Buried within the eighty years of international struggle that defined the Cold War with the Soviet Union is a little known, much smaller domestic struggle between Joseph Stalin and Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The world was fortunate to have survived the international struggle, and Shostakovich was fortunate to have survived Stalin.
Born in 1906 in St. Petersburg eleven years before the Bolshevik Revolution, Shostakovich quickly emerged as a musical prodigy in piano and composition. In 1913 the Petrograd Conservatory, by then under the control of the new Soviet government, allowed him to enter its prestigious music program when he was only thirteen, where he easily mastered the course of study. But as prologue to the coming conflict with Stalin, he was identified by state observers for his perceived lack of political zeal, and to make matters worse, he failed his initial exam in Marxist methodology.
That was a big problem. The Soviet Union had no compunction about coercing artists to create works that served the purposes of the state. Many, perhaps most, composers during that era caved in to this pressure and eliminated all themes and motifs the state might consider bourgeois.
Shostakovich, however, was openly disdainful of Stalin’s interference. Still a young composer, he was already well known in music circles for finding melodies, harmonies and rhythms whose sarcasm and ridicule were unmistakable but which escaped notice by Stalin’s “critics”. He was on thin ice and knew it, but persisted anyway.
On the way to premiere his Sonata for Cello and Piano, the piece Diego Miralles and Yana Reznik will perform durng the second half tomorrow night, Shostakovich reportedly read Stalin’s statement in Pravda attacking his music as “bourgeois.” Shostakovich fumed, but not long after this his strongest supporter in the Soviet government was executed and Shostakovich dialed back his rebelliousness a bit.
The Cello Sonata did not raise the ire of the state, though it easily could have. It opens with an energetically lyrical theme that quiets into a nostalgic, longing second theme. These two themes evolve side by side through throughout the first movement until they give way at the end to surrender and resignation.
In the short and fast second movement, Shostakovich skewers the Soviet government with a theme that would be festive if it weren’t for the sarcastically undanceable rhythm and a melody that could be joyous but instead is ripe with scorn.
Some of the most beautiful melodies in all of music have come from melancholy, and the Cello Sonata’s third movement is no exception. Like a soliloquy, it opens with a whispered appeal from cello that is both profound and questioning, then arcs through a beautiful, slow middle section to a conclusion that can barely endure the world it is describing.
The last movement is comically rude, full of mischief and devil-may-care bombast. The momentum builds and builds, then comes to an abrupt and unceremonious end. Shostakovich abhorred the pompous buffonery of the Soviet state and satirized it wonderfully in this movement.
After the execution of his patron and for the rest of Stalin’s reign, Shostakovich played more or less by the Politburo’s rules. Nevertheless, he continually found clever ways to taunt and jab the Soviet regime without landing himself in prison, or worse. When Stalin demanded that Shostakovich submit all his operas and ballets for state approval, Shostakovich simply ceased writing operas and ballets and wrote in other forms.
Later in life, defiant to the end, Shostakovich commented on his long and dangerous relationship with Joseph Stalin: “Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a …….] knew that.”
(Shostakovich Tweaks Stalin’s Mustache was written by Bill Haxton as a companion piece for Diego Miralles’ performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s marvelous parody, Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor.)