The War Symphonies: How Dmitri Shostakovich went from Victim to Savior of Soviet Russia

Part I: Leningrad

In a helicopter during an emergency evacuation to Moscow, Dmitri Shostakovich looked down with melancholy on his home of 35 years: the beautiful city of Leningrad. A month prior, the Nazi siege of Russia had begun; Adolf Hitler was making good on his promise of destroying Russia’s cultural capital. Unbeknownst to him, within Shostakovich’s hurriedly-assembled luggage lay hidden Russia’s greatest weapon: the first three movements of his Seventh Symphony, simply subtitled “Leningrad.”

Once safely relocated to Russia’s new temporary capital, Kuybyshev, Shostakovich finished his symphony and premiered it there on March 5th, 1942. A few months later, a plane flew over German lines to deliver the complete score to the decimated St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra so his fellow countrymen could finally hear the music he wrote for them. The musicians that remained in the city were starving along with all of Leningrad — victims of Hitler’s strategy to cut off all imported foodstuffs during the siege. The music, as was routine for Shostakovich’s writing, was quite demanding to play. During rehearsal, players fainted, either from empty stomachs or the unbearable cold. Three of them died. By the time the symphony premiered in August, only 15 members remained, and they gave, literally, the performance of a lifetime.

In front of a packed concert hall, filled with both soldiers and citizens, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic masterfully performed the Seventh Symphony. For those not in attendance, the recording was played over loudspeakers all across the city, loud enough even for soldiers on the front line to hear.

The first movement, initially triumphant, reflects the Leningrad of Shostakovich’s childhood: unblemished by the atrocities of war, ripe with love for artistic expression and cultural diffusion. By the third movement, we hear the music of a city struggling against its occupation, dying but never dead. The symphony’s finale offers a note of hope, manic with a sense of revolution. It is when those sounds reached the ears of the front line that Russia knew it would survive the war. Within two years, Russia was chasing a retreating German front, and, in April 1945, finally succeeded in hoisting the red flag over occupied Berlin. 

Though Shostakovich’s music helped inspire a defeated Russia, it would not be for another eight years that he could become a celebrated artist in his own right for he was still unable to escape the oppressive reign of Joseph Stalin.

Part II: Muddle instead of Music

At only 29 years old, Shostakovich, the champion of the avant-garde, was riding high on the critical acclaim of his newest opera. A rather unsettling and grim performance, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was quite a departure from his first opera, The Nose, about a man who loses his nose, which then becomes a giant, tap-dancing, sentient nose. Almost absurdist, Shostakovich’s first foray into writing operas paled in comparison to the success of his second. That is, until Stalin watched it.

On January 26, 1936, Joseph Stalin and his entourage of party officials went to the opera. After two years of international praise for Lady Macbeth, it was about time the ruler of the Soviet Union watched the work of Shostakovich. Stalin was mortified by what he witnessed. Though it is debated what exactly he found so reprehensible, most believe it was the opera’s sex scene in the first act, where the main character allows herself to be seduced. The opera’s tragedy is a result of the protagonist’s chaotic romantic relationship, and the music’s brash and abrasive tone inform a provocative outlook on sexuality that didn’t exactly coincide with the views of the Party. This caused the dictator’s entire delegation to flee from the opera house right before the final scene. Shostakovich, watching the departure from the audience, understood exactly what it meant, and bowed before the audience with a pallid face and flat smile.

Two days later, the official state newspaper, Pravda, published a review of the opera entitled “Muddle Instead of Music”. An unsparing article, it criticized the opera’s “confused stream of sound,” warning that it may “end very badly” for the composer. Reportedly written by Stalin himself, the article killed Lady Macbeth right then and there. All performances were cancelled. Shostakovich, in an instant, became a nobody. People would cross the street just to avoid walking near him. His friends stopped speaking to him out of fear of Stalin’s secret police. Aside from his wife, Dmitri Shostakovich was left completely alone. He immediately shelved his Fourth Symphony which was already in rehearsal, and began to work on his most infamous work, the Fifth Symphony, subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism”. Thus began the War Symphonies. After getting on to Stalin’s radar, Shostakovich could not risk producing anything avant-garde, modernist, or experimental. He would be considered a bourgeois rebel if he continued. Instead, his Fifth through Ninth Symphonies were produced — uncharacteristically — for the enjoyment of the Soviet party.

Stalin’s disapproval of the composer ushered in an important era of artistic expression in Russia: Soviet Realism. In an attempt to differentiate Soviet artistry from that of the rest of the world, music produced by Russian composers had to be upbeat and imperial: the sounds of a Union in the throes of celebration and success. In accordance with this “realism,” Shostakovich’s Fifth has been interpreted as sounding grand and majestic, adhering to the dictator’s proletarian sensibilities. However, hidden amongst minor chords, is reportedly a secret criticism of the regime.

The first movement’s opening canon previews a dramatic conflict amongst the strings, giving way to the violins’ portrayal of the first theme. Midway through, the strings succumb to a brass-dominated march, reminiscent of the strict formation of a Soviet Army’s victory parade. The woodwind theme of the second movement reminds audiences of the Russian ballets of Shostakovich’s predecessors: light and bouncy, but commanding nonetheless. With brass removed from the third movement, a flute solo hearkens back to the melodic lines of the first movement — a vision of a Russia serene in its natural beauty. Most famously, the symphony’s concluding fourth movement is an unprecedented explosion of sound. An empowering vision of Russia’s future, the movement’s D Minor composition hinted at an insincerity on Shostakovich’s part. Towards the end, a giant key change in to D Major ends the symphony with an imperial victory cry for the Soviet Union. Whether or not the closing was forced out of him for fear of his life, or is, instead, a disingenuous mockery of the regime is still a point of contention today. Nonetheless, the symphony was adored by audiences and party officials alike. Unfortunately, the composer’s torments did not end there.

Part III: The Waldorf Conference & The Death of Stalin

The Soviet Union’s official attitude towards musical composition was presented finally in the Zhdanov Doctrine. The 1946 decree communicated Russia’s denunciation of “formalist” music in favor of proletarian works accessible to the masses. Composers accused of propagating the Western tradition — composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian — were the main victims of the new policy. The sounds of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Khachaturian’s “Masquerade” were no longer produced in Russian concert halls. Officially declared by Stalin an “enemy of the people”, Shostakovich was ostracized and most of his work was banned. He was even summoned for interrogation by the secret police. Ironically, his interrogator was assassinated by the regime just days before their meeting.

In constant fear of a nighttime raid on his home, Shostakovich reportedly kept a suitcase full of clothes near his door and slept on his staircase in case of an emergency evacuation. Afraid of Stalin’s wrath, his desk drawers were increasingly filled with discarded masterpieces. With an almost obsessive anxiety, he would sync the clocks in his house once every hour. His brother-in-law, mother-in-law, friends, patrons, and partners were targeted by secret police, facing either interrogation or execution.

Relief did not come for Shostakovich until the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in 1949, held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. In exchange for allowing the performance of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian within the Soviet Union again, Stalin sent the composer as a delegate to the conference to act as a pro-Communist puppet and shining paradigm of Russian excellence. Americans, familiar with Shostakovich’s war symphonies, were obsessed with the idea of his secret political dissidence and even held signs outside the conference, one saying “Shostakovich! Jump through the window!”. The greatest test of his loyalty came in a Q&A session from journalists, where Shostakovich was forced to denounce the bourgeois compositions of his friend and fellow composer Sergei Prokofiev. Whether or not his answer was sincere is still debated amongst musicologists and professors today.

The end of his plight as a composer did not come until 1953, the year Joseph Stalin died. Freed of his political shackles, Shostakovich was free to write as he pleased and broadcast the drawer full of crumpled pieces of paper to the world. His last five symphonies are the perfect example of this newfound independence. His tenth symphony thrives with a sense of mystery and darkness unlike anything he composed before. His latter piano concertos shine with unbridled joy and beauty. His last symphony, the 15th, even begins with a glockenspiel solo, the first major symphony to do so. It also playfully reproduces melodies from Rossini’s William Tell Overture and is played in an atmosphere of childlike happiness and innocence. David Lynch, heavily inspired by the symphony, often listened to it on the set of Eraserhead as the sun rose, believing it the greatest composition of the 20th century. Today, we can only speculate what could’ve come from the genius of Shostakovich had Stalin never lived, although some believe his greatness came as a result of his torment. 

Stalin’s Great Purge led millions to be executed or sent to gulags. Chief among his priorities were composers, authors, and artists he considered western or formalist. Shostakovich was fortunate enough to survive the genocide, primarily because of his creative and political maneuvers, like official denunciations or changes in compositional form. Examination of his story raises important questions. Is it better to conform and survive by expressing your artistry in ways acceptable to those in power, or escape your persecution and chase your right to expression at all costs? Did Shostakovich actually retaliate by hiding his criticisms in his score? Ultimately, Dmitri Shostakovich was an inspiring tour de force to his contemporaries, and a shining figure of artistic expression to young creatives today. In a time defined by restriction and tyranny, it is through the artist’s courageous defiance that we can have a glimpse of their reactions to political oppression. When orchestras play Shostakovich now, they are triumphing in art’s perpetual victory over politics. Through his music, we celebrate the power of artistic expression to transcend cultural boundaries and empower victims of oppression.

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