The politics of Dmitri Shostakovich
We take each of Shostakovich's symphonies one by one, exploring how the composer's politics influenced his music
It’s hard to think of a composer whose work was so inextricably bound up with national politics over such an extended period as Shostakovich. While his quartets became a private diary, his more public symphonies were more vulnerable to attack. While he avoided being a ‘court’ composer, like Kabalevsky, and was protected in some measure by his international celebrity, Shostakovich’s work was under continual political scrutiny.
The First Symphony launched him as a modernist star of the new Soviet state, during that period of explosive creativity before the cultural freeze set in.
Symphonies Nos 2 and 3 were the experimental works required for propaganda purposes in the late 1920s, when he was more interested in working on his comic opera The Nose, his first piece to draw accusations of ‘formalism’, meaning anything that that smacked of ‘bourgeois’ Western modernism. Pravda’s ‘muddle instead of music’ verdict on Lady Macbeth was used as a warning to all artists, and Shostakovich eventually withdrew his challenging Fourth Symphony.
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Symphony No. 5 restored his position in appearing to conform to ‘Soviet realism’ in its structural and textural clarity, but the ambivalence and eccentricity of his Sixth again roused suspicion. The ‘Leningrad’ Symphony proved an electrifying propaganda tool for Stalin’s wartime government, but the composer found himself unable to deliver the required triumphalism in his Eighth and Ninth symphonies: 14 million Russians lost their lives at the hands of the State before the War, and five million immediately after.
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In 1946 Stalin gave Shostakovich a country retreat and a Moscow flat. But in the wake of the satirical Symphony No. 9, Zhdanov’s 1948 Anti-Formalism Decree set off more purges. Shostakovich was again denounced, his income cut off and he was forced to write propaganda scores. The Tenth may feel like a work of liberation, but he had no illusions about the post-Stalin government.
The Eleventh and Twelfth ostensibly celebrate the two great revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but in fact mourn the death of a revolutionary dream – a dream Shostakovich, grandson of a revolutionary, grew up believing in – and interrogate its events with cinematic intensity. They restored him to favour and, in 1960, under Krushchev, he became a member of the Communist Party in order to take up the position of secretary of the Composer’s Union. Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’ was his last great work of subversion, a protest not just against the Nazis, but Russia’s continued anti-Semitism.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.