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Out of the shadows

After a troubled relationship with the Soviet regime, Shostakovich wrote his Tenth Symphony in the wake of Stalin’s death. ALASTAIR MCKEAN asks whether art and politics can ever really be separate.

Sergey Mikhalkov won a Stalin Prize for Literature in 1949 for his play Ilya Golovin. Its protagonist is a composer, whom we meet lolling about in his luxurious dacha, while his fabulously over-indulged wife tries on expensive gowns. Trouble arrives in the form of the day’s Pravda (the Communist Party’s official newspaper), featuring a prominent attack on Golovin’s ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘formalist’ music. The horrified Golovin is further shaken when his own daughter, a good Communist, informs him that Pravda is quite correct! Act II finds Golovin lamenting his music’s disappearance from Radio Moscow: he can now only hear it on the capitalists’ Voice of America. A friend begs him: abandon this modernist cacophony! Compose melodious and tuneful music for the people! Eventually, a sadder and wiser Golovin writes a suitably melodious and tuneful piano concerto, and is allowed to attend a ‘peace congress’ in Paris. Returning, he tells his wife that he witnessed a demonstration with 500,000 people praising the name of Stalin. The play concludes with Golovin doing the same.

‘Melodious and tuneful’ sounds nice, but in the Soviet context it meant the musical equivalent of the government-approved hackwork that Ilya Golovin undoubtedly was. A French journalist called Michel Gordey saw a performance, and wrote that although the play was vapid, the audience went wild. Gordey thought this bizarre, because the composer whose travails had inspired it was, in fact, extremely popular. This was Dmitri Dmitryevich Shostakovich. Although Shostakovich had written more than one genuine hit tune, he was revered not for his officially approved music, but for his own music: the music written from his own heart. In 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was filling three separate Moscow theatres when it was denounced on page 3 of Pravda. Shostakovich became an un-person overnight. Thereafter, like so many others, he kept a bag by the door, waiting for the police to take him away. 

Mikhalkov’s play was part of the second major denunciation that Shostakovich suffered as part of Stalin’s 1948 campaign against ‘formalism’. It was immaterial that nobody was ever entirely sure what ‘formalism’ meant. Shostakovich was castigated by the state, dismissed from his jobs and forced to sign statements that praised Stalin, attacked bourgeois, decadent Western composers, and thanked the Party for allowing him to correct his frequent mistakes.

Then, on 5 March 1953, Stalin died. Isolated and paranoid, the old monster was planning another lunatic purge of imaginary enemies of the people when a massive stroke choked him to death over twelve hours. The people, dazed, cautiously started to get on with their lives. Shostakovich retired to his dacha and wrote his Tenth Symphony.

It is a serious and terrifying work of art. In Testimony, the claimed transcription of Shostakovich’s memoirs, the composer is quoted as saying that the second movement was a portrait of Stalin. While the authenticity of Testimony is highly contested, this rings true. It’s a brutal dance of death, whose violence is all the more shocking for following a slow and bleak first movement.

The third movement is dominated by a disturbingly perky motif consisting of D, E flat, C and B. In German nomenclature, these notes are written D, Es, C, H, which (if you ignore the E) form the first four letters of the German transliteration – ‘D. Schostakowitsch’. The Tenth is one of several works in which Shostakovich used this tag as a reference to himself. In the last movement, a seemingly benign tune gradually morphs into the death music of the second movement. At its height, the DSCH motif is howled out by the orchestra. The conductor Mark Wigglesworth, writing about the piece, concludes Shostakovich is shouting “I will not be beaten.”

So – as so often with Shostakovich – it can be hard to hear as music qua music. The composer Aram Khachaturian reviewed it as “light and tragic, sorrowfully-lyrical and triumphantly jubilant.” Some may find this a curious judgement. Exciting, yes. Exhilarating, even. Overpowering, certainly. Triumphantly jubilant? Perhaps a bit of a stretch. But then Khachaturian, a close friend of Shostakovich, may not have believed what he wrote. Even after Stalin, people still had to obey the Party line. After all, only a few years earlier Khachaturian had been obliged to compose the incidental music for a play by Sergey Mikhalkov called Ilya Golovin.

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