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Shostakovich and the Soviet State

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) was 19 years old when the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 propelled him to international stardom. It was the first Soviet symphony to win a place in the West’s standard repertoire, and was championed by Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Otto Klemperer, and other conductors.

Fast forward to 1936 and Shostakovich was a broken man, artistically manacled, under threat, and terrified. That year was the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game instigated by the Soviet state that would persist, with varying degrees of danger, for the rest of Shostakovich’s life. Yet under this heavy shadow, Shostakovich composed a steady stream of remarkable music that makes him one of the great composers.

An Operatic Triumph

Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was his setting of Nikolai Leskov’s naturalist story of adultery and murder. The opera’s heroine, Katerina Ismailova, is a powerful and determined woman who lets nothing keep her from her desires, even if it means murder. Its two premieres—in Leningrad on January 22, 1934, and two days later in Moscow—were spectacularly successful. The two productions ran for nearly 200 performances and the work was also produced abroad.

Stalin’s Terror

The year 1934 was also when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin launched the first of his bloody purges to eliminate his enemies—real and imagined. Politicians and military leaders—and also writers, filmmakers, actors, musicians, and others­—were arrested on trumped-up charges and subjected to interrogation, torture, humiliating public trials, and execution. Those who didn’t immediately pay with their lives were shipped to the Gulag system—the network of Soviet penal labor camps—where more than a million died of hunger and disease.

Muddle Instead of Music

Two years after the opera’s premiere, Stalin and several government officials attended a performance at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Shostakovich was also in attendance. Stalin was in obvious discomfort during several parts of the performance and left after the third act. Contemporary accounts say Shostakovich was white as a sheet and glassy-eyed when he took his curtain call. Under Stalin, art could be a matter of life and death.

Two days later, the Soviet newspaper Pravda published an unsigned review (some historians suggest it was written by Stalin) of the performance titled “Muddle Instead of Music.” The review attacked the music and referred to “bourgeois” affectations that ran contrary to the “true” art the people demanded. It also included a warning to the composer: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.”

Restoring His Reputation

How does an artist react to such a threat? Shostakovich continued to create works in every genre. He wisely shelved his forward-looking Symphony No. 4, composed in 1935–1936—a work that would almost certainly have angered Stalin. The symphony was not performed until 1961, eight years after the dictator’s death. Shostakovich’s 1937 Symphony No. 5—perhaps his most popular work—was, he said, “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” A tremendous success, the symphony rehabilitated his reputation.


In 1948, however, the hammer dropped again. The state’s stranglehold on the arts was tightened by Andrei Zhdanov, a government official in charge of postwar cultural activities. He decreed the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and several others destructive to the state and the composers guilty of “formalism.” The ambiguous term served as a catch-all to castigate any artist who earned the state’s displeasure. Shostakovich was publicly denounced by a stream of jealous composers of second-rate talent. But he continued to compose. He wrote works that paid homage to the state, as well as music “for the drawer” that was personal, would be viewed as subversive, and was not publicly performed. One of these pieces is “Anti-Formalist Rayok (Paradise),” a hilarious lampoon of Zhdanov and his cronies that wasn’t performed until 1989.

Conformist or Hero?

There has been endless debate about Shostakovich’s political beliefs. He was a member of the Communist Party, was awarded the Order of Lenin in 1966, and wrote many works praising the state and its leaders. However, there is also music that bravely runs against it, whether the leader was Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev.

Shostakovich’s relationship with Russian Jews is another sign of his true feelings. Anti-Semitism was part of the Soviet system under Stalin and his successors. Yet Shostakovich stood by his Jewish friends, notably extraordinary composer Mieczysław Weinberg. When Weinberg was arrested (on charges of leading a plot to establish a Jewish republic in Crimea) in 1953, Shostakovich wrote letters to Stalin and his security chief, Lavrenti Beria, attesting to Weinberg’s innocence. Shostakovich and his wife were also prepared to take Weinberg’s children into their home in the worst case—although it never came to that.

Shostakovich also frequently quoted Jewish themes in his music, including the devasting Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor and the haunting song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. Perhaps his boldest statement of solidarity was the 1962 Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar.” Set to a text by dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the symphony reflects on the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews near Kiev, and delivers a scalding condemnation of anti-Semitism and the Soviet system. The text points out that Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, and Tolstoy were reviled by authority figures. The poem says, “Those who cursed them are forgotten, but the accursed are remembered well.” Shostakovich is one of those who are well remembered.

Enter Shostakovich’s Musical World

Feel the emotional power of Shostakovich’s music. This playlist features works by the great composer and some of his peers who preserved in face of oppression.

Photo of Shostakovich by Roger Rössing; photos of Stokowski, Klemperer, and TIME magazine cover courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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