Article — From the March 1943 issue

The Case of Dmitri Shostakovitch

( 2 of 6 )

ii

Now, in 1942, most of the cards are on the table. Shostakovitch, barely thirty-six years old, has become recognized as the prime composer of the Soviet Union, has been given a semi-official position among the political and ideological leaders of his country, has lately gained the admiration and love of his countrymen for his heroic life and work during the siege of Leningrad, and is well on the way to becoming the artistic hero of those nations whose destinies are at present closely tied up with that of the Soviet Union.

He can look back at a career full of dramatic episodes, in which utter misery, almost total eclipse from the public eye, and then sudden soaring fame followed each other within the space of a few years. He has worked incessantly with an exemplary perseverance and courage and has built up for one of his age an unusually long catalogue of works of all kinds of piano music, operas, ballets, symphonies, and music for the cinema. Since he finished his studies at the Leningrad Conservatory in 1926 he has been a steady teacher of composition there. As a man he has gained the friendship and respect of almost everyone who has ever come into contact with him.

His prestige in the United States at the present time is illustrated by the single fact that his Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony, despite its cumbersome length, has received more performances here than any other piece of contemporary music in the same length of time. Sometimes these performances have even been simultaneously broadcast from different corners of the country. His First, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies have been recorded by the finest orchestras and some of the scores have been reprinted here. And he has received all this attention while most of the contemporary musical production of American composers and resident foreigners remains unrecorded, unpublished, and unplayed. Shostakovitch is at the present moment the undisputed idol of all “maestros,” blond, bald, or gray, who in homage to Russia serve his seven symphonies at regular intervals to their local audiences on the same plate with Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner, and (until recently) Sibelius.

In speeches, public statements, newspaper and magazine articles he is referred to as “the new Beethoven” or “the new Berlioz”; he is discussed more than any other contemporary American or alien composer of the past twenty years; and as the fire-fighting hero-composer whose great symphony circled the world in bombers and transport planes, he has become a familiar figure to every American citizen who sees the newspapers. Seldom in all the history of music has a composer received fame like this, and seldom has there been a career so rapid and so spectacular.

It seems to me that the time has come for a thorough and objective investigation into this most amazing success story. The music of Shostakovitch should be carefully scrutinized, brought into proper focus, and related to the general artistic production of our time so that we may determine to what extent it deserves this tremendous success, and to what extent the success is the result of a propitious political constellation. As yet there have been only scattered evaluations of Shostakovitch, generally connected with some particular episode in his career (like the first performance of his opera “Lady Macbeth from the District of Mzensk” in New York, or the first performance of his Seventh Symphony). Newspaper reporters and critics would describe and denounce or acclaim the single work in question. Lately the articles about Shostakovitch have been on the level of “human interest” stories. Except for a few articles in musical magazines — mostly informational — nothing more complete has been attempted.

More from Nicolas Nabokov:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2014

21st Century Limited

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Promises, Promises

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Good Pilgrims

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To the Corner

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content