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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society
Richard Taruskin

So much for theory. The story of Stalinist totalitarianism in practice, where music was concerned, can best be told—in fact, in some ways can only be told—in terms of the creative biography of Dmitriy Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906–75), the Soviet Union’s emblematic composer. Shostakovich was the one composer wholly formed in the Soviet Union to achieve unquestionable world eminence. In that sense his work was not only regarded, but was actively promoted by the regime, as an emblem of Soviet cultural achievement and a vindication of the theory of socialist realism. His actual biography, containing as it did dramatic collisions and painful compromises with Soviet authority, is emblematic in another way, symbolizing the plight of artists who are subject to direct political control under uniquely modern conditions. And the controversies that have swirled about his legacy since his death (and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union) are emblematic in yet a third way, exemplifying the contests over the meaning of art to which conditions of censorship and political manipulation inevitably give rise.

Protagonist or Victim?

fig. 13-8 Dmitriy Shostakovich at a rehearsal of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Bedbug in Leningrad, 1929. Seated beside the composer is the director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Standing behind are (left) the designer, Alexander Rodchenko; and (right) Mayakovsky.

Shostakovich was a composing prodigy. He became nationally famous at the age of nineteen, when his First Symphony, his conservatory graduation piece, was publicly performed in Leningrad (the former Russian capital, St. Petersburg, renamed in honor of Lenin) on 12 May 1926. (Shostakovich celebrated the date for the rest of his life as a personal holiday.) World fame followed less than a year later, when Bruno Walter performed the symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on 5 May 1927. The American premiere, by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, took place in November 1928. By then Shostakovich had won international recognition as a pianist as well, receiving a prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

The precocious symphony, very much a sign of its times, shows Shostakovich to have been well abreast of all the fashionable currents in European music. In form it was impeccably “neoclassical,” while in content it was full of “new-objective” irony in its allusions to “subartistic” or utilitarian genres and its sarcastic tendency to take things to laughable expressive extremes. The first and second themes in the opening movement, for example, are a cheeky military march and a shyly coquettish waltz. The second movement, nominally a scherzo and trio, contrasts a maniacal galop (in which the piano takes a leading part) with some sort of weirdly antiquated hymn or ersatz medieval organum. The finale, another galop (or possibly a circus march), brazenly and explicitly mocks the pathos of the affecting slow movement—and implicitly mocks the listener who had been taken in by it. The main sentiment of neue Sachlichkeit—“We won’t be fooled again!”—is written all over this icily brilliant score.

The piano’s conspicuous mischief-making in the second and fourth movements is perhaps a reminder of the composer’s apprenticeship, during the hard days following the Bolshevik coup and the ensuing civil war, as low-paid pianist in a cold silent movie theater, where he may have acquired his lifelong taste for satirical intrusions of “low” genres, and for abrupt quasi-cinematic “cuts” in lieu of smooth transitions, to undermine the dignity of classical instrumental forms. His keen insolence seems to reflect that of early Soviet society, which saw itself very much as a buoyantly renewed culture injecting vigor into a decadent world.

Shostakovich’s early satirical vein reached a peak in his first opera, The Nose, on which he embarked in the summer of 1927 and finished a year later, aged twenty-one. It is based on a famously hilarious but inscrutable tale by the novelist Nikolai Gogol (1809–52), in which a pompous civil servant awakens one morning to find that his nose has left his face; later he encounters his nose gallivanting around the city in a uniform that outranks his own. By the end of the opera all St. Petersburg is chasing after the nose, which is apprehended, beaten back to its normal size, and returned to its owner, who tries in vain to affix it to his face, but wakes up the next day to find it has returned there of its own accord. The story can support any number of interpretations ranging from the sexual to the political to the religious. The opera attempts none at all, aping Gogol’s own deadpan (or “objective”) manner and leaving the task of “reading” to others—another lifelong habit of the composer’s.

Protagonist or Victim?Protagonist or Victim?Protagonist or Victim?

ex. 13-6 Dmitriy Shostakovich, The Nose in vocal score, end of Act I, scene 2

Instead, the music seeks out every conceivable opportunity to underscore Gogol’s extravagant sense of the absurd. Toward the end of the second scene in act I, for example, a policeman, grotesquely cast as a tenor falsettist (as close to a castrato as a twentieth-century composer could come) and incongruously accompanied by an ensemble of balalaikas (a folk instrument entirely out of place in an urban street scene), tries to apprehend a barber, who has discovered the nose in a freshly baked roll and is trying to dispose of it (Ex. 13-6). The stage is abruptly plunged in darkness, and an entr’acte ensues that has become famous as perhaps the earliest example in modern music of a composition scored entirely for unpitched percussion instruments. (It was often performed as a separate piece, and is included as one of the movements in an instrumental suite Shostakovich extracted from the opera after its 1930 premiere; among other claimants to patent-office primacy is the all-percussion scherzo from the First Symphony by another young Russian composer, Alexander Tcherepnin, also composed in 1927 and actually performed earlier than The Nose.)

The curtain goes up on the third scene to find Kovalyov, the civil servant, asleep in bed. He gets up to wash and sees his noseless face in the mirror. His “cavatina” (Ex. 13-7), consisting of nothing but grunts and gargles, is a pointed satirical counterpart to the tuneless percussion entr’acte. The whole opera burlesques the conventions of the genre in a similarly broad, unsubtle yet impressively inventive manner. More than any other composer of the time, perhaps, the young Shostakovich comes across as someone out to debunk and discredit the musical status quo from within. It was at the time an authentically and typically “Soviet” attitude toward “bourgeois” traditions.

The radical proletarianists (RAPMists) opposed Shostakovich’s opera, for it still honored those traditions “in the breach,” displayed elite virtuosity in its composing, and demanded a sophisticated audience for its appreciation. Once in power they managed to get the work taken off the boards, not to be revived until the 1960s. But their opposition was as yet a factional, not an official one. Until the end of his third decade, Shostakovich was regarded everywhere as the brash young musical genius of a brash young society, thriving in the din of its social upheavals, and pampered by its artistic elite.

Protagonist or Victim?Protagonist or Victim?

ex. 13-7 Dmitriy Shostakovich, The Nose in vocal score, Act I, scene 3, Kovalyov's “cavatina”

Like most Soviet artists, Shostakovich greeted the 1932 perestroyka, which removed RAPM from the scene, as a great boon. His confidence restored, he embarked on another opera. This one was based on another famous nineteenth-century novella, but a serious one: The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (1831–95), not a fantastical writer like Gogol but an adherent of the naturalist school. It is the story of Katerina Izmailova, a childless merchant’s wife in the middle of the great Russian nowhere, who rebels against her patriarchal surroundings by murdering her husband, her father-in-law, and her husband’s saintly nephew. She and her lover, Sergey, are discovered in the act of killing the little boy and sentenced to exile in Siberia. On the way there, Sergey takes a shine to another woman, whom Katerina duly murders by jumping with her into a freezing river in which both of them drown.

Protagonist or Victim?

fig. 13-9 Shostakovich, The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, act I, scene 2.

Shostakovich and his librettist Alexander Preys (with whom he had collaborated on The Nose as well) tried to turn Leskov’s creepy “sketch” of ungovernable passion and mayhem into a Soviet morality play. The objective conditions under which Katerina was forced to live, they argued in a program essay, justified her acts of violence. They were presented not as crimes but as acts of liberation. (Still, the third murder had to be eliminated because, as Shostakovich put it in the program, “killing a child always makes a bad impression.”)40 By emphasizing Katerina’s awakened libido as her motivation, moreover, Shostakovich and Preys purported to turn her into a feminist icon. Shostakovich announced the opera as the first in a trilogy that would glorify Russian womankind, first as rebel against the tsarist order, then as revolutionary, finally as the fully emancipated and productive heroine of Soviet society.

As befitted its loftier if morally distorted theme, Shostakovich’s music balanced his earlier satirical manner against a more lyrical and conventionally beautiful idiom. The latter he reserved for Katerina, the former for her victims, so that the dubious heroine of this very inhumane opera becomes the only character with whom it is possible for the audience to identify as a human being. Katerina’s is the only music in the opera that has emotional “life,” as traditionally (that is, romantically) portrayed. It waxes and wanes; it has rhythmic and dynamic flexibility; it reaches climaxes. All the other characters are portrayed as subhuman. Their singing and, above all, their movements are accompanied by trudging or galloping ostinatos whose inflexible pulsations characterize them as soulless, insensate automatons, comic-strip creatures incapable of experiencing or evoking an emotional response.

The technique of dehumanizing victims operates most effectively in the crucial fifth scene of the opera, which depicts the murder of Katerina’s husband, a well-meaning, ineffectual chap who (unlike his father) has done her no harm. The scene opens with Katerina in bed with Sergey, surrounded by the opera’s lushest, most lyrical orchestral music. The mood lasts until the husband’s offstage approach, signaled by a typical “trudging” ostinato. Once he arrives on stage, the trudge gives way to one of Shostakovich’s signature galops. The whole scene of confrontation and murder is played against its unremitting oompah (Ex. 13-8).

Protagonist or Victim?Protagonist or Victim?

ex. 13-8 Dmitriy Shostakovich, The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Act I, scene 5

When this scene has been performed abroad, many have found it puzzling. The American composer Elliott Carter, who saw The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Berlin, wrote that “the relation of the music to the action is unaccountable,” since he could not imagine why Shostakovich would have “the heroine and her lover strangle her husband on a large stage-sized four-poster bed to a lively dance tune.”41 Within the semiotic codes of socialist realism, however, the reason is clear enough: the dance tune is there to dehumanize the husband and mitigate the heroine’s crime to one of cruelty to animals at worst. What condemns him is nothing more than his being part of Katerina’s hated environment. He is dehumanized and dispatched not for anything he has done but for what he is: a beneficiary of the social system that oppressed his wife, or in Marxian terms, a “class enemy.” That is enough “objectively” to justify his liquidation. And all of this is conveyed, as in any successful opera, by the music, read through its appropriate codes by a properly attuned audience.

The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was a huge success with audiences and critics alike after its nearly simultaneous premieres in Leningrad, the composer’s hometown, and Moscow, the Soviet capital, in January of 1934. It played to full houses for two years and toured the Western world as well, where, if it was not understood quite the way it was understood at home, it nevertheless captivated audiences, as Wozzeck did, with its strong doses of sex and violence. (The scene in which Sergey rapes Katerina—musically quite similar to the murder scene—became especially famous when a New York critic, quoted later in a national news magazine, dubbed it an exercise in “pornophony.”)42 No one foresaw its now emblematic fate.

In January 1936, a festival of Soviet music was held in Moscow. The Little Opera Theater of Leningrad lent its two most successful productions to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater for the occasion. One was Quiet Flows the Don, a corny “song opera” (a uniquely Soviet genre somewhat similar to a Broadway musical but sung throughout) by a hack named Ivan Dzerzhinsky, which was based on Mikhail Sholokhov’s famous novel of the postrevolutionary civil war. The other was Lady Macbeth. On the evening of January 17, Stalin attended a performance of Dzerzhinsky’s opera in the company of a close aide, and, in the words of an official press communiqué, called the composer, the conductor, and the director to his box, where he “gave a positive assessment of the theater’s efforts on behalf of Soviet opera and noted the considerable ideological and political merits of the production.”43 On the evening of January 26, Stalin returned to the theater, together with a somewhat larger entourage that included Andrey Zhdanov, to see Lady Macbeth. Shostakovich, alerted by telegram, was in the audience. He left the theater perturbed (as he wrote to a friend) about “what had happened to Dzerzhinsky, and what didn’t happen to me.”44 For Stalin and his retinue had left without comment before the end. Two days later, what soon became known all over the Soviet Union as the Historic Document appeared in Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party’s official organ. It was an unsigned editorial titled “Muddle Instead of Music,” and a historic document it was indeed. At a time when newspaper campaigns were already rife against the “left deviationism” of old Bolsheviks in preparation for the show trials and mass executions that were then in the planning stage, the same merciless rhetoric of political denunciation was leveled, for the first time anywhere, at an artist.

The opera was excoriated both for its libretto and its music. The main thrust of the invective was puritanical: no surprise, since totalitarian regimes fear nothing so much as an unleashed libido. “The music croaks and hoots and snorts and pants in order to represent love scenes as naturally as possible,” Pravda fumed; “and ‘love,’ in its most vulgar form is smeared all over the opera.”45 That, the editorial insinuated, was why the opera had enjoyed its sensational international success. It was a capitulation to “the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences,” whom it titillated with its “witching, clamorous, neurasthenic music.” But then the attack turned from the opera’s subject to its style. “The composer,” Pravda ranted, “seems to have deliberately encoded his music, twisted all its sounds so that it would appeal only to aesthetes and formalists who have lost all healthy tastes.” And now came the threat. “Left deviationism in opera grows out of the same source as left deviationism in painting, in poetry, in pedagogy, in science,” the newspaper asserted, using the very term that was a death sentence to political losers. In a phrase that must have scared the poor composer half out of his wits, the chief organ of Soviet power denounced him for “trifling with difficult matters,” and hinted that “it might end very badly.”

Lady Macbeth, until then the jewel of the Soviet operatic stage, was summarily banned, not to return until 1961, in a revised version stripped of pornophony (but also with an expanded final scene depicting the convoy en route to Siberia, which many read as Shostakovich’s oblique reference to the threats he had endured). The premiere of Shostakovich’s monumental Fourth Symphony was canceled on its very eve. (It would not be performed until 1962.) There have been many attempts to find a rationale for these bans on the basis of musical content, or on that of Stalinist taste (or even the personal taste of the dictator, who had been a seminarian in his youth and perhaps retained a prospective clergyman’s squeamishness about sex).

It is more likely that Shostakovich was singled out for attack not because his works gave particular offense, but because of his preeminence among the Soviet composers of his generation. If Shostakovich could be summarily silenced and brought low, then nobody was safe. It was a demonstration of the omnipotence of Soviet power over the arts in the wake of the 1932 perestroyka, which by dissolving all musical institutions not directly administered by the government at the behest of the Party, removed all impediments to the exercise of Stalin’s arbitrary rule.

Some of Shostakovich’s surviving friends have stated since his death that at the time of the Pravda editorial, the composer fully expected to be arrested and imprisoned, and packed a suitcase. That never happened, but for the rest of his life, or at least until the end of Stalin’s reign, he had to live with the threat of a “bad end.” That this tortured figure continued to function as an artist and a citizen has lent his career, and many of his works, a heroic luster that no “benignly neglected” modernist composer in the West can hope to rival.


(40) Dmitri Shostakovich, “Moyo ponimaniye ‘Ledi Makbet,’ ” in Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uyezda: Opera D. D. Shostakovicha (Leningrad: Gosudarstvennïy Akademicheskiy Malïy Opernïy Teatr, 1934), p. 6.

(41) Elliott Carter, “Current Chronicle: Germany, 1960,” Musical Quarterly XLVI (1960); The Writings of Elliott Carter, eds. Else Stone and Kurt Stone (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 213.

(42) “The Murders of Mtsensk,” Time, 11 February 1935, p. 35.

(43) “Beseda tovarishchey Stalina i Molotova s avtorami opernogo spektaklya ‘Tikhiy Don,’ ” Sovetskaya muzïka IV, no. 2 (1936): 3.

(44) Shostakovich to Ivan Sollertinsky, 28 January 1936; quoted in Lyudmila Mikheyeva, “Istoriya odnoy druzhbï,” Sovetskaya muzïka LV, no. 9 (1987): 79.

(45) “Sumbur vmesto muzïki,” Pravda, 28 January 1936.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013009.xml