The Art of Survival: Shostakovich and Stalin
By Eddie Silva
Shostakovich considered himself a coward, but wrote the most courageous music. Eddie Silva discusses the famed composer's response to a threatening Stalin regime.
Fear can be a muse, too.
In January, 1936, Josef Stalin, unchallenged leader of the Soviet Union, attended an opera by Dmitry Shostakovich, then the pre-eminent composer of the nation, and already one of the most respected in the world by age 30. But the young composer’s fortunes ran afoul at the Bolshoi that night with the dictator’s early exit from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
The next day a headline in Pravda, the newspaper that served as the State mouthpiece, read “Muddle Instead of Music.” Shostakovich was accused of “formalism” (read: Western modernism) and other crimes in a scolding review. Most ominously, Pravda’s readers, Shostakovich among them, were informed that the composer was playing artistic games “that may end very badly.”
Shostakovich was not ignorant of what such a statement could mean. Stalin was in the process of violently erasing dissent from the nation. Later in the composer’s life, Shostakovich would describe the chilling effect of going to visit friends, only to find their belongings in the street, strangers living in their homes. Under Stalin’s reign, millions would be disappeared, exiled, starved, or simply, surreptitiously, murdered.
Shostakovich got the message. He canceled a performance of his Symphony No. 4—a work of Mahlerian scope that was sure to incite further disdain, or worse—and crafted a public letter of apology. He worked on a new symphony, one that would not displease Stalin and his minions. Two decades later, following Stalin’s death, Shostakovich confessed to one young acolyte—after enough vodka had been consumed— “When I think of my life, I realize that I have been a coward.”
Shostakovich was never a figure of protest, like Andrei Sakharov, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Shostakovich was painfully aware of this, and was inwardly shamed by it. Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, who openly confronted the authoritarian State, emerged as symbols of dissent, especially in the West—courageous individuals who spoke truth to power, whatever the risks. They are figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. They stand above the rest of us for their moral convictions.
What did Shostakovich do? He cowered. He survived. He acquiesced. He mimicked the tyrant’s prose. He accepted every form of humiliation, and self-humiliation. For the safety of himself, for his family, and yes, even for a bit of comfort and fame, he strategized to save his skin. For this, Shostakovich may not be the most appealing character, but if we are honest with ourselves, are we not closer to Shostakovich than we are to Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn?
And yet, Shostakovich is not like the rest of us. In the most important ways, he is far beyond us. His response to the criticisms of the State: he composed the Symphony No. 5, a masterwork that inspires audiences with its beauty and power—its courage—decades removed from Stalin’s terror. It is not a triumph over fear, but rather a triumph provoked by fear.
It should not be dismissed that Shostakovich also wrote the most appalling music in servitude to the State—songs in praise of Stalin, of Lenin, music of cheer as the nation ground under the cruel wheel of tyranny. He re-worked the finale to the Symphony No. 5 again and again in these made-to-order works, supplying the regime classical noise it wanted.
During Stalin’s reign Shostakovich also wrote music that he kept to himself, even as he managed to compose public works of genius—the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies, for example— only to see those condemned as well by fickle government overseers. Under the auspices of preserving Communist doctrine, these petty, unimaginative men devilled Shostakovich with directives that would change, seemingly by whim. They held power, and made sure that their power was evident. Years later, one committeeman would explain: Shostakovich was made an example, because they knew he could withstand the abuse.
After the death of Stalin came a period in Soviet life known as the “thaw.” Stalin’s crimes began to be denounced by a new group of Soviet leaders, led by Nikita Khrushchev. Artists were allowed greater freedom of expression. A landmark novel, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published describing the brutal world of Stalin’s labor camps.
Shostakovich began pulling works from his drawer that he dared not expose when Stalin was alive. But the composer never trusted that the “thaw” would last—a prophecy that proved coldly accurate. Even as he became the most respected composer in the Soviet Union, he still bent to the will of the regime. In 1960, he became a member of the Communist Party, an act that stunned those who knew him. Why, with Stalin dead, with greater freedom given to artists, would Shostakovich allow himself to be an international standard bearer for the Party?
There are stories told of Shostakovich in drunken tears, berating himself for his decision. “I am scared to death of them,” he reportedly said of the Party leaders. “From childhood I have been doing things that I wanted not to do. I’ve been a whore; I am and always will be a whore.”
Russian musicologist and contemporary of Shostakovich, Marina Sabinina, finds insight in the composer’s music that may explain his fractured self. She recalls trying to understand a motif in the Allegretto of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10—his first great work after the death of Stalin. “This motif sounds strange and mechanical,” she told the biographer Elizabeth Wilson, “lifeless but persistent, just as if the composer had, with terror and revulsion, seen himself as a puppet, a ‘doll on a string,’ which is being arbitrarily manipulated in the merciless hands of the Puppeteer…. And here the analogy with Stravinsky’s Petrushka automatically springs to mind.”
Fear, like all the muses, may inspire, but it also takes its toll.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the St. Louis Symphony.
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