Seeking Shostakovich: Between Symphonies

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian 1945

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian 1945

The Ninth Symphony, which premiered in 1945,  was the last Shostakovich would write until after Stalin died. On that day, March 5, 1953, Shostakovich stood with a small group of mourners for another who died the same day: Sergei Prokofiev.

I think of this often when I think of the fate of music during the Stalin years—of the magnitude of what was lost. Prokofiev didn’t live to see the first complete performance of his opera War and Peace, for which he’d tried to get approval for years. Shostakovich had completed two operas long before the war. No more were to come. And along with his Fourth Symphony, countless others of Shostakovich’s compositions were consigned “to the drawer” and not heard publicly for years.

The war on its own offered privation in good measure. Theater director Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov recalled:

I remember how [Shostakovich] came begging for jam. There were tremendous food shortages, and he had his family and two children to feed. He hung around for several days with his empty can as he didn’t have the nerve to ask for anything himself . . . . Prokofiev had to sell foreign clothes in the Alma-Alta market in order to buy food. He was apparently quite good at it. [Wilson 211]

Yet for these two and other composers, the war years are often referred to as a respite, and in some sense they were. During the war years, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony “rehabilitated” him in the eyes of the authorities and garnered him a First Class Stalin Prize. Prokofiev received a First Class Stalin Prize for his Fifth Symphony and Eighth Piano Sonata, among other works. [Morrison 295]

After the war, riding on the crest of victory, Stalin turned his attention back to repressive dominion over the arts. [Fay 2164-2171] His appointed henchman, Andrei Zhdanov, focused first on writers and poets. In 1946, the Central Committee of the Communist Party censured writer Mikhail Zoshchenko and poet Anna Akhmatova and expelled both from the USSR Writers’ Union. [Fay 2171-2177]

The Central Committee subsequently turned its sights to music, and, on February 10, 1948, issued its “Historic Decree.” Drafts of the resolution listed specific works, including Shostakovich’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, and even Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata, despite its Stalin Prize. [Fay 2282].  The final version of the decree cut an even broader swath:

The problem is one of composers who are adherents of a formalistic, anti-people direction. This direction has found its fullest expression in the works of such composers as comrades D. Shostakovich, S. Prokofiev, A. Khachaturyan . . . and others, whose works show particularly clear manifestations of formalistic distortions and antidemocratic tendencies in music that are alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes. [Fay 2289]

Almost all of Shostakovich’s works were banned (the First, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies escaped), and the practical effect on performances was worse: many concert halls and musicians would not perform any works by banned composers. [Fay 2357] Shostakovich was dismissed from his positions in the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories, and “[h]is ten-year-old son was made to vilify his father during a music school exam.” [Fay 2357] Without a livelihood, “There was no money. Fenya, the family’s housekeeper, and her niece spent their own savings to feed them.” [Fay 6739]

But Shostakovich kept on composing. In 1947, he had begun work on his first violin concerto. He completed it after the decree came down, though it did not receive its first performance until 1955. Composer Mikhail Meyerovich recalled:

When the concerto was finished he played it on the piano for me and some other composers. I asked him, “At which point were you exactly in the score when the Decree was published?” He showed me the exact spot. The violin played semiquavers before and after it. There was no change evident in the music. [Wilson 220]

Lest this seem apocryphal, according to Isaak Glikman’s notes of conversations with Shostakovich at the time, Shostakovich told him:

In the evenings, when those disgusting, shameful debates [at the sessions] were over for the day, I would come home and work on the third movement of the violin concerto. I finished it and I think it turned out well. [Glikman 245, n. 17]

Film music was Shostakovich’s primary means of income during those years. [Fay 2445-2451] While Stalin partially lifted the ban on “formalist” composers in 1949, it was, needless to say, for his own purposes, including trotting out Shostakovich as an emissary of the Soviet State abroad. [Fay 2466-2473]

Composer Yuri Abramovich Levitin said of Shostakovich at the time, “We have often heard talk of the incredible force of Shostakovich’s spirit, of his great willpower. This was indeed so, but who knows what it cost him . . .” [Wilson 243] Yet rebound Shostakovich did, and he told Levitin “with habitual irony,” [Wilson 243]

I have decided to start working again, so as not to lose my qualifications as a composer. I am going to write a prelude and a fugue every day. I shall take into consideration the experience of Johann Sebastian Bach. [Wilson 243]

I’ll never forget my own discovery of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, from pianist Jenny Lin’s CD. It was and is a pleasure to listen in on Shostakovich’s elegant, intelligent conversation with Bach’s own Preludes and Fugues.

But the work ran into trouble. On its first presentation at the Union of Composers, it was roundly criticized by all but a few. Composer Dmitri Kabalevsky told Shostakovich point blank that “This work is based on a grave miscalculation. It could not have served you, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, for instance as a preparation for The Song of the Forests.” [Wilson 286]

As Shostakovich tersely described it to Glikman, The Song of the Forests (completed and first performed in 1949) was “an oratorio about forests, to words by the talented poet Dolmatovsky.” [Glikman 37] One can almost hear the deadpan sarcasm in the printed words. Elizabeth Wilson described the work as “an oratorio celebrating Stalin as ‘the great gardener’ for his grandiose plans to transform the steppe into forestland,” and Yevgeniy Aronovich Dolmatovsky as “an officially approved poet of limited talent.” [Wilson 277] On its premiere,

According to Galina Ustvolskaya, who accompanied him, after the performance Shostakovich returned to his room at the Hotel Europe and began to sob, burying his head in a pillow. He sought consolation in vodka. [Fay 2514-2521]

Other Shostakovich works deemed acceptable for public consumption included:

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (completed and first performed in 1951)

Ten Russian Folksongs (completed and first performed in 1951)

The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland, texts by Dolmatovsky (completed and first performed in 1952)

The titles alone tell the tale.

During the same period, in addition to Violin Concerto No. 1 and 24 Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich also composed the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry (completed 1948; first performed in 1955) and three string quartets:

String Quartet No. 3 (completed and first performed in 1946)

String Quartet No. 4 (completed 1949; first performed in 1953)

String Quartet No. 5 (completed 1952; first performed in 1953)

Each of these works is considered significant in Shostakovich’s oeuvre, and his string quartets are regarded by many as masterpieces in the genre, along with those by Beethoven and Béla Bartók. Only two of these works, however, received public performances during Stalin’s lifetime: String Quartet No. 3, which premiered two years before the 1948 decree, and, with support from pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, the 24 Preludes and Fugues, in 1952. [Fay 2586-2593; Wilson 292]

In 1950, The Song of the Forests received a First Class Stalin Prize. [Fay 2528]

Shostakovich at the Bach Festival in Leipzig, 1950

Shostakovich at the Bach Festival in Leipzig, 1950


Postscript: Some say that, as early as 1948 [Fay 2387, 5107; Wilson 337], Shostakovich also began work on the satirical Antiformalist Rayok. More likely, he began writing the work after Stalin’s death, but it certainly lampooned his experience of those dark years. “The Rayok,” according to Elizabeth Wilson,

 was a popular entertainment at travelling fairs, where a booth housing a box which has specially made peepholes allowing viewing of a series of pictures turned on a revolving drum. The booth was manned by a ‘Rayoshnik’ whose running commentary was made in doggerel verse, using many invented and ridiculous diminutives. [Wilson 336]

By most accounts, Shostakovich wrote his own libretto [Fay 2386; Wilson 339], including this excerpt, sung by “Troikin” (Musicologist No. 3):

Comrades, we must be like classics! . . . .

Therefore comrades, we need symphonies, poems, quartets, sonatas, suites, quintets. Suites, suite-lets, my lovely little sonatas.

Merry-o little quartet-lets, my little lovely cantatas.

Hey, Glinka, berlinka, kalinka, malinka, poem, suite, symphony seem so funny!

Hey, Glinka, Zerjinka, Tishinka, stink it, poem-let, or suite-let stinking cute.

The score for Rayok surfaced in 1989, long after Shostakovich’s death. Mstislav Rostropovich conducted the premiere in Washington, DC. [Wilson 336; Fay 2387, 5017]

Anti-Formalist Rayok Score Cover

Anti-Formalist Rayok Score Cover

Listening List

On Spotify:

Instrumental works

Vocal works

On YouTube:

Jenny Lin, Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue No. 2

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 3

The Song of the Forests, Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3 here;  Part 3 of 3 here.

Anti-Formalist Rayok

Click here for a translation of the libretto, together with the original Russian. (The translation is quite different from the one quoted in the post.)

Nikolayeva Talks About Shostakovich and the 24 Preludes and Fugues (contains terrific footage of Shostakovich)

At the end (about 12:05), Nikolayeva tells a story in which conductor Kurt Sanderling said to her of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, “It’s an intimate diary of Shostakovich, kept for himself, that brings happiness to all of us.”


Credits: Quotations are from the sources linked in the post (where a source is used more than once, the link appears with the first quoted material). For Fay and Morrison, the numbers given are Kindle locations; for the remainder of the sources, the numbers given are the page of the book. The photograph of Shostakovich with Prokofiev and Khachaturian (also banned under the 1948 decree) may be found here. The photograph of Shostakovich at the Bach Festival may be found here. (The linked site is also an excellent reference point for Shostakovich’s string quartets.) The image of the Anti-Formalist Rayok score cover may be found here.

10 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich: Between Symphonies

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    Not only continuing to work under such discouraging conditions, but to press on with the determined brilliance he did, his decision to write a prelude and a fugue every day so as not to “lose [his] qualifications as a composer” – this is deeply inspiring to me. I’m reminded of Beckett’s writing during the hard years of exile and hiding. It’s the kind of example that can buoy one’s spirit. Have marked the preludes and fugues for further listening. Thanks Sue.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I do hope you enjoy them. I’d love to share the gift of them with you. They show off such a different side of Shostakovich, too. As for the “every day,” your own poem-a-day project is another inspiring example.

  2. David N

    “Only work is our refuge” – I can’t remember who said that. But another aspect of the survival was the support of fellow musicians, both in their insistence on performing works that were disapproved of by the authorities, and in trying to bring material support. What a breath of fresh air the young Rostropovich must have been to Shostakovich during those times…and then there were Gilels, Richter, Oistrakh, Yudina…

    Sheer professionalism carries the day, too: I think The Song of the Forests isn’t a bad piece (and its heart is in the right place, though as with Prokofiev’s On Guard for Peace, the cynicism of the leader in promoting such issues is breathtaking).

    Looking forward to ‘the liberation’ with the Tenth Symphony in your next instalment…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: An important point to make, about support from fellow musicians. I’m glad you noted that. A lot of bravery shown among there, too. As for The Song of the Forests: agreed on the professionalism. My response to it was that it was well done, but generic. The Shostakovich I love to listen to isn’t present for me there. (As for the Tenth, be careful what you wish for! It is in process and likely to be the last for a while.)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: Ha! And many might echo you, only substituting “want” for “need.” The Tenth will be the last for me for quite a while (writing, not listening). After all, spring is surely about to come here. Surely . . . Tomorrow, very excited to be going up to Bard for an opera double-bill of Britten and a great young composer, Shawn Jaeger. Really looking forward to that!

  3. Steve Schwartzman

    It’s great to listen to those Preludes and Fugues: a new piece comes my way. Whatever strangeness Bach would most likely have found in much of the rest of Shostakovich’s works, I think he would have felt largely at home here.

    That first photograph of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian, caught my attention because one of the things I learned from Robert Greenberg’s DVD course on Shostakovich was that all three of those composers ran afoul of Stalin’s insane dictates. I was particularly surprised that Khachaturian was included because the few works of his I’ve heard all strike me as rather traditional and fairly melodic, nothing for Big Brother to get paranoid about.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I really enjoyed discovering the Preludes and Fugues, and I love the thought of sharing that enjoyment with you–along with Bach! As for Khachaturian, it is surprising, isn’t it? At least until you think how extraordinarily arbitrary Stalin also was in wielding his power.

  4. Guest

    The problems posed by a Stalinist aesthetic are more stubborn and enduring than simply being the whims of an unpredictable dictator. As Zizek pointed out, it remains ironic and telling that Shostakovich’s most popular symphony to this day, the 5th, is the one that fulfilled the diktats of socialist realism despite all attempts by latter scholars to explicate from it a hidden, parallel narrative. More broadly, the Stalinist critiques of Shostakovich’s music in 1936 and 1948 were very purposeful: one presaging the great terror and the other the cold war. Music criticism was a tool of state policy, and the ferociously intelligent Shostakovich intuitively understood that as others (Prokofiev, Khachaturian) may not have. Persecuted? Not quite. I would say that, especially in 1948, he was “signaled” of the State’s intent or, as in a Stalinist mode of expression, he was sent out to “chill” (and brought back from the cold fairly quickly afterwards). None of the composers truly lost their livelihoods (or their lives). By comparison, Shostakovich’s friend and theater genius, Vsevolod Meyerholt, was shot (in 1940).

    Where does that leave our composer? I believe his impulses were both modernist and humanist, and both of these strains, with touches of his vaudevillian youth and some Haydenesque influences, are apparent in the 9th. I find it closer in spirit to his 1st, 4th and 15th, works that are more reflective of a unbowed and unrestrained Shostakovian spirit.

  5. Susan Scheid Post author

    Guest: Your thoughtful, not to mention thought-provoking, observations remind me once again of my personal motto that the more I learn, the less I know. Zizek’s comment resonates: I’d had the thought myself about that irony, though as with many thoughts of mine, I wasn’t sure where to “put” it, so I let it drift off. (Of Zizek’s observations on the search for hidden meanings, in the case of the 5th, I was persuaded by the Pushkin quote as a basis for interpreting the finale–though it doesn’t change for me what my ears hear, which is that the finale falls flat.) On your distinction between persecution and signaling, while it does seem to me Shostakovich and other composers suffered significantly at the hands of the regime (I think of Shostakovich’s remark, “I envy him” on learning of the murder of the actor Solomon Mikhoels in 1948), I certainly recognize your point. Your final observation is also striking, and your inclusion of the 9th in the company of the 1st, 4th, and 15th makes sense.

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