Thursday, January 27, 2011

Muddle Instead of Music

Today is the anniversary of one of the most infamous reviews in history. In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich, already a world renowned composer, woke up to read in Pravda that his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk was "music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all."

If that didn't tighten Shostakovich's stomach enough, the review goes on to say the score offers "quacks, grunts, and growls" in place of a more traditional operatic language.

At the time "Muddle Instead of Music" was published, Lady Macbeth had been running (and praised) for months, not just in the Soviet Union but abroad--which was another one of Shostakovich's problems. This broadside represented a shift in direction of the government's attitude towards music and its musicians. The nature of the shift can be read in the review itself.

The article attacked the music's slight jazz touches as "nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic." The Soviet regime's response to jazz being the same as Germany's where it was termed degenerate music. With regard to the Soviets, I've seen an Bambi influenced animated film "Someone Else's Voice" that made the same point (collected in the wonderful Animated Soviet Propaganda DVD collection).

Also on the spit was the opera's alleged vulgarity: "The merchant's double bed occupies the the central position on the stage. On this bed all "problems" are solved. In the same coarse,
naturalistic style is shown the death from poisoning and the flogging -
both practically on stage."

So both the modern--read atonal--musical language and the more naturalistic style of the story were objected to. Interestingly, Pravda called this "leftist" but clearly not the right kind of leftism. Shostakovich's opera gets tied to "Meyerholdism", again not a good sign for the composer because the theater director had already had his show trial and was in prison (he'd be executed in 1940).

Finally, in case the composer and readers hadn't gotten the point: "The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

Shostakovich noted in his memoirs the most ominous thing about the review was that it was unsigned. To him, and presumably to others used to reading the tea leaves, this meant the review stood as an official statement of the Party and by extension directly from Stalin. Shostakovich goes on to describe the immediate personal result: whispers, furtive glances, nervously closed doors.

For musicians in the Soviet Union, Muddle was a signal to tone down experimentation. A union was formed to firmly enforce socialist realism, in this case the view that in the Soviet Union music's purpose of music was solely to uplift the masses (to use their language). I wish I could make a blanket statement that all the work produced under this edict was terrible, but in fact personally, I like a lot of what I've heard. Tikhon Khrennikov, for example, who ran the union for most of its history and whom Shostokovich names as one of his chief tormentors, wrote some cello concertos that are "steaky" to use Elgar's term for a good strong tune.

Meanwhile, Shostakovich, lucky to avoid exile or worse, learned to speak in two voices. His Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) of 1941, Symphony No. 10 (1905) from 1957 and especially to me Symphony No. 12 (The Year 1917) are all big, completely tonal, and easily accessible works. He also scored films--watch the amusing Cherry Town (1963) on YouTube, for example. At the same time, into the drawer was going the more personal work, usually written for smaller ensembles and more and more relating to Judaism. After the Secret Speech and subsequent thaw under Khruschev, Shostakovich did begin to publish and have some of this work performed, but the overriding theme of his memoirs--Testimony, which I highly recommend--is caution and the exhaustion that came from having to spend the rest of his life nervously watching the shadows.

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