Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Coffin Nails for a Soviet Hero: Soviet Russia and its influence on the musical language of Dmitri Shostakovich

By: Christina Guibas

Music has always been recognized as an abstract medium through which true self-expression can be realized. In an environment where speech and behavior are without restriction, the need for the full potential of musical expression may be too little for true greatness to appear. But in a society where speech and behavior are under such scrutiny as to threaten the very existence of the people within it, the only available mediums through which the self may be expressed are those of the abstract. In fact, in such circumstances, the need for expression and truth is so great that the realization of it brings great power and deep meaning.

Just like any other dangerous and suppressed art form, the circumstance that makes it most powerful is risk. Something has to be at stake. The situation has to be desperate. The declamation has to be so fueled by passion that the risk-taker is willing to put everything on the line just to take the opportunity to make it. During the Communist decade before the Second World War and under the rule of Joseph Stalin, the output of great art was particularly high, perhaps nowhere better shown than in the symphonic works of Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich's journey from the composition of his first symphony through his fifteenth and last was long and arduous, and includes remarkable landmarks of self-assertion and continuously revitalized willpower. Never before in history has an abstract artistic medium stood so threatening to the foundation of an institution so steadfast as the Soviet Communist regime, and never before has an abstract medium had so much power to stand as a beacon of hope, a cry for help, a protest, and a timeless and painful scarlet letter as have Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies.

The First Symphony and the Yurodivy(юродивый)[1] - 1925

Shostakovich's First Symphony (1925) established him as an artistic power and entity in the circles of Soviet Russia and called attention upon his innovative talent. It was the quality of his music, rather than the political symbolism that his music came to represent, that first captured the public. Maximilian Steinberg, Shostakovich’s own teacher,  points out,

"This symphony was a tremendous success from its premiere, and is still considered today as one of Shostakovich's finest works. It displays an interesting and characteristic combination of liveliness and wit on the one hand, and drama and tragedy on the other. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the works of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. The transparent and chamber-like orchestration of the First Symphony is in quite a contrast to the complex and sophisticated Mahlerian orchestrations found in many of his later symphonies, and the assurance with which the composer imagines, then realizes large-scale structure, is as impressive as his vigor and freshness of gesture."[2]

The source of Shostakovich's success came out of purely musical goals. These goals reflect the position of a rising artist, still using his mentors and colleagues as sources for inspiration, still feeling the desire to join the already established 'musical club' in Russia at the time. The young composer had not yet begun to expand his artistic expression to the broader social and political issues of his time, nor had he become aware of the deeply transformational power that his music could have on society. As Paul Serotsky puts it, "it would be quite a few years yet before he had to sing his socks off to save his life."[3] The bright future and success that had opened up for the young composer came with a price: in the spotlight was not just his music, but also his dignity and individuality, and for the sake of self-preservation these would have to withstand the challenges presented by the monumental Soviet party. Shostakovich was in the fight for his life.

In the introduction to Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich Solomon Volkov lays out the notion of yurodivy:

"The yurodivy has the gift to see and hear what others know nothing about. But he tells the world about his insights in an intentionally paradoxical way, in code. He plays the fool, while actually being a persistent exposer of evil and injustice. The yurodivy is an anarchist and individualist, who in his public role breaks the commonly held ‘moral’ laws of behavior and flouts conventions. But he sets strict limitations, rules and taboos for himself. "[4]

In much the same vein, Shostakovich was slowly beginning to be paraded with various state campaigns of musical symbols that were directed at the mass of Soviet composers, but with him as the proverbial scapegoat. However, Shostakovich was not a dismissible artist, and authorities soon began to recognize the power and usefulness of his music. As his popularity grew, he inevitably took on the burden of serving as a vehicle for the delivery of propaganda in favor of the Communist party. As Shostakovich himself points out,

"To be an artist in a totalitarian state and survive both physically and creatively, one must play a surreal game with mortal stakes, a game of submission and humiliation, of periodic betrayals of self and others, of tentative advances and desperate retreats."

After the performance of his opera Lady Macbeth in Moscow in 1936, Shostakovich was placed under attack. Stalin immediately decreed criteria for Soviet opera in an article in Pravda (Правда)[5]: It had to have a Socialist theme, the musical language had to be "realistic", themes had to be based on Russian folk songs, and the plot had to be positive–a happy ending in which the state is eulogized, for instance. Music had to be refined, harmonious and melodious, without harsh tonalities, and with particular attention paid to words ("since singing without words satisfied only the perverted tastes of a few aesthetes and individualists").

Shostakovich Under Attack: The Fifth Symphony - 1937

In a second article in Pravda, The Limpid Stream was denounced as "vulgar and showing contempt for our national songs." Any acclaim and prestige Shostakovich had earned quickly evaporated and Shostakovich was immediately in danger. The article lambasted Shostakovich, saying that it alienated “appreciative audiences” that it contained “deliberate dissonance,” “snatches of melody,” and that it was “musical noise.” The opera, it was further argued, threatened the foundations of the socialist state; it was petty and bourgeois. Yet despite the open threat of reprisal against the composer, Shostakovich was not purged[6]. Instead, as Volkov asserts, Stalin gave Shostakovich a reprieve. Following this, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony which was perhaps too genuine an expression of the composer to put forth as a political shield. He abandoned the Fourth Symphony, and began his Fifth. The Fifth Symphony would premiere in 1937, and the Fourth in 1961, fully twenty-four years later.

The deepening ideological conflict that the composer was experiencing began to crystallize in the Fifth symphony. The initial reception of the Fifth was overwhelmingly positive and granted Shostakovich an opportunity to be back in favor with the state, however temporary. As Volkov puts it, "[The] conservative idiom and heroic tone [of the Fifth symphony] found favor both with audiences and officials, who presumably did not notice its troubling undercurrents." And at the time of the Fifth symphony's premiere Shostakovich verbally justified the positive reception by the Soviet party with his statement about the meaning behind the music,

"The theme of my symphony... is the making of a man. I saw man with all his experiences at the center of the composition.... In the finale, the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living."

However optimistic Shostakovich portrayed his symphony to be at the time of its premiere, he explicitly contradicts that optimism and brings light to its existing sarcasm.

 "I discovered to my astonishment that the man who considers himself its greatest interpreter does not understand my music. He [Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyev] says that I wanted to write exultant finales for my Fifth and Seventh symphonies but I couldn't manage it. It never occurred to this man that I never thought about any exultant finales, for what exultation could there be?"

In an early version of an essay written before the publication of Testimony in 1979 Shostakovich states, "[The close] works just as it was intended to work though many a listener may find that the impact and the memory of the questions behind this music are stronger than those of the answer." He also adds, "Clearly, I did not believe in the answer, in the claptrap about "optimism and the joy of living." He further explains,

 "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [Mussorgsky's] 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." What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that. ..."[7]

National Celebrity: The Seventh Symphony – 1941

Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony was written during the German siege of Leningrad during 1941.

"I wrote my Seventh Symphony, 'the Leningrad,' very quickly. I couldn't not write it. War was all around. I had to be with the people. I wanted to create the image of our country at war, capture it in music. From the first days of the war, I sat down at the piano and started work. I worked intensely. I wanted to write about our time, about my contemporaries who spared neither strength nor life in the name of 'Victory Over the Enemy." The authorities "took the famous 'march episode' from the first movement and turned it into a representation of the Nazi onslaught, and turned the entire piece into a propaganda device rallying for victory and perseverance in the face of the Germans."

Shostakovich sheds light on this false interpretation:

"The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ‘invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme."

The enemies that he refers to were those of the Soviet Party who, for a decade prior had the blood of the people their own people on their hands.

"Even before the war, in Leningrad there probably wasn't a single family who hadn't lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under your blanket, so that no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and sorrow oppressed and suffocated us. Talking about it is unpleasant, but I must if I am to tell the truth. And the truth is that the war helped. The war brought great sorrow and made life very, very hard. Much sorrow, many tears. But it had been even harder before the war, because then everyone was alone in his sorrow […] I began writing [the Seventh] having been deeply moved by the Psalms of David; the symphony deals with more than that but the Psalms were the impetus. I began writing. David has some marvelous words on blood, that God takes revenge for blood, he doesn't forget the cries of the victims, and so on. When I think of the Psalms, I become agitated. And if the Psalms were read before every performance of the Seventh, there might be fewer stupid things written about it."

The Symphony was a genuine expression of the deep-seated anger and fear that Shostakovich shared with his contemporaries and the citizens of Russian during the years of Stalin. The war gave him the perfect disguise with which to mask the true source of such intense and passionate feelings. Regardless of the false interpretation of the Symphony as pro-Soviet during the siege at Leningrad, Shostakovich states:

"Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad symphony, but it's not about Leningrad under siege, it's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler nearly finished off."

In addition to the Symphony's power to express the authentic feelings of the composer, it also put him back in favor with Stalin. The Seventh put Shostakovich back on his feet.

"Probably many people think I came back to life after the fifth symphony.  No, I came back to life after the Seventh.  You could finally talk to people.  It was still hard, but you could breathe. That's why I consider the war years productive for the arts. [...] The Seventh symphony became my most popular work. [It] arose from the conscience of the Russian people, who unwaveringly accepted moral combat with evil forces."

The Seventh was awarded the USSR State Prize[8], and found itself a subject of world public opinion for many reasons.[9] In the Soviet union it was raised to the status of symbol, and excerpts from it can be heard in many films and plays devoted to the war.

“Shostakovich: Fascist,” and the New Coffin Nail: The Eighth Symphony - 1943

"When the eighth was performed, it was openly declared counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet.[...] [The authorities] said, why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now? At the beginning of the war we were retreating and now we're attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic, that means he's on the side of the Fascists." [10]

Shostakovich had mastered his language. He was as clear as crystal; the problem was that everyone was listening, including the authorities.

"It's hard to be composer because the audience understands your music. It's probably the other way around in most cases: when they understand, it's easier to write. But here everything is back to front, because the larger the audience, the more informers there are. And the more people who understand what it's about, the more likely that they'll inform."

Musicians would later come to warn against this notion in Russia, but the "politicization of music" had become commonplace throughout the war. The warring nations of 1939-1945 showed an extraordinary ability to preserve and uphold classical music and, through media promotion turn it into something like a popular art. The occupied nations treasured their own musical heritage, particularly the romantic productions of the previous century. The music of Dvorak, Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Grieg in American radio and movies was associated with the heroic struggles of invaded peoples. In war-wracked Russia the most mournful strains of Chopin, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky filled the concert halls and airwaves. On the radio, Russian classics were playing continuously over folk music, lyrical songs, and military band music. Soviet composers turned their talents to war-related subjects—Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony being the most famous of these.

This universal popularity of the Seventh Symphony might have worked against Shostakovich in the end. Against a backdrop of increasing tensions between the Soviet Union and the West, backlash on the part of weary State authorities against Shostakovich’s popularity in the West in the late ’40s was, perhaps, a result of this politicization of classical music and mass culture.

"Every report of the success of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies made me ill.  A new success meant a new coffin nail. The reprisals were being reared ahead of time, the reparations began with the Seventh symphony.  They say that only its first part was effective, and that was the part, the critics pronounced, that depicted the enemy.  The other parts were supposed to show the might and power of the Soviet army, but Shostakovich lacked the colors for that assignment.  They demanded something like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture from me, and later on the comparison between my music and the overture became a popular argument, naturally not in my favor. "

A “Cheerful” Symphony for a Triumphant Russia: The Ninth Symphony - 1945

Following the conclusion of the war, Stalin demanded a triumphant Ninth Symphony, celebrating him and the Russian defeat of the Nazis, complete with double choir, and huge fanfares--a regular propaganda bonanza. Stalin, according to Shostakovich had “went off the deep end,” and was completely shocked at the subdued and embittered ironic piece of ‘cheerful’ Symphony which Shostakovich produced.

"I confess I gave hope to the leader and teacher's dreams. I announced that I was writing an apotheosis. I was trying to get them off my back but it turned against me. When my Ninth was performed, Stalin was incensed. He was deeply offended, because there was no chorus, no soloists. And no apotheosis. There wasn't even a paltry dedication. It was just music, which Stalin didn't understand very well and which was of dubious content ... I couldn't write an apotheosis to Stalin, I simply couldn't. I knew what I was in for when I wrote the Ninth.  But I did depict Stalin in music in my next symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin's death, and no one yet guessed what the symphony is about. It's about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that's the basis."

The End of a Long Road to Death: The Fourteenth Symphony – 1969

By the end of Shostakovich's journey, he had come to accept all he had lost.  His expectations for life were of hard, cold reality. His music began to reflect the sentiments of a wise, old man.  Remarkably, even up to the very end of the battle, Shostakovich's dignity and will remained intact.

"I wrote a number of works reflecting my understanding of the question, and as it seems to me, they're not particularly optimistic works. The most important of them, I feel, is the Fourteenth Symphony; I have special feelings for it. I think that work on these compositions had a positive effect, and I fear death less now; or rather, I'm used to the idea of an inevitable end and treat it as such... from people who claimed to be my friends... They read this idea in the Fourteenth Symphony: 'Death is all-powerful.' They wanted the finale to be comforting, to say that death is only the beginning.  But it's not the beginning, it's the real end, there will be nothing afterward, nothing.”

“I don't protest against death in it, I protest against the butchers who execute people."

The tragic subject matter so typical of Shostakovich's style had no real place in art according to official standards, but Shostakovich was a master at “gift-wrapping.” The incorporation of folk music in Shostakovich’s music was a long Russian tradition that continued, but it became more and more political.  Shostakovich would incorporate popular revolutionary songs sung in factories like the “Workers’ Merseillaise,” “Internationale,” and “Varshavianka,” into his works, like the opening of the Eleventh Symphony (1957)

"Revolutionary lyrics were funereal, visionary, accusatory, or menacing, but the tunes were overwhelmingly mournful. As illegal sounds of protest, they had small audiences but they unquestionably deepened and defined radical sentiments of those who sang them. After 1917, as hymns of a Bolshevik religiosity, they nearly drowned out all other forms of public celebratory music."
Nowhere but in Russia have art and music been so firmly bound to the political and social situation, nowhere but in Russia has art been such a substitute for real life, and nowhere but in Russia has the reality of a great country with enormous intellectual potential been so empty and hopeless; these are consequences of fusion of State and society during Soviet time and they cannot be understated. In the Soviet Union music and the arts had to serve one purpose: rouse the masses. One can only imagine the possibilities for Russian music had the lives of Russia's great composers been given the freedom and opportunities to not only survive but thrive freely as those have been given in America.  The conviction and power to move whole countries as well as individuals, contemporaries as well as admirers for hundreds of years to come, comes only through dire necessity. “The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all."[11]

Christina Guibas is a pianist, teacher and master's student at Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is currently studying with Ludmilla Lifson.

[1] Russian for “Holy Fool,” “ the deliberate flouting of society's conventions to serve a religious purpose.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foolishness_for_Christ
[3] Paul Serotsky, writing his socks off, introduces us to Shostakovich's First Symphony.
[4] Solomon Volkov, Ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, As related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. London: Faber & Faber, 1979, 1987. From the footnotes. All following unsourced quotes are from this text, but note that the authenticity of this book is disputed. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testimony_%28book%29
[5] Pravda (Правда) was an important Moscow newspaper, used liberally by the Communist Party. It closed in 1991.
[6] The term for a grim fate under Stalin. This was during what is widely considered the worst of his purges, the Yezhovshchina (ежовщина).
[7] The siege of Leningrad by German forces lasted nearly three years and resulted in the deaths of between one- and five-million lives.
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USSR_State_Prize
[9] The work made him a star in Russia for its moral message, but audiences in the west were not as receptive, finding it overlong at nearly an hour and a half, and poorly crafted. Alexei Tolstoy’s critical review in Pravda was instrumental in securing its popularity. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._7_%28Shostakovich%29#In_popular_culture
[10] This insult, among others, led in 1948 to the official censure of almost all of Shostakovich's works, starting with the First Symphony. Even works that had been awarded the USSR State Prize were criticized, an unheard-of event.
[11] The Walt Disney Company, “ Mulan”, 1998.

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