Dmitri Shostakovich has to be one of the most endangered composers in history, and certainly the most famous of them. While other well-known composers were getting out of Russia in 1917, like Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev (who inexplicably returned later), Igor Stravinsky, and a host of others less famous, Shostakovitch stayed. He doesn't seem to have considered leaving.
Shostakovich managed to have a decorated career. He wrote a lot of music, achieved an international reputation, and was praised for some of it in his own country. But always there was the extreme difficulty of trying to function artistically in Joseph Stalin's Russia.
This wasn't just a matter of artistic patronage. Stalin was an absolute dictator, and if he didn't like something he could have you exiled or killed. Between the Second World War and his own "purges" it is estimated that he is responsible for the deaths of about 20 million human beings.
Dmitri Shostakovich got off to a brilliant start. His First Symphony was a huge success and got him noticed internationally. His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was wildly popular for two years.
Then he had his first real taste of Joseph Stalin.
The dictator attended his opera, decided he didn't like it, and shortly afterward there appeared an article in the official state newspaper, "The Truth" called 'Muddle Instead of Music' which attacked the opera in no uncertain terms. This was in January 1936. Only 10 days later another article appeared attacking a ballet of his. The composer thought he was finished. He had become, in one of Stalin's favorite phrases, an "enemy of the people."
"I was called an enemy of the people quietly and out loud and from podiums. One paper made the following announcement of my concert: 'Today there is a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich....I was swamped with anonymous letters saying in effect that I, enemy of the people, did not have long to tread on Soviet soils, that my ass's ears would be chopped off--along with my head."
The composer believed that Stalin had written the article himself, particularly because of some of the phrases which echoed the ones that seemed forever stuck inside the dictator's head that he would repeat ad naseum and that didn't really mean anything. After all, Stalin could make up his own language, couldn't he? In any case, the article was anonymous, which meant The Party had directed it. Which meant there was no arguing. Shostakovich's friends wouldn't have anything to do with him for a while.
Yet somehow Shostakovich survived that nightmare, even though many of his friends and associates did not. One of them was his friend Meyerhold. "It's impossible to imagine now how popular Meyerhold was. Everyone knew him....And then the man disappeared, he just disappeared and that was it. As though he never existed."
Many musicians and artists disappeared in those traumatic times. Near the end of his life, the composer sat for secret interviews with a man who took notes on what Shostakovitch said, got the pages approved, and smuggled them into the west, only publishing them after the composer's death. the result was "Testimony," from which these quotations are taken. In it, the man recalls many incidents from his life and talks mostly about the people around him. And he chronicles the disappearances of so many of them.
Survival was never certain in Stalin's Russia. Holding Western ideas or being in any way critical of the party or of Stalin was sure to get you executed of course, but sometimes trying too hard to be doctrinally pure could get you in trouble as well. And sometimes what the party favored changed rapidly, and you could get caught being associated with something or someone that was no longer in favor. Some people referred to it as a lottery. One thing was sure: the moment someone disappeared you had to make sure you were in no way connected with them, and had better obliterate any traces of their friendship; correspondence, artifacts, everything. Help the state make sure they never existed.
In 1948 there was another shake-up, and Shostakovitch was again reprimanded along with several other Soviet artists. The usual accusation was that they were promoting Western ideas. They would be called "formalists" which was a deliberately meaningless word for "not Soviet enough." Stalin's whim set the tone for that.
And his whim could also lift a composer up as well as bring him down. There was a special prize for excellence in Soviet art in that period, known as the Stalin prize (naturally). Shostakovich won a few of those. His music was still periodically praised. Official denunciations and recognition could follow one another in a dizzying whirl. Once Stalin needed Shostakovich to go to America for propaganda purposes. He telephoned the composer who mentioned that he was currently officially banned so he couldn't go. Stalin acted surprised, and countermanded his censure, forcing Shostakovitch to go and help spread the fiction so many American leftists were more than willing to swallow about how wonderful things were in the USSR.
Stalin needed artists as part of his program to mold the minds of the Soviets, just as rulers have long done. Shostakovitch was clearly one of his country's most gifted composers. But Stalin was not one to forgive errors. How did Shostakovich live through two periods of official condemnation?
A Shostakovich biography calls him a yuródivyy, a Holy Fool, one who tells the truth to the king and isn't killed, usually because his guise as a fool protects him as others are not. Shostakovich was clearly no idiot. He did write quite a lot of movie music; this was Stalin's favorite entertainment, and it probably bought him a lot of good will, even while the composer considered it largely a waste of time. And he was known in the West, particularly during WWII, when the Soviets and the Americans fought against Hitler. The composer's Seventh Symphony became a powerful political statement against fascism--at least, that's how Stalin saw it. During the war, Soviet composers could compose music that was more morose, and get away with it, because it was assumed to represent the struggle against Germany, rather than a complaint against the system at home. These things may have helped Shostakovitch to stay alive, although we don't know just how close he may have come to a premature end.
In "Testimony" the composer displays little patience with those who think his music wasn't a protest of the Soviet system. Writing of his famous Fifth Symphony, the one written just after his first period of official denunciation, which helped rehabilitate him with the state, he writes "I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing [at the piece's conclusion] is forced, created under threat....It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.' and you rise, shakily, and go marching off, muttering, 'Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.' What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear it." Many in the Soviet Union chose to hear triumph in those closing bars. They may have been idiots, but their misapprehension may have helped save the composer's life several times. In instrumental music, just what is going on, anyhow? Whose ears make that determination?
People have heard all sorts of things in the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, and have argued violently about what they have heard. If "Testimony" is both accurate in terms of the word of the writer, who did not record Shostakovich except on paper, and in terms of the memory of an old man about a past he may or may not have remembered accurately, then the picture that emerges is one of an artist who meant his music to serve as a protest, and somehow, perhaps because it was in music, and the authorities often heard acquiescence instead of anger, or felt if they kept him alive they could yet mold them to their ends, he continued to use his symphonic voice to the end.
"I know that many will not agree with me and will point out other, more noble aims of art. They'll talk about beauty, grace, and other high qualities. But you won't catch me with that bait....I've always protested harshly against this point of view and I strove for the reverse. I always wanted music to be an active force. That is the Russian tradition."