Shostakovich and the Soviet Union

Every artist, everyone who considers himself an artists, has the right to create freely according to his ideal…However, as are Communists and we must not stand with folded hands and let chaos develop as it pleases.

Vladimir Lenin, from his book O Kulture I Skusstve (about Culture and Art).

The art of music can serve many purposes. It can praise some higher power, or take you away from the struggles of the mundane. Rarely do imagine music as being a tool of political power. As was the case with composers living in the Soviet Union. Dimitri Shostakovich struggled to interpret the world as the State commanded their hands.

But it wasn’t always the case. Beginning in the mid-1600s, Peter the Great initiated a policy of ‘Westernizing’ Russia. Music – along with fashion and architecture – flowed into Saint Petersburg. In the 1700s, empresses Elizabeth and Catherine popularized Italian operas among the aristocracy. But it was the 1800s which saw the emergence of Russian composers on the international stage. Tchaikovsky and others mixed Russian folk music with Western music styles. Emperor Alexander III founded the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in 1882. Known as the Imperial Music Choir, concerts were exclusive to the Emperor and his court.

The Russian Revolution ended imperial rule in 1917. Despite the changing in government, the relationship between music and the state remained. Lenin believed in the role of the State in directing the artistic vision of the nation. This included funding the symphonic orchestra, renamed the State Philharmonic Orchestra of Petrograd. In 1924, it became the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. This occurred as Joseph Stalin consolidated his authority as Russia’s leader.

Joseph Stalin used art as propaganda,
usually but not always to praise himself. 

The year 1932 marked a significant cultural shift. Stalin’s regime forced artists to compose works reflecting socialist realism. Artists abandoned any Western influence in their works. Their options? To present art championing the lives of the proletariat, or, glorifying Stalin. There were no alternatives. Compositions needed approval by the government’s Union of Soviet Composers. Even works approved by the Union of Soviet Composers still felt the brunt of the Soviet state. Dimitri Shostakovich premiered his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, in 1934. It earned praise and applause from everyone except Joseph Stalin. The Russian leader saw it as too bourgeois and, thus, anti-Soviet. He directed the state newspaper to condemn the work. Shostakovich feared for his professional and personal life. Dimitri slept in the stairwell of his apartment in fear of the secret service taking him at night. He came back into favor with Stalin after the premiere of his 5th Symphony.

The invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 prompted the Soviet Union to react. With the war effort came a loosening of strict, anti-Western rules placed on the art scene. Grand symphonic music returned to Russia. Shostakovich and others composed war symphonies, boosting morale from Moscow to the battlefront. The cultural re-connection with the West offered a taste Russians could not resist. The post-War era saw the return of restrictions, led by Andrei Zhdanov. As Stalin’s ‘propagandist-in-chief’, Zhdanov attacked the styles of Russia’s classical oligarchs. Shostakovich was one of his prime targets. Zhdanov accused him of embracing too much Western influence in his music.

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1950. (Wikipedia)

Dimitri adapted to his situation, moving into the world of film composition. He also wrote music that appealed to the Soviet state, as well as works not meant for performance. The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 marked yet another cultural shift. The Soviet Union began to embrace Western modern and postmodern influences. This cultural thawing happened almost immediately: Shostakovich premiered his Symphony No. 10 nine months after the death of Stalin. The symphony was the first work premiered since his public denunciation in 1948. The Tenth Symphony exhibits the angst and tension Shostakovich is famous for.

And yet, it celebrates the freedom to partake in the symphonic traditions of the past.

Mar. 7, 7:30pm & Mar. 9, 8pm
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre

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