Tyrants as Music Critics

Tyrants as Music Critics

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of a considerable group of ‘Soviet’ composers: those who continued and expanded upon the Russian musical tradition through the Soviet period, often at grave personal risk from the authorities, because said authorities were trying to force all art into their preferred propagandistic mode, ‘Socialist Realism.’ Shostakovich is often and deservedly mentioned in this connection in the same breath with Prokofiev and Khachaturian.

In 1934, Shostakovich premiered an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. His music for this production complemented the libretto of Alexander Preis, which in turn was based on a novel of the same name, by Nikolai Leskov.

Dmitri Shostakovich

The “Lady MacBeth” in question, Katerina, poisons her father-in law, then assists her lover (Sergei) in strangling her husband. She and Sergei are arrested and convicted; they are on their way to Siberia, when Sergei becomes infatuated with another female convict, Sonyetka.

Sonyetka makes the mistake of taunting Katerina. Katerina pushes her rival into an icy river, and then falls in herself. The river washes them away (presumably killing them both in the process), and the train of convicts continues its own separate procession.

You can watch a 15 minute segment in YouTube here.

A Tricky Analogy

One has to wonder, in reviewing even such a skimpy plot summary as that: why did Leskov invoke the titular Shakespearian character? Katarina doesn’t seem all that much like Lady MacBeth, and her doomed husband, Zinovy Izmailov, isn’t like Shakespeare’s MacBeth at all! Zinovy isn’t in any sense a co-conspirator of Katerina’s – he is offstage in every sense for her first murder and he is the victim of her second.

To make the analogy work, one might try to see Sergei as the MacBeth-like character. In this case, perhaps Katarina’s father-in-law is supposed to be a Russified Banquo, and Zinovy is Fleance, though less lucky in the outcome than was Shakespeare’s Fleance!

Let us leave all that to the literary critics, though. The Shostakovich/Preis opera was initially quite popular. As it happens, alas, it was during this same year of 1934 that the Communist Party in the USSR issued an official statement about what it wanted from artists. It wanted “a truthful, historically concrete depiction of reality in its revolutionary development.” So, on the one hand, there was to be realism, i.e. historically concrete depictions. But on the other hand, the artist was to serve the revolution, to be a good socialist. Hence the term, “Socialist Realism.”

It was on January 1936, that Josef Stalin himself attended “Lady Macbethof the Mtsensk District.” Stalin left the theatre after the third act, not returning for the fourth and final one.

This was signal enough to Stalin’s minions, and they decided the opera was a fit target. Pravda soon ran an anonymous editorial denouncing the production as “Muddle Instead of Music,” and in a not very veiled threat warned that “things may end very badly” for Shostakovich if he continues in this manner. Here is an English translation of that editorial.

One of the many sins of which the editorial accuses the composer (its language seems to leave Leskov and Preis out of the line of fire entirely): is formalism. Indeed, Pravda used scare quotes around that word. “The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois; ‘formalist’ attempt to create originality through cheap clowning.” The work would not be performed again in that country in Stalin’s lifetime.

After the War

Let’s fast forward, past the Moscow Show Trials and the Great Purge, past Stalin’s secret Alliance with Hitler, past his betrayal by that ally and his consequent alliance of necessity with the Western Powers, past victory in 1945, and into the era of the Cold War … let us fast forward all the way to 1947-48. Here we find Shostakovich an older and wiser man at work on his “Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra in A Minor.”

As it happens, Shostakovich is on my mind just now because I recently had the pleasure of attending a performance of this Concerto, by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. The music director, Carolyn Kuan, and the First Violin, Leonid Sigal, gave a talk before the music started, and explained some of the context of the piece. They mentioned that this was the time of the Zhdanov decree. Andrei Zhdanov, secretary of the Central Committee, was Stalin’s new right-hand man in matters of culture. Indeed, the two men were so close that the town of Zhdanov’s birth, Mariupol, was renamed “Zhdanov,” at Stalin’s decree.

It is pleasant to note that that town is once again known as Mariupol these days!

The point, though, is that the aftermath of the war seemed a good time for tightening up on real, potential, or imagined domestic enemies, or even cultural tendencies that might eventually allow enmity to fester. Thus, Zhdanov attacked his boss’ old enemy “formalism” and insisted that artists, musicians especially, prove their devotion to the wonderful socialist future.

It isn’t easy to get a handle on what “formalism” is in the arts. It wasn’t merely a Stalinist term of abuse – the word was and is used widely as the name for a tendency in modern and modernist art, even by many who commend that tendency. Formalism, for instance, sees a painting as a composition of light, shapes, and colors. It doesn’t look for the accurate depiction of a landscape or a bowl of fruit, it doesn’t look for or seek to decode psychological symbolism, nor does it seek compelling narrative. It looks for and at the light, the shapes, and the colors.

Likewise, formalism in the criticism or appreciation of music sees an aria or a concerto as a sequence of sounds in time. It is possible that such sounds-in-time may help illustrate the unfolding of events on a stage, or may express grief, or may create an opportunity for people to dance. The point, though, for a formalist, is the form, the internal characteristics of that sequence.

Final Thoughts

Was Shostakovich a formalist in that sense? It hardly matters. Formalism as a category is sometimes useful in discussing critics or theorists. It is never useful is discussing creators. Further, Stalin and Zhdanov weren’t interested in a debate about it. They simply wanted to determine how people thought and felt, which (they thought and felt) could be achieved by riding herd over what they heard.

At any rate, it was under pressure from Zhdanov that Shostakovich put away for a time his work on Concerto No. 1 for Violin. Fortunately for music lovers, Zhdanov died later in 1948. Stalin died in March 1953. In the somewhat looser artistic environment created by the second of those happy events, the Concerto was first performed on October 1955.


Certainly if I had to make a choice between Socialist Realism and formalism I hope I would have the guts to stand with the latter. But I am somewhat embarrassed, having said that, to find that I’ve just written more than a thousand words about Shostakovich and I have yet to say anything about the qualities (formal or otherwise) of his music, the qualities that have made it last: the qualities about which I would have been writing this whole time had I been a true formalist.

As penance, I direct you to his music and ask you to make a judgment about those qualities for yourself. You can follow the above link to enjoy his Lady MacBeth, and you can use this one to experience what he thought a violinist should do with a violin (and an accompanying orchestra.)



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