Unruliness and classical music don’t seem natural companions. Musicians in dinner jackets playing to hushed concert halls hardly evoke political struggle. In Soviet Russia, however, the genre became a dangerous battleground between the state and the artist. One of the great orchestral works of the twentieth century was a direct product of this aesthetic war – Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. If you don’t know it, try listening while you read.
The piece was written in 1936/7 against a backdrop of brutal political repression. Stalin’s purges were tearing through the population in an indiscriminate search for political enemies. Artists of every sort lived and created their work in this climate of terror. The Soviet state fully understood the potential of literature, art, theatre and music to either bolster or destabilise the regime. As the poet Osip Mandelstam, himself a victim of the purges, famously put it: ‘Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?’
Shostakovich might well have claimed the same dubious honour for classical music. Stalin himself attended the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in January 1936, and was deeply displeased with what he heard, leaving in disgust after the third act. Reportedly ‘white as a sheet’ when he took his curtain call, Shostakovich understood the extreme danger of his position. A Party newspaper editorial ‘Muddle instead of music’ quickly condemned the piece for its ‘deliberate dissonance’, so far from the ‘simple and popular musical language accessible to all’ demanded by the Soviet vision of the arts.
Shostakovich’s only chance for redemption was his forthcoming Fifth Symphony. He retired from public life in disgrace to write it, the threat of torture, imprisonment or execution hanging over the creative process. The piece eventually premiered in 1937. It was acclaimed as the height of Socialist art, establishing Shostakovich as the Soviet composer par excellence. It is full of the elements the authorities wanted: clear, rousing tunes, swelling string melodies and bold military marches. And yet, the music manages to be so much more.
You can hear the brutality of the regime’s oppression. You can hear the tension of waiting for the secret police’s knock in the middle of the night. You can hear the ever-present threat of the informer. In a situation of the most intense oppression and scrutiny, Shostakovich used his music as resistance, even as it was held up as a symbol of the regime. He commented later, after the death of Stalin, that ‘it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…you have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.’
Music like the Fifth Symphony offers us an opportunity to explore hidden transcripts of the past, to inhabit the mask for a fleeting moment. The resistance is literally transcribed on the page for us to interpret. Perhaps this is a different way to understand the experience of the oppressed. Veena Das explores the impossibility of articulating suffering; the way in which words inevitably exclude some part of the trauma. In some circumstances, music can give voice to resistance and suffering when no other mode of expression is possible. I sincerely hope that Shostakovich found solace in his symphony along with the suffering.
Das, Veena (1996) Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India, Delhi, Oxford University Press
Pravda editorial (1936) Muddle Instead of Music accessed from http://www.arnoldschalks.nl/tlte1sub1.html
Scott, James (1992) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, London, Yale University Press
Volkov, Solomon (2005) Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, London, Faber