Listening To Dmitri Shostakovich’s Music

Listening To Dmitri Shostakovich’s Music, Econospeak

by Barkley Rosser

 While recovering from a bout of Covid-19 (getting there), I have found myself listening to a lot of music by Soviet/Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, mostly some of his 15 symphonies, which cover quite a range of styles from his first in 1926 to his last in 1971. I first heard Shostakovich 60 years ago in a junior high school music class when we were shown a film of a performance by the Leningrad Orchestra of his 1942 Leningrad Symphony No, 7’s first movement, dramatic and military composed in the midst of the siege of Leningrad in WW II, Shostakovich’s hometown.  I loved it.  Not too long after my family got a record of his 5th symphony from 1937, probably his most famous and popular, which helped rehabilitate him from the first round of political criticism he had faced for his overly modern opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, which came under criticism in 1936 as the Great Purges started.

Which brings up the fact of the ongoing controversies about Shostakovich’s relationship with the Soviet government and more deeply Russian musical history and culture.  It may be that I have been listening to him partly because I fear that along with much else he is going into a decline in recognition and influence due to a general reaction against Russian culture due to widespread anger over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  My bet is that at least in Ukraine there will not be any public performances of music by Shostakovich in the near future due to this, even as his controversial 1962 13th Symphony was about the massacre at Babi Yar in Ukraine, set to poetry by Yevtushenko.

His relationship with the government and the Soviet Communist Party went up and down and up and down and up.  His First Symphony, composed when he was 19, was an instant success and made him an early hero of Soviet composition, praised by Stalin. But this meant that his work got lots of attention, with criticisms coming hard and him in serious danger at the time of the purges.  But then his wartime compositions, led by the Leningrad Symphony, restored him fully as a national leader in music.  

But then came an even more serious threat in 1948 when Culture Minister Zhdanov attacked “formalism” in music and art more generally, supposedly representing western “cosmopolite” tendencies, this coinciding with the emerging tensions of the Cold War. Shostakovich was criticized along with his neoclassical colleague, Sergei Prokoviev, and Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian. He was removed from the Conservatory and narrowly escaped arrest. He would be rehabilitated partially the next year and sent to a cultural conference in New York where he was forced to criticize the music of Stravinsky, which he reportedly admired.  During this period he wrote film music “to pay the rent,” some official safe works, and then other works “for the desk drawer.”

The death of Stalin changed things, although he would not have a full rehabilitation until 1956. In 1954 he composed the boisterous Festival Overture that has come to identify with Russian nationalism and militarism, although its motivation appears to have been a celebration of the post-Stalin political and cultural thaw. In 1960 he finally joined the Communist Party and served as Head of the Soviet Composers Union from 1960-68. During this period he supported some dissident artists, most notably the poet, Joseph Brodsky, in 1865, helping to get him rehabilitated. While some of his later works drew occasional criticism, with him experimenting with 12-tone row in his 14th Symphony, he was never in serious danger again and would come to have an island near Antarctica named for him on Soviet request before he died in 1975 of a heart attack after numerous long illnesses.

I happen to love his music. His life and career seem to parallel much of Soviet cultural history, both its ups and downs.  He is a highly complicated figure.  I note for those not acquainted with his music, he was strongly influenced by Gustav Mahler, as well as Russian folk music, and other influences.  I regret that his reputation may now be dragged down because of his implicit association with the current war.

Barkley Rosser