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Russian Revelations

Finding History In My Own BackYard

The works of musicians in the 20th century (and in some ways the world's history) were greatly affected by world relations. A leading composer of the 20th century, Dimitri Shostakovich's works are still a very controversial issue today. In fact, he was never simply a composer. Both famed and defamed by Stalin's cruelty, Shostakovich was resilient. He also proved that art, and in this case music, could withstand the most inhuman and abusive regimes. He was a cultural icon and a symbol of inspiration. However, exactly what he symbolized has changed over time. Whether or not his works would have been the same if not affected by criticism and Russian nationalism during the cold war still remains the question…

Dimitri's music is distinguished by its energetic rhythms and rich melodies, which are a reflection of Romani (Gypsy) tunes of Eastern Europe. Most of his large works follow traditional forms, and his harmonic style is simple and direct.

Shostakovich's first opera, The Nose, expressed a lack of traditional key, which was a popular technique of Western composer's such as German Paul Hindemith and the Austrian Alban Berg. It was well-contemplated by the critics and the public, however, it was censored by Communist party officials as "bourgeois and decadent." His next opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, again received popular and critical acclaim, but party publications condemned the opera as "counterrevolutionary." Such attacks led him to promise to reform his artistic ideas. Shostakovich's 5th and 6th symphonies were well received, both by the party and public, and his 7th symphony, Leningrad Symphony (1942), composed during the World War II siege against Leningrad, became a popular success. If you listen closely to his works at that time, you can hear a tension in his style with the timpani. In fact, the 5th symphony (as played in the background) has an unquestioned 'critique' of Russia under Stalin. Before the present, memoirs have forced us to hear these works in a different light. The fourth movement (or finale) of this symphony enforces joyfulness in its heroic style

These symphonies, with an addition of the 10th and 13th, represented the deep suffering of the people and Shostakovich's courageous challenge against the terrible restrictions of the government, which could be expressed no other way.

Hearing and actually having the experience of being near the real orchestra gave me a feeling of the tension that the people of Shostakovich's time had to experience that just a simple recording wouldn't have expressed.

"Shostakovich was a enormously talented composer…he could not have anticipated such an undeserved fate." (Laurel E. Fay)

For years, Shostakovich had kept such stylistically advanced scores such as the 4th symphony (written in 1936 but not performed until 1961) and First Violin Concerto hidden in a desk drawer to avoid criticism, or worse. At the time, the Soviet Union (under Stalin) had put harsh control over its people and had little sympathy. Stalin announced a 5-year plan to cover the soviet economy, and in it, he forced musicians, writers and artists into labor camps when they did not follow the official party line. It is no doubt that Shostakovich would have composed completely different styles if he were to express his ideas freely at that point of his life.

However, despite all of this, Shostakovich continued his later works to critique the Soviet system. His most critical symphony was his 13th (1962), in which the first movement combines a Yevtushenko poem about the Nazi's slaughter of Jews at Babi Yar and Soviet anti-Semitism. The premiere had been postponed until the text could be censored of references the authorities found offensive.

Although the tension of the world wars did affect Shostakovich's works, the question that is still remaining is whether his "disenchantment" with communism led to effect his works or if he was originally a very different artist. In my opinion, from listening to his early works in comparison to his later works, his style did change greatly, and therefore I believe that communism indeed did affect his compositions. However, I also agree with the following quote by Shostakovich, from an interview with the New York Times:

"There can be no music without an ideology. The old composers, whether they new it or not, were upholding a political theory…We, as revolutionists, have a different conception of music."

Thus, not only has Shostakovich been influenced by the society around him, but many other composers in history may have also experienced the same influence.

To see the wonderful Shostakovich festival, click the link below.

My Photo Essey

Shostakovich Pictures


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