To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
– Theodor Adorno
Shostakovich Quartet, 2nd movement
You don’t need to know the history behind a piece of music to enjoy it. But context and back-story can enlarge the udnerstanding of music, and therefore the pleasure we get from it. And that is especially the case with a composer like Shostakovich.
Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a Russian who spent his entire professional life working within and for the Russian Communist system. That’s a simple fact that effected almost every note that the composer ever wrote.
Part of those Shostakovich’s duties as a composer of the Communist Russian state saw the elderly composer on a state-sponsored visit to Dresden in East Germany, July 1960. The city, then part of Communist East Germany, had been the scene of some of the most devastating air-raids in the whole of World War II.
Shostkovich had been sent to Dresden to work on a film about the bombing. That work involved visits to the sites of the Allied bombing, viewing of archive footage, and watching reconstructions during the making of the film.
It must all have brought back haunting memories to a composer sensitive to the point of neurosis.
Shostakovich couldn’t bring himself to write a note of the film music. Instead, in a state of extreme nervous exhaustion, he composed an entire quartet (his entire 8th) in just three days.
History haunts this quartet, as it haunts much of Shostakovich’s work. The composer didn’t just live through some of the most cataclysmic events of the twentieth century, but he was part of them.
20th Century Boy
Rite of Spring, excerpt 2
The 20th century was about the most intense period of upheaval in human history. The obvious date for this was the carnage of the First World War, 1914-1918. But if you possessed a particularly fine-tuned set of antennae, you’d have noticed things had been changing, scientifically and culturally, more than a decade earlier.
1905 saw the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, announcing the end of ‘absolute’ time and space. The world of Newton no longer defined the entire universe. The world, from a scientific perspective, started to look a much stranger place.
A similar process was happening culturally too. Around the turn of the century, we see a push towards abstraction. By 1909, Picasso was painting cubist pictures, deconstructing objective artistic portrayal of space. Newton’s laws no longer defined space in painting, either.
Music was also shifting towards abstraction, fragmentation, and distortion. 1913 witnessed the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a ballet based on primitive blood-rites and sacrifices. It was an aural assault on notions of harmony and rhythm that caused theatre-goers to throw seat-cushions and even exchange blows.
Of course the real violence and the real blood-sacrifice was waiting to erupt, just a year later.
Leningrad symphony excerpt
Shostakovich, born in 1905, was a boy during the bloodshed of WW1. He was 8 when the authorities – in a burst of slavic patriotism – renamed his home city of St Petersberg to Petrograd.
Those authorities wouldn’t be authorities for long. After calamitous loses to Austria and Germany on the Eastern Front, full-blooded revolution overwhelmed Russia in 1917. The Communists, led by Lenin, now took control of the country. Shostakovich was 12.
He stayed in his hometown, studying at what was now the Petrograd Conservatory, and enjoying the artistic liberty that revolution had brought.
When he was 18, the signs to his college were changed to the Leningrad Conservatory. The city had once more been renamed, the third time in 10 years. The Communist authorities changed the city’s name to Leningrad, in recognition of Lenin’s death in 1924.
A new man now controlled Russia: Josef Dzhugashvili. Or Stalin as he preferred to be known.
Lady MacBeth excerpt
The morning of the 29th of January 1936 finds Shostakovich buying a newspaper at a station in the Northern city of Archangelsk.
The career of the ambitious 29-year old was already a trail-blazing success. Post-revolutionary Russia, before Stalin’s consolidation of power, was a place of free artistic licence, a heady space of new invention from which the young composer produced brash, challenging, and acerbic music.
His lurid and sexually graphic opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had proved a big hit, and the golden boy had been besieged by offers for personal appearances from all over the country.
Accepting one of those invitations was the reason Shostakovich found himself at the train station of this extreme northern Russian city in the chill of winter .
When he opened the pages, his universe fell apart.
Uncle Joe is listening
The article, entitled Muddle instead of Music, was a damning denouncement of Lady Macbeth. It became quickly clear that a certain Josef Dzhugashvili – or Stalin as he preferred to be known – had sanctioned the assault. Two more attacks in the papers followed in the next few weeks.
One sentence of the review in particular – “no good will come of this…” – must have rung out ominously for the young composer.
Stalin himself had in fact recently seen the opera that had generated so much attention, Lady Macbeth. He hated it. He was disgusted by the rawness of both subject matter and musical tone, and left before the end.
He most certainly sanctioned the article’s appearance in Pravda a couple of days later.
Shostakovich immediately became persona non grata. Rehearsals for his newly completed 4th symphony were cancelled, and all those commissions and invitations suddenly and mysteriously dried up. Fellow musicians who had once praised him, now denounced his music.
To bring things into terrible focus, the dreadful Stalinist purge known as the Great Terror was now in full swing.
Shostakovich Quintet, Excerpt
Russia in the 1930’s suffered hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions of arrests, executions, or banishments to the gulags, those frozen hell-hole prison camps in the east.
It was a time that came to be known as The Great Terror.
Fellow artists, personal friends, even family members had disappeared without warning in the night, often never to return. After the public denouncements in the press, Shostakovich was sure he would be next. A liberal artist from the liberal city of Leningrad with a record of ‘formalist’ (ie Western and Modernist) work, not to mention personal friend to people now declared as enemies of the state.
He even began sleeping in the hallway with a packed bag, so the inevitable middle-of-the-night call wouldn’t wake his children.
But Shostakovich was safe, just. Though he didn’t realise it at the time, his stature as an international artist offered him a protection the millions of disappeared never possessed. That status almost certainly saved his life.
But the sword that guarded him was double-edged. From now on the State, and uncle Joe personally, would watch over its celebrated composer with an especially beady eye.
Shostakovich would behave himself. And when the time came, they would use him.
World War Twice
Seventh Symphony, climax excerpt
The Second World War provided that cause.
Stalin’s deeply cynical pact with Hitler in 1939 had seen Russia delay warfare with Germany for a couple of years. But in the summer of 1941, Hitler’s armies invaded Russia and unleashed the greatest land-war in history upon the soviet people.
Stalin needed to dig into the deepest reserves of the Russian people to fight the Nazis. Old enemies like Nationalism and the Church were now enlisted to what had gone beyond simply a Communist Cause.
Russia was fighting for its very existence.
Shostakovich’s hometown, Leningrad, became the centre of that resistance. It was beseiged by German forces, who cut off the last road to the city in October 1941, six months before a similar fate befell Stalingrad.
Stalin declared the city must not fall. Everything was thrown into that resistance.
Shostakovich’s contribution to the city’s defense (apart from a spell for the cameras as volunteer fireman) was the composition of his Leningrad Symphony (no 7). He completed the score in his new temporary home of Kuibyshev, from where the score was flown back into Leningrad by the planes that nightly brought arms and supplies to the besieged citizens of his hometown.
The staging of this symphony was taken seriously by the Communist authorities as a part of Russia’s war effort and resistance.
The composer had truly been enlisted in the war effort.
The premiere, on August 9th 1942, was a tumultuous event. Russian forces had specifically bombed German artillery targets before the concert began, to ensure a minimum of interruption. Speakers set up across the city transmitted the performance to ordinary citizens.
The seige of Lenningrad lasted almost three years until January 1944, when a large Russian offensive finally repulsed the German forces, and the Germans were driven back to their own Fatherland and eventual defeat.
You can hear something of that in this music: the sense that no matter how hard things are, the Russian people will work and work and work to achieve a hard-fought victory. This will take patience, resolve, and suffering. But ultimately, the immensity of Russia will be victorious.
The symphony was rapturously received.
A Jewish Theme
Shostakovich 2nd Trio 3rd Movement, excerpt
And so, finally, Nazism was on the backfoot, as Hitler’s army began its retreat back to Germany.
As the Russian armies began their ‘liberation’ of Eastern Europe, terrible stories began to filter back to Russia. Stories of Nazi death camps, where Jews had been systematically collected and murdered.
Shostakovitch, in August 1944, composed his 2nd piano trio, with this clear Jewish/gypsy theme in its final movement (reprised of course in Dresden 1960, in the second movement of our own quartet).
One view of this Jewish theme is it represents a dance of death. Reports sent back by Russian journalists had mentioned Jews forced to dance in front the graves they had just dug for themselves, before being shot by Nazi paramilitary troops (the shooting of a million Jews in Eastern Europe from 1939-42 was the preliminary stage of the Holocaust).
Shostakovich had always felt a close affiliation to Jewish culture, a bond evident in his music, most especially in the songs he wrote directly inspired by Jewish folk tunes and verse. It was a connection probably went beyond sympathy to something deeper: he empathized with their persecution.
But these were not feelings Shostakovich would reveal in the public form of a symphony, or opera (after Lady Macbeth, he never wrote another opera).
They would be couched in the privacy of chamber music, like the trio and of course the string quartet.
Shostakovich Quartet, 2nd movement
As we look back through time, we see Shostakovich connected to so many points of history. The post-revolutionary Modernist freedom of the 20’s, the paranoia of the 30’s and the Great Terror, the defender of the Russian Motherland at Lenningrad, and those question marks about the Jewish holocaust.
The music – with for example the repeated Jewish theme from 1944 – forces us to do this. We are, through the reference, already thinking of the quartet through a historical lens.
And yet at the same time, other coded themes – the DSCH motif – force us to look in another direction: at the man himself.
One acquaintance described Shostakovich him as “the shyest and most nervous human being I have ever seen.” Underneath this nervous energy lay a huge reservoir of compassion and empathy. Shostakovich felt intensely for the suffering of others, and drew from that reservoir for much of his work.
It was a large reservoir.
The years of 1914-1945 bear witness to what can only be described as the most intense period of man-made suffering our species’ history. Two World Wars costing millions of lives, book-ending the Russian Revolution, the Great Terror of Stalin’s purges, and genocidal tragedy in the Ukraine. Nazi invasion and brutal occupation of Eastern Europe only added to the misery. Millions would be shot, burnt, or gassed.
That was Shostakovich’s world, aged eight to thirty-nine.
Shostakovitch dedicated his 1960 string quartet to “the victims of Fascism and War”.
The question remains: which victims?
- Here is that act finale to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
- Here is that climax to the seventh symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.