Article — From the March 1943 issue

The Case of Dmitri Shostakovitch

My first encounter with the name and music of Dmitri Shostakovitch occurred sometime in 1927 or 1928. Prokofiev had just returned to Paris from one of his seasonal trips to Soviet Russia. I remember hearing him talk of a remarkable graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory whose First Symphony had won great acclaim in Russia. He had either heard or seen the score of this symphony and had met its youthful author. Prokofiev described him as a pale, lean young man with penetrating eyes, a shy and self-centered youth with a great love for sports. He spoke of his thorough knowledge of “musical grammar” and of his equally good knowledge of the piano technique — both of them characteristic qualities of most Russian composers of this generation. Included in some new Russian music which Prokofiev had brought back from the U.S.S.R. to Paris were eight preludes for the piano by Shostakovitch and also his piano sonata, which had just then appeared in print.

At this time the art of Soviet Russia was still little known in western Europe. New Russian scores and new Russian books were difficult to obtain in France and there were very few scattered performances of Soviet Russian music abroad. Quite naturally the young musicians of France and Germany were very eager to know what was being done by composers in that unknown land, and the least bit of authentic information, not to speak of such evidence as scores and books, was highly welcome. I remember distinctly my first impression of these early piano pieces by Shostakovitch. They seemed to me to have been written with remarkable skill and were well conceived for their instrumental medium. However, on the whole, they did not impress me as being particularly new or imaginative, nor did they seem to me to reflect a well-formed musical personality of first rank. They sounded so orthodox, so well-behaved, and so reminiscent of older Russian piano music that it was odd to realize that they had emanated from the most revolutionary land in the world. They lacked completely the audacious experimental spirit which was sweeping through the music of central and western Europe in the nineteen-twenties. I could not understand why this music should be rated so highly and why so much was to be expected from its young author. It did not seem better or worse than most of the other music of Russian composers that Prokofiev had brought back from the Soviet Union.

Some time later, in Poland, where I missed Shostakovitch by only a few weeks (he had come there for one of those international “prize fighting” musical conventions of which there were so many at this time, and this was, as a matter of fact, his only trip abroad up to this day), I had the opportunity of seeing the score of his First Symphony. This was the famous symphony which several years later received great acclaim in the United States.

When I read this score, I felt that I had to correct to a certain extent my former superficially formed opinion of his potentialities. I recognized at once that, despite its many failings, this was a piece of music written by an extremely gifted musician, a man who was not solely interested in showing off the excellency of his training in musical techniques (particularly in orchestration), but knew how to write a long and gracefully lyrical melody and also how to handle a long development section in symphonic form. Nevertheless some of my former objections remained and became even stronger and clearer. I felt that in spite of the many attractive novelties of this symphony — such as its fashionable simplicity of melodic outline or its rhythmical liveliness — there was something old about the music, something essentially conservative and unexperimental. I could not feel any definite personality in it, nor did I see very much authentic invention, musical or technical. Every theme, every rhythmical pattern, every technical device, every harmony, however charming and well written, reminded me of another piece of music. As Diaghilev would have said, here “slept” Tchaikovsky and Wagner, here Mussorgsky or Prokofiev, and here again Stravinsky or Hindemith. There was no actual plagiarism, of course, but the whole atmosphere of the piece was synthetic and impersonal. It was like a good suit of ready-made clothes, which reminds you longingly of a good London tailor, or like one of those tidy modern cubicles in a Dutch or German workers settlement — all perfectly built, according to the best-known techniques, very proper and neat yet infinitely impersonal and, in the long run, extremely dull. Some of my musician friends reproached me for my harsh judgment, saying that the man was still very young, that to be impersonal and imitative was a sign of youthful timidity which Shostakovitch surely would soon outgrow. They contended that this First Symphony was in this sense a very promising work, for its musical sources (or sympathies) were of a superior order. I was ready to admit that my premonitions might be wrong, since many great composers at the beginning of their careers have imitated the masters whom they admired. Beethoven and Schubert and even Bach were guilty of that during their early years.

But I still remained worried over this music, and the reason for my worry was something outside of Shostakovitch himself. It seemed to me then that Shostakovitch might be a symptom of a new era approaching in art, and that certain internal changes in the political and social structure of the Soviet Union, rather than considerations of a purely artistic nature, had been greatly responsible of the rise of this kind of music. This synthetic and retrospective score, although foreign and unacceptable to me, was perhaps the true expression of a new period in which the aim was to establish easily comprehensible, utilitarian, and at the same time contemporaneous art. Perhaps some of the principles which had been the cornerstones of the artistic philosophy of the past two generations would be put aside by the composers of this approaching era; perhaps our demand that music be primarily good in quality, new in spirit and technique, original in outlook would be subordinated to such principles as absolute and immediate comprehensibility to large masses of people and fulfillment of an educational mission, political and social.

I decided therefore to follow Shostakovitch’s career as closely as possible in order to discover whether his music and his career would bear out my apprehension.

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