Celebrating the life and work of Shostakovich | Memoir of Russia’s 20th century tragedy

Paolo Hooke reflects on two watershed years in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich on the 40th anniversary of his death on 9 August 1975.

40 years since the death of Shostakovich

40 years since the death of Shostakovich

“That article on the third page of Pravda changed my entire existence. It was printed without a signature, like an editorial – this is, it expressed the opinion of the Party. But it actually expressed the opinion of Stalin, and that was much more important.”

So recounts Dmitri Shostakovich in his memoirs Testimony of 28 January 1936, a day he would never forget. The brilliant young composer had enjoyed international success with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In that day’s edition of the Party newspaper Pravda, Stalin criticised his opera in an article ‘Muddle instead of Music’. Stalin censured Shostakovich a few days later in a second article, ‘Balletic Falsehood’, which attacked the composer’s ballet Limpid Stream.

As Shostakovich explains in Testimony: “Two editorial attacks in Pravda in ten days – that was too much for one man. Now everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed. And the anticipation of that noteworthy event – for me at least – has never left me.” As his son Maxim describes: “Under Stalin, every day as Shostakovich left home, he would take a small packet of soap and a tooth brush with him, not knowing if he would return”.

Shostakovich’s response to the threat of destruction was his Symphony No. 5 of 1937. On the surface it may appear a rehabilitation symphony – ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to just criticism’ – a suggested subtitle that the composer adopted to deflect criticism. Yet beneath its coded language of compliance, Shostakovich’s Fifth voiced the suppressed thoughts of a tormented generation: at the Leningrad premiere in November 1937 it was greeted by a frenzied ovation.

The conductor and friend of the composer Kurt Sanderling, who attended the Moscow premiere in January 1938, considers the Fifth to be probably the first time that Shostakovich addressed the dominant theme of his life: anti- Stalinism. “The audience was very receptive to Shostakovich’s message, and after the first movement we looked around rather nervously, wondering whether we might be arrested after the concert…The vast majority of the audience knew perfectly well what it was all about…It perfectly reflected the sentiments that were uppermost in our minds.”

In a terror-stricken age Shostakovich wrote the memoir of the Russian tragedy of the 20th century with unparalleled eloquence and power. The Fifth’s third movement Largo is a moving requiem to the countless victims of Stalinist Terror, which reached its bloody crescendo in 1937. Mass purges resulted in millions being sent to the Gulag Archipelago, the Soviet network of forced labour camps shrouded in secrecy, located in the remote regions of Siberia and the far north.

Events of 1948

Nineteen-forty-eight was another year of tribulation for Shostakovich. Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief cultural commissar, censured Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and other Russian composers at a conference in January 1948, at which they were forced to publicly recant.

Shostakovich wrote the third movement Passacaglia of his Violin Concerto No. 1 during the conference. He recalls that; “In the evenings, when those disgusting, shameful debates [at

the sessions] were over for the day, I would come home and work on the third movement of the violin concerto. I finished it and I think it turned out well”.

The four movement concerto is symphonic in scale and with a dark tone; the story of the suffering of an individual under tyranny. The violin plays an autobiographical role, most notably in the stunning cadenza of the third movement Passacaglia, which expresses the composer’s pain and anguish. Shostakovich’s suffering arose from his relations with several sinister figures, which brought him much sorrow and a bitterness that coloured his life grey, as he recounts in Testimony.

Stalin was the principal of these vile figures; he wanted to control and manipulate Shostakovich as an artist. Stalin would reward and punish the composer, giving him prizes one minute and then censuring his work the next. “Stalin liked to put a man face to face with death and then make him dance to his own tune,” says Shostakovich in Testimony. For Shostakovich, Stalin was the very symbol of tyranny.

Both in 1936 and in 1948, writing music was the composer’s deliverance from, and answer to, the persecution he endured. Shostakovich, with his enormous creative will and inner strength, mastered the secret of artistic survival in a cruel age. His abiding principle was, as he told Glikman: “If they cut off both [my] hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth”.

Shostakovich, the tragic poet of 20th century music, lived under the shadow of Stalin for most of his adult life. Yet the tyrant did not succeed in enslaving the composer; as works of art that speak the truth, however bitter that truth may be, evade the grasp of their potential captors and can never be silenced.

– Paolo Hooke

This article appears in the August edition of Fine Music Magazine which you can view here. 

ON AIR (webstream link)
Sunday 9 August, 2 pm
Sunday Special – In Memory of Dmitri Shostakovich
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5
Violin Concerto No. 1
String Quartet No. 8


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