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 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.
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.”
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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:
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.
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.
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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fragment of the
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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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.
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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.
|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.
|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 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.
|Sounds of a
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.
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.
|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!"
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:
|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."
|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 "SmertÂ´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.
|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 â€˜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.
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.
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.
-"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!
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.
In 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
- Beethoven: man, composer and revolutionary - Part one and Part two by Alan Woods (May 2006)
- Figaro and the French Revolution by Alan Woods (May 2001)
- Art and the Class Struggle by Alan Woods (July 2001)
- Marxism and art. Introduction to Trotsky's writings on Art and Culture by Alan Woods (December 2000)