Just Above Sunset
March 14, 2004 - Shostakovich and Stalin - Bill Bennett and Janet Jackson et. al.
Solomon Volkov’s book will be published this month –
Shostakovich and Stalin
ISBN: 0375410821 / Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf / Date: Mar 2004 / Page Count: 336
If you’ve got a spare thirty dollars you could pick up a copy. Or you could log on to the Telegraph (UK) and read an edited excerpt he’s published there.
When opera was a matter of life or death
Volkov chats about Stalin's condemnation of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “the most infamous episode in Soviet music history.” What he tries to do is explain why Uncle Joe was so very upset – and then why Shostakovich actually escaped execution and exile. It’s more than the idea that some guys are just lucky.
Here’s the scene he sets – a January evening in 1936…
Stalin arrived at the performance [of Lady Macbeth] in what must have been a good mood - he enjoyed opera and ballet.
Shostakovich, who was supposed to go to Arkhangelsk [a port on the White Sea] to perform his First Piano Concerto, was urgently called to the theatre by Yakov Leontyev, the director of the Bolshoi.
A unique document has survived: a written-down humorous "oral story" by [writer Mikhail] Bulgakov about this event, which, we can safely assume, relied on information that came from Leontyev.
Bulgakov gives an ironic description of Shostakovich, "white with fear", rushing to the theatre and Stalin and his entourage settling down in the government box. Then: "[Conductor Alexander Melik-Pashaev] furiously lifts his baton and the overture begins.
"In anticipation of a medal, and feeling the eyes of the leaders on him, Melik is in a frenzy, leaping about like an imp, chopping the air with his baton. After the overture, he sends a sidelong glance at the box, expecting applause - nothing. After the first act - the same thing, no impression at all."
After the performance, Shostakovich could not calm down, as he headed for his concert tour in Arkhangelsk. There, on a cold wintry day, Shostakovich lined up at a newspaper kiosk. He bought the country's main newspaper, Pravda, for January 28 1936, opened it to the third page, and saw an editorial (unsigned) with the headline "Muddle Instead of Music".
The parenthetical subtitle read: "About the Opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk". He began reading instantly. Sudden horror shook him.
Even now, it is impossible to read "Muddle Instead of Music" without shuddering. We can understand why Shostakovich felt the earth open beneath his feet. His opera, his beloved creation that had won recognition throughout the world, was subjected to a crude and illiterate attack.
Volkov goes on to explain that this review has become rather a classic in the history of criticism – that is, music criticism and cultural criticism. And there are suggestion it was written by Stalin, or Stalin directed it to be written. In those days nothing got into Pravda (“Truth”) whimsically. I was the voice of the party, and thus the state.
So how did this opera come to threaten the state?
Of the review Volkov notes:
The tone of Pravda was peremptory, as it was called then, "directive". This was underlined by the absence of a signature under the article. The presumption was that it represented the opinion not of some single critic or even a group, but of the party as a whole.
This automatically turned any attempt to argue with it into criminally "anti-Soviet" behaviour. Many cultural figures, upon reading "Muddle Instead of Music", must have shivered when they reached the warning, "This is playing at things beyond reason that can end very badly."
Who stood behind that vicious threat? Determining the identity of the writer of "Muddle Instead of Music" turned into a cottage industry over the years. But informed contemporaries began saying almost right away that the real author of "Muddle Instead of Music" was Stalin.
From the review: "The listener from the very first minute is stunned by the opera's intentionally unharmonious muddled flow of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of musical phrases drown, escape, and once again vanish in rumbling, creaking, and squealing. To follow this 'music' is difficult, to remember it impossible."
And in a way that reminds one of Janet Jackson and her bouncing bare boob on the recent Super Bowl broadcast, there was a problem with the few erotic scenes in the opera: "The music grunts, moans, pants, and gasps, the better to depict the love scenes as naturally as possible. And 'love' is smeared throughout the entire opera in the most vulgar form."
Geez, this sounds like the guests on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News – like Bill Bennett, the compulsive gambler, moralist and author of that volume of his we’ve all read, The Book of Virtues. He was appalled. So was Pravda.
Then there was the overtly political problem: "This is music intentionally made inside-out, so that there would be nothing to resemble classical music, nothing in common with symphonic sounds, with simple, accessible musical speech… This is leftist muddle instead of natural, human music."
It’s not real music, you see. It’s odd, and kind of leftist. "The danger of this tendency in Soviet music is clear. Leftist ugliness in opera is growing from the same source as leftist ugliness in painting, poetry, pedagogy, and science. Petit bourgeois 'innovation' is leading to a gap away from true art, science … literature."
You might compare this to Laura Ingram’s current best selling book Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America - Regnery Publishing Inc. - October 2003. Same sort of thing.
So what was this all about with Stalin and this opera?
By all reports Stalin actually like classical music. Volkov says he listened to it “frequently and with apparent pleasure.” Stalin did prefer Russian operas and ballets - Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov.
But that was an emotional response. The issues of the time took precedence -
He took pride in his ability to subordinate his emotions to the tactical needs of the moment. And that moment demanded an active assertion of the new state "Soviet morality": the government was planning to pass laws banning abortion and a new code on family and marriage. In Stalin's opinion, the Soviet family had to be strengthened in every way. And suddenly there was an opera saluting "free love" (or, in Stalin's words in "Muddle Instead of Music", "merchant lust"), in which the problem of divorce from a hated husband was resolved simply and brutally: by murder.
All this allowed Stalin to accuse Shostakovich on social issues: the composer had "missed the demands of Soviet culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life".
Ah, “family values” was an issue, as was the sanctity of marriage. Hey folks, listen to the FCC these days. And all the talk in Washington, the contemporary calls to banish crudity and wildness from our American life.
Okay – Shostakovich was a twenty-nine-year-old composer and not exactly the Janet Jackson of his day. Why pick on him?
For that Volkov turns to Stalin’s personality. Stalin didn’t like uppity intellectual geniuses, especially if they showed him up.
It is quite probable that in the case of Shostakovich, Stalin was blinded by emotion. Not only did the plot and music infuriate him, and not only did the opera contradict Stalin's cultural direction for that period, but on top of that, the composer was hailed as a genius, not just in the Soviet Union, but in the West. This, I believe, was what pushed Stalin over the top.
And I am reminded of the incident a few years ago in Paris at a press conference on May 26, 2002 – noted here. George Bush and Jacques Chirac were answering questions from the press. President Bush got really testy and kind exploded when NBC reporter David Gregory decided to switch to French to ask Chirac a question. Bush stopped everything and sneered - “The guy memorizes four words and he plays like he's intercontinental!” Well, maybe it was a calculated insult on the part of the reporter. Or maybe Bush was having a Stalin moment. See here for details.
Well, David Gregory is still working as far as I know. That mistake didn’t end his career, as far as I know. And Shostakovich too got along quite well. But it took some time.
Volkov notes that for the rest of 1936 Shostakovich, for all his outward calm, was as tense as strung wire and, many claimed, near suicide. He and his family expected the worst. A close friend recalled how "he paced the room with a towel and said he had a cold, hiding his tears. We did not leave him and took turns keeping watch." I suspect David Gregory wasn’t this upset.
But Volkov gives us this about Shostakovich next steps -
His behaviour… was unexpected, but natural. He stopped making "serious" public statements. Shostakovich donned the jester's mask. This was an unbearably difficult and humiliating position for him to adopt. In taking it, Shostakovich broke with a long tradition in which a member of the Russian intelligentsia was required to give profound statements on every important issue worrying society. But for now, Shostakovich kept his life, freedom, and opportunity to compose.
We will never learn all the considerations that led Stalin to spare Shostakovich and allow him to continue working. But we can sum up the most obvious reasons. They would include the unexpectedly solid, albeit hidden, resistance in cultural circles to the Pravda articles; Maxim Gorky's displeasure; the unforeseen interest in "the Shostakovich affair" of Western (especially French) intellectuals and the possibility of international complications; the modest but firm behaviour of Shostakovich, who did not act flustered and did not repent.
Ah yes, when attacked by those who defend family values and the sanctity of marriage? Play the clown. Say nothing. Then they’ll let you be.
And best of all, find another medium. Have a back-up plan. Volkov writes at length on Shostakovich's work in the cinema.
When talking about Soviet film, we must remember Lenin's famous statement in 1922 that "of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema". It was Stalin who turned the dictum into reality. Soviet film in his regime came into being as an industry, the main goal of which was the ideological upbringing of the masses.
Stalin loved the movies, domestic and foreign. As a result, he took an incredibly active part in the Soviet film industry: he handed out commissions, read screenplays closely, and made major editorial changes. Without Stalin's screening and approval, no Soviet film could be distributed.
Shostakovich's lucky ticket seems to have been writing music for the movie Counterplan, released in 1932 for the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. One of its highlights is a charming and perky song, “The Morning Greets Us with Coolness,” written by Shostakovich. Its catchy melody made it the first Soviet hit song to come from the movies.
The whole country, from peasants to government leaders, sang “The Morning Greets Us.” Subsequently the melody won international acclaim: it was sung during the Second World War by members of the French Resistance; and in the United States, with new words, it was performed as the song “The United Nations.” In 1936 the song may have saved Shostakovich's life.
Hey, you hated my opera? I can write perky tunes too!
So this whole sad business is about how one can stay out of trouble when traditional moralists with short tempers and big egos run the show. The lesson – from Stalin to Bill Bennett to Laura Ingram? Don’t rock the boat. Smile. Don’t Worry – Be Happy. And that is a catchy tune, isn’t it?
Oh yeah, I’m not much of an opera fan. Wagner bores me, Alban Berg scares me, and I’m fond of really only Puccini. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is something I’d avoid.
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