You hear artists and musicians complain how the critics are so tough.
Wonder how they’d like to walk around in the shoes of composer Dmitri Shostakovich — whose toughest critic was Josef Stalin!
Almost all his life, Shostakovich’s fortunes rose and fell with the moods of the Soviet Communist Party — and were particularly tied to the iron-fisted Stalin.
Like one night in 1936 when Stalin heard some new music by Shostakovich that he didn’t like, and the very next day Pravda ran a scathing denunciation of Shostakovich.
Reviews like that, in those times, left the composer not only short on work — who would play his music? — but short on life expectancy.
The year 1936 was, after all, the height of the Great Terror, in which Stalin and the party “purged” millions of enemies of the people, including intellectuals. Anything could happen: denunciation, exile to labor camps, arrest, murder, disappearance.
Obviously, a bad spot for the composer.
“To be branded as an enemy of the people meant I could be safely attacked,” Shostakovich wrote in his memoirs.
The youthful genius waited at night in the hallway outside his apartment so his wife and children would not see him taken away by the secret police.
“I was near to suicide,” said Shostakovich. “The danger horrified me and I saw no other way out.”
But, like Mother Russia, Shostakovich was a survivor. He got through 1936 by bowing to the party line, and easing off experiments in “tonality” that had caught Stalin’s ear — and ire.
Stalin spun propaganda with his star artists, just as later leaders exploited the scientific triumph of Sputnik to prove the superiority of the Soviet system.
Shostakovich wasn’t beneath it, either. He accepted three Stalin Prizes and the Order of Lenin — a Communist intellectual who believed in the struggle. After Nikita Khrushchev took over from Stalin, Shostakovich rose to Deputy of the Supreme Soviet.
But that was later.
Here in 1936, Shostakovich had incurred the displeasure of Stalin with music he wrote for a movie and opera called “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk.” Stalin also knew Shostakovich’s upcoming “Fourth Symphony” contained otherworldly atonal chords and ethereal sounds that reeked of Western decadence.
“Any kind of adventurous music was out,” explained the famous critic Harold C. Schonberg. “Composers could not write it, and audiences could not hear it.”
Shostakovich the survivor wrote his way out of trouble.
Putting the “Fourth Symphony” aside completely (it would be 24 years before the “Fourth” was finally premiered), Shostakovich rolled out a great new “Fifth Symphony,” complete with the kind of triumphant ending Stalin liked. The work is tagged with the wry notation: “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.”
The Louisville Orchestra will present the “Fifth Symphony” Friday night at the Brown Theater. Also on the program, conducted by Raymond Leppard, is Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture,” and violinist Corey Cerovsek will perform Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” in D Major.
Events after 1938 catapulted Shostakovich into a worldwide spotlight. World War II began and Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
During the Siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich was photographed as a volunteer fireman — in a city perpetually aflame from German incendiary bombs. Picturing Shostakovich as a firefighter was symbolic — he was not a firefighter — but the obvious propaganda met no objection. The situation was beyond dire. As many as a million Russians may have died in the three-year siege of Leningrad, most of starvation. In the United States, Shostakovich was depicted in his fireman’s helmet on the cover of Time magazine in July 1941.
Six months later, America was in the war, too. Shostakovich hurried completion of his “Seventh Symphony” amid intense artillery attacks on Leningrad.
The Red Army then flew Shostakovich to the interior city of Kuibyshev, where the score of the symphony was reduced to microfilm and then flown out of the country. One copy went to London, where the symphony was performed while German bombs rained down. The other copy was flown to New York via Teheran, Cairo and Rio de Janeiro.
Famous conductors Leopold Stokowski and Serge Koussevitsky vied to be the first to premiere the “Leningrad Symphony” in America. But the honor went to Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra. A team of photographers spent a week enlarging the microfilm into 252 pages of music. Extra players were added to perform the work, and Toscanini, who always conducted by memory, immersed himself in memorizing the mammoth work. On July 19, 1942 — with Americans now fighting overseas — the “Leningrad Symphony” was broadcast coast to coast on the NBC radio network.
Seven years after that triumph, Shostakovich visited New York, but he was closely watched by Soviet agents and not allowed to talk to newspaper reporters.
But don’t think that was just the Russians. The Cold War was on, and the U.S. State Department refused to grant Shostakovich permission to tour the country. The Iron Curtain was up.
Soon Shostakovich was in trouble again in Russia, and all but banned in the United States, as well. Through the 1950s and ’60s. American orchestras played Tchaikovsky and Russian composers of earlier eras, but not Shostakovich. American student musicians of that time did not even hear his name — a person who did not exist.
Which partly explains why Shostakovich is such a revelation today.
Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets are especially popular, perhaps because they sound like no other composer’s music. One can imagine winter in the forest. The sounds of stillness. A stick snaps under foot. A melting droplet of water falls into soft snow.
You can hear some of that of that in the third movement of the “Fifth Symphony.” The violins are divided into parts. It is very soft in places.
Shostakovich understood the suffering and death of the war. But he couldn’t forgive Stalin and the terrible pre-war years.
“The majority of all my symphonies are tombstones,” he said. “Too many of our people died and are buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. Where do you put the tombstones for Meyerhold and Tukachevsky? Only music can do that for them.”
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