Shostakovich and Stalin

I'm neither an historian nor a musician but I've recently been doing some writing which has required me to investigate the fascinating relationship between Dmitri Shostakovich and Joseph Stalin.

In this programme I would like to explore this using music I've have chosen not for any particular quality each piece may have but to plot a course through this relationship. Regard each piece as a musical stepping stone, if you will.

It's difficult to find definitive truths in this story, in part because the Soviet Union was a very secretive society and in part because of a highly contested supposedly autobiographical book, The Testimony, compiled by a musicologist called Solomon Volkov and published years after the composer's death. It's become difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Shostakovich lived and worked throughout Stalin's dictatorship, was twice publicly denounced for his work and was for many years in fear of his life, and yet he was decorated and celebrated by the Soviet Union, was a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and, despite several opportunities, never defected to the West. His was a career of triumph and terror.

Nobody had an easy relationship with Stalin, but Shostakovich's life was made all the more difficult by Stalin's professed interest in music and views on what should and should not be written and played. He felt music had to be of an essentially positive nature; the darker side of human existence could be portrayed only if in the end a greater victory had been won. His favoured music was simple, accessible to most people and nationalistic in spirit.

Somehow, Shostakovich found a way of composing and surviving, by performing a balancing act which preserved his artistic integrity while at the same time dodging the Gulags and surviving while many of his contemporaries did not.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St Petersburg in 1906 and, as a talented pianist, entered the Petrograd Conservatory at the age of 13. His ambition was to be, like Rachmaninov, a concert pianist and a composer. During the civil war which followed the revolution he studied under the composer Alexander Gluzunov while earning money as a cinema pianist, illustrating silent films with music that was sometimes considered too progressive.

I've chosen to start at an obvious place: his First Symphony, which was written as his graduation work when he was only 19, and first performed, in what was now called Leningrad, on 12th May 1926, two years after Stalin succeeded Lenin.

The symphony was a huge success, and Shostakovich was hailed a new hero of Russian, and more specifically Soviet, music. Prokofiev and Rachmaninov had both gone to live in the USA some years earlier, and the Soviet regime quickly identified Shostakovich as invaluable propaganda fodder. A year after the premiere of the 1st Symphony, Bruno Walter performed it in Berlin and it was soon taken up by Toscanini, a conductor Shostakovich was said to dislike, and Klemperer.

I've chosen the short second movement, an allegro with an energetic piano piece, not least because it was encored at the premiere.

In the years immediately after the First Symphony's premiere, Shostakovich wrote film and theatre music, an opera, ballets and further symphonic works. His second symphony marked the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, and the third was another propaganda piece.

Shostakovich did get some criticism for some of his earlier works but it was a piece first performed in 1934 that marked the beginning of his turbulent relationship with Stalin. It's a well-known story.

The opera Lady Macbeth of the Mstensk District was an unprecedented success and secured Shostakovich's reputation as a composer of genius. Within a year it had been performed as far afield as the USA and Argentina. On 26th January 1936, two years and more than 200 performances after the premiere in Leningrad, Stalin went to see a performance in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. It so happens that so successful was the opera that three separate productions were being staged in the city that night.

Alarm bells rang when Shostakovich was told his presence was required at the performance, and the opera started with several members of the Politburo, including Stalin, in the government's bullet-proof box. At the end of the third act, Stalin, who had been concealed behind a curtain, walked out.

Two days later, an anonymous article, certainly sanctioned by Stalin and perhaps even written by him, appeared in Pravda. It was headlined “Muddle instead of Music” and reviewed the opera in damning terms. It said the music “quacks, grunts and growls” and added that the composer “ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all courseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life”. That was rich coming from Stalin!

Ten days later, a second critical article appeared, calling Shostakovich a “musical charlatan”. The first of Stalin's Great Purges and show trials were taking place and Shostakovich, who was deemed an enemy of the people, must have been terrified.

The opera was banned and Shostakovich spent the following two years fearing arrest. His life was turned upside down. To know him was dangerous; to associate with him was suicidal. People crossed the street to avoid him and he kept a suitcase packed with warm underwear and strong shoes for the day he presumed he would be sent to Siberia. He even slept in his outdoor clothes in the stairwall outside his apartment so as not to disturb his family should the secret police come calling. Here's a brief piece from the very start of the opera...

Lady Macbeth is a dark and violent story of love, loneliness, cruelty and murder. It features graphic bedroom sequences, people being arrested on fabricated pretexts and even a penal colony. I'm sure Stalin really did hate it, but I can't help feeling that it was so heavily condemned in Pravda simply because Stalin felt Shostakovich needed to be brought down a peg or two.

There's a story that in 1937 Shostakovich was ordered to appear at the offices of the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, he assumed because of the criticism of Lady Macbeth in Pravda. An investigator called Zanchevsy quizzed Shostakovich about his friendship with a military leader, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsy. He pressed him on whether they had discussed politics. Shostakovich said no, only music, as Tukhachevsky was a keen amateur musician. Zanchevsky told Shostakovich to return two days later and recount every detail of their discussions regarding a plot against Stalin. Shostakovich duly returned, no doubt terrified, only to be told that Zanchevsky himself has been arrested and imprisoned. Soon after Tukhachevsky was found guilty of treason and shot.

Two years after the damning reviews Shostakovich received for Lady Macbeth, he redeemed himself in the state's eyes with his triumphant Fifth Symphony, which was premiered in November 1937.

At the premiere, the conductor, Yevgeney Mravinsky, lifted the score above his head to a storm of applause, to indicate that it was Shostakovich who deserved the praise and not the conductor or the orchestra. That act didn't go down well in some official circles, as it was perceived as an explicit comment on the regime's criticism of Lady Macbeth. Someone wrote after the concert that the ovations represented an “outraged response to the dreadful hounding” that Shostakovich has been through.

The symphony was subtitled A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism, and though it's thought that these words were written by a journalist, they were certainly sanctioned by Shostakovich, who many now feel had gambled all on what some have seen as a grovelling apology in music.

It certainly worked. A universally acclaimed piece of music was produced and Shostakovich was rehabilitated. And that was no mean feat, given that it was premiered at the height of Stalin's Great Terror, a brutal campaign of repression, imprisonment and executions which cost more than a million lives.

You are about to hear the symphony's third movement, a moving largo which apparently reduced members of the audience to tears at the premiere.

You are about to hear the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, The Leningrad, Opus 60, arguably Shostakovich's most famous work. It features a section known as the 'Invasion sequence' - you can't miss it.

There are countless stories about the 7th, including a well-known one about its first performance in Leningrad. The symphony was heavily used by the Soviet authorities as representative of the 900-day siege of Leningrad, although later critics saw it as a requiem to those who had suffered under the Soviet regime.

No fewer than 12 variations of the 'Invasion' sequence dominate the first movement, each 22-bar segment building in intensity and together sounding like a militaristic version of Ravel's Bolero. It begins with the simple beating of a snare drum and ends with everything but the kitchen sink.

The sequence surely represents, as the public were encouraged to believe in the programme for the symphony's premiere, the march of German forces towards Leningrad. Well, perhaps not.

For it's been claimed that the movement was actually conceived before the war with Germany started. One argument against this piece representing Germany's invasion of Russia is that Operation Barbarossa, as it was called, began suddenly and violently, whereas the invasion sequence does not.

However, Shostakovich himself acknowledged the very real propaganda value of the symphony. He had on three occasions volunteered to join the army, only to be turned down because of his eyesight, and spent time during the siege of Leningrad digging defensive trenches and serving as a voluntary firefighter. He was a patriot and the Seventh, the first of his three so-called war symphonies, was promoted as a key part of the war effort.

After the Second World War, Shostakovich said the 7th Symphony represented the battle against “terror, slavery and the oppression of spirit”, and not just Nazi-ism. Could he have meant Stalin's repression of his countrymen? The ambiguity will probably never been resolved.

Anyway, here's Victory, the fourth movement of Shostokovich's Seventh Symphony, _The Leningrad.

By July 1943, the tide was beginning to turn in the war against Germany. And Stalin thought that, as the Soviet forces were progressing towards victory, a new national anthem was required. The Internationale had been used for years, but it was French, and said nothing praiseworthy about Stalin. And so he initiated a competition.

It was thought dangerous for Soviet composers not to enter, and around 500 did. For the finals, five entries were considered, including one by Shostakovich, one by Khatchaturian, and one jointly written by the two composers, who were on good terms. All five anthems were played three times in front of Stalin, once sung a capella, once played by an orchestra, and once with orchestra and choir.

Shostakovich is said to have later remarked that it was a wonder they weren't also asked to perform them under water.

The competition final was the first time Shostakovich had actually met Stalin face to face, and it appears the two had a relatively amicable if somewhat strained conversation.

In the end, Stalin opted for a piece which Shostakovich disliked and which was written years earlier by Alexander Alexandrov as the Bolshevik Party Anthem. However, Shostakovich didn't want to see his efforts go to waste and in 1960, he reworked one of his entries for the war memorial in the Black Sea port of Novorossyisk. This is it, Novorossyisk Chimes, or The Flame of Eternal Glory, Opus 111b, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Theodore Kuchar.

That piece may not be familiar to you, but it's actually one of the most-played pieces of classical music in the world. A recording of the work has been playing non-stop at the war memorial in the Novorossisyk since 1960 and it has been used as the theme tune for the late evening news on Moscow Radio for many years.

As for the winning piece in the anthem competition, you will know the tune...

That was The Hymn of the Soviet Union by Alexander Alexandrov.

In February 1948, with the Cold War setting in and the Soviet Union becoming increasingly oppressive, an official if somewhat vague decree was issued by an organisation called the Committee for Artistic Affairs condemning the music of Shostakovich and six other composers, including Khatchachurian and Prokofiev. Their music was described as “formalistic” and “alien to the people.”

The result of what was known as the Zhdanov Decree was that Shostakovich's work was banned, he was dismissed from his teaching job at the Moscow Conservatoire, and his family had many of their privileges withdrawn.

Following the denunciation Shostakovich was forced to reel out a grovelling if perhaps less than sincere official apology. “I know the Party is right,” he said. “I shall try again and again to create symphonic works close to the spirit of the people.”

By 1949, the restrictions on his work were lifted but, despite his rehabilitation, he continued to have difficulties. In 1951, he wrote a Bach-inspired set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano. The suite was premiered in 1952, but only after it was privately performed for the state-run Union of Composers, who objected to the work because it felt fugues were too western and archaic. Here's one of the pieces...

Just before 10pm on 5th March 1953, a year after that piece was premiered, on Stalin died. Incidentally, Prokofiev passed away only 50 minutes earlier. Nine months later, Shostakovich's 10th Symphony was premiered, eight years after his 9th Symphony.

According to the contested autobiography, Shostakovich said this of the symphony:

I wrote it right after Stalin's death and no-one has 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.

The truth of that has been questioned but to me it's a frenetic movement that hints first at madness and then danger. Incidentally, the symphony Shostakovich uses a musical motif, the notes D, E flat, C, B natural, which in German musical notation stands for the composer's initials. It's his musical signature, and it's something he used frequently after this, and is his way of saying: “This is me. This work is mine, and mine alone.”

That was Shostokovich's 10th Symphony, Opus 93, the second movement, a scherzo known by some as the Stalin Movement.

Earlier, we heard part of the First and Fifth Symphonies and I mentioned the Second and the Third. But what of the Fourth? Well, he started writing it just after he finished his opera Lady Macbeth, which later prompted the 'muddle instead of music' condemnation.

He finished his Fourth Symphony in May 1936 and its premiere was arranged for December of that year. However, Shostakovich withdrew the symphony, it's thought because of pressure exerted by the authorities. It wasn't premiered until 1961. For the same reason, his 1st Violin Concerto, which was completed in 1948, wasn't unveiled until after Stalin died.

After Stalin's death, Shostakovich continued the encounter difficulties at the hands of the authorities. Nevertheless, he wrote six more symphonies and numerous other works, including a great many film scores. However, all that's another story...

I've chosen my final piece not because of any connections with Stalin but because, well, it's a recognisable and nice tune to send you home humming. It is far better known than the Soviet film for which it was written. It's Romance, the eighth of 12 movements from The Gadfly Suite, Opus 97a, which was written in 1955 and was inspired by Jules Massenet's Meditation from the opera Thais.

Before I finish, a word or two more about Shostakovich himself. He was a sickly child – he had tuberculosis of the lymphatic system, whatever that is. His father died when he was young, and the family shared the general deprivation and hunger if the population at large at that time.

He loved to watch football, and throughout his adult life was a big fan of Zenit Leningrad. He was also a qualified football referee.

He was married three times and was survived by a daughter and a son, Maxim, himself a renowned pianist and conductor.

He was said to be obsessed with cleanliness. He obsessively synchronised his clocks in his apartment and he often posted cards to himself to check how well the postal service was working. He was extremely well read and could quote Burns and Shakespeare as well as works by Russian masters such as Checkov and Gogol. It's said that towards the end of his life he was a bundle of nerves. His face was described as being “a bag of tics and grimaces”. No wonder!

He had a peninsula in Antarctica named after him. His work always divided the music world. William Walton described him as the greatest composer of the 20th century, but Pierre Boulez dismissed Shostakovich's music as "the second, or even third pressing of Mahler”. He was said to be "completely incapable of saying 'No' to anybody”.

Shostakovich died of lung cancer in Moscow in August 1975 but he had suffered a prolonged paralysis attributable to slowly progressive motor neuron disease.

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Shostakovich and Stalin playlist

Each Spotify track has been chosen specifically; however, the corresponding YouTube videos may be performed by different orchestras.