Shostakovich: his life and music
It was strange standing here in Salisbury giving a talk on Shostakovich – a man who was persecuted by the then Soviet regime – when a few hundred yards away from where the talk was given the terrible events took place allegedly perpetrated by the modern Russian state.
It is difficult to understand this man without the context of the times he lived through. His life parallels the recent history of Russia. He was born in 1906 a year after the failed 1905 revolution into a period of considerable unrest. Prior to the final revolution there were several unsuccessful ones. Much of his life was lived in constant fear.
Most people are aware of the symphony he wrote and the subtitle ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’ which was actually written by a journalist and was never accepted by Shostakovich himself. It seems also to imply that there was a single event and once he had written this subsequent symphony, everything was subsequently normal. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a constant thorn in the side of the party apparatchiks. He was too famous to liquidate as there would be an international outcry. Nevertheless, the party could make life extremely difficult for him and made it difficult also for people to be friends with him. Few composers have been so central to the history of his time. He experienced war, revolution, anti-Semitism, dictatorship and terror.
His family came from Siberia and Poland. His father worked in Weights and Measures and there is a link to Mendeleyev the discoverer of the periodic table. He started learning the piano in 1915 and entered the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1919. Teaching at the Conservatoire was unimaginative and there were no compositional classes. Glazunov was a key supporter at this time. Life was a constant struggle and they were frequently in debt. His father died when he was young.
He lived through the Revolution which started in St Petersburg which subsequently became Leningrad. Central to the story is the status of Leningrad which became the second city after Moscow and a window on the west. This was both a problem and an opportunity for artists. Leningrad was looked upon as ‘elitist’.
His First Symphony a graduate piece which showed considerable flair and promise. Strongly influenced by the work of Hindemith and was a kind of anti-symphony. The symphony was dedicated to a friend Misha Kvardri. Two years later, he was arrested and shot. This is a reminder of the terrible times Shostakovich lived in: friends, acquaintances, supporters, even family members, disappear in the night and ended up in the gulag or are executed. This got worse after the rise of Stalin in 1924 when anti-bourgeois policies, class warfare and actions against the kulaks were launched with terrible consequences for millions of Russians.
To make money he played in cinemas which he did from 1923 until 1926. He also composed for the cinema. Extracts from films and the following extracts were played:
• Five film extracts. – The Counterplan
o Sofia Perofskaya
Altogether wrote for 15 films. He wrote music in the jazz idiom although the idiom was hard to see except for the use of the saxophone.
• Extract from Jazz Suite #2 composed in 1936
He started playing the piano in performance in 1923.
In 1925 the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians RAPM founded in Moscow. The central message was that ‘music should have a social message and be accessible to the wider masses.’ They harassed intellectuals and wreaked havoc in higher institutions. Shostakovich was sacked from a college post. Many intellectuals and teachers were deprived of their livelihoods and denounced.
He composed the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (shortened in the west to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) from a libretto by Nikolai Leskov. It was performed in January 1936 and the audience included Stalin, Molotov and Mikoyan. They leave after 2nd act and this heralds a dramatic reversal of his fortunes. The opera is a success around the world however. An article in the next day’s Pravda called it ‘muddle instead of music’. His composition ‘insulted the audience with noise, cacophony, hammering, and screaming.’
Shostakovich said the article ‘changed my entire existence for ever. It was unsigned and so represented the opinion of the party – or actually Stalin’s opinion and that was considerably more serious.’
Friends and colleagues distance themselves from him. The Leningrad Composers Union voted in favour of the Pravda article. At the meeting where this is decided only one person spoke in favour of Shostakovich. He was subsequently persecuted, his music was no longer performed and he was deprived of his livelihood.
In 1936 he composes his 4th Symphony which was withdrawn at the last minute. He receives a visit from Otto Klemperer and Shostakovich plays the symphony to him on the piano and Klemperer was very impressed. He suggests reducing the number of flutes but Shostakovich refuses. ‘What is written by the pen cannot be scratched out with an axe’ he said. That might sound better in the original Russian. Shostakovich almost never agrees to alter a score nor corrections nor alterations in the harmony or in the orchestration. But his metronome markings are often completely wrong. After one conductor said the speeds marked for a piece were impossible to play and Shostakovich agrees to change them and explains that he has an ‘old and unreliable metronome but he just did not want to throw it out.’
1936 sees the start of the great purges, millions disappear or are shot. Shostakovich was advised by Tukhachevsky to ‘admit his errors’. He is himself shot a year later. Shostakovich’s position becomes very precarious and many friends, colleagues and relatives disappear.
Meeting the NKVD
On a Saturday in 1937 summoned to meet the NKVD. After general conversation, and questions about his social life, he was asked about plot to assassinate Stalin. Shostakovich said there were no discussions about assassinating comrade Stalin. He was pressed on this and each time he denied that any such conversations took place. He was asked to return on the following Monday by which time he was to have remembered discussion about the plot. After a difficult weekend, Shostakovich returns to the NKVD headquarters and gives his name to the guards on the door. They refuse him entry saying they have no record of his name on their list. After some discussion and finding out who his interrogator was, it turns out that the interrogator himself has been arrested and Shostakovich was free to go.
He composes 5th Symphony which a journalist describes as ‘a Soviet artists reply to just criticism.’ WWII and Leningrad surrounded by the Nazis. It is the start of terrible privations.
His poor eyesight means he cannot serve in the armed forces but acts as a fire warden. Shostakovich was flown out of the city in October.
He writes Symphony #8 but this is not well received because it is not ‘optimistic’ enough. By the time it was ready for performance, the tide of war against Germany had changed and the official reception was ‘icy’.
In general, the communist party had two main problems with him. Firstly his courage which made him difficult to control and secondly, his unpredictability. This was set against his international prestige which made him useful to the regime. Shostakovich felt constantly under threat and always travelled with toothbrush and toothpaste in the expectation of arrest.
Post-war and the nature of the purges changed. Intelligentsia was targeted and there were attacks on what was termed ‘formalism’. Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev suffered during this period and he was forced to write music for propaganda films.
The Zhdanov Decree, Zhdanovschina (sometimes called ‘Zhdanov’s purge’) started in 1948-9. Many suffered and lost their livelihoods. Public humiliations of artists was frequent. All composers were summonsed to a conference where he encouraged mediocrities to turn against the more successful composers such as Shostakovich, Shebalin and Khachaturian. They had to sit and listen to slanders against them. The only people who wanted to listen to his music were ‘foreign bandits and imperialists’ it was claimed.
The audience heard the famous story in Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn about clapping and no one able to stop clapping after a Stalin speech. Also told was the phone call Shostakovich receives from Stalin as told by Julian Barnes. Composes 1st Violin Concerto possibly in 1951. Not performed until 1955. Criticised by the party for its ‘gloomy, introverted psychological outlook.’
• Extract from Violin Concerto
The evening ended with the second movement of the tenth Symphony.