Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 19, 2006

A Journey of Dmitri Shostakovich

Filed under: music,ussr — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Despite its obvious cold war inspiration, “A Journey of Dmitri Shostakovich,” directed by Okasana Dvornichenko and Helga Landauer, is an excellent introduction to the great composer’s life and career. Structured around a trip by ocean liner he made to the USA near the end of his life in 1973, it blends together performances of his work, excerpts from his letters and appalling evidence of how he was hounded by Stalin and his cultural commissars.

Oddly enough, despite the obvious intentions of the directors to cast the USSR as a kind of unredeemed failure, one of the greatest attractions of the film is its liberal use of Soviet era kitsch. Footage of men and women performing calisthenics under Stalin’s gaze, shipboard lectures on the glories of socialism, old agitprop posters, etc., are actually the perfect visual complement to Shostakovich’s music, which was not afraid to indulge in patriotic and socialist flag-waving. Indeed, this contradiction, which was at the heart of his creativity, is something that defies easy resolution. As much as the directors would like to recruit the great composer to a rerun of the cold war culture wars, he remains very much as part of the legacy of a unique experiment.

We learn that Shostakovich was very much a product of the USSR’s historical experience. As an 11 year old boy, he witnessed street fighting between revolutionary workers and Czarist cops. Only 15 years later, he would serve as a fire warden during the siege of Leningrad. He was always torn between writing music for the masses that depicted broad social struggles using straightforward harmonies and more experimental chamber works and opera that were heavily ironic and even nihilistic. When I was first exposed to Shostakovich’s music in the 1950s, I tended to dismiss the first kind of composition and rue the fact that he was prevented from devoting himself fully to the more modern works. My attitude was of course shaped by the prevailing prejudices of the time, which tended to equate artistic “difficulty” with political freedom and private property.

It is a credit to the directors, who despite receiving funding from the Boris Yeltsin fund, that they refrain from a one-sided portrayal of Shostakovich as a prototypical dissident. His relationship to Stalin was far more complex and paradoxical, mirroring in some ways the relationship that Bukharin had to Stalin which alternated between abject worship and open defiance.

In 1979, a posthumous “Testimony” by Shostakovich appeared in an edited form by Solomon Volkov, a Russian musicologist. Supposedly the composer dictated the book to him in a series of meetings from 1971 to 1974. The finished work was a typical anti-Soviet diatribe that belonged on the same bookshelf as Solzhenitsyn et al. This was a typical passage:

“The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. It happened to many of my friends. Where do you put the tombstones for Meyerhold or Tukhachevky? Only music can do that for them. I’m willing to write a composition for each of the victims, but that’s impossible, and that’s why I dedicate my music to them all.”

Eventually “Testimony” was revealed as something of a hoax by Laurel Fay, an American musicologist who discovered numerous flaws and inconsistencies in the work. You can find a complete account of the debate that raged between the supporters of Volkov and Fay on a website titled “Music Under Soviet Rule”. I personally have not followed this debate as closely as I probably should, but I tend to remain skeptical of the idea that the great composer was a secret dissident. Why would I hold that view? Simply because the works that were labeled simple propaganda are just too heart-felt to not be infused with a kind of belief in the power of socialism. If you go to the BBC Radio 3 archives, you can listen to Shostakovich’s 5th symphony online. This is the kind of work that has often been dismissed by Western critics as second-rate musical propaganda, especially considering its origins.

After Shostakovich came out with the opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk,” a more experimental work, he came under attack in Pravda. In a kind of apology, he subtitled the crowd-pleasing 5th symphony as “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” Whatever the circumstances of its origin, I agree with the composer’s assessment that “The idea behind my symphony is the making of a man. I saw him, with all his experience, at the centre of the work, which is lyrical from beginning to end. The Finale brings an optimistic solution to the tragic parts of the first movement.”

Video interview with co-director Helga Landauer.


  1. “My attitude was of course shaped by the prevailing prejudices of the time, which tended to equate artistic “difficulty” with political freedom and private property.”

    Political freedom I get, but private property? Would you care to offer a cite or two?

    I’ve heard most of the symphonies, but not the chamber music. I just had a listen to the 13th symphony for the first time in a while, the Babi Yar movement is still most impressive to me, despite the sneaky little bit that Yevtushenko snuck in no doubt to please the censors:

    Oh my Russian people, I know
    that at heart you are internationalists, but there are those with soiled hands who abused your good name. I know that my land is good.

    (translation from the liner notes)

    That may have let him get away with this:

    “Let the `International’ thunder out when the last anti-Semite on the earth has finally been buried.”

    (Well, they had better not sing it in Russia anytime soon 🙂

    I did see a performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk in the spring (sung in English translation), and I did not find it “difficult”, and I rather wonder what the Soviet critics were complaining about.

    Comment by Paul Lyon — November 20, 2006 @ 7:55 am

  2. Paul, it is hard for me to be exact on this but when I was a college freshman in 1961, we learned that liberal capitalism is the best seedbed for artistic freedom and creativity. We simply had no knowledge that under Soviet democracy in the 1920s, some of the century’s greatest art was being created. Of course, it is even doubly interesting that Shostakovich made such great art when the state was fucking him over all the time.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 20, 2006 @ 8:25 pm

  3. Together with the world’s leading symphony orchestras – the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, the Wiener Philharmoniker, the London Symphony and the Rotterdam Philharmonic – Valery Gergiev will embark on a mammoth world tour to mark one hundred years since the birth of Dmitry Shostakovich. The story appears at HULIQ at http://www.huliq.com/212/a-tribute-to-shostakovich

    Comment by Anatoli — November 28, 2006 @ 3:10 am

  4. How can I obtain a DVD of A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich?

    Comment by Philip Berquist — November 10, 2007 @ 11:48 pm

  5. The DVD of A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich will be released in Australia in 2008. For updates please refer to http://www.sharmillfilms.com.au

    Comment by Elly — February 18, 2008 @ 1:44 am

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