Review: Shostakovich Socialism, Stalin & Symphonies by Simon Behrman Bookmarks /Redwords by Laurence Humphries

10/04/2013 by socialistfight

Behrman has written a fairly useful commentary on Dmitri Shostakovich the most influential Soviet composer from 1925-1972 and his relationship with Stalinism and the cultural theory referred to as ‘Social Realism’. Behrman, who supports the ‘State Capitalist’ theory advanced by the Socialist Workers Party, shows some weaknesses in his analysis of Shostakovich.

His negative approach is revealed in the introduction when he writes off the Soviet working class. “It was the creation of a revolution led and supported by ordinary people yet within 20 years it had become one of the twentieth centuries bloodiest dictatorships” [1].

Dmitry Shostakovich {1906-1975} was the foremost soviet composer and musical giant of the twentieth century. He epitomised the revolutionary period after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Behrman recognises this fact. “No other Soviet artist was the whole history of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Stalinist counter revolution” [2]. Shostakovich,  unlike some other Soviet composers, remained lived and worked in the Soviet Union during his lifetime. He used his music to combat and answer Stalinism and its formal attitude to music. During this period there were fresh developments in all of the arts, innovations which Shostakovich accepted and tried new forms frequently.

Behrman tries to separate Shostakovich’s music from the political developments that took place in Soviet Russia. Robert Stradling in his essay ‘Shostakovich and the Soviet System 1925-1975,’ points out the fundamental connection and importance of Shostakovich’s music with the politics of the day. “The list reads like a syllabus for a course in modern political and social problems: war, revolutionary change, individual freedom, anti-Semitism, the role of women in society, dictatorship and disillusionment” [3].

Dmitry Shostakovich was born in 1906 in Leningrad. He showed incredible talent and had a musical background, his mother an accomplished pianist taught him to play the piano when he was only nine. Behrman comments “and by the age of just 16 he was already producing works of extraordinary quality” [4].

Shostakovich’s symphonic music fitted in with the revolutionary situation in Russia. “Shostakovich’s life and music were shared by the historic events of 1917” [5]. His first symphony composed in 1925 while he was still a student at the Leningrad Conservatoire shows Shostakovich’s breadth celebrating the Bolshevik Revolution. Shostakovich was to compose 15 symphonies, concertos, chamber music, ballet scores, operas and film music during his Lifetime. Shostakovich’s music had a recognisable style all of its own as Behrman states “What is undoubtedly the case is that he was able to communicate clearly to his audience about the turbulent social and political times in which he lived” [6].

Shostakovich’s 2nd Symphony subtitled {October} and the 3rd Symphony {The first of May} show how interconnected Shostakovich’s music was with the revolutionary period of the time. The 2nd symphony has a factory claxon used in the symphony, the one and only time that was used in a symphonic work. “So few composers have had the direct experience of Revolution even fewer the talent to express it as vividly as Shostakovich does in the 2nd Symphony” [7].

Musicians writers and poets all worked together to express this new Avant garde in Soviet cultural life Mayakovsky, Meyerhold and Shostakovich all worked together in films, ballet scores and operas. Behrman continually belittles Shostakovich’s belief in Communism and tries to portray him as a lone individual questioning his Communist beliefs. “Whatever may have been the case later on his life, during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s Shostakovich was clearly a believer in the communist ideal” [8].

Shostakovich did embrace Communism throughout his whole life and used his music to combat and fight the narrow strictures of Stalinism represented by ‘Social realism’. Leon Trotsky in his pamphlet Art and Revolution argued that it was not possible to have a party line on art and culture “Trotsky argued that as, with philosophy and industrial techniques, so too the very best of what bourgeois society had produced should be appropriated for all” [9].

Behrman even admits that the emergence of Stalin as General Secretary of the Bolshevik Party in the 1930s and the struggle conducted for inner party democracy against the bureaucratic caste by Trotsky and the Left Opposition found an echo in Shostakovich’s music. This led Shostakovich to denounce certain aspects of Social realism “Shostakovich criticized Socialist Realist artists for writing inorganic works that offered trite and crude messages” [10].

Shostakovich’s opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtensk district (1932) was identified by Stalinism as not suitable and denounced by ‘Social realists’ as unsuitable. So began the attack by Stalin and his henchmen on Shostakovich and other composers including Kathchurian and Prokoviev. They singled out Shostakovich for special treatment. Shostakovich was dismissed from his position at the Leningrad Conservatoire and immediately withdrew the opera and his 4th Symphony. This was Shostakovich’s way of dealing with Stalinism. Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony was subtitled ‘A soviet artists reply to just criticism’.

Stalinism and its method of terror and counter revolution used a series of show trials, witch-hunts and accusations of Trotskyists being Nazi or Fascist agents. Shostakovich was very careful in his response and used a signature in his music D-S-C-H (E flat, C and B) to answer and critise Stalinism and its methods. It is true to say that Shostakovich’s music retains its Revolutionary content. All around him comrades were being arrested, shot and imprisoned.

It was a very difficult times for Shostakovich and his family “Shostakovich’s brother in law, the Physicist Vsevolod Fredericks was arrested and sent to a slave labour camp. Shostakovich’s elder sister was sent into her exile, while his mother in law was arrested and sent to the camps” [11].

In 1941 when the Nazi’s invaded the Soviet Union Shostakovich composed his 7th Symphony (The Leningrad) in 7 days, artillery fire and bombs were falling as he was composing the music which was an account of the heroic defence of the Leningrad working class against the fascist terror. Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony is heroic in its composition detailing the fight and the battle to repel the fascists. “The image of Shostakovich as an emblem of Soviet resistance was cemented with his 7th Symphony” [12].

In 1953 when Stalin died and Khrushchev became General Secretary, immediately with the revelations about the Stalinist lies and double talk a political thaw developed and Shostakovich was allowed to compose his music relatively safe from state interference. His 13th symphony (Babi Yar) composed of poems from Yevtushenko details the role of anti-Semitism practised by Stalinism.

The 13th Symphony together with the 11th Symphony (1905) and the 12th symphony (1917) dedicated to Lenin are three historical symphonies portraying 1905, the unfinished Revolution, 1917 the successful Bolshevik Revolution and Anti-Semitism represented by the Stalinist betrayal.

Behrman’s major weakness in his book is an inability to see the real struggle that Shostakovich conducted against Social realism and the cultural backwardness of Stalinism. “It is safe to say that no composer since Beethoven has been so central to the history of the time, or has consistently sought to express the sufferings and aspirations shared by millions of his contemporaries” [13].

1) Behrman S, Shostakovich, Stalin, Socialism and Symphonies. p.9

2) Ibid. p. 10

3) Stradling R Shostakovich and the Soviet System 1925-1975 in Shostakovich: the man and his music. p.190

4) Behrman S Shostakovich, Stalin, Socialism and Symphonies p.23

5) Ibid. p.26

6) Ibid. p.42

7) Ibid. p.45

8) Ibid. p.51

9) Ibid. p.33

10) Ibid. p.57

11) Ibid. p.70

12) Ibid. p.74

13) Stradling R, Shostakovich and the Soviet System 1925-1975 in Shostakovich, the man and his music. P.190Join Socialist Fight

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