Dmitri Shostakovich was a coward. Or at least the great Soviet composer admitted as much to friends. The resulting shame reverberates through his music, sounding notes of terror, humiliation and despair. When in 1948 Communist Party apparatchiks denounced his compositions as “formalist” and inaccessible to the common worker, he made a public confession, saying his music suffered from “many failures and serious setbacks” and pledging, “I will accept critical instruction.” He occasionally composed inanely patriotic songs and, some say, symphonies to placate his censors. Although he kept a picture of the Russian expatriate Igor Stravinsky under glass on his desk, Shostakovich yielded to party pressure and denounced his Modernist music, a moment he would later describe as the worst of his life.
Some of his closest friends made different choices during the middle years of the dark Soviet century. The cellist and humanist Mstislav Rostropovich defied the party and risked everything by sheltering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—a mighty figure of resistance whom Shostakovich let down more than once. (The novelist considered enlisting Shostakovich to protest the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 but ultimately realized that the “shackled genius” would never agree.) Shostakovich shocked his friends by formally joining the party in 1960—well after survival demanded it—thereby becoming an establishment figure mistrusted by the next generation of composers. Many Russian liberals never forgave him for signing a 1973 petition denouncing the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. One of Shostakovich’s friends remembered him saying, “I’d sign anything even if they hand it to me upside-down. All I want is to be left alone.”
Shostakovich signed—he always signed—not because he was a recluse or a genius who couldn’t be bothered with politics but because he hadn’t the constitution to fight back. Racked throughout his life by illness—tuberculosis, lung cancer, polio and Lou Gehrig’s disease—he was a wretched bag of nerves; contemporaneous accounts have him twitching, sweating and incessantly drumming his fingers. The fragile composer lived much of his life in a state of panicked desperation. He occasionally rebuffed the party in small ways, exerting his influence to help friends on the wrong side of an official or called up for service. Yet he ultimately chose subversion rather than resistance. He was a survivor, not a martyr, and when he mocked totalitarianism he did so in the safe company of friends or in sarcastic passages of music, like the perverted military march played by dissonant trumpets in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. His motives and loyalties remain cloudy, if not quite enigmatic. The finale of the same piece features one of Shostakovich’s most famous concessions: a last-minute switch to the major key to send the concertgoers out on a note of Soviet triumphalism.
Born in St. Petersburg in 1906, Shostakovich was the great red hope, the Soviet Union’s first “homegrown” composer, or so the apparatchiks liked to boast when they weren’t terrorizing him. Shortly after the 1948 denunciation—Shostakovich’s second—Stalin telephoned and asked him to represent the USSR on a cultural junket to the United States. Stalin claimed to know nothing of the blacklisting that had been ruining Shostakovich’s life. Like many others who lived through Stalin’s purges and terror, Shostakovich always carried a toothbrush and change of underwear in case he was packed off to the gulag. But this never happened: he was too valuable an instrument of propaganda. After he composed the Seventh Symphony (Leningrad), an anthem of Soviet resistance to Nazism during World War II, Shostakovich became a national hero whose photo was splashed across the cover of Time. In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross describes how Russians first heard the symphony during the siege of 1942 “under the most dramatic circumstances imaginable”: