At the height of the Cold War, it was fashionable among Western critics to denigrate Shostakovich. He was, they claimed, a banal and morally weak composer who had been forced to sacrifice his creative individuality in order to survive the oppressive demands of the Soviet system. Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about Shostakovich’s music is its striking individuality. As a spokesman for the oppressed Soviet people, Shostakovich forged a unique musical language drawing heavily upon images of brutal irony, hysterical anger, bitter introspection and mock optimism. It was an idiom that was capable of subtle innuendo, yet its raw materials are derived from familiar models.

The 19th-century Russian tradition is paramount, for Shostakovich’s style appears to combine the neurotic pathos of Tchaikovsky with the harsh realism of Musorgsky. More contemporary influences also prevailed – the austerity of Stravinsky, the sardonic wit of Prokofiev, and the frenzied expressionism of Berg especially spring to mind. The link with Mahler is crucial. Both composers conceived of the symphony as an epic form ‘representing the whole world’. Both composers were fond of juxtaposing passages of banality and profundity to disturbing effect.

Arguably it’s this Mahlerian juxtaposition of opposites that lies at the very heart of Shostakovich’s world. Everything about the composer seems to be cloaked in ambiguity. Duality is of the essence. It’s already there in the First Symphony (1925), regarded by many as the most assured symphony ever written by a 19 year-old. Indeed, the astonishing maturity of this work immediately brought Shostakovich into the spotlight. He was touted abroad as the Soviet Union’s most promising composing talent and his work was taken up by such eminent conductors as Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini.

But at home the composer suffered something of a crisis as he struggled to fulfill his potential. Against the cultural background of the 1920s, which in the Soviet Union appeared to encourage a liaison between revolutionary politics and the Western avant-garde, Shostakovich threw in his lot with the modernists. It was a period of experiment from which sprang several provocative works, including the satirical opera The Nose, inspired by Gogol, the incidental music to Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug, the comedy revue Allegedly Murdered and a full-length film score, New Babylon.

Although Shostakovich was exploiting his talents as a caricaturist, the introspective lyricism explored in the latter half of the First Symphony increasingly came to the fore. It appeared most powerfully in the desolate slow movement of the 1934 Cello Sonata. Yet the real turning-point was his second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, composed during the same year. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 19th-century story of the passion and murderous brutality of the wife of a provincial merchant, the opera coalesces the two contrasting sides of Shostakovich’s musical personality to produce a theatre work of compelling intensity.

Initially hailed in his native country as the first truly Soviet opera, Lady Macbeth was acclaimed abroad, where it received highly successful performances in the USA and in Europe. But the tide soon turned against Shostakovich. Stalin was the root cause. Under his leadership, the Soviet regime rejected its former tolerance of modernism and the right to freedom of expression. The new doctrine of Socialist Realism was being formulated, requiring Soviet music to express ‘the victorious progressive principles of reality in images that are heroic, bright and beautiful’.

Lady Macbeth with its strident musical idiom, its scenes of sex and violence, and grotesque caricatures of officialdom, hardly squared with such ideals. The crunch came after Stalin heard the opera in January 1936 and walked out before the final act. A couple of days later, an article appeared in Pravda lambasting the work as ‘chaos instead of music’ and a ‘pornographic insult to the Soviet people’. Shostakovich was warned that unless he changed his ways ‘things could end very badly’ for him.

For a year Shostakovich remained persona non grata. Never again would he dare to complete an opera. But the crisis also forced him to rethink his whole creative outlook. It was a question of survival without compromising his integrity. The Fifth Symphony, subtitled a ‘Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’, was his response. First performed at a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, it was a triumphant success, satisfying the authorities with its simpler musical language. Yet the audience at the first performance interpreted the symphony very differently. ‘They understood its message of sorrow, suffering and isolation,’ commented his closed friend Mstislav Rostropovich.

This message of sorrow, suffering and isolation pervades the later symphonies – the wartime Leningrad (No. 7), according to the composer, a requiem for the city that ‘Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished’, the impudent Ninth, which cocked a snook at Stalin’s desired victory symphony, and the Tenth, whose demonic scherzo is reputedly a musical portrait of the Soviet dictator. The same issues are distilled, though in a more intimate manner, in the cycle of 15 string quartets which Shostakovich began writing after the Fifth Symphony.

The sombre First Violin Concerto and the Fourth and Fifth Quartets, composed during this period, were consigned to the bottom drawer until the death of Stalin removed obstacles to their performance. With the change of leadership, a more tolerant artistic climate seemed to prevail. To the outside world, Shostakovich appeared to have settled his differences with a regime that lavished him with his state prizes. Yet in reality he never deviated from composing music of protest.

Erik Levi