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Shostakovich: Breaking Down Silence Saint Paul Sunday Shostakovich home Feature

Rehabilitation and Denunciation

The Holy Fool | Chaos Instead of Music | Rehabilitation and Denunciation
The Shostakovich String Quartets | The Emerson String Quartet

There is a special form of self-defence in the Soviet Union. You say that you're planning such and such a composition, something with a powerful, killing title. That's so that they don't stone you. And meanwhile you write a quartet for your own quiet satisfaction. But you tell the administration that you're working on the opera Karl Marx or The Young Guards, and they'll forgive you your quartet when it appears.
- Dmitri Shostakovich

From The Virtual Museum of Political Art: A private collection by Patrick Horvath and Prim. Dr. Werner Horvath.

Shostakovich's reply took the form of the Fifth Symphony (1937), which he called his "Creative Reply of a Soviet Artist to Justified Criticism." The authorities made him grovel. The official acceptance of the Fifth Symphony as a piece of Soviet art - and the unofficial adoration of the public - served to rehabilitate Shostakovich's public profile in the late 1930s. Yet although it satisfied Soviet officialdom, there is an underlying message of courage and spirit in the work, and from 1936 onwards - even in the so-called "acceptable" compositions - you can hear this subversive, yurodivy-like voice in Shostakovich's music.

His reputation as a Soviet patriot was further enhanced during the Second World War, one of the most horrific events in Russian history - more than 30 million Russians died, many from starvation. Soviet composers and artists poured their efforts into works that would inspire their countrymen. Shostakovich contributed his Seventh Symphony (1941) depicting the defense of Leningrad, one of the most brutal battles of the war. Smuggled out to Toscanini in New York, the symphony was performed more than 60 times in America alone and helped to convey the suffering of the Soviet people to their allies. The symphony further enhanced Shostakovich's propaganda value to the Soviet regime. For awhile, all things seemed well.

Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Opus 47, IV-Allegro non troppo
The Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Evgeny Mravinsky, conducting (Erato 2292-45752-2)

Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Opus 60 ("Dedicated to the City of Leningrad") I-Allegretto, Excerpt 1 - Excerpt 2
The USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Evgeni Svetlanov, conducting (Melodiya MLD 32114)

But the glow of cooperation between the Soviets and the Allies didn't last long, and the ensuing Cold War was one of the bleakest periods for Russian artists. For Shostakovich, the blow came in 1948 when Stalin's secretary in charge of ideology - the toady Andrei Zhdanov - issued a decree denouncing Shostakovich (plus Sergey Prokofiev and Aram Khachatourian) with "decadent" and "anti-democratic" tendencies in music. The Soviet authorities wanted art about heroic farmers and factory workers, and Shostkovich was giving them "pessimistic" modern music they deemed incomprehensible to the Soviet people and unworthy of the Soviet state.

The denouncement devastated Shostakovich. For five years his works were banned from both the stage and the airwaves. Again he was forced to prostrate himself before the censors. "I am deeply grateful for the criticism contained in the Resolution," he wrote. "I shall, with still more determination, work on the musical depiction of the images of the heroic Soviet people."

NEXT - The Shostakovich String Quartets