Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Shostakovich: Artistry Amid Fear

Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the most gifted Russian composer of his generation, but he had the misfortune to live during a chaotic and frightening time in his country's history. At pivotal times in his career, Shostakovich found himself at the mercy of Joseph Stalin and the Communist party, his life in serious danger. Though he survived Stalin's reign of terror, his music reflects the climate of fear he lived in. Listening to his glorious symphonies or string quartets, I can't help but wonder how his career might have been different if he hadn't been afraid to write the wrong kind of music.

At the beginning of 1936, Shostakovich's life and career were happy and successful. He had reunited with his wife Nina after learning she was pregnant, and his latest opera, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsenk District, had become a great success with audiences and critics. But on January 28, 1936, Joseph Stalin attended the opera for the first time. Though Shostakovich's opera had initially been praised by Soviet critics as a great example of "Soviet Realism," Stalin hated it, and the composer was denounced in the Communist Party's newspaper, Pravda. The denunciations damaged Shostakovich's career and livelihood, but worse, they meant his life was in danger. Indeed, many of his friends and patrons who defended the opera ended up dead, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky and the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold.

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Shostakovich continued working on his monumental, experimental Fourth Symphony, which he finished later that fateful year. But while the symphony was in rehearsals that December, Shostakovich withdrew it from the public. No one knows for sure if his withdrawal was voluntary, since the avant-garde work might lead to further denunciation, or if he was threatened or coerced by party officials to withdraw it. Whatever the cause, Shostakovich's symphony would not have its premier until 1961, during the more open time after Stalin's death. Shostakovich's next major work, the famous Fifth Symphony, was a wild success and probably saved his life. Yet even though the Fifth is more musically conservative than his earlier works, its first three movements have an incredible emotional tension and heart-rending pain. Even critics at the time wondered if the final movement was intended to be "optimistic" as Shostakovich claimed at the time, or a sarcastic and bitter response to forced optimism in the face of the Great Terror.

Shostakovich continued to compose even under terrible, frightening circumstances. He found a way to express himself even at a time when the wrong kind of expression risked death or torture. Yet, the fear also had chilling effects on his work. Though he wrote three operas and several ballets in his early career, after his denunciation for Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich never wrote another work for the theater. One proposed opera had its libretto banned. He kept his more experimental ideas for his chamber music, which was less public and therefore less risky. Like other artists living under repressive regimes, he had to balance human expression and artistic power with the imperative to please (or at least not enrage) a brutal, capricious government. That he succeed so well is a testament to human creativity and ingenuity. 

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