John Franse, a generous reader and friend of mine (and a lover of classical music), asked me in an e-mail to write a column about the “Soviet composer” Dmitri Shostakovich.
On the shelves of my library is a 917-page volume, published in 2000 in Russia and in Russian, entitled “Shostakovich Between a Moment and Eternity.” I cannot discuss its 917-page pages in my three-page column, but one point may be of interest.
Just as those who have never been hungry cannot imagine how it feels to be starving or dying of hunger, so the Russian and Western contributors to this volume cannot imagine how it felt living in Stalin’s Russia.
In contrast to Rachmaninoff, who was 44 when Lenin and his associates came to the absolute autocratic possession of the country in 1917 and who managed to emigrate in 1918, Shostakovich was 11, and had to stay in the new owners’ Russia.
In the 1920s, it was impossible to turn into propaganda the Russian culture, inherited from old Russia, since the new owners of the country themselves had different tastes in culture, and what seemed great art to the cultural sophisticate Bukharin could have seemed trash to the cultural illiterate Stalin.
But in the 1930s, the new owners of Russia came to constitute a single uniform bunch, led by Stalin, and all that was not Stalin’s propaganda became suspicious or just harmful, counter-revolutionary, anti-Soviet, or at least unseemly and vulgar.
Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mzensk” was staged in 1934 in Moscow, and in the following year at the Metropolitan Opera House as well as in Cleveland and Philadelphia. In the opera, the heroine kills both her husband and her father-in-law for the sake of her lover. The story was written by Nikolai Leskov, a Russian 19th-century classic, who took the name of the heroine from Shakespeare, of course. Then, in January 1936, “Pravda” launched an annihilating attack upon the opera, and its music. The Russian culture of the 1920s was over.
But how to use Shostakovich for propaganda?
In 1960 he had joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — to general laughter, for an artist or intellectual did not “join the party” any more to save his life — its heyday after Stalin’s death in 1953 was over. Why on earth did he “join the party”?
At an evening tea party, a cheerful jolly man came up to him and began to joke about his joining the Communist Party: “So, they have hooked you in, after all!” Shostakovich dropped a cup of tea he was holding and scalded his feet.
The “new Soviet culture,” that is, totalitarian propaganda, wanted a Soviet Beethoven. In his last (Ninth) Symphony, Beethoven greeted a new era of mankind. And here this era came — originally into Soviet Russia. So the new live Beethoven was to hail it!
But Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, already in rehearsal, in 1936, was found by his owners just gloomy. Where is the Beethovenian joy of the new era of mankind?
Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony from the rehearsal and wrote his Fifth Symphony, which delighted Pravda, which saw in it Beethoven’s “grandiose vistas”! No, it was not gloomy, but “tragically tense”!
So far, so good. Shostakovich was a slave, and a slave has to do and be what his owners ask of him.
But he overdid his fear by writing across the score of his Fifth Symphony: “Creative reply of a Soviet artist to just criticism.”
The head of a family we knew in Moscow was a friend of Shostakovich, and a foreign correspondent interviewed the man about the composer. The interviewee explained (he assumed that his name would be confidential) that the favorite book of Shostakovich had been written by Ehrenburg when the latter had been living in the West and was a kind of Orwell before Orwell. Dostoyevsky wrote about the Great Inquisitor. Ehrenburg’s hero was looking for the Great Provocateur, whom he finally found in Lenin. But the essence of Shostakovich was fear, according to the interviewee, and he pretended to be Soviet as much as he could.
The name of the interviewee slipped out — and he was shot.
On his 50th birthday, Shostakovich was awarded the highest Soviet award, the Order of Lenin, and when Stalin was alive, he received Stalin’s prize of 100,000 rubles, a sum that an “average Soviet citizen” could not even imagine.
But I believe that his major motive was infinite fear — to him the value of the Order of Lenin or of Stalin’s Prize was a sign that he would not be shot as was that interviewee, a friend of his, for disclosing his anti-Soviet stand.
In 1942 the Nazis began the extermination of Jews as of an inferior race. If Jews were an inferior race, the Russians for the Nazis were an even more inferior race, and following their victory in Russia, the Nazis could well begin the extermination of Russians. No matter how a Russian hated Stalinism, Hiterism was for him or her even worse. The Symphony of Shostakovich, dedicated to the Nazi siege of Leningrad was sincere, but this sincerity coincided with Stalin’s will.
Generally remembered by listeners to the Symphony is a highly unpleasant Nazi mach. In this connection, the image of the real Beethoven inevitably comes up. When the German lands were fighting against the France of Napoleon, Beethoven put French marches into his music, for it seemed to him that France may lead mankind to the new era of his Ninth Symphony. That is, he was on the side of a military enemy! But when Napoleon made himself an emperor, Beethoven tore up his dedication to him and said: “He is as much of a nonentity as any other nonentity!”
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