Article — From the March 1943 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
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.
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.
First let us have a brief glance at the man’s biography. It is commonly known that Shostakovitch was born in St. Petersburg, September 25, 1906; what is perhaps less commonly known is that the family of the future proletarian composer had no affinities with either the worker class or peasant class of old Russia. His father, an engineer by education, was, according to official biographers, an employee of the Department of Weights and Measures — a civil servant of the imperial regime, whose position in the community might be compared with that of a modest middle-class American business man. However his professional training and the cultural background and artistic aspirations of his wife provided the family with a more intellectual atmosphere than that of the average bourgeois family of either Russia or America. In Russian terms the Shostakovitch family typified that admirable element in Russian society — the intelligentsia — which comprised in its ranks all that was vital, imaginative, and creative in the nation: Particularly in those dark and dreary years of decay of the imperial regime, the intelligentsia carried a double burden: first, the complex tradition of the cultural past of the people, and second, the responsibility for Russia’s future regeneration when liberated from the ossified forms of tzarism.
Of his early days Shostakovitch says: “I became a musician by pure accident. If it had not been for my mother, I should probably never have become one. I had no particular inclination for music. I cannot recall a single instance when I evinced any interest in, or listened to, music when someone was playing at home. My mother was quite anxious that her children…at the age of nine should each start studying the piano….After a few months of study I practiced Haydn and Mozart.” From other sources we hear that the child showed “extraordinary and perfect memory” and at an early age “knew how to read fairly difficult pieces of music at sight.” (Both of Shostakovitch’s sisters likewise received a thorough musical training as a result of their mother’s enthusiasm and determination, and the elder of the two is now a teacher at the Conservatory.) Clearly the boy’s unusual natural musical gift was at first inactive and dormant and needed the insistent encouragement of his mother to bring it to the fore.
Otherwise Shostakovitch’s childhood was probably very much like that of any other child of his milieu. He went to school through the milky fogs and drizzly rains of St. Petersburg; he was a pale, frail boy coddled and adored by his parents, and surrounded at home by a studious and serious atmosphere. In the summer, as was customary among the Russian bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, the Shostakovitch family would probably go to a suburban villa, the Russian datcha, and there the same industrious and happy life would continue amid the lovely pine forests and quiet lakes surrounding the city of St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile the Russian scene was rapidly changing. First came the war, then the March Revolution of 1917, and its logical outcome (in October, 1917), the assumption of power by Lenin and the establishment of the Soviet government in Russia. It is said that young Dmitri Shostakovitch witnessed the storming of the Winter Palace by the Red Guards on October 23rd — an event which must have made an ineffaceable mark on a youthful, sensitive mind. No one who spent those days in Petrograd can forget them; and they must have played an enormous part in shaping Shostakovitch’s convictions and his career.
In 1919 he entered the Petrograd Conservatory. The St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad Conservatory (founded in 1867 by Anton Rubinstein) has produced a phenomenal crop of great instrumentalists and great composers. It is an exemplary school where excellent technical traditions do not impede the individual development of the student, but supply him with a solid and manifold technical training — a fact which makes most modern Russian music look better “written” than the contemporary music of other countries.
At the Conservatory, under its best teachers, Shostakovitch received a well-balanced training in theory (harmony, composition, counterpoint, fugue, history, orchestration) and piano. When he graduated in 1926 he was already known in the musical circles of Leningrad as the promising young composer, and the composition he presented for his graduation was the First Symphony. By this time his political and artistic opinions were well formed, but already he had presumably gone through a series of influences, attractions, and enthusiasms. Like most music-loving Russian youths, he had probably started with a great attachment to the Mozart and Haydn sonatas which he practiced with his mother on the piano; at some point he probably was swept by an ardent passion for the esoteric music of Scriabin (some tendencies in the direction of Scriabin are still detectable in his music, particularly certain inflections of his melodic outline). He began early to love Tchaikovsky with a love often inexplicable to foreigners but natural to every Russian. With approaching maturity he began to understand the great “polyphonic miracle” of Bach and at the same time rejected as evil the Teutonic Wagnerian brew. But the great, the most powerful discovery he made, one which became a deep unshakable devotion with him, was that of Beethoven — Beethoven the revolutionary, the apostle of humanism, the prophet of “things to come.”
The developments in the music of “bourgeois” Europe during this period of time were little known to the citizens of the U.S.S.R., but whatever news came from abroad, whatever score or bit of information could be obtained, was avidly read. Shostakovitch’s friends and colleagues testify that the works of such men as Stravinsky, Ravel, Hindemith, Bartok, and Milhaud were fairly well known to him, and that he greedily absorbed all musical news arriving from the West. Several years later, speaking at a meeting of the Leningrad association of composers, he urged a closer acquaintance with the scores of contemporary western European composers, whose achievements, he said, “might be very useful to the music of Soviet Russia.”
As for his convictions about the nature of his art, the mission of the creative musician, and his relation to politics and the state, these seem to have crystallized around 1927, not without a preceding period of doubt and a kind of creative prostration. In an autobiographical statement given in 1936 to the Revue Musicale, Shostakovitch wrote: “At the Conservatory I absorbed with enthusiasm but without critical judgment all the knowledge and all the kinds of refinement which I was being taught….” But somewhat later, “I understood that music is not only a combination of sounds arranged in this or that order [an idea quite fashionable at that time among several western European composers; see Stravinsky's autobiography] but an art which is capable of expressing by its means, ideas or sentiments of a most diverse kind….I did not, however, acquire this conviction without pains. It suffices to say that during the whole year 1926 [the year of his graduation from the Conservatory] I did not write a single note, but from 1927 on I have never ceased to compose.”
Thus, at the beginning of his career, the question which has troubled many creative musicians — is music a language capable of expressing only emotions and feelings or is it also a vehicle for the expression of ideas? — was answered for him. From then on he had unshakable conviction that it could express ideas. From this point it was only a short step to the belief that the composer, like any other intellectual worker; has an educational obligation to fulfill and a political responsibility to bear.
Shostakovitch states it very clearly. “Working without interruption to acquire control over my art,” he says, “I applied myself in order to create my own musical style which I sought to render simple and expressive….I cannot conceive of my future creative program outside of our socialist enterprise (construction socialiste), and the aim which I assign to my work is that of helping in every way to enlighten our remarkable country.” Near the end of this autobiographical statement he completes this idea of the composer’s mission in the new socialist state by saying: “There cannot be greater joy for a composer than to be conscious that through his work he contributes to the great impetus of the Soviet musical culture, which is called upon to play a role of the first importance in remolding the human conscience.”
From 1927 on and until now, all through the turbulent years of the middle thirties and through the agony of this war, this conviction has grown, become more rooted in him. The repudiation which his work received from the political leaders of his country in 1937, and which seemed for a time to eclipse his career, actually only spurred him on to work harder in order that he might redeem himself in the eyes of these leaders and regain his people’s esteem. Any doubt as to the sincerity of this devotion, any suspicion as to the honesty of his intentions, should be definitely put aside.
Thus the little bourgeois boy, Mitya Shostakovitch, has gone through the tough school of the revolution and emerged completely transformed. He has become an “intellectual worker” of the Proletarian Republic, one hundred per cent Stalinist-Communist, whose chief apostolate is to serve his government (and through it his people) according to this government’s wishes and advices. He is honored when they praise him; he tries to see his errors when he is rebuffed. Individual, personal feelings matter only in so far as they are part of the people’s fortune, their aspirations and their tragedies. “Music,” he contends, “cannot help having a political basis, an idea that the bourgeoisie are slow to comprehend….There can be no music without ideology…” (meaning of course political ideology). “The old composers whether they knew it or not were upholding a political theory.” He goes on to explain that most of the old masters “were bolstering the rule of the upper classes,” that Beethoven was “the forerunner of the revolutionary movement,” and that Wagner, “the renegade,” was” a revolutionary turned reactionary, to whom we listen in the same spirit as when we visit a museum to study the forms of the old regime.” All art thus becomes classified according to a Marxian theory of values in which the intrinsic quality of a work of art depends upon its importance to the revolutionary progress of mankind.
The language of music becomes a vehicle for the statement of political ideologies; musical techniques are relegated to a subservient position; they are important only in so far as they render those ideologies intelligible. Concern with “personal” emotions, “individual” style or technique becomes irrelevant and unacceptable. Even to consider the proposition that transformation of musical techniques or an expression of individualistic emotions could be an end in itself becomes completely heretical. Shostakovitch condemns all such “foolishness” emphatically in his profoundly moving statement published on the eve of the first anniversary of the Russo-German War. “My energies,” he writes, “are wholly engaged in the service of my country. Like everything and everyone to-day, my ideas are closely bound up with the emotions born of this war. They must serve with all the power at my command in the cause of art for victory over savage Hitlerism, that fiercest and bitterest enemy of human civilization. This is the aim to which I have dedicated my creative work since the morning of June 22, 1941.”
Such complete devotion to the just cause of his country and its people necessarily commands respect and admiration. The philosophy upon which it is based is morally far more solid than many other contemporary theories. True enough, the Soviet artistic theory does not leave much room for the independent development of the individual musician; but on the other hand it is free from that pernicious and amoral egocentricism from which so much music of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries suffers. It is strangely akin to the noble morality of the artisan-musician of the Middle Ages, who, like Shostakovitch, worked with zeal and self-sacrifice as a servant of a cause he considered higher than himself and his art. The intention is the same and so is the fervor of the devotion, the difference in this case being that where the medieval musician read the words “glory of God” and “service of His church,” Shostakovitch reads “glory of the state” and “service of the people.”
Yet as a permanent principle it has its dangers for the artist, as the case of Dmitri Shostakovitch demonstrates.
The musical production of Dmitri Shostakovitch can be conveniently divided into two periods. The first began in 1927, following his graduation from the Conservatory, and lasted until 1936 or, more precisely, January 28, 1936, when the now famous incident concerning his opera, “Lady Macbeth from the District of Mzensk,” occurred. Then came a lapse of almost two years when Shostakovitch disappeared from the horizon of Russian artistic life. During these two years he wrote two new symphonies, his Fourth and Fifth, and the latter opened the door back to public favor, and marked the beginning of the second period, when, “reformed” and “rehabilitated,” he gradually climbed to his present pinnacle of leadership.
The incident of “Lady Macbeth” has therefore a considerable significance and, although it has already been mentioned in the American press, it cannot be avoided here. Briefly this is what happened. During the years 1930-1932 Shostakovitch wrote an opera on a story by a Russian writer of the nineteenth century, Lesskov, called “Lady Macbeth from the District of Mzensk.” It is a naturalistic and lurid story about a provincial, middle-class woman whose lust and boredom drive her to a series of cold-blooded murders and finally land her and her unfaithful lover in Siberia. Shostakovitch tried to give the story a Marxian twist by making the “heroine” a victim of the “decadent and foul bourgeois milieu.”
The music of the opera is neither daring nor particularly new. It sounds very much like many naturalistic Russian operas written in the eighties and now happily forgotten. True enough, it is more lively; it has some (not too successful) attempts at bitter “class satire” and “class tragedy”; it has also a few attractively lyrical melodies both in the choruses and in the arias; but on the whole it is old-fashioned, provincial, and unimaginative. The musical language in which it is written is simple enough, but somehow not quite coherent and totally lacking in unity. Pieces of various styles are strung together rather loosely, and the whole opera gives the impression of hasty and somewhat careless workmanship. Thus, for instance, the satirical passages and some of the polyphonic developments are full of the most obnoxious tricks of the style moderne of the twenties (dissonant superimposition of chords, “dislocated joints” in the melodic line, and “rhythmical paranoia,” or senseless repetition of a metrical figure — all unhappy products of the “modern” musical mind), while the lyrical arias and choruses reflect either Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. The realism or naturalism of the piece goes too far and at times it is plainly vulgar and pornographic. Most of the “class satire” is as unconvincing as the “Wooden Soldiers” of the late “Chauve-Souris.”
The opera was duly produced in both Russian capitals in 1934 and was hailed as a “great masterpiece,” the “work of a genius,” “the first monumental work of Soviet musical culture.” As such it was exported abroad and produced in the United States under Artur Rodzinski in Cleveland and New York. In New York it created a minor scandal and stirred up a great deal of discussion (chiefly because of the excessive musical realism of a bedroom love scene) which, coupled with the previous success of the First Symphony, “made” Shostakovitch.
For a time it looked as if the gods were favorably inclined to the young composer. But suddenly the storm broke loose. Messrs. Stalin and Molotov visited a performance of “Lady Macbeth” in Moscow in the middle of January, 1937. As a result of this visit a vitriolic article appeared in the Pravda on January 28, 1937, condemning Shostakovitch’s opera as “disorder instead of music” and arguing that “mad rhythms” and a “confused flow of sound” competed to produce a baffling effect upon the innocent audience. Shostakovitch was said to be “misled by decadent bourgeois tendencies,” and although a “gifted composer,” was accused of “intentionally turning everything upside down” and writing “neurotic, hysterical, epileptic music influenced by American jazz.” This first attack on Shostakovitch was followed by a second one, which appeared in the same paper a few days later and in which his new ballet, “The Limpid Brook,” was taken to task in the same way.
In terms of Russian life all this sounded like an artistic death warrant; and such it was taken to be by the obliging critics and gentlemen of the Soviet press (often the same ones who had previously praised Shostakovitch as the great Russian genius). The slander of Shostakovitch in the press actually became so thick that the same official powers which had ordered the condemnation of his opera had to give a “hands off Shostakovitch” order. Shostakovitch was declared to have been “misled,” “corrupted by Western bourgeois tendencies,” but to be “gifted enough” to rehabilitate himself in the future and thus “not past hope.” Two years later the “reformed” composer was returned to the Russian public as an officially changed man, one who had seen his faults and corrected them.
The whole story seems quite unreal now, particularly in view of the present circumstances. Yet it throws an interesting light upon the birth pangs of Soviet Russian art, and is especially significant for the development of Shostakovitch as a musician. These two painful years of banishment from public life were years of “inner self-criticism” (as the Soviet press calls it) during which he simplified his art still farther and all of his original musical thinking was definitely swallowed up by the “service to the cause.”
It is as difficult to describe the music of Shostakovitch as to describe the form and color of an oyster, not because this music is by any means complicated or “inscrutable in its profundity” (as Soviet Russian criticism puts it) but simply because it is shapeless in style and form and impersonal in color. Yet the oyster has a very individual taste of its own which Shostakovitch unfortunately lacks. For one of his chief weaknesses is absolute eclectic impersonality. Even during his first period, when he still felt himself relatively free to choose or invent his own technique, his music was impersonal.
He still borrows other people’s technical and stylistic inventions as if they were communal belongings. He still imitates indiscriminately (and I believe quite unconsciously) here Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, there Berlioz and Rimsky-Korsakov; here again he tries out some device he learned from a score of Stravinsky, or Ravel, or Hindemith, or from some minor composer of the twenties. During his first period he wrote a greater variety of kinds of music than later, using tricks, devices, and techniques taken from such different sources that they could not possibly lead to a unified style, and jumping from Tchaikovsky to jazzy rhythms of the “Mitteleuropa” variety. His operas are so different from his symphonies, his chamber music from his ballets, that one has a hard time recognizing that the same man wrote them; and it is the defects of the music, rather than its qualities, that are recognizable as his own. Thus, for instance, he writes few melodies in which the augmented fourth does not appear; yet this interval is essentially unmelodic and by association reminds us of very stale “melodies” of the late nineteenth century. His exaggerated liking of march rhythms of 4/4 and 2/4 time leads to a kind of wooden squareness in the fast movements of his music. His long melodic cantilenas, in generally not more than two parts, are shapeless and awkwardly built. His “tunes” are often from very ordinary sources (in Soviet Russia they were called “marshy” during the years of his eclipse), imitating very common and uninteresting factory or army songs. One would probably not object to them if they had been treated originally; for Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky often used tunes coming from the gutter; but how they ennobled them!
The two positive qualities I find in the music of Shostakovitch are of a rather ambiguous order. The first one is his great versatility and efficiency in Conservatory training, which enables him to solve technical problems of a broad variety in a highly skillful manner. Shostakovitch is undoubtedly an excellent craftsman and most of his inventiveness goes into such branches of musical craft as orchestration and efficient part writing (what the Germans call “guter tonsatz“). It is not infrequent among contemporary composers that such technical strength conceals a paucity of original musical ideas.
The second quality of Shostakovitch, to foreigners so surprising, is the inherent optimism of his music. As everybody knows, the common view of Russian music and the Russian character is that they are by nature easily depressed and melancholy or just the reverse, boisterously and wildly gay — without any visible reason. This view, erroneous as it is, is well entrenched in people’s minds. Thus when a composer from Russia is neither desperately melancholic nor in a state offrenzy, as in a Ballet-Russe-de-Monte-Carlo finale (with its inherent disorder), the foreigner thinks that something new has happened. No one will deny that a completely new life has been built in Russia, yet this has little to do with the national character of the people and their art, which at times in the past has been just as gay and happy and optimistic as the music of Shostakovitch. Glinka, the father of modern Russian music, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky himself have numberless pages of the happiest, lightest, gayest music the nineteenth century produced.
Thus to a Russian there would not be anything particularly surprising in the optimism of Shostakovitch. But it takes a redundant, blatant, and unconvincing form. One always feels a kind of compelling force behind it, a force of an extra musical order. It appears to be based on the official syllogistic formula: before the revolution life was desperate, therefore art was gloomy; now the revolution is victorious, therefore art must be optimistic. It is obvious that this must rings like a command of the gods rather than a logical conclusion of a syllogism. The result is that it often forces the composer into a great effort unnatural to his temperament and therefore unsuccessful.
What this must tends to do to Russian music in general and to Shostakovitch’s music in particular is lamentable. It drives the young composer to naïve and dated formulae such as an excessive and very conventional use of major triads, tunes and cadences in major keys, all of them describing the glorious and victorious events of the present in the most emphatic and banal musical language. (Minor modes are used to describe the dark and gloomy days of the past.) It steers the whole music into a verbose and brassy style which soon becomes dreary and monotonous. It produces that wooden 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm to which I have already referred, and which I suppose is considered “manlier” and “more virile” than the “effeminate” 3/4 or 6/8, and fills the thematic material with such commonplace metrical patterns as one eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes (or vice versa), which most good composers use very sparingly.
In Shostakovitch’s second period all these unfortunate characteristics come to full bloom. The substance of Shostakovitch’s composition now tends to be of such obvious understandability that his music ceases to be an artistic language in which the adventurous human mind discovers new laws and new problems which it endeavors to solve in a new way. Every technique, every melodic line, every development, polyphonic or monophonic, every rhythm, every formal device is reminiscent of either contemporary or nineteenth-century composers, and is used in such an obvious fashion that after a while one begins to wonder if even the most uneducated masses will not soon tire of it. (I often ask myself if this a priori decision, so frequent among intellectuals and politicians, that the masses have a naturally low taste for the arts, is not a proof of their own lack of discrimination.)
Simplification of music is in itself a salutary thing, but there is a moment when simplification becomes too obvious and absurd. Eclecticism is often the sturdy backbone of healthy tradition (was not Johann Sebastian Bach an eclectic to a degree?), but when it pervades a man’s music or stands in the way of the invention of a personal style it becomes deplorable. Objectivity should not be confused with impersonality, just as romanticism should not necessarily involve grandiloquent sentimentality and formlessness.
Fortunately Shostakovitch possesses the saving graces of excellent craftsmanship, profound honesty, and a fervent belief in the usefulness of what he is doing. Furthermore, at times there is a graceful lyricism in his music when he forgets himself (particularly in his chamber music, which by its very nature is freer from those moral obligations that govern his long descriptive symphonies), and thise natural lyricism shows us that somewhere deep behind the screen of impersonality and moral obligation there still lives an individual, a free artist, a man by the name of Dmitri Shostakovitch.
The actual significance of the case of Shostakovitch can be brought home by restating the crucial question that I asked myself in 1929 in Poland: are we going to see the rise of an eclectic collectivistic art which will put the individual at least temporarily in a completely subservient position to the state and society? Are we going to see the birth of an impersonal art written exclusively for the masses and in the fallacious belief that the masses have to be “talked down to”? For the present the music of Shostakovitch seems to answer this question in the affirmative — at any rate in so far as the music of Soviet Russia is concerned.
Is his art great? Is it unique and incomparably better than most modern music? Certainly not. There are many composers who both write better and have more to say than Shostakovitch. American and alien composers in this country have composed music which sees the concert hall less, but says infinitely more than his celebrated Seventh Symphony. Consider the scores of Piston, Copland, William Schuman, compositions by Stravinsky, Hindemith, Milhaud, Rieti — some of which are never played, because our maestros and their managers ordain otherwise.
It is these maestros and managers who are chiefly responsible for all the uproar in this country over one or two composers for one or two seasons. They have learned too well how to exploit a propitious political situation (what has become now of the “beloved” Finn, Sibelius?) and create a bubble reputation to relieve the stagnation of the concert repertory (always the same pieces of the same composers l); and they are now doing Shostakovitch immense disservice by placing him in a position in which he does not belong.
I sincerely hope that Shostakovitch has the power to undergo another complete regeneration and emerge a truly significant composer. But it is a gross misunderstanding of “collectivist” art to accept the popularity of his music now as evidence that he has found a universal formula. Soon his eclipse may come as swiftly as his leap to fame; this would be just as unfair and would indicate the same disbalance we see at present. Shostakovitch is a young man; he should develop as a solid and respected musician of the great New Russia. He does not now merit the injudicious acclaim he is receiving here; neither will he deserve the inevitable repudiation which will come in its wake. Both extremes are shameful evidence that contemporary music is judged indiscriminately and contemporary composers are used irresponsibly.
More from Nicolas Nabokov: