Shostakovich Crosses the Desert of Solitude

Shostakovich in the desert-1_edited-1
Bagh-e Miri. © Charles Thibo

Infinite sadness. Fear. Pending violence. I see a man. The man is alone and he walks through the desert. Glaring heat. Sharp rocks hurt is feet. Behind him – nothing. Ahead of him – the unknown. The man kneels down and prays silently. He rises up, stretches his arms towards the sky in a silent cry of pain.

February 1948. The Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party lashes out against a number of composers and condemns them as “formalistic” and “alien to Soviet art” after Andrey Zhdanov, a close collaborator of Stalin, had stated that Soviet music was in a deep crisis since “…under the banner of illusory innovation, [the incriminated type of music] conveys a rejection of the classical heritage, of national character in music, and of service to people in order to cater to purely individualistic experiences of a small clique of aesthetes.”

Dmitry Shostakovich was one of those who expressed individual ideas in his music and thus an enemy of the people, emphasizing individualism over the benefits of Stalin’s state of the masses. Shostakovich went through a rough time; he had to “confess” his “errors” in front of Zhdanov and promised to “accept critical instruction” and to promote “the widest possible development of criticism and self-criticism”.

The composer was a prudent man. Before World War II he had already provoked Stalin’s furor with his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk“. He did not want to disappear in a labor camp. At the same time he was an artist, and his creativity would not be limited by Zhdanov’s criteria. While he had to deal with criticism and self-criticism, he was working on his Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, op. 77. When he was done in March 1948, he asked the violinist David Oistrakh whether the violin parts were playable. They were. And then he locked the score up in a drawer. It would be performed for the first time in 1955, more than two years after Stalin’s death.

Listen to the third movement, the Passacaglia. A passacaglia denoted a slow walking dance in the Baroque era. A dance? The first bars after the dramatic fanfare bear more resemblance to a depressing funeral procession. The melodic line evolves into a meditation. On the recording by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff transforms it in silent prayers and long, desperate cries. It is one of the most moving piece of music I am aware of. It took me some time to discover its depth and the more I listen to it the more it shakes me.

The lyrical beginning of the first movement, labeled “Nocturne” by Shostakovich does not prepare the audience for what is to follow. It has the flavour of sweet memories of the past, the reminiscence of a time when peace, hope, optimism, energy dominated. Did Shostakovich ever experience such a time? I doubt it. He was born just before the revolution of 1907, he was a teenager when the Bolshevik Revolution brought St. Petersburg to the brim of civil war. He was an adult when Lenin died and Stalin came to power and proceeded with the first purges of “enemies of the people”.

Gradually the violin concerto grows more and more disturbing. What is a simple hint at the inhumanity of Staline’s regime towards the end of the “Nocturne” grows into an outburst of terror in the scherzo. The scherzo, a reflection of the schizophrenic, paranoid and violent nature of Soviet society, is brutal and full of dissonances that would have driven Zhdanov completely mad.

The concerto finds its climax in the desperate outcries and silent prayers in the passacaglia. Shostakovich wrote this movement in the evenings after his interviews with Zhdanov. The final movement was labeled “Burlesque” by the composer. Sure enough, it confers an element of comedy. The kind of comedy you watch unfolding in sheer horror. It’s feels like whistling in the darkness to suppress your fear, a fool’s tactic.

Shostakovich was no fool. He knew exactly what he was doing and calculated the effect of his music upon the audience. Zhdanov was perfectly right when he asserted that Shostakovich indulged in individualistic aesthetics. That is an artist’s prerogative, no, it is duty. The concerto is an exceptional piece of music and for me one of the most impressive compositions that Shostakovich wrote. It was an adequate illustration of the year 1948. It is an adequate illustration of the year 2018.

© Charles Thibo

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