If you know one thing about Dmitri Shostakovich it is probably something related to his relationship to the Soviet government. How did he really feel about communism? Was most of his music anti-establishment? I don’t know for certain, but I know enough to have my opinions.
First, let us discuss his relation to the government (actually, there will be no discussing, just me soap-boxing). In his early life he was the poster child of Soviet art. His first symphony was a smashing world wide success. He wrote ballets like “The Golden Age” and “The Bolt” which promoted Soviet social mores. The gov. shook it’s finger at him for his opera “The Nose” but that was about it. He was a star. His second opera “Lady Macbeth” was a raging success. But then Stalin went to see it. The next day the famous Pravda article came out, condemning the opera as “Muddle, not Music.” This remains a minority opinion. Either way, Shostakovich was in fear of his life. His wildly modern 4th symphony was withdrawn from rehearsals because 1) The rehearsals weren’t going well, and 2) He was scared of what it would do to him. He would spend his nights out in his apartment stairwell, waiting for the black car to come and whisk him away to the Gulag. It never happened, thank god, and he regained official favor with his 5th symphony. After this he wrote lots of film scores for propaganda films, and also bunches of works “for the desk drawer” i.e. his serious dark works that he was afraid to have publicly played. In 1948, Shostakovich and many other Soviet composers, Prokofiev among them, were condemned in the Zhdanov decree, for writing formalist, (i.e. good) music. He again regained official favor with his 10th symphony and his oratorio “Song of the Forests.” For the remained of his life, he toed the line. With Stalin dead, he could get away with so much more. Most of the time the gov. just said, “Oh Dmitri, you can’t do that, but here’s a medal anyways.” He pissed them off one last time with the 13th symphony, but that was about it.
So was most of his music directly anti-establishment? Some of it yes, but not all of it. There are 3 big patriotic, post-Pravda attack symphonies, 7, 11, and 12. The 7th (Leningrad), has been accused of representing Soviet oppression, not Nazi. I disagree. Shostakovich was a genuine patriot. He signed up for the army, but almost blind, late 30 somethings don’t do well in the army. He loved his city, and the 7th is a legit testament to the resolve of the citizens of Leningrad. As for the 11th, he was raised on the principles of the 1905 revolution. He really believed in it. The 1917 Revolution, subject of symphony 12, not so much, and therefore it is one of his weaker symphonies.
In some of his other works there are some nose thumbing and downright mockery. The 9th symphony may be the best example of this. I laugh sometimes when listening to it. Dmitri is thumbing his nose at Soviet society. In the 5th symphony there is the classic “Your business is rejoicing” finale, and of course no-one is actually rejoicing, or at least they shouldn’t be. All of his string quartets are deeply personal, No. 8 especially. He considered it to be a musical suicide note, for the suicide he never ended up committing, and again, thank god. SQ No. 8 shows a man beat down by the system. The second movement of the 10th symphony has been called a portrait of Stalin. Was it supposed to be? I don’t know, but it sure sounds like it.
Is Shostakovich who we think he is? He is something to everyone, and since the times he lived in were so important to getting a good understanding of his works, there are so many interpretations available, and all plausible at worst. Only he really knew what he was saying, and I think he would like it if he knew people were trying to figure him out.