18 Oct 2017
In Tony Palmer’s 1988 docudrama Testimony there is a scene where a dying Shostakovich (played by Ben Kingsley) is visited by the ghost of Stalin who tells him “I made a great composer of you” to which Shostakovich replies “You left me a barren tree.”
The film was based on a memoir of Shostakovich as told to writer Solomon Volkov and while debate still goes on about whether it is a true account of Shostakovich’s inner thoughts, there was indeed a complex relationship between the Soviet dictator and the composer.
After Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was denounced in Pravda in 1936, Shostakovich was hauled into a meeting at the Kremlin and told by Stalin to stop writing “riddles” and write “clear mass art”. It is amazing that Stalin had the time to be bothered with music appreciation whilst arresting more than a million people for ‘anti-Soviet sentiments’.
In Australia we can’t even imagine this sort of fear and repression. It would be like the Prime Minister denouncing composers and arresting others in the dead of night, never to be seen again.
Music has time and again been a vehicle for political propaganda. Hitler revered older composers like Beethoven, Bruckner and in particular Wagner. Their music could be used for the glory of the Third Reich and as they were all already dead, none of them could complain. But Stalin was in there boots and all, needing composers who could glorify the state.
When the Pravda editorial was published, Shostakovich was starting work on the final movement of his Fourth Symphony. The premiere was planned for 30 December 1936, but it never took place. Shostakovich withdrew the piece citing problems with the score, but maybe because there was intense pressure on the Leningrad Philharmonic not to play it.
He started work on the Fifth Symphony, which was written through gritted teeth and yet ironically has become his most popular work after the premiere in 1937.
The end of the symphony is bars and bars of D major with the note A hammered out across the orchestra. Is this a glorious ending or just a satirical picture of Stalin, hollow and grotesque? We will never know, but that is the power of music to say things without actually saying them.