â'Untiring Troubadour of Leftist Distortion'

But tell us what you really think about Shostakovich

by Jonathan B. Frey

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich holds the dubious honor of being the target of history's most chilling critical notice: â“From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this â‘music' is most difficult; to remember it, impossibleâ. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, â‘formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.â”

While the review's Soviet-speak is difficult to take seriously today, the last sentence quoted here was a death warrant issued by Joseph Stalin, the presumed author of this unsigned Pravda editorial. Heretofore Shostakovich had avoided the fate of many writers, composers and playwrights who were shot, gulaged, driven to suicide or forced to emigrate during the Stalin purges of the '30s. As Brian Morton explains in his concise Shostakovich: His Life and Music (Haus, $25), Shostakovich had been successful in â“disguising his deeper, slower evolution behind a façade of accommodating activity, all the time refusing to be a pipe that others could play on, farting inaudibly under cover of the noise and brouhaha and then denying that the bad smell was his. A worse odour was to follow, though, and with dangerous consequences.â”

That â“odourâ” was Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk , an opera premiered in 1934, performed throughout Russia, Europe, and the United States, and universally regarded a triumph. However, during the first weeks of 1936, Stalin attended a performance of the opera and detected a caricature of himself in the character of the police chief in the third act.

The infamous Pravda editorial, entitled â“Muddle Instead of Music,â” followed soon thereafter, and a month later another damning editorial appeared regarding a Shostakovich ballet, a bland propagandist piece entitled The Limpid Stream . By this point, Shostakovich was a nonperson, labeled by Pravda as an â“untiring troubadour of Leftist distortion.â” Morton never explains how Shostakovich avoids the fatal outcome of so many of his colleagues.

It is indeed a curious mystery that Stalin would permit Shostakovich not only to continue to live, but to actually commence rehearsals for his Fourth Symphony.

The premiere of the Fourth Symphonyâ"a sonic gargantua scored for 120-piece orchestra, delivering fortissimo dissonanceâ"was cancelled by Shostakovich before its performance, ostensibly owing to rehearsal difficulties. Morton attributes the cancellation to the symphony's â“technical novelty and boldness,â” which had it been performed â“might have proved the final straw and Shostakovich might well have joined the long line of the disappeared.â” (The Fourth was not premiered for another 25 years.)

Instead Shostakovich composed and was permitted to perform in 1937 what is now perhaps his most often performed symphony, the Fifth. Simpler and emotionally more direct, the Fifth was received with an ovation that lasted longer than the symphony itself and was quickly subtitled, with Shostakovich's consent, a â“creative reply of a Soviet musician to just criticism.â”

The Fifth Symphony's subtitle exemplifies a particularly difficult challenge for Shostakovich biographers: whether the composer, considered among the 20th century's greatest, was a Soviet advocate as his official statements suggest, or a survivor who acquiesced to such state demands as joining the Communist Party and signing official condemnations of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. That enigma has become further complicated by the 1979 publication, four years after Shostakovich's death, of an â“as dictated toâ” autobiography entitled Testimony , by Russian émigré Solomon Volkov. Volkov's account, presenting Shostakovich as living in fear, his music vacillating between accommodation and subterfuge, caused an enormous furor at publication. The ensuing debate, which continues today, ranges from accusations of fraud to claims that while genuine, Testimony is merely the late-life rationalizations of a regretful Soviet stooge.

The reality may never be known, but Morton successfully avoids this fascinating but distracting controversy by relegating discussion of Testimony to the very end of his biography. Coming in at 135 pages, Shostakovich: His Life and Music offers a succinct introduction to the composer and his major works, despite being marred by an abundance of editorial errors and a barely perfunctory index. m

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra will perform Shostakovich's Fifth on May 24 and 25, 8 p.m., at the Tennessee Theatre. Tickets are $19.50 to $77.50, available from the Tennessee Theatre Box Office or 656-4444.

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