Crimea River

Dmitri Shostakovich is a Russian composer whose musical career is entangled with the history of Soviet Russia.  He lived from 1906 to 1975, and in his lifetime saw the Bolshevik revolution overthrow tsarist rule, the Russian civil war, and the totalitarian Soviet State.  He saw the regimes of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.  Living in Russia under Stalin was a life of continual fear, for yourself, your friends and your family.


The early career of Shostakovich had great success as a pianist and a composer.   He had a Mozart-like ability to compose very quickly. He could compose entire pieces in his head, and would only have to write out the final draft on paper.  His memory was the stuff of legend, and he reportedly could play the entire 16 hours of the Wagner Ring cycle of operas from memory.  He could play almost anything he had heard at the piano.  One of his own operas, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was initially one of his great successes when it was premiered in 1934.  At least until Stalin attended a performance two years later.

Stalin saw the opera in 1936, or at least until the part where he and the Politburo in attendance walked out.  Stalin disliked the sexual content of some of the opera as well as the dissonant character of the music.  Shortly after Stalin attended the opera, a negative editorial appeared in the Communist newspaper Pravda, entitled “Muddle instead of Music”.  If this wasn’t written by Stalin himself, it certainly was published with his approval.  A translation of the article can be read here.

Stalin signing death warrants
Stalin signing death warrants

The threat embodied in the review, “This is playing at things beyond reason that can end very badly”, is particularly chilling in the atmosphere of one of Stalin’s Great Purges.  Millions of people died during Stalin’s regime at the hands of a firing squad or in the forced labor of the Gulags.  (Millions more died in famines due to disastrous government farm policies.)  There was no due process or fair representation.  People were just scooped up in the middle of the night and never heard from again.  Dissenters in the Communist Party, leaders in the military, and any perceived competition for Stalin were all victims of the Great Purge.  Writers, artists, intelligentsia and musicians were also targets if their work fostered anything the Party (Stalin) thought could be a dissenting view.  People lived in fear.  Shostakovich saw friends and colleagues disappear forever.  For a time he started sleeping in the stairwell outside his apartment so that his family would not be disturbed if the secret police came to take him in the night.  Dmitri kept a small bag packed for the rest of his adult life, wherever he lived, in case he was ever taken and arrested.

As a result of his official denuncification, Shostakovich ended up withdrawing his Fourth Symphony before it was performed.  It was never heard until after Stalin’s death.  Shostakovich survived by saying what was expected of him in public, and keeping more dangerous thoughts private.  His Fifth symphony helped rehabilitate his image to the Party, and in so doing literally saved his life.  He publicly called it “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”. He submitted the work to the Party officials, and represented it as a work about the struggle and heroism of the Soviet People.  As the officials were not terribly musically sophisticated, they believed what Shostakovich told them and approved the work.  Dmitri once said this (about meaning in his music), “Those who have ears will hear”.  The audience at the premiere heard a different message in the work.

For an audience of people who had suffered under Stalin, and had lost family and friends to the Purge, the work was full of overwhelming emotion.  People at the first performance openly wept during the slow movement.  It was an apt expression of their inconsolable grief.  Although the finale ends on a supposedly triumphant note, there is a great deal of irony in the music at the end.  It is rejoiceful, but it is a forced rejoicing.  It is a satire of a Stalinist victory hymn.  Shostakovich is quoted in Testimony, his private memoirs:

The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.”

Here is a performance of the work with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5, opus 47

Here is an episode of Keeping Score from PBS about the work.

In any event, the work rehabilitated Shostakovich in the eyes of the Party.  The Russian people continued to suffer, in World War II and afterwards in a second Stalinist Purge.  Dmitri experienced another falling out with the government powers, and another rehabilitation.  He survived, but lived in fear and dread his whole adult life.

Any resemblance in the above descriptions to current political events in the Ukraine is almost accidental.


4 thoughts on “Crimea River

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  1. Great article Rich, reminds me of my friend Sergei, a fellow ballet accompanist from Vladivostok. His mother refused to believe the KGB were not looking for them, even though they had been living in the USA for 20+ years. He told terrible stories of those late night night visits with such humor it brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Nice overview of Shostakovich’s career under Soviet rule – I am very pleased to have discovered your blog. What are your thoughts on Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony? It’s my personal favourite.

    1. The 11th is another powerful work, remembering the Russian Revolution of 1905. It was written in 1957, 4 years after Stalin was murdered, in that period where Dmitri was also slowly releasing some of his “desk drawer” works. (Those are works that he held back from public performance when Stalin was still alive.) As a work that could be perceived as appropriately patriotic, the 11th met with the approval of the Soviet powers. The same could not be said about the 13th (Babi Yar), a work the local Party wanted to prevent being premiered. Shostakovich gave them such migraines!

  3. I actually had a discussion with a colleague recently about the Pravda article on Lady Macbeth. The Met Opera is performing it next year and we were discussing their ’14-’15 season.

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