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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society
Richard Taruskin

The first work to be so regarded, the Fifth Symphony, was also the work that won Shostakovich his rehabilitation and return to official favor. It was first performed in Leningrad, on 21 November 1937, at the very height of Stalin’s so-called “purge” of the Party and government, in the midst of mass arrests, disappearances, and executions, to an audience that, according to reliable reports, had been weeping openly during the slow movement and cheered the symphony for fully half an hour when it was over. The history of its reception is a most revealing narrative, not only in the context of Soviet music, but in the more general context of music created, presented, and interpreted under conditions of modern totalitarianism at its most stringent.

The most conspicuous difference between the Fifth Symphony and its composer’s earlier works is the total suppression of the satirical mode, formerly one of Shostakovich’s most distinctive features. The scherzo, where formerly one might have expected a madcap caricature of a march or galop, was a rather heavy, traditionally Germanic (hence “classical”) triple-metered affair—perhaps a waltz, perhaps a Ländler, perhaps even a somewhat cloddish minuet—in an idiom seemingly derived from that of Mahler’s early symphonies (particularly the First, in which the scherzo shares the key of D major with that of Shostakovich’s Fifth). The change was noted with satisfaction by the critic for Sovetskaya muzïka, who approvingly contrasted the scherzo’s “new traits of fresh, hearty humor, naivety, and even tenderness” with Shostakovich’s previous “pretentious urbanity,” his “flaunting of cheap effects.”46 The work was taken on high as a recantation. The composer, at least outwardly, sought (or allowed himself to appear to seek) to abet the impression. The very “iffy” language is necessary since no public utterance by a public figure in Stalinist Russia can be presumed actually to come from its ostensible source. In the present case the utterance took the form of a newspaper article called “My Creative Answer,” which was published in a Moscow newspaper on the eve of the Symphony’s premiere in the capital, 25 January 1938. The author of the article announced that in the wake of the Leningrad premiere, “among the often very substantial responses that have analyzed this work, one that particularly gratified me said that ‘the Fifth Symphony is a Soviet artist’s practical creative answer to just criticism.’” He went on to state that “at the center of the work’s conception I envisioned a man in all his suffering,” and that “the Symphony’s finale resolves the tense and tragic moments of the preceding movements in a joyous, optimistic fashion.”

That man, the Symphony’s hero, is explicitly identified with the composer and his recent past: “If I have really succeeded in embodying in musical images all that I have thought and felt since the critical articles in Pravda, if the demanding listener will detect in my music a turn toward greater clarity and simplicity, I will be satisfied.”47 In keeping with the explicit demands of Socialist Realism, a special effort was made to dissociate the Symphony’s “tense and tragic moments” from any hint of “pessimism,” an impermissible message for art to convey since it promoted passivity and low productivity. “I think that Soviet tragedy, as a genre, has every right to exist,” the author of the article published over Shostakovich’s name declared,

but: its content must be suffused with a positive idea, comparable, for example, to the life-affirming ardor of Shakespeare’s tragedies. In the literature of music we are likewise familiar with many inspired pages in which, for example, the severe images of suffering in Verdi’s or Mozart’s Requiems manage to arouse not weakness or despair in the human spirit but courage and the will to fight.

The official press, which may have actually authored this interpretation of the symphony, naturally accepted it at its face value, even if some of the stricter critics, like the one in Sovetskaya muzïka, faulted Shostakovich for occasionally falling short of his intentions as set forth in “My Creative Answer.” The slow movement, which had provoked the epidemic of weeping in the hall, was a failure, in the critic’s view, because instead of arousing “courage and the will to fight,” it seemed to depict instead a state of “torpor, numbness, a condition of spiritual prostration, in which the will is annihilated along with the strength to resist or overcome. This numbness, this torpor is the very negation of the life-affirming principle.”48 And it would have made the Symphony unacceptable, one feels after reading the review, had not the finale saved the day—or tried to—by breaking the objectionable mood, and especially with its insistently, earsplittingly yea-saying D major coda (Ex. 13-9). The critic ended his review with cautious approval, but with a question in his mind: had Shostakovich truly succeeded in dispelling the torpor he so vividly portrayed (and possibly conveyed) in the Largo?


ex. 13-9 Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5, IV, coda

With that, the critic unwittingly (or—who knows?—perhaps wittingly) signaled the real story of the Fifth’s reception, in which the official reading contended with a sort of folk tradition of “dissident” readings that put the symphony’s supposed message in quite another light. This tradition, carried on in private (or in coded language), has to be pieced together from scattered documents and reminiscences, beginning with a notation that Alexander Fadeyev, the very orthodox head of the Soviet Writers’ Union, made in his diary after hearing the 1938 Moscow premiere and published posthumously, in 1957: “A work of astonishing strength. The third movement is beautiful. But the ending does not sound like a resolution (still less like a triumph or victory), but rather like a punishment or vengeance on someone. A terrible emotional force, but a tragic force. It arouses painful feelings.”49

This turned the official reading on its head, judging most successful the very movement that the official critic had called the least, and hinting that the finale may have “failed” on purpose. Myaskovsky, writing to Prokofieff (who was traveling abroad), confessed that he was surprised that Shostakovich could have come up with a finale so “utterly flat,”50 and Yevgeniy Mravinsky, the conductor of the Leningrad premiere, wrote much later that despite the composer’s “great effort to make the finale the authentic confirmation of an objectively affirmative conclusion,” the confirmation was unconvincing since it was achieved by transparently artificial means: “Somewhere in the middle of the movement the quick tempo spends itself and the music seemingly leans against some sort of obstacle, following which the composer leads it out of the cul-de-sac, subjecting it to a big dynamic buildup, applying an ‘induction coil’”51 —that is, an externally administered electric shock.

Were these writers using code? And was even Georgiy Khubov, the “official critic,” using code when he called such insistent attention to the slow movement’s “torpor”? By now a whole library of late- and post-Soviet memoirs, accounts by émigrés, and clandestinely published dissident writings attests that that was precisely the mood that reigned among the populace during the political terror—the “Yezhovshchina,” as it was called, after Nikolai Yezhov, the commissar who directed it—whose very peak coincided with the symphony’s premiere. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) used that very word—torpor (otsepeneniye)—in the prose preface to her poem “Requiem” (composed and memorized at the time, committed to paper and published after Stalin’s death) to characterize the endless queues of women who gathered daily at the prisons of Leningrad to learn the fates of their arrested loved ones:

In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina I spent seventeen months in the Leningrad prison lines. One day someone “fingered” me. Then the blue-lipped woman standing behind me, who of course had never heard my name, roused herself out of the torpor we all shared and whispered in my ear (for everyone there spoke in whispers): “But can you describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile slid across what had once been her face.

There are many now, both in and out of Russia, who believe that Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was a similar act of witness. In 1979, four years after the composer’s death, a book called Testimony was published in New York, purporting to be memoirs of Shostakovich as transcribed from conversations with an émigré journalist named Solomon Volkov. It contains this unequivocal characterization of the symphony that had once been called Shostakovich’s creative response to just criticism:

I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [the first scene of Musorgsky’s opera] Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.52

The authenticity of Testimony has been seriously questioned, but in the end it is not relevant to the point at issue here, which is the way in which the folk reading has triumphed, both in Russia and abroad, over the official one as Soviet power grew weaker and eventually collapsed. We may never know what Shostakovich intended, but (as is always the case with instrumental music) multiple readings were available to listeners despite all attempts to control interpretation by means of Socialist Realism, and those who wished to believe in the work’s dissident message had a consolation that was otherwise unavailable under conditions of Soviet censorship. And that is why nowhere on earth was symphonic music ever valued more highly by multitudes of listeners than in the Soviet Union.

That high social value was purchased at an exorbitant price in suffering, one that neither the composer nor his audience, given the choice, might willingly have paid. But it illustrates more poignantly, perhaps, than any other episode in the history of music just what it is that has made music so special among the arts. It was something that the Romantics had valued in all art. As early as 1794, when the idea of the esthetic was in its infancy, the German poet Friedrich Schiller observed that “the real and express content that the poet puts into his work remains always finite; the possible content that he allows us to contribute is an infinite quality.”53 But it was a quality that, inevitably, became especially associated with the art that had the least, or most weakly specified, semantic content. A century and a half later, in a country and a society undreamt of by Schiller, the truth of his statement received its greatest validation when it allowed the formerly sarcastic, “objective” and often somewhat trivial music of a chastened and newly serious Dmitriy Shostakovich to become the secret diary of a nation.


(46) This and following quotations from Georgiy Khubov, “5-ya simfoniya D. Shostakovicha,” Sovetskaya muzïka VI, no. 3 (1938): 16.

(47) “Moy tvorcheskiy otvet,” Vechernyaya Moskva, 25 January 1938, p. 30.

(48) Khubov, “5-ya simfoniya,” p. 22.

(49) Alexander Fadeyev, Za tridtsat’ let (Moscow: Sovetskiy pisatel’, 1957), quoted in Dmitriy Shostakovich, eds. G. Ordzhonikidze et al. (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1967), p. 43.

(50) S. S. Prokofieff and N. Ya. Myaskovsky, Perepiska (Moscow: Sovetskiy kompozitor, 1977), p. 455.

(51) “Tridtsat’ let s muzïkoy Shostakovicha,” in Ordzhonikidze, et al., Dmitriy Shostakovich, p. 109.

(52) Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov, trans. Antonina W. Bouis (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 183.

(53) Friedrich Schiller, review of Friedrich Mattheson’s landscape poetry, quoted in Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 93.

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. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013010.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013010.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013010.xml