“Rehearsal did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead. Orchestra not working.”
Thus read the log records for the Leningrad Radio Orchestra in 1941, as German forces held the starving city under siege. The following summer, when rehearsals began on Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, only fifteen musicians showed up. An oboist took her instrument to be repaired; the repairman requested payment not of money, but of a cat to eat.
The remarkable story behind the premiere of the Leningrad Symphony is chronicled in Jason Caffrey’s BBC article, “Shostakovich’s symphony played by a starving orchestra.” Caffrey concludes by quoting Soviet-born conductor Semyon Bychkov:
In the end [the Seventh Symphony] was composed for humanity. And the best proof is that today we still need it, we are still listening to it.
Here in the U.S., our relationship with Shostakovich is often one of reverence. Our program notes position him in brave defiance against Soviet censorship. Writing about the composer’s Symphony No. 10 for the San Francisco Symphony, James M. Keller observes that the 1945 Ninth Symphony was denounced for insufficiently capturing the glory of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany; and that, in 1948, Shostakovich was accused of “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.”
My music history classes and multiloquent maestros all told the same story: Shostakovich was anti-Stalin, anti-censorship, anti-regime. His music was criticized and persecuted. He lived in fear and paranoia; following State-sanctioned criticism of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he carried around a small, packed suitcase, expecting to be deported to Siberia at any moment.
The truth, of course, was more complicated. When his music managed to capture Stalin’s favor, Shostakovich held a privileged position as a symbol of national pride. In 1949, he served as a Soviet cultural delegate at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York City – his first appearance in the U.S. – delivering a speech about Soviet musical ideology, though likely not authored by him, in an appearance described by Musical America as “[representing] utter debasement of artistic freedom.” Even his Leningrad Symphony, hailed today as an anthem of resistance and resilience, would not have been possible without an order from Soviet authorities requiring any musicians on the battle lines to report for rehearsal between military assignments.
Which isn’t to undermine the legitimate and well-documented opposition he faced to free expression, nor to paint him as a complicit propagandist. Rather, his life and his role in musical and political history remain deeply complex. As Alex Ross writes in a 2004 article for The New Yorker, the composer’s life has been subjected to “nonsensically polarized arguments over whether Shostakovich was a Party ideologue or an anti-Communist dissident.”
Ross’ article, titled “Unauthorized,” describes the mystifying origins of the composer’s purported memoir, Testimony, now widely debunked as a hoax perpetrated by musicologist Solomon Volkov. The dubious manuscript, published four years after the composer’s death, alternates between quotidian accounts, criticism, conversation, and anti-Stalin rants. A 1979 book review appearing in the Washington Post opens with a harrowing quote from the memoir’s pages:
It didn’t matter how the audience reacted to your work or if the critics liked it. All that had no meaning in the final analysis. There was only one question of life or death: How did the leader like your opus. I stress: life or death, because we are talking about life or death here, literally, not figuratively. That’s what you must understand.
With the memoir’s authenticity in question, we don’t know whether these words were ever spoken by Shostakovich. Most likely, they were fabricated by Volkov, perhaps based on out-of-context or paraphrased snippets of actual correspondence with the composer. Another theory holds that the memoir was ghost-written by Lev Lebedinsky, a musicologist and confidant of the composer, whose writings often positioned Shostakovich’s works as secret subversions against the regime.
“I stress: life or death.” Regardless of the origins of these words, we do know that artists in the Soviet Union faced daily threat of danger. Ross gives the example of Abram Lezhnev, a literary critic outspoken against the State newspaper Pravda’s Nazi-like tactics. Two check marks appear next to Lezhnev’s name on an intelligence report ordered by Stalin to monitor Soviet cultural figures; Lezhnev was shot and killed in 1938.
“We are talking about life or death here, literally, not figuratively.”
2,975 people in Puerto Rico have died as a result of Hurricane Maria and the grossly mismanaged federal disaster response that followed.
4,000 people have died, uninsured, due to the administration’s war on the Affordable Care Act.
166 people have died in acts of mass gun violence since January 20, 2017.
15 people have died in immigration detention facilities due to inadequate medical care.
Our program notes may persist in describing Shostakovich’s world as a distant and bygone authoritarian dystopia far removed from the world we inhabit today – safely, comfortably – listening to bombastic Soviet symphonies from the shelter our parterre seats. But in reality, our government consistently undermines the press and distorts the truth, praises dictators and condemns free expression, disenfranchises thousands of citizens and threatens critics and political opponents.
Life or death. Literally, not figuratively. Maybe Shostakovich spoke those words; maybe not. But if we as an artistic community wish to honor his memory and continue touting his activism in our textbooks and our concert halls, the very least we can do is exercise a right he never got to experience.
Head to www.vote.org to find out everything you need to know, and check out Vote411 for nonpartisan resources about your local candidates and ballot measures. If you’re into social media, consider downloading and sharing the graphic below, to remind your music-minded friends that Shostakovich wants YOU to vote.
It is, quite literally, a matter of life or death.