Laughing in the Face of Death

Jamie Stainer explores a genius who disguised his criticism of Stalin’s brutal regime as praise, and saved his life in the process. That genius was Shostakovich.


Shostakovich had one final chance to save himself. (Photo: History in an Hour)

Shostakovich had one final chance to save himself. (Photo: History in an Hour)

The date was 26th January 1936. For many Muscovite opera-goers it was just another evening out; this time to see Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. For Shostakovich himself it was no average evening, Joseph Stalin and other major figures in the Communist Party were attending. The opera’s premiere, two years’ prior in Leningrad, had been a major success. As it toured Europe and North America in the two years that followed, its reception was no different.

The night that Stalin and the other members of his party attended, Shostakovich was also in the audience. Stalin had been very complimentary of the composer’s work, especially his film scores, including October 1917, Enthusiasm, and he had a particular favourite in the theme song from The Counterplan. At the end of the performance, however, Shostakovich’s favourable reputation with Stalin came to an end; the official delegation left before the final scene.

Two days later, the front page of Pravda confirmed the young composer’s fears. The headline read “Muddle Instead of Music.” That evening Shostakovich waited for one of the infamous black vans to take him away to the gulag; a fate many of his artist friends had suffered, but it never came. He saw this as one last chance to save himself, and withdrew his fourth symphony before public performance. Shostakovich knew that however much he hated the regime, he had to praise it to survive. One can assume therefore, that Symphony No.5 would be free of criticism of the regime, with a focus on praise and celebration. On face value it is exactly so. When one looks deeper, however, it is evident that Shostakovich has laced his work with disguised criticism throughout.

"Muddle instead of Music": The front page that confirmed Shostakovich's worst fears.

“Muddle instead of Music”: The front page that confirmed Shostakovich’s worst fears.

There are more obvious pieces of criticism, such as his use of the brass section to lampoon propaganda and state interference. Shostakovich chiefly achieves this criticism through contrast in the dynamics between light, delicate phrases in the woodwind sections followed by a brutal and insensitive brass section. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the build-up to the grotesque march section First Movement; where the trumpets force out a variation of a theme earlier exposed by the composer, as is the case with the sonata form in which the movement is written, and at the very end of the Second Movement, where the brass and percussion sections force the music to end.

By far the most obvious piece of criticism is the entirety of the Third Movement. It is mournful from the very start and bleak until the very end. There is no brass in this movement, the focus is therefore not on the state; this movement, Shostakovich makes clear, is for the ordinary people suffering under the rule of Stalin. It is a requiem for those who died under collectivisation of farming, standing up against the regime, and the then ongoing Great Purge, a two-year period of political and artistic repression. The idea of requiem is made very clear in the first few bars, in which the lower strings play a variation of an Orthodox funeral chant.

The rest of the movement is a harrowing 16-minute affair, fluctuating between swelling extremes of lower strings and a gentle, heart-breaking recurring theme passed around the woodwind section throughout. It wearies and emotionally drains the listener, exactly as it is intended to. Here lies a perfect example of Shostakovich’s unrivalled and magnificent ability to provoke emotion from his audiences; nurtured by his work in film score composition. The movement ends on the same haunting melody, played on harp and celesta, followed by two major chords in the string parts; the only hint of hope in the entire 16 minutes.

“The subtlest criticism of the regime is not noticeable to the untrained ear, yet it appears throughout the entirety of the symphony. Shostakovich has protested simply by flattening a single note.”

With the Third Movement’s bleakness established, Shostakovich knew a likewise Fourth would surely result in his peril. His Fourth Movement would therefore need to be something that would be the finishing touch to re-establish his once favourable relationship with Stalin. There is still a great deal of criticism in this movement, but it is skilfully disguised as praise. Use of excessive tremolo across the percussion section, in passages that are drawn out seem to parody and protest against the excessive mandatory celebration of the State. This sort of excessive celebration can be seen today in the way North Korean citizens must worship the three leaders of the Kim dynasty. An equally long and drawn out fanfare ends the symphony. However, Shostakovich still does not venture into extremes in order to disguise his protest.

First stave: The expected tune for a piece in D Minor. Second stave: Shostakovich’s actual notation.

First stave: The expected tune for a piece in D Minor.
Second stave: Shostakovich’s actual notation.

The subtlest criticism of the regime is not noticeable to the untrained ear, yet it appears throughout the entirety of the symphony. Shostakovich has protested simply by flattening a single note. The flattened second is heard across all four movements, but it is most important in the first and fourth. The first theme in the symphony contains one. By flattening the second note of the scale, the tonality of the symphony changes from a presumed minor key to something a little more unsettled, unresolved and uncertain. It is the perfect descriptor of the feelings of a composer whose life was on the line. Just like his own feeling of uncertainty, the note that continues to appear in the background, unnoticeable to most, but Shostakovich is always aware it is there, below the surface. It is the perfect metaphor for fear, one that becomes very apparent at the symphony’s climax. While one would expect the patriotic ending in the brass section to be a perfect major chord, the second note of the scale is flattened, as a result, there is a real sense of pain at the very end of a magnificent and unique symphony.

Shostakovich’s last gasp for his life was laced with protest, but he disguised it as patriotism and praise. The protest, it seems was not noticed by Stalin. Shostakovich had saved his reputation, and his life.

Want to support young writers? Then please share!
Facebook
Facebook
LinkedIn
Follow by Email
RSS
SHARE

Latest posts by Jamie Stainer (see all)

Want to support young writers? Then please spread the word! Thank you.