The knock on the door

Dmitri Shostakovich did pretty well in the ABC Classic 100 competition recently, coming in at number 24. (He even beat Haydn — and Wagner! I think this would have appealed to his sense of irony.) Although he had never been a favourite composer of mine, I have been listening to his music a fair bit lately. There are several reasons for this, which came to light one after the other.

I had been hearing some of the Shostakovich symphonies, both on the radio and on vinyl. (The latter was via his son Maxim’s recording of the Fifth Symphony.) So I ordered a complete set of the symphonies several months ago through Readings, courtesy of the generous birthday voucher from my sister — thanks, Jane! The set is conducted by Mariss Jansons, and features several Russian and western orchestras. Jansons is Latvian; his father, Arpad, was also a conductor, and a contemporary of  Shostakovich’s. So Mariss Jansons literally grew up with this music.  He rates Shostakovich on a par with Mahler as a symphonic composer. 

Soon after this set arrived, I went to a lecture at the University of the Third Age in Hawthorn about Shostakovich. This was given by Zoe Knighton, cellist of the Flinders Quartet. (Incidentally, Zoe listed Julian Barnes’ novel about Shostakovich, The noise of time , on her reading list.) 

As one might expect, her talk concentrated on Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets. However, it also touched on several significant events in the composer’s life, notably a performance in 1936 of his third opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. Stalin attended this performance, but evidently found it extremely offensive, and walked out. (Interestingly, he sat through three of its four acts before doing so.) Afterwards, Shostakovich was publicly criticised — along with other Soviet composers — for not writing “music for the masses”, or proletarian music. Such music was simple and direct, and positive in its emotions. Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony is an example of this approved style of Soviet music. 

After the denunciations, a newspaper article called “A Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism” was issued under Shostakovich’s name. The article was a mea culpa, acknowledging the charges that had been levelled against him. Shostakovich changed his style, withdrew his Fourth Symphony, and concentrated on writing film scores.  In spite of these actions, he was dismissed from his position at the Moscow Conservatory, his family’s privileges were withdrawn or curtailed, and he spent the rest of his life in fear of being arrested. It was from this time that he famously kept a bag packed by the side of his bed, in readiness for the knock on the door late at night or early in the morning from the secret police. 

Around this time I went to a performance in the Balwyn Cinema of the Shostakovich opera that Stalin found so offensive, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk(The opera is not based on the Shakespeare tragedy, but on a contemporary novel by Nikolai Leskov.) This was a recent performance from the Paris Opera — the review from Limelight gives the flavour of the production. It featured the Lithuanian soprano Aušrinė Stundytė in the title role, and several Russian singers in the supporting parts.

Shostakovich had intended Lady Macbeth to be the first of a trilogy about the position of Soviet women. (Not surprisingly, the remaining two operas were never written). He and the librettist obviously felt that this position was an unenviable one. As the Limelight review observes, it is “packed to the gills with sexual violence and murder”. The music would have been enough for Stalin to dislike it, being often dissonant, sarcastic, and uncompromisingly modernist. He would have also been irritated by the libretto, which takes potshots at various aspects of Soviet society. Lady Macbeth turned out to be Shostakovich’s last completed opera. I thought it was a magnificent and stunningly original work.

The knock on the door in the middle of the night that Shostakovich expected never came. Things eased for him, particularly after Stalin died. He was protected to some extent by his music being well known in the West. Nevertheless, the anticipation of his impending arrest cast a shadow over his life. (Apparently Shostakovich told a friend he had felt anxious for years.) This is reflected in his music, which can sound either emotionally numb, or as if it is struggling to contain a rising tide of hysteria.

Shostakovich’s music, however, is about more than his own anxiety. Jansons thinks the Second World War is essential for understanding the Seventh (“Leningrad”) and Eighth symphonies. The Thirteenth Symphony (“Babi Yar”) sets the biting satire of Yevtushenko’s verses, which critique the anti-Semitism, the fearfulness, and the timidity of Soviet society. “They’re forgotten,/ the ones who hurled curses, / but we remember/ the ones who were cursed.” In this work Shostakovich seems to express the anguish of his compatriots at the repression, the show trials, the denunciations, the exiles. Maybe this is one reason why his music was popular with Soviet audiences — even challenging scores like Lady Macbeth — despite the political risks involved with playing or listening to it. The denunciations missed the crucial fact: Shostakovich was writing “music for the masses” all along. (Is this the most piquant irony of them all?)

Shostakovich may not be a barrel of laughs, exactly, but he is not all doom and gloom. To Jansons, the extended C major chord at the end of the “Leningrad” symphony

… is not the end — not victory; the struggle will continue. This is the Shostakovich phenomenon; he shows optimistic elements, but at the same time something disturbs one.  [Interview with Mariss Jansons, in CD booklet, Dmitri Shostakovich — The Complete Symphonies. EMI 0946 3 65300204]

Would we be convinced by a rousing finale nowadays, though, like that of Beethoven Fifth Symphony? Ours is the age of anxiety. (W H Auden and Leonard Bernstein certainly thought so; both used the title for a long poem and a symphony respectively.) Shostakovich’s music is that of someone who has had many dark nights of the soul — but endures.

There is a literary allusion I cannot track down, in one of the George Johnston novels. As I recall, it is along the lines of “And then he went on as if nothing had happened”. Since the end of the chemotherapy, I have been trying to do just that, and have a normal life. I imagine Shostakovich trying to do the same. 

I have it much easier than Dmitri did. Once a dictator takes a dislike to you, there is not much you can do about it. I have a fabulous team devoted to keeping me in a well state. I am being supported with great love. Everything is going as I might hope. Nevertheless, I think of Shostakovich in his apartment (as depicted by Julian Barnes), listening intensely every time the lift doors opened on his floor.  

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