Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

[I published this in the March 2006 Playbill of the San Francisco Orchestra.]

Pity the ghost of Dmitri Shostakovich. Thirty years after his death, it seems his soul will never be allowed to rest in peace. Hounded by Stalinist commissars during his lifetime, ridiculed by Western modernists to this day, Shostakovich remains one of the twentieth century's most embattled cultural figures.

Mercifully, things look rather different on today's stages. Had he lived to his 100th birthday this year, Shostakovich might have allowed himself one of his characteristic wincing smiles. For his musical opponents have been all but vanquished in the concert hall. Shostakovich reigns supreme.

Not everyone is pleased with this turn of events. Back in 2000, Pierre Boulez, the high priest of modern music, expressed his growing irritation with the Russian composer's eminence. "Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time," Boulez told the London Times. "It's like olive oil, you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler. I think, with Shostakovich, people are influenced by the autobiographical dimension of his music." Strip away the contempt and something rather surprising emerges: Boulez is largely right.

One of the bittersweet ironies of Shostakovich's posthumous triumph is that his enemies often understand him better than his friends. You would have to be deaf not to hear the Mahlerian voice in Shostakovich's music, particularly in the monumental symphonies. Shostakovich's Fourth, for instance, sounds at times like a bitter rejoinder to Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. And the Russian composer did play with clichés — deliberately and expressively. Sometimes the clichés are overt, as in the bombastic "Invasion" theme of the Leningrad Symphony. Sometimes the clichés might not even be audible to modern listeners, as in Shostakovich's repeated references in the Eighth String Quartet and the Eleventh Symphony to hoary Russian revolutionary songs.

Of course, this expressive use of musical clichés is not really what Boulez is objecting to. Substitute "established musical conventions" for "clichés," and you get a pretty good idea of why Shostakovich's music is detested by the mandarins of high modernism. Shostakovich's music establishes clear links to the traditions of the past, while at the same time expanding and reinvigorating them. His music makes sense, even to the casual listener.

Undoubtedly a huge reason for the popularity of Shostakovich's music has been its ability to convince listeners that it is, well, something more than music. Internet enthusiasts and music popularizers have created something of a cottage industry exploring the "autobiographical dimension" of Shostakovich's music. Many believe they hear the voice of political protest and personal defiance. In part, this view can be traced back to Shostakovich's own lifetime. Speak with any music-loving Russian émigré who lived through the Soviet nightmare, and you will inevitably hear something like this: Shostakovich's music was the "secret diary of a nation," describing the hidden world of fear, suspicion, and desperate hope that millions experienced under the Soviet dictatorship. Margarita Mazo, who taught at the Leningrad Conservatory before coming to the US, once described Shostakovich's music to me as a "sacred experience." In his music she and her compatriots heard what they believed to be the composer's suffering, the incredible moral complexities of living under Communist rule: "When we listened to his music it spoke to us at a certain level," she says. "Whether it was true or not doesn't matter."

Shostakovich's official biography, of course, offers rather meager resources to these listeners. To all appearances, he presented himself as a sturdy pillar of the Soviet regime, complete with thick glasses and ill-fitting suits — who also happened to compose music. After being elected to the Leningrad city council in 1934 (he was then only twenty-eight), he continued a long, illustrious, and uninterrupted career as a Soviet public servant until the end of his life. He was elected repeatedly to the Supreme Soviets of the Russian Republic and of the USSR, and joined the Communist Party in 1960. It is fitting that the most famous image of Shostakovich ever circulated in America was his face on the cover of Time magazine in 1942. One might expect a photo of Shostakovich waving a baton, scribbling on manuscript paper, or playing a piano. But instead he wears a fireman's hat, the better to perform his loyal citizen's duty to protect the motherland from outside invaders.

Even as a musician, Shostakovich proved a model Soviet citizen. A significant portion of his creative energy was spent composing paeans to a regime that imprisoned and killed millions of his countrymen. Two of his earliest symphonies were ecstatic hymns to communism. Several of his late works appear to be nostalgic evocations of this youthful idealism. Sandwiched in between are regular tributes to Soviet power. One of the final state honors bestowed on Shostakovich before his death was a Glinka Prize for a choral work entitled, rather appropriately, Loyalty. Based upon words by the poet Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, the choral ballads, according to his biographer Laurel Fay, "elevate Lenin above God, Confucius, Buddha, and Allah." (Shostakovich's lifelong admiration of Lenin seems to have been genuine, according to recent accounts of friends and family.) Shostakovich told Soviet television that "it will not be my last work about Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin]. In the future I will most certainly strive to embody the image of this great man."

In other words, in any conceivable understanding of his public life, Shostakovich was, in the words of his official obituary, a "faithful son of the Communist Party." But if such a statement seems incontrovertible, it is also a gross distortion of the lives of Shostakovich and his contemporaries. In the most obvious sense, Shostakovich's outward "faithfulness" did not insulate him from official persecution. Thousands of Party members discovered this too late in the 1930s, their loyalty rewarded with a bullet to the back of the head. Shostakovich never met such a fate — indeed he prospered throughout his life — but he did endure the ups and downs characteristic of any Soviet official who lived during those times. The composer's music was famously singled out for attack in 1936 and 1948, and there is at least one unconfirmed story that the secret police summoned Shostakovich for questioning.

More importantly, and this fact cannot be stressed enough, the public behavior of a Soviet citizen was often strikingly at odds with his private views. As the music historian Levon Hakobian points out, it is "possible to loathe and despise a totalitarian regime at the same time as one faithfully and truthfully serves it." And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Shostakovich hated Stalin, detested the criminal Soviet society he spawned, and above all, despised himself for failing to publicly oppose it — even long after the dictator's death.

If this seems a rather bleak and unforgiving portrait of a man, especially on the occasion of his hundredth birthday, then it should be remembered that Shostakovich himself largely endorsed it. In private conversations late in life, he would either reproach himself for weakness and indecision, or encourage others to adopt a similar stance. He had little time or respect for the growing ranks of Russian dissidents. "Don't waste your efforts," he told the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. "You're living here, in this country, and you must see everything as it really is. Don't create illusions. There's no other life. There can't be any." After joining the Communist Party, he responded to friends who were aghast at his decision by quoting the final line of Pushkin's long poem, The Gypsies: "Against fate there is no defense."

But such an image of a man resigned to his fate has been difficult for some to accept. They prefer a hero wear a white hat — preferably with a large "H" emblazoned on it. Shostakovich's biography has been scoured for evidence of bitterness (of which there was plenty) and resistance (of which there was none).

His music has come under the same critical scrutiny — and has suffered for it. Under the influence of Solomon Volkov's Testimony, a book purporting to be the composer's memoirs, many of Shostakovich's best-known works have come to be interpreted as coded works of anti-Soviet propaganda. In Testimony, Volkov's Shostakovich explicitly states that "all" his symphonies after the Fourth were about Stalin's criminality in the 1930s, and that particular works were even musical portraits of Stalin.

Aaron Copland had a fine response to this kind of musical understanding in his classic What to Listen for in Music:

‘Is there a meaning to music?' My answer to that would be, ‘Yes.' And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, ‘No.' ….

Simple-minded souls will never be satisfied with the answer to the second of these questions. They always want music to have a meaning, and the more concrete it is the better they like it.

Shostakovich himself detested such simple-minded literalness. Asked to summarize his music, he invariably responded with silence or impatience. He complained in 1933 that when Soviet music critics wrote that "in such-and-such a symphony Soviet civil servants are represented by the oboe and the clarinet, and Red Army men by the brass section, you want to scream!"  Even in works that seemed to invite such a reaction, such as his Seventh Symphony, Shostakovich chafed at his listeners' overindulgence in literalist fantasies. Once, after playing the Seventh Symphony on the piano before a small group of musically knowledgeable friends, Shostakovich grew irritated that all of them seemed to hear nothing in it but direct references to the Nazi invasion of Russia. "Of course — Fascism," Shostakovich confided to a friend. "But music, real music, can never be literally tied to a theme." Shostakovich was to discover on many occasions that his greatest admirers were often not his best listeners.

What is particularly unfortunate about this vision of Shostakovich-as-dissident is how much its misses — not just of the man himself, but of the music he created. Consider Shostakovich's early interest in jazz, and his attempts to incorporate the style into his music. Jazz seems a peculiar choice for a composer often associated with expressions of persecution and bitter recrimination, but it fit naturally with a composer blessed — or cursed — in his youth with cocky self-confidence and a wicked wit.

Shostakovich's love for jazz reached its fullest expression during what has come to be known as the Soviet Union's "Red Jazz Age," from 1932 to 1936. In the early 1930s, Soviet composers had come under increasing pressure from an influential group of ideological hard-liners known as the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). These activists championed the creation of a distinctive "proletarian musical culture" consisting entirely of marches and mass songs. Most classical music was considered too abstract and self-indulgent for the masses, while the popular "light genre" works then beginning to seep into Russian music halls was contemptuously dismissed as "musical pornography."

But in April 1932, the Communist Party passed a resolution effectively disbanding RAPM and related artistic organizations. The results were predictable. "Jazz music is staging a remarkable comeback in Soviet Russia," reported the New York Times in May 1933.

Each of the big hotels in Moscow has its own jazz band and dancing floor…. The orchestra of one Moscow hotel has an American Negro who nightly brings down the house with dances which the Russians have never seen before. There are frequent debates these days in workers' clubs on the question, ‘Is Jazz Compatible With Communism?' At one such debate a jazz orchestra played selections for an hour so the club members could form a judgment on good evidence. The result was an overwhelming vote of ‘Yes.'"

The jazz craze swept all before it, especially the working class. Some factories even organized weekly fox-trot classes for their workers.

Shostakovich, as usual, cannily sensed the change of tide. Much of his music in the early 1930s was infected with jazz rhythms and instrumentation, including the First Jazz Suite and First Piano Concerto. In incidental music for a 1932 production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Shostakovich had Ophelia sing a popular music-hall tune backed up by a jazz orchestra. His musical style was influenced by vaudeville and circus entertainment; he collaborated in staged works that included acrobats, clowns, and performing horses. He became a friend and admirer of Leonid Utesov, the famous Soviet jazz band leader. Above all, he came to value jazz's ability to speak to a broader audience than those who traditionally attended concerts of "classical" music. In January 1930, he appeared before an audience of Leningrad workers in a performance of scenes from his opera The Nose. Who was his intended audience? he was asked. "I live in the USSR, work actively and count naturally on the worker and peasant spectator," Shostakovich responded. "If I am not comprehensible to them I should be deported."

At the same time, Shostakovich repeatedly expressed concerns about gaudy displays of musical tastelessness at many jazz performances. "I am not against jazz as such," he wrote in 1934. "But I am against those ugly forms in which the universal, almost mindless enthusiasm for the genre has manifested itself." Shostakovich hoped to redeem this aspect of popular music, and strove to create a genuinely popular, genuinely serious music.

It was a delicate balancing act that probably no one could have pulled off successfully. So when the Red Jazz Age finally ran its course — a victim of its own commercial success — Shostakovich came under immediate suspicion. His 1932 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which had proved initially to be a popular and critical success, came under a famous blistering attack in the pages of Pravda in January 1936. Shostakovich was accused of "borrowing from jazz bands their nervous, convulsive, epileptic music in order to impart ‘passion' to his heroine." While the opera succeeded in "tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, neurotic music," Shostakovich was darkly warned that such musical shenanigans "could end very badly."

The episode illuminates much about Shostakovich's career and character. In the most obvious sense, it shows that even the most careful attention to and respect for official musical policy could not insulate a composer from attack. But more importantly, it highlighted the musical philosophy and startling artistic self-confidence that Shostakovich retained throughout his life.

Shostakovich survived the 1936 attack and its aftermath, and adjusted his style accordingly. Somehow, the more his musical options were restricted, the more expansive and confident became his musical voice. The crippling doubts and compromises in his personal life never infected his musical output — indeed, it seemed to spur him on to greater and greater artistic expressiveness. Faced with a direct threat to his life, the most obvious response would have been artistic paralysis. For Shostakovich, it was his Fifth Symphony, one of the great symphonic works of the century. His prickly humor turned bitter and corrosive, his earlier enthusiasm for opera entirely evaporated, and was replaced with a passion for the private utterances of the string quartet. (His very first string quartet was written shortly after completing the Fifth Symphony.) He retained an unnerving confidence in his ability to transcend his material circumstances, to navigate the twists and turns of the ever-shifting official line, to spin the straw of official Soviet doctrine into gold. "Even if they cut off both my hands," he told his friend Isaak Glikman in the spring of 1936, "I will compose music anyway, holding the pen between my teeth."

Shostakovich, in other words, was the living embodiment of a Soviet survivor, one who understood and navigated the system probably better than anyone. He knew when to offer a suitably strong opinion, when to nod obsequiously, and when to remain studiously silent.

But he managed to retain, under a mask of compliance, a core confidence in his ability as a composer. Speaking to the Time magazine reporter in 1942, Shostakovich described his Seventh Symphony in revealing terms. One might have expected a humble tribute to the courage and suffering of the Soviet people under Nazi attack. But Shostakovich says something rather surprising — he defiantly expresses his artistic credo. His symphony, he told the reporter, was a "polemic against the statement that ‘when the cannons roar the muse is silent.' Here the muses speak together with the guns."

Throughout his life, Shostakovich's muse spoke together with the guns. It is this fierce, seemingly invincible, pride in his musical craft that is the key to Shostakovich's enduring popularity, and the greatness of his art. This is the "autobiographical dimension" of Shostakovich's music that dominates his works. Shostakovich's music whispers and shrieks, thunders with patriotic passion and cackles cynically. No twentieth-century composer ever expressed so confidently the dominant emotions of a century disfigured by war and crimes against humanity. That the composer managed to create such music under such unimaginable conditions was his lasting achievement. It speaks to a hope, shared by many of his listeners, that art can redeem us, that music allows us to remain human in the face of inhumanity.

When one listens to the music this way, it is clear why it was such a "sacred experience" for Soviet listeners, and why it remains so for many today. The pathos of so much of Shostakovich's music comes from the incongruousness of its goals. What can a symphony do for the starving citizens of besieged Leningrad? What can a string quartet do for the victims of fascism? Shostakovich clung to a hope that writing great music was enough. His listeners, deprived of any hope for social or political change, embraced his example as their own. One needn't agree with Shostakovich, or excuse his behavior, to appreciate that the result was a body of musical work unique in the twentieth century for its emotional force.

It's probably a good thing that Shostakovich wasn't the man of the myth, the fierce dissident hurling direct attacks on Stalin throughout his life. His music almost certainly wouldn't have been as good. Shostakovich asks a lot from us; above all he asks us to listen for complexity. Too often his listeners — even those sympathetic to him — have not been up to the task. On his hundredth birthday, perhaps it's time that we give Shostakovich the greatest birthday tribute he could have imagined: simply listen.

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