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Music for the Desk Drawer

Jason Stell
Vol 2 No 3 (October 2023)

You may not be aware, but America will be having a presidential election next year.  In all seriousness, we find ourselves in America in the midst of a very volatile political situation, still struggling to find and maintain that ideal balance between top-down control and bottom-up personal liberty.  This is not a new struggle, of course, not for America and not for many societies throughout world history.  At the same time, we find a sadly familiar story playing out in Russia: a paranoid autocrat attempting through force, fear, and propaganda to impose his view on anyone who dissents.


Artists are constantly made aware of the political forces that alternately support and restrict their work.  At times and in certain places, the creative artist enjoys comparative freedom to explore, challenge, fail, revise, imagine, transcend – all while maintaining an existence that hovers between scraping by and thriving.  At other times, perhaps in other places, that same artist would not enjoy that same degree of support, that same level of comfort, that same emotional security knowing that bounds could be pushed without threat to life and limb.  


As we prepare for the coming concert by Meta4 String Quartet, we consider the case of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich.  Meta4 will perform Shostakovich’s powerful String Quartet No. 4 in D Major, written in 1949 at a time of tremendous personal struggle.  In thinking about Shostakovich, however, I hope we might spare a few thoughts for other artists who worked in, with, against, and around the Soviet Union made so paranoid and repressive by Joseph Stalin.  We might pause to reflect on artists who found themselves in similar situations – perhaps even worse situations – in other lands and eras, as well as those artists who are pursuing creative freedom in America, living in our towns and cities, perhaps reading this very article today.


The First Fall From Grace


Shostakovich was a precocious child, and early talent garnered him a place at Conservatory.  Stories are told of how he witnessed dramatic events in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the emergence of the first Soviet leaders.  These stories are often apocryphal and have been invented ex post facto in order to show a heritage to Shostakovich’s later anti-establishment behavior.  The truth, of course, is much less striking.  However, as our story of his young maturity progresses, there will be no need to embellish what turns out to be a harrowing, emotional roller-coaster ride buffeted by political fancies.


The crux of our story begins in the autumn of 1930.  A 24-year-old Shostakovich had quietly begun work on a new opera – nothing noteworthy in itself.  Shostakovich had both the talent and already the experience to tackle such an ambitious project.  The striking aspect of this creative project was its timing.  Throughout the 1920s Soviet music had become increasingly narrow in its expressive range.  Official support came with dictates to valorize the goals and everyday heroes of communist society – especially important, it was felt, in the early years of this social experiment.  Many composers, including Shostakovich, resisted pressure to conform and continued to draw inspiration from radical visions promulgated by foreign and ex-pat artists living abroad.  As he himself expressed it, he rejected all of the conventional plot scenarios pushed across his desk, opting instead for an 1864 tale by Nikolai Leskov with parallels to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Now his efforts seemed to be worthwhile, as the existing artistic organizations were being overhauled or shut down altogether.  It was 1932 and Shostakovich was tragically mistaken or foolishly naïve to think change meant change for the better…


Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is a dark depiction of lust, crime, and betrayal – not exactly the more redeeming sides of human nature.  The composer’s music brilliantly captures the powerful, raw attraction between the heroine and her lover.  Audiences responded enthusiastically to the work, and it was generally agreed to be one of the most remarkable creations of its time.  Shostakovich’s bright star seemed destined to reach the highest echelon, and the work itself was celebrated across Europe.  The composer hatched staggering new plans based on his success: a Soviet Ring of the Nibelungen, for instance.  And then, on January 26th, 1936, in what one might interpret as the crowning compliment, Comrade Stalin announced that he and a few close advisors would be attending a performance of Lady Macbeth at Moscow’s famed Bol’shoi Theater.  


At this point in time, Stalin’s mania was not readily apparent.  This is not the Stalin of the Great Purge, though that too was only months away.  Shostakovich still felt a measure of respect for the Soviet Premier.  As recently as November 1935, the composer attended a party conference at which Stalin delivered a resounding oration.  Joining in the shouts of praise, Shostakovich wrote that “Today is the happiest day of my life: I saw and heard Stalin.”  Within two months that opinion would start to change very quickly. 


"Muddle Instead of Music"

Stalin did not hold the highest standards for music.  One would not describe him as a connoisseur of opera, ballet, and chamber music, though he always enjoyed works that tapped a vein of what has been called “Soviet realism”: excessively optimistic depictions of Russian men and women engaged in building the future communist utopia.  Such were clearly not the ambitions of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth.  When Stalin and his gang departed the theater mid-performance, it was an ominous sign.  The composer noticed.  Two days later an unsigned article titled "Muddle Instead of Music" appeared in the newspaper Pravda (“Truth”), roundly condemning the opera and the composer for losing sight of what mattered in artistic work.  Lady Macbeth was described as “coarse, primitive and vulgar,” an anti-Soviet insult that merely “tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois.” But this was more than mere criticism.  Thinly-veiled threats made it clear that the article’s author held a high position, and young Shostakovich’s experiments in radical theater were walking a dangerous line:


“The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."


Rumors flew that Stalin himself penned the diatribe, though this is now deemed unlikely.  More plausible is that he oversaw material written by someone like Andrei Zhdanov, his unofficial cultural minister. 


Stalin (center) and other officials at the Bol'shoi Theater in the 1930s.  Andrei Zhdanov is pictured at far right.

Within days Shostakovich’s network of supporters started to distance themselves.  Not everyone, of course, but the temperature in the room plummeted when Shostakovich was around.  Just a few months after the Pravda article, Stalin vigorously pursued his plans to weed out dissention with the infamous Moscow trials.  In summer 1936 the Purge rolled through Soviet society like a tornado.  Eventually it came to the composer’s own doorstep.  That autumn, just after completing his newest symphony (no. 4), pressure came from above to cancel its premiere.  He unwillingly obliged out of consideration for the safety of the performers who would be involved.  Six months later his situation turned even more dire….


One Saturday in May 1937 Shostakovich was summoned to appear at the headquarters of the NKVD, precursor of the KGB.  He was questioned about his relations with a Soviet officer, Marshall Tukhachevsky, a friend and earnest music lover.  Unbeknownst to Shostakovich, Tukhachevsky had just been arrested (falsely) for plotting to assassinate Stalin.  The composer’s interrogator calmly asked, “Were you not in the room when this plot was discussed?”  Frozen in his seat, Shostakovich could only deny any such talk occurred.  He was let go for the moment but ordered to return to the NKVD offices on Monday morning.  Fully prepared to never see his family again, Shostakovich appeared that Monday only to experience a shattering reprieve.  The man interrogating him had himself been arrested the day before, and Shostakovich was sent home.  By the end of 1937 he had composed his valedictory Fifth Symphony that brought official praise.  One can only speculate how genuinely Shostakovich meant the words penned in connection with its creation: “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.”

Staying Alive


Fast forward a decade. Partially rehabilitated, Shostakovich was again singled out for official rebuke, this time in the notorious Zhdanov Decree published in February 1948.  Propaganda minister Zhdanov (remember him?) excoriated several composers – Shostakovich was listed prominently by name – for denying the “basic principle of classical music,” for writing music that was dissonant, not sufficiently melodic, and “bourgeois.”  But to comply entirely meant capitulation and was against every fiber of Shostakovich’s artistic creed.  As a life-preserving measure he would try to serve two masters: the censors and his conscience. 

For instance, in the middle of 1948, Shostakovich began a collection of folksong settings based on recently published Jewish poems.  He could enjoy a bit of creative license with his harmonization, while the focus on folk music and earnest melody would surely appease the censors.  Sadly, he didn't realize that one had to choose the "right" folk to celebrate.  Despite centuries of pogroms, Soviet Russia had supported Jewish culture during the fight against Nazi fascism.  Stalin himself had temporarily restrained his personal anti-Semitism for the sake of fighting a common enemy – Germany.  Now the war was over and, even more recently, a new Jewish state had been settled.  With the full realization that Israel would not be a kowtowing ally of Soviet communism, Stalin’s latent anti-Semitism burst forth quickly and spilled over into official policy.  Shostakovich could hardly have picked a worse time for a work From Jewish Poetry, and it was quietly withdrawn from public consideration.  Instead he penned a vacuous but highly praised Song of the Forests that earned him the Stalin Prize.  One step back into safety.


Shostakovich in 1949.  The photo at right captures the public protests that greeted the Soviet cultural mission to New York City, a trip Shostakovich loathed to undertake and fulfilled only with obvious displeasure.

Shortly after, Stalin himself phoned the composer with an offer he could hardly refuse: to head a Soviet cultural delegation heading to New York City in March 1949.  Shostakovich, to his credit, initially rebuffed Stalin's offer by claiming he was too ill for such a journey.  However, after a quick inspection the following day by Soviet doctors, he was deemed fit.  The irony of Shostakovich's new role as musical ambassador at least forced authorities to rescind the official ban on his music being performed.  While in New York, visibly pained at having to read out prepared statements about Western cultural depravity, Shostakovich had the good fortune to attend a concert of Bartók’s string quartets.  He arrived back in Moscow filled with inspiration to create a next work – his fourth – in the string quartet genre. 


The Quartet’s four movements present abstract (or “absolute”) music; there is no message, program, or lesson to share with the common laborer.  Shostakovich presents a wide emotional compass, and the harmonic language ranges from disarming consonance to dissonance of blistering intensity.  Moreover, he continues the general interest in Jewish musical style in several of the Quartet's finest passages.  Evidence shows that Shostakovich fully intended to publish the work, buoyed perhaps by his return to official approval (the Stalin Prize award, the reversal of his ban, his much-publicized trip to America).  Yet he was experienced enough to know that caution was always the best policy.  His friends agreed that while a fantastic work in its own right, the String Quartet No. 4 could not be submitted to the relevant musical committee at that time.  Like his songs From Jewish Poetry, the new Quartet would be consigned to “the desk drawer,” a repository for works written under artistic compulsion but not performable under the current political climate.  

After the Thaw


It would be ridiculous to claim, as Zhdanov did, that such works as Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 4 are “lacking in polyphony.”  At the same time, it makes substantial demands upon the listener, not to mention the performers.  And there is also a deeper significance to the Jewish musical influences.  After the Holocaust and in light of Stalin’s very public change of heart, Shostakovich saw in the Jewish people the very embodiment of human suffering everywhere, suffering at its most extreme.  To celebrate Jewish melody was to identify their existential plight with one’s own suffering under Stalin’s regime.  And that, once detected by someone like Zhdanov, would have proven fatal.  Shostakovich’s friends were surely correct to advise delaying its publication, and String Quartet No. 4 was finally performed publicly in 1953 – several months after Stalin’s death. 


Artists facing the kind of pressure exerted on Shostakovich in 1936 and again in 1948 seemed, at the time, to have only two paths available.  First, with parallels to the contemporary case of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s political opponent and nemesis, one path was to openly confront unjust authority and run the very real, imminent risk of martyrdom to the fight.  Second, one could completely give in to this pressure and write/speak/compose in tones that slavishly meet official demands.  Shostakovich  was not prepared to fully embrace the first path, and he could not live with himself had he followed the second.  Instead, he navigated a perilous middleground.  Occasional works would need to be created to maintain his own life and his family's safety.  Other works would need to be written out of inner, artistic compulsion.  They clearly could not be performed publicly under Stalin.  But with hope in an eventual change of Soviet policy, they would be written “for the desk drawer,” awaiting a day (perhaps even beyond Shostakovich’s lifetime) when their powerful sounds could resonate freely in the concert hall.  Fortunately for us, that day came much sooner than the composer himself might have imagined.

(c) Jason Stell, 2023

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