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A Critical Defense of Socialist Realism - David Pearson

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A Critical Defense of Socialist Realism:

Shostakovich's 5th Symphony versus the

Shoddy Scholarship of Anti-Communist Re-Interpretation

David Pearson

December, 2009


The dominant narrative on Shostakovich, found in CD liner notes, concert programs, and even in scholarly articles is of a closeted dissident whose music is full of coded anti-communist messages. Shostakovich‟s Symphony no. 5 op. 47 in particular is still generally considered to be a work the composer was forced to write by the Soviet government against his creative desires, and moreover as being a veiled protest against and ridicule of that government. These popular misconceptions stem from Volkov‟s Testimony, a book shown to be a fraud (with the beginning of each of its chapters virtually identical to writings previously published by Shostakovich)1, yet whose arguments are still repeated even in academic circles. The truth about Shostakovich and his Fifth Symphony is far from these misconceptions. Shostakovich was a musician with tremendous artistic integrity, a sincere if critical commitment to the ideals of the Russian Revolution, and a desire to create music that served and interacted with his audience. Shostakovich‟s Fifth Symphony was an important leap forward in the composer‟s artistic development, a synthesis of the style he had developed up to that point and would continue to elucidate for decades, and a work in line with the socialist realist aesthetic promoted in the Soviet Union of the 1930‟s.

In order to understand the Fifth Symphony it is necessary to first briefly examine Shostakovich‟s musical development in the preceding years and the developing policy towards music in the Soviet Union. The 1920‟s was a period of tremendous musical exploration in the Soviet Union as composers experimented with modernism, sought to put the ideas of the Russian Revolution to music, and tried to connect their craft to a broad population that previously had little access to it. Along with this experimentation went a destructive and fanatical factionalism, most concentrated in the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians2. Shostakovich never allied himself with any faction, but explored different musical ideas, including those of modernist European composers, developing a style in the late 1920‟s that was "astringent, satirical, and highly dissonant"3. At the same time, Shostakovich explored more traditional classical forms, exemplified in his first three symphonies. Boris Schwarz and Laurel Fay sum up this period in Shostakovich‟s development as a "split focus: concern for tradition against

1See for example Laurel Fay, "Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?," Russian Review Vol. 39, No. 4 (October 1980): pp. 484-493.

2 Richard Taruskin, Defining Russia Musically (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 2000), pp. 512-513.

3 Boris Schwarz and Laurel Fay, "Dimitri Shostakovich," The New Grove Russian Masters 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), pp. 176.


challenge of it."4

Shostakovich was also influenced by the revolution and societal transformations around him. Born on September 25, 1906 (September 12 old style), Shostakovich grew up with several committed revolutionaries and radicals as close relatives, and in a household typical of progressive intellectuals in St. Petersburg at the time.5 The 1917 revolution and subsequent civil war took place during Shostakovich‟s youth, and its ideas and aspirations found their way into Shostakovich‟s second and third symphonies ("To October" and "The 1st of May") as well as other compositions.6 As an artist, Shostakovich saw his role as tied up with the socialist direction of his country and creating music that could connect with and serve the people. The composer told a New York Times reporter in 1931, "There can be no music without ideology ...We, as revolutionaries, have a different conception of music. Lenin himself said that „music is a means of unifying broad masses of people‟...For music has the power of stirring specific emotions...Music is no longer an end in itself, but a vital weapon in the struggle. Because of this, Soviet music will probably develop along different lines from any the world has ever known."7

Shostakovich‟s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, popular from 1934-36, concentrates much about the composer‟s development up to that point. In its intended content, Shostakovich was attempting to create an opera espousing Marxist philosophy and with an aesthetic based on socialist realism and a modernist influence. To this end Shostakovich made significant alterations to the story by Leskov on which the libretto is based. Katerina, the main character, is transformed into a woman oppressed by the patriarchy of Tsarist Russian society, and a sympathetic victim who resorts to murder as, in Shostakovich‟s words, "a protest against the tenor of the life she is forced to live, against the dark and suffocating atmosphere of the merchant class in the last century"8 Shostakovich explained that his own "role as a Soviet composer consists in approaching the story critically and in treating the subject from the Soviet point of view, while keeping the strength of Leskov‟s original tale."9 Musically, Shostakovich

4 Ibid., pp. 183-184.

5 Victor Ilyich Seroff, Dimitri Shostakovich: The Life and Background of a Soviet Composer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943), pp. 25-49.

6 Schwarz and Fay, "Dimitri Shostakovich," The New Grove Russian Masters 2, 176.

7 The New York Times, December 20, 1931, "Dimitri Szostakovitch" by Rose Lee, p. X8.

8 Quoted in Taruskin, 501.

9 Quoted in Seroff, 249.


describes making the opera "very simple and expressive,"10 using a melodic vocal line in opposition to "the theory, at one time popular with us, that modern opera should not have any sustained vocal line, and that the vocal parts are nothing more than conversation in which the intonation should be marked."11 In terms of form, Shostakovich explains that "the music progresses always on a symphonic plan"12 rather than consisting of separate numbers (arias and recitative). Lady Macbeth



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