His Symphonies, and
The Political Climate in
Soviet Russia

FROM: J. Gallant

RE: Dmitry Shostakovich

Dear Sir or Madam:

The question of Shostakovich's views was the subject of a heated controversy among music historians a few years (well, a few decades) ago. Look up "Solomon Volkov" in Wikipedia and you will see the whole story. Volkov, a musicologist and friend of Shostakovich, published "Testimony" in 1979, after he had left the Soviet Union. In the book, he quoted extensively from what he claimed were Shostakovich's private comments, revealing a thorough-going opposition to the Soviet regime. Subsequent writings, notably by the music historian Laurel Fay, argued that Volkov had misrepresented the composer's attitudes. In public, in any case, Shosty never revealed himself as such a dissident. We will never know what he really thought, and his music doesn't contain secret coded messages. The Volkovian notion that the Fifth Symphony's triumphant ending is meant ironically is, needless to say, pure speculation.

§   §   §

Something you have to keep in mind when reading (or reviewing) books on Shostakovich's life, music, and political views. The cultural climate in the USSR in the immediate post-war period is briefly summarized below, from a review I just read concerning music by Shostakovich's friend and colleague Mieczyslaw Weinberg:

The "Concertino and Rhapsody" were composed against the backdrop of an "anti-formalist" campaign, spearheaded by Andrei Zhdanov, who had been appointed in 1946 to direct the Soviet Union's cultural policy. Under this oppressive regime, composers were compelled to compose in a style accessible to the people. However, this wasn't Weinberg's only problem. He happened to be the son-in-law of the prominent Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was murdered in 1948 as a result of the ideology of "anti-cosmopolitanism," an attempt to suffocate Jewish influence on society. In February 1953, Weinberg was tailed and arrested and underwent an eleven week interrogation process, only brought to an end by the death of Stalin in March 1953. During these oppressive years, he continued to compose prolifically, adapting to the cultural pressures . . . and moderating his style in the process.

From 1937 on, Shostakovich also "adapted to the cultural pressure," the Fifth Symphony being his most successful creation in that vein. Shosty also toed the line outwardly in other respects. In 1949 he attended a "peace" conference in New York City, held by the usual pro-Soviet "progressive" groups and dedicated to friendship with the peace-loving and progressive USSR under its beloved, humanitarian leader Uncle Joe Stalin. Some skeptics in the audience tried to get Shosty to say a few frank words about life in the workers' paradise, but he resolutely maintained the Party line.

Nonetheless, he never himself joined the Soviet Communist Party, and he did what he could quietly. When his friend Mieczylaw Weinberg was arrested in 1953 (see above), he wrote to the authorities on Weinberg's behalf. This might have speeded Weinberg's release, although Stalin's death was surely the major factor.

There is one final note I want to make about Shostakovich's music. It concerns the Sixth Symphony, written in 1939, which comes in between the mighty Fifth and the "Leningrad" Symphony of 1941.

The Sixth is in an accessible idiom, like the Fifth, but its moods are very strange. The first movement, very long, is an intensely tragic, pessimistic lament in b-minor. Then, there are two very short, dance-like major key movements which are insanely merry . . . and then it ends. It makes no sense as a whole, except as a musical image of manic-depression.

Or and there are powerful performances in this vein --- if the two short "merry" movements are satirical.

--- Jon Gallant
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