steadily louder and more violent and threatening, like a gigantic wave of popular indignation, which finally breaks against a wall of state-orchestrated violence. The second song is called Bare your heads! (Obnazhite golovy!). The music swells up to a mighty climax. This is a vision of the masses "storming heaven," to use Marx's description of the Paris Commune. Then the music subsides into a tense calm before a violent storm. We return momentarily to the theme of the first movement that describes the Palace Square, where the police and Cossacks are waiting with rifles levelled and bayonets fixed.

Second movement
Sounds of a
machine gun

The scene of the massacre must be one of the most violent episodes in all of music. After the side drums imitate the chattering sound of a machine gun, the orchestra explodes in a shattering din. Then, all of a sudden there is total silence. We return once more to the sinister themes of the First Movement. The Palace Square is again frozen and silent, and night has fallen. But the snow is now red with blood.

Second movement
Eternal Memory

The sublime and moving Third Movement is a Requiem for the fallen, Eternal Memory. It is based on the old revolutionary song (Vy zhertvoyu pali) already referred to. The words are "You fell a victim in the fateful battle with selfless love for the people". The movement reaches a climax in which the bloody massacre of the Ninth January is remembered. It is as if the people are swearing to avenge their fallen comrades. Then the movement returns to the sad solemnity of the funeral march.

Second movement
Rage, ye Tyrants!

The Final Movement is subtitled: The Tocsin. And it is just that: a call to arms. It opens with the revolutionary song: Rage, ye tyrants! (Besnuytes, Tyrany!) Translated into English, the words are:

"Rage, ye tyrants! Mock at us!
Although our bodies are trampled,
We are stronger in spirit.
Shame, shame, shame on you, tyrants!"

Second movement
Warshavianka

Later this is mingled with other revolutionary songs, including the famous Polish Red Flag (The Warshavianka). Was Shostakovich thinking of his own Polish grandfather who was exiled to Siberia for his part in the insurrection of 1863? It seems very likely that he made this connection, especially in the light of the recent Hungarian uprising. However, the Warshavianka had been taken up by the Russian workers as one of their own revolutionary songs, and in 1905 was as popular as the Workers' Marseilles. From Russia it spread to other countries, above all Spain, where it became the anthem of the anarchists under the title A Las Barricadas. In English it is known as Whirlwinds of Danger. The words are:

Second movement
Repetition of the Rage
Ye Tyrants theme

"Hostile whirlwinds swirl around us.
We have entered into the fateful battle with our enemies.
Our destinies are still unknown
."

Second movement
Tocsin of revolt

Later, the theme of Rage, tyrants! is repeated, but more slowly and with greater force and determination, like an irresistible march. Here we have the reawakening of the Revolution. It culminates in an explosion of anger, at which point the tubular bells sound the Tocsin of revolt. Shortly before this moment, a series of five notes is repeatedly hammered out. These are the last lines of the song that opens the Movement, Rage, ye tyrants! In Russian, these words are "Smert´vam tirany!" - Death to the Tyrants! Shostakovich's message could hardly be clearer to a Soviet audience that was completely familiar with the song - and its words.

Second movement
Death to the Tyrants

Some western critics of Shostakovich, determined to present the composer as an obedient tool of the regime, have cast doubt upon the idea that the Eleventh Symphony was in any way connected with the Hungarian insurrection of October 1956. The only statement Volkov attributes to Shostakovich concerning the symphony in his book Testimony is the remark that the work has to do with events repeating themselves in Russian history, and that "it deals with contemporary themes even though it's called ‘1905.' It's about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over."

However, his son Maxim was in no doubt whatever. Alarmed by what his father had done, he whispered in his ear: "papa, what if they hang you for this?" Irina Shostakovich, interviewed by Margarite Mazo in DSCH Journal 12 confirmed this interpretation: "The Eleventh Symphony was written in 1957 when these events [the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956] occurred. What happened was viewed with great gravity by everyone. There are no direct references to the 1956 events in the symphony, but Shostakovich had them in mind."

The later symphonies

The Twelfth Symphony, written in 1959-61, and subtitled October, is intended as a continuation of the Eleventh. It is not entirely convincing. It is noble in its conception and does not lack fine melodies (Shostakovich was not capable of writing a bad symphony). Yet it seems to lack the passionate fire that is present in every bar of the Eleventh. It is clearly not something that flowed, as did the Eleventh, from a deep inner urge. Yet it is also a work with a message.

The movements of this symphony, like its predecessor, contain a "programme". It is made specific in the headings of each movement:

1) Revolutionary Petrograd
2) Lenin in Razliv
3) The cruiser Aurora
4) The dawn of mankind

The ending of the Eleventh suggests unfinished business. The call to action at the end of the work is clearly intended to prepare the way for the Twelfth Symphony, as the unsuccessful 1905 Revolution prepared the way for the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. So why does the Twelfth disappoint when compared to the Eleventh? The answer is that Shostakovich did not see the fulfilment of his dream of a new and better world - a genuinely socialist society - realised in his lifetime. On the contrary, despite the repudiation of Stalin at the 20th congress, the bureaucracy remained firmly in power. The Leninist principles of soviet democracy and equality remained as far off as ever. How could the composer write sincerely of the final victory of socialism when he did not believe a word of it?

Shostakovich was right. The tentative "thaw" under Khrushchov came to an abrupt halt in 1964 when he was overthrown by Brezhnev. Gradually the new rulers of Russia reversed the trend of concessions and increased repression.

Babi Yar
Jews, on their way out of the city of Kiev to the Babi
Yar ravine, pass corpses lying on the street. (1941)
Photograph from the Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv,
courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.

Shostakovich returned to the subject of anti-Semitism in his Thirteenth Symphony (subtitled Babi Yar). The symphony is based on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the first of which commemorates a massacre of the Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War. Babi Yar is the name of the place where this massacre occurred. Although it was part of Hitler's policy of systematic extermination of Jews in the occupied territories, there is no doubt that some Ukrainians (a minority) collaborated with the Nazis and shared their anti-Semitic views. The Stalinists were always reluctant to accept this fact. Indeed, after the symphony's premiere, Yevtushenko was forced to add a stanza to his poem claiming that Russians and Ukrainians died alongside the Jews at Babi Yar.

Second movement
Babi Yar

The colours here are dark; the tone is bitter and violent. This music is not easy to listen to, but it is tremendously powerful. It begins with a tolling bell. This is not the alarm bell that ends the Eleventh Symphony and was a call to action. This is the dark sound of a funeral bell. Then the chorus and bass singer enter with Yevtoshenko's poem. The verses read as follows:

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o'er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me - and now judge.
I'm in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I'm persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of "Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The "Union of the Russian People!"

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-"They come!"

-"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!"

-"They break the door!"

-"No, river ice is breaking..."

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fibre of my body will forget this.
May "Internationale" thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

(Yevgenii Yevtushenko)

The Thirteenth Symphony does not only deal with anti-Semitism, it is a devastating criticism of the bureaucratic system in general. One of the movements describes a queue of Soviet women waiting for scarce consumer goods. This is how the October Revolution has ended up, he seems to say: with the masses cold, bored and alienated. Another movement is called Fears, and refers specifically to the fear of the "midnight knock" - fears that may be "dying but not dead". The movement called "A Career" quotes from the last movement of the Twelfth Symphony, entitled The Dawn of Humanity. But the symphony ends as it began - with the tolling of a bell: it is the funeral bell of the October Revolution.

Khrushchov, already under pressure, asked Shostakovich and Yevtushenko to cancel the first performance but it went ahead anyway. After only three performances, the Thirteenth Symphony suffered the same fate as the Fourth and the Eighth. A performance was cancelled "because the soloist was ill". Yevtushenko made some changes in his poem to show that the Soviet people had fought against fascism. But in 1964 Khrushchov was overthrown and the whole situation changed again for the worse.

The last years

Shostakovich's later works are pervaded with a profound preoccupation with his own mortality. In his last years, his health began to deteriorate. He suffered from chronic ill health, but he remained a heavy smoker and had the traditional Russian passion for vodka. From 1958 he suffered from a debilitating condition which particularly affected his right hand, eventually forcing him to give up piano playing.

In 1965 this was diagnosed as polio. He suffered heart attacks and several falls in which he broke both his legs. Yet he retained his ironic sense of humour, as shown in the following extract from a letter: "Target achieved so far: 75% (right leg broken, left leg broken, right hand defective. All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.)" It should be noted that even here he is mocking the official pronouncements of the bureaucracy, with its sugary optimism about "complete fulfilment of the targets of the Five year Plan."

The Brezhnev era subsequently became known as "the years of stagnation." From a relative obstacle to the development of the productive forces, the bureaucracy now became transformed into an absolute fetter on progress. The corruption, bungling, mismanagement and chaos of the bureaucratic system undermined all the advantages of the nationalized planned economy. Despite all the boastful speeches of the leaders, the rate of growth slowed down from six percent a year in the latter stages of Khrushchov's rule to almost zero in the last years of Brezhnev. The contrast between the glowing reports about "building communism" and the lag of the productive forces was glaringly obvious. Instead of increased equality there was a steady increase in inequality between the bureaucrats and the masses, aggravated by corruption on a huge scale.

The last three symphonies are clearly an expression of personal anguish. The Fourteenth Symphony of 1969 is a song cycle based on a number of poems concerning the theme of death. It was written at a time when he was gravely ill and in an increasingly pessimistic frame of mind. Shostakovich was an atheist and in this work we find no trace of consolation or optimism. He wrote: "People who thought themselves my friends wanted the ending to provide some consolation, that is to say, that death is only a beginning. But it is not a beginning. It really is the end. Afterwards, there is nothing. Nothing."

The first two songs are by the Spanish poet Lorca, who was murdered by the fascists at the start of the Civil War. The first - De Profundis - opens with an eerie theme on the bass strings. The second is a traditional German song. The remainder are by Apollinaire and Russian poets. The last is by the German poet Rilke. This is a difficult work in terms of its musical language. It makes use of the twelve note scale used in the West by composers like Schoenberg and Webern, but rarely heard in Soviet compositions.

The Fifteenth Symphony of 1971 is, if possible, an even more puzzling work. It is a purely orchestral work, with enigmatic quotes from Wagner, Rossini's William Tell and the composer's own Fourth Symphony. What were the composer's intentions? It is difficult to say. But the prevailing mood is one of bitter irony. It poses a question but gives no answer. What is the meaning of these enigmatic late works? Can they be explained purely in terms of the composer's ill health and premonitions of death?

In January1988 Maxim Shostakovich, in an interview by Volkov, ("On 'Late' Shostakovich") made an interesting remark: "It was one of the tricks of Soviet critics of the time to write that Shostakovich was getting sick and therefore began writing tragic music. Father wasn't conveying his personal health but the health of an era, of the times." The contradiction between theory and practice, between words and deeds that was the basis of the regime, was unbearable for Shostakovich. The realization that all the promises of a return to Lenin and socialist democracy were just lies made his end all the more bitter.

One quote from Wagner is from Siegfried's Funeral March from the Twilight of the Gods (Goetterdaemmerung), which ends in the death of a hero and the fiery ending of Walhalla, the home of the Gods. The other is from Tristan and Isolde, a story of love that ends in death. William Tell was the well-known fighter for Swiss freedom from Austrian oppression. It could well be the case that the composer, knowing he was dying, concluded that his own particular struggle for freedom had failed, and that his passionate love for humanity must soon end in death, after which, in his own words, "there is nothing. Nothing."

Did Shostakovich end his life in despair? It seems likely that this was the case. Unlike his hero Beethoven, who was able to rise above moments of doubt and personal crisis and give the world the Ninth Symphony, Shostakovich seems to have lost all hope. His last word, in the Fifteenth Symphony, is one of bitter sarcasm. But in the first place, we must not forget that Beethoven also passed through long periods of depression when he wrote very little. Moreover, however difficult his situation may have been in the years of triumphant reaction after 1815, Beethoven never had to contend with the horrific conditions of a monstrous totalitarian state that consigned its opponents to the Gulag or the mental hospital.

We must also bear in mind that Shostakovich was not a political activist in the normal sense of the word. He did not have the benefit of a scientific analysis of what was happening in the Soviet Union. He had no party or organisation to help him. In the end, he was alone - completely alone. Shostakovich died of lung cancer on August 9, 1975 and was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow. The official obituary did not appear in Pravda until three days after his death, apparently because the wording had to be approved at the highest level, by Brezhnev and the rest of the Politburo. The satirical cantata Rayok, which ridiculed the "anti-formalist" campaign, was kept hidden until after his death. Even from beyond the grave, Shostakovich was still giving the bureaucracy a headache, and maybe having the last ironic laugh.

The post-mortem

Solomon Volkov's bookIn 1979 Solomon Volkov's book Testimony, which was supposed to be Shostakovich's memoirs dictated to one of his former students, was published in the USA. This has been denounced as a forgery by right wing critics, especially in the USA, who are determined to libel the composer as an apologist for Stalinism. There has been a furious controversy ever since about the book's authenticity and "what Shostakovich really meant".

Both camps in this controversy have a reactionary anti-Soviet and pro-bourgeois position. One group claims that Shostakovich was really a secret dissident like Sakharov or Solzhenisyn, who opposed the Soviet regime from a bourgeois standpoint (in the case of Solzhenisyn, from the standpoint of an even more rabid reactionism). The other group, made up of diehard Cold Warriors, insist that Shostakovich was really a KGB agent all along.

In The New York Times (9th March 2000), the opera critic Bernard Holland accused the composer of cowardice, calling him "a mediocre human being" who "toadied and cringed before his Soviet bosses". Interviewed by Tamara Bernstein (National Post, 15th March 2000), Laurel Fay described Shostakovich "a wuss" (slang: wimp, wet, gutless wonder). Such is the choice of language used in the rarefied atmosphere of academic debate in the USA: as Marx would have said - every word a urinal, and not an empty one.

What is the reason for such a quantity of poisonous bile, spite and sheer hatred? This is nothing to do with music. It is motivated by class hatred and vicious anti-Communism. In their comfortable New York apartments, well-heeled bourgeois music critics fight the Cold War all over again - without even taking off their carpet slippers. Who says that art and music have nothing to do with politics?

Inside Russia, there is no debate on Testimony because it was not published. Only the arch-bureaucrat Tikhon Khrennikov has rejected "the Testimony view" of Shostakovich. That is hardly surprising, since it can be said with absolute confidence that the Stalinist hack Khrennikov was certainly "a mediocre human being" who "toadied and cringed before his Soviet bosses".

Another supposedly "respectable" scholar, Richard Taruskin, has incredibly described Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to be an apologia for Stalin's genocide in the Ukraine! Stalin must, then, have been highly ungrateful to ban it and persecute its author. When reading such drivel one begins to ask oneself, if these are the respectable scholars, what must the disreputable ones look like?

On February 15th 1998 Christopher Norris stated on BBC Radio 3 that it is immoral [sic] to suggest that Shostakovich was not a faithful communist and that it is merely "fashionable" to maintain such an opinion. Yes, Shostakovich was indeed a communist. But what people like Norris cannot understand is that to be a communist is not to be a Stalinist, and that the two things are mutually incompatible. It suits the reactionaries to confuse communism with Stalinism and to slander socialism by equating it with the bureaucratic-totalitarian caricature that existed in the USSR under Stalin, Khrushchov and Brezhnev. But it does not suit them at all to admit that this has nothing whatever to do with the ideas of Lenin, Trotsky and the October Revolution, which honest communists like Shostakovich adhered to and attempted to defend.

The problem with both these positions is that they assume that it was only possible to oppose the Stalinist regime from a capitalist standpoint. That is entirely false. That Shostakovich opposed Stalin and the bureaucracy is obvious to even a blind man. But is there even the slightest evidence that he was in favour of capitalism or sympathetic to the West? No, there is no such evidence. All the available evidence points to the opposite.

Krzysztof Meyer comes far closer to the truth when he writes (DSCH Journal 12 January 2000): "[Shostakovich] was never like the Communists. But of course I must remind you that his family came from generations with strong socialist backgrounds - of course, Communism and Socialism are quite different phenomena. Soviet Communism was synonymous with tyranny." It is a complete scandal to equate either communism or socialism with the bureaucratic and totalitarian regime of Stalinism. But in a confused way, at least Meyer is saying that Shostakovich's undoubted opposition to the regime did not at all signify opposition to socialism.

The Eighth, Tenth and Thirteenth symphonies, Stenka Razin and the Jewish songs clearly express opposition to the Stalinist regime. But Shostakovich was neither a pro-capitalist anti-Soviet dissenter like Sakharov or a KGB agent or Stalinist hack like Khrennikov. He was an honest and progressive man who wrote great music and tried through the medium of this music to express the agonies and the ecstasies of the Soviet people in the turbulent age in which he lived.

Music with a message

After his death, the works of Shostakovich have been subjected to much destructive and malicious criticism. Gerard McBurney describes his symphonic work as "derivative, trashy, empty and second-hand". Pierre Boulez says "I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third pressing of Mahler." And now, since the fall of the USSR it has become fashionable for Russian critics to join the pack baying for his blood. Thus, Filip Gershkovich has called Shostakovich, "a hack in a trance". And so on and so forth.

Derivative? Yes, but what music is not derivative to one degree or another? Shostakovich made no secret of his debt to Mahler and many other composers: Bach, Stravinsky, jazz and popular music, Jewish and Russian folk music. But was the music of Beethoven not rooted in the music of Mozart and Haydn? Of course it was. But did it not evolve into something entirely different - something that is unmistakably Beethoven? Of course, it did. And who can deny that the symphonies of Shostakovich, taking their starting point from Mahler, developed into an entirely different musical idiom that is unmistakably Shostakovich and nobody else but Shostakovich?

A hack, Shostakovich was certainly not. That label attaches itself far more fittingly to the new breed of intellectual prostitutes in Russia who yesterday crawled on their bellies before the Stalinist bureaucracy and who today have changed their masters and are now crawling on their bellies before capitalism and the USA. For this new breed of reptiles Shostakovich presents a tempting target in the field of music, just as Lenin and Trotsky do in the field of history. The whole purpose is to pour dirt over the October Revolution and the USSR and to "prove" that nothing good ever came from it. And the whole purpose of that, in turn, is to persuade the future generations, both in Russia and the West, that it is far better to stick to capitalism.

As for Pierre Boulez, who was once considered a leading representative of the western avant-garde school of composing, one cannot help wondering whether his sour opinions of Shostakovich are not just a little bit influenced by that all too human emotion, envy. For in all honesty, nobody nowadays listens to the so-called avant-garde music of composers like Schoenberg, Webern and Pierre Boulez, which has turned out to be a blind alley. The only place where one can hear this kind of music today is in the cinema, where it provides a splendid background accompaniment to horror movies. On the other hand, the Shostakovich centenary, which is nearing its close, has proven that the symphonies of this great composer of the century is increasingly popular with the public - not because it is "vulgar", "trashy", and certainly not "empty", but because it is music that has a message about some of the most important events of our times.

The Shostakovich centenary year has shown that, despite the sneering of ill-intentioned critics, his music is getting an increasingly wide audience. Not long ago the Borodin Quartet played the complete Shostakovich quartets at Bantry House in West Cork, Ireland. The Festival announcement stated:

"The quartets... tell the searing story of one man's fight against tyranny, the voice of an artist, who stayed behind and spoke for his people. The first one, written in 1938 after his terrifying interview by the dreaded NKVD, is no youthful experiment. And the extraordinary 15th Quartet with its six Adagios was written in 1974 just over a year before he died. In those thirty six years he wrote a sequence of quartets full of inner strength, music not just of suffering but of the ability to come to terms with that suffering, music of purification, the distillation of one man's life and of the terrible century as a whole."

Shostakovich's music will live for as long as men and women love music, because, like his idol Beethoven, he was a man with something important to say.

London, 16 December, 2006


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