Today is the anniversary of the death of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (Sept 29, 1906 – April 9, 1975).
Shostakovich struggled under a hostile and perilous political environment for his entire working life. After a promising start with his First and Second Symphonies, his career went up in flames when Stalin attended a performance of his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” The performance did not satisfy Stalin’s musical expectations, and before the final act he abruptly and angrily exited the theater, along with his entourage. Shortly afterwards, articles appeared denunciating Shostakovich as a “formalist” and as an “enemy of the people.” Until Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich lived in a state of perpetual fear of arrest and execution. Friends, colleagues and family members were jailed, murdered, exiled. In his memoirs (as related to Solomon Volkov in “Testimony”) he said:
“I am remembering my friends and all I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses. I’m not exaggerating, I mean mountains.”
Still, Shostakovich survived. In times of duress he laid low and made his living writing scores for propaganda films and cartoons, like “The Silly Little Mouse.”
For years S. alternated between denouncement and rehabilitation (denounced after “Lady Macbeth” in 1936, rehabilitated after the 5th Symphony in 1937, denounced after the 9th Symphony in 1945, rehabilitated again in 1949 when Stalin sent him to the “Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace” as a Soviet representative for the arts).
Immediately after Stalin’s death, S. began releasing all the work he had written “for the drawer:” string quartets, violin concertos, song cycles from Jewish folk poetry, and the famous 10th Symphony.
The 10th Symphony premiered in Dec. 29, 1953 in Leningrad, conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky. Shostakovich claimed that the 2nd movement of the symphony was a musical portrait of Stalin:
“. . . the symphony . . . is about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis.”
Here’s that scherzo, a four minute whirlwind of violent, relentless fury: