Was It Good Party Music?
It was not until 1936, while soaring from the praise lavished on his second completed opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, that Shostakovich was dealt the first of two punishing blows by the Communist Party. In an unsigned editorial in Pravda, a production of Shostakovich's opera was roundly attacked under the headline "Muddle Instead of Music." The composer was criticized as having strayed from music accessible to the masses; he had been seduced by the "formalists" of the West, and, as Fay quotes, the editorial ended with an unveiled threat: "This is a game...that may end very badly." Overnight the composer was plunged into despair and disrepute. The editorial marked the end of his chapter as a model young Soviet composer and the beginning of his private rebellion. In the early years after the rebuke, his personal correspondence revealed a fighting spirit and an unassailable determination: "If they cut off both hands, I will compose music anyway holding the pen in my teeth." This determination was coupled, however, with a prudence that informed his fortunate decision to shelve his newly composed Fourth Symphony. Stalin's purges and the Great Terror were gaining momentum and gradually enveloping Russia, deeply affecting the composer as they struck down his contemporaries, including Meyerhold, who was executed in 1940.
It was against the backdrop of events like the Moscow show trials that the composer nervously penned his Fifth Symphony, which, as Fay points out, was "to serve as a public yardstick of the success of his ideological rehabilitation." The triumph of that symphony is by now a fabled event, with reports of audiences weeping in the aisles from the pathos of the music and celebrating its victorious conclusion with wild ovations and tumultuous applause. The composer, the newspapers reported, had been steered back to the proper path through the beneficent advisement of the party. The symphony also scored a giant success internationally, helping to cement Shostakovich's reputation as the leading Soviet composer of his generation. In subsequent years he was increasingly thrust into public service for the party, even as his music showed dangerous signs of relapsing toward the "formalism" for which he had once been attacked.
In 1948 Stalin's cultural watchdogs clamped down again, eventually dismissing the composer from his conservatory teaching posts and banning many of his works. Rather than defend himself, Shostakovich felt compelled to give effusive thanks for the party's corrective guidance, and with some notable exceptions, he would gradually become the selfless mouthpiece of the party on all matters of aesthetic policy. He was forced to make countless speeches at home and abroad that were drenched in what Fay calls "the numbing clichés of Soviet public discourse." His domestic and international popularity, coupled with what became a docile willingness to be manipulated, made him an extremely useful tool of the Soviet propaganda machine. As Fay points out, while there is clear evidence of Shostakovich's private distaste for his appointed public tasks, we cannot assume that he therefore did not accept any of the ardently pro-Soviet messages he delivered in the many speeches and letters printed above his signature. Indeed, notes of talking points for these speeches, written in Shostakovich's own hand, have been discovered. Furthermore, for years after Stalin's death and long into the cultural thaw that followed under Khrushchev, Shostakovich never clarified or publicly distanced himself from the views he had previously expressed. His continued service to the officials of the Ministry of Culture, long after accommodation was deemed necessary for survival, earned him the contempt of many of the post-Stalin generation of Soviet intellectuals. And whatever pro-Soviet rhetoric Shostakovich did not communicate directly through his public appearances, he allowed to be interpreted into his music.
It is certainly not a coincidence that Shostakovich's greatest legacy is as a symphonist. Though he had a deep love for opera, he was so stung by the early reprobation over Lady Macbeth that he would never successfully return to the genre. Moreover, the symphonic form, which he employed fifteen times, would prove a far more useful political tool for its ambiguity and its very independence from texts that might be scrutinized for their ideological content. Shostakovich rarely described his music publicly except in the vaguest generalizations. As Fay notes, this policy came from the combination of a natural aversion toward putting music into words (and thereby limiting its range of meanings) and an opportunistic posture that insured his safety by allowing others to hear in his music whatever subtext they desired. As for the composer's private politics, not even Fay's illuminating account provides absolute clarity. At the end of his life, with his status secure as one of the greatest Soviet composers of the twentieth century, Shostakovich still lacked the courage to speak his mind or refuse the tasks that the party asked him to perform. Perhaps the speeches in officialese and the signing of his name beneath ghostwritten paragraphs denouncing other artists or dissidents (including, famously, Andrei Sakharov) had become so routine as to be automatic and thoughtless. Whatever the case, this complicity enraged many of his contemporaries, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn.