Dmitrii Shostakovich: How to De-Politicize a Composer

Any foreigner flying in to St. Petersburg today will likely, on their way from the airport, come down Moskovsky prospekt, the longest and one of the busiest roads in the city today. Halfway between the remarkably small international airport and the city center whose palaces, cathedrals, and canals form a grandeur seen in few other places, the road is interrupted by a large roundabout. Surrounded by a Western hotel and other reminders of Russia’s current nervous transition to capitalism, the center of the traffic circle boasts a massive brown obelisk, on which are inscribed only two dates: 1941, and 1945. These two years, of course, have a similar meaning in many nations: the conflict whose extension and conclusion is remembered fifty feet above St.

Petersburg was a war of worldwide significance. However, in Russia, 1941 and 1945 mean instead the markers of the Great Patriotic War, of special significance for modern Russian history, and in particular the history of this city. The story that follows is the place one man—not a soldier, a leader, or a polemic, but an artist—played in that conflict and how his home city remembers him and his contributions today.

In 1941, Hitler’s armies poured across the borders of the U.S.S.R., encountering little resistance from the surprised Soviet forces, and advancing at an alarming rate on three main axes: south, towards Stalingrad and the oil reserves in the Caucasus, due east, towards the political capital Moscow, and north towards the second largest city in the Soviet Union, the one that bore the name of the country’s founder. Within a few short months, the Nazis had reached the outskirts of Leningrad. Here, their advance came to a halt in front of stiff resistance by the finally adequately organized and equipped Russian army (Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin, 177-179).  The German army, however, managed to completely encircle the city, cutting off all land transportation in and out of Leningrad. Known then and now as the “cultural capital” of Russia, Leningrad boasted many of the country’s greatest architectural and historical treasures; Hitler decided to completely obliterate it to demoralize the Soviets. His forces bombarded the city constantly, and made many unsuccessful attempts to seize it (Ibid).

What came to be known as the Siege of Leningrad was to go on for 900 days, until the German ring was finally broken by Soviet troops that had assumed the offensive, in 1944. The city’s liberators found the once vibrant metropolis grim and broken: much of the city had been destroyed by bombs or artillery fire, and buildings had been cannibalized to use their wood for fires to protect against the bitterly cold winters. Most alarming, however, was the state of its inhabitants. More than a million civilians had died in the city in the past 900 days (Ibid). Aside from the bombardments, chiefly responsible were starvation and harsh winters: although midway through the siege, the Russian army built a causeway over nearby Lake Ladoga to circumvent the German blockade and deliver supplies and troops to the imperiled city, there had never been enough food or firewood to go around (Ibid).

When the Germans first invaded, Dmitri Dimitrievich Shostakovich was in his early 40s, and was already widely recognized as one of the, if not the, foremost composer in the Soviet Union. While the power of his music was largely undisputed, it had not avoided controversy. In one of the many public denunciations of music as politically wrong and socially harmful during the 1930s, his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been subjected to strident abuse in an article published in the official state organ Pravda some years previously. Historians today believe Stalin may have written the article personally; at any rate, he approved of it, and given the political climate of the time, which saw prominent politicians, artists, scientists, and others “disappearing” for little reason, Shostakovich feared for his life. For months, he slept in the stairway outside his flat, believing that security officers would come to arrest him any night, and not wishing that they disturb his family (Shostakovich, Testimony). However, he was never taken, and therefore, 1941 found him in Leningrad, composing works of little political significance, as his relationship with the regime was still somewhat tense. While he began writing songs designed to boost the morale of troops at the front upon the outbreak of war (Sollertinsky, Pages From the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich, 99), he had already begun planning a major work, which was to become his seventh symphony (Fay, Shostakovich: A Life, 125).

As one of the most well-known cultural figures inside Leningrad when the Germans surrounded the city, Shostakovich himself was used as a symbol of what the Soviet leaders hoped to portray as a heroic defense against evil. Like all citizens in the city, the composer was drafted into part-time “volunteer” anti-fire brigades, whose job it was to watch for fires caused by incendiary bombs around the city, and alert fire-fighting forces. One day, a photographer friend of Shostakovich’s took a picture of him on duty, complete with a fire cap. The image became widely used for propaganda by the government, and even made it abroad: a cover of TIME magazine in the U.S. featured as its cover an artist’s rendering of Shostakovich in fireman gear, with the caption “Fireman Shostakovich: Amid bombs burning in Leningrad, he heard the chords of victory” (Sollertinsky 97-99).

The official story continues that Shostakovich, overwhelmed with patriotic fervor, decided to dedicate his seventh symphony to the city of Leningrad and its heroic defenders. He was evacuated by plane before long, along with others determined by Stalin to be of value to the country, and finished the symphony far behind Russian lines, in the east. The symphony was premiered in Moscow in March 1942, and then an attempt was made to perform it in Leningrad. The only remaining orchestra in the city, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, could only muster 14 players from its starved and frozen register, and they had to draft amateurs and retired players to form a full orchestra, which was then given extra rations. They succeeded, and the resulting concert was broadcast not only over the radio, but through the megaphones on the side of every building. Both, up to that time, had been used only for public service announcements and patriotic exhortations since the beginning of the siege. The Russian army even undertook a massive bombardment of the German positions to ensure the performance was not interrupted by inopportune artillery fire (Sollertinsky 101-4). The reaction was reportedly overwhelming: people wept in the streets. The symphony became a symbol of both resistance to the Nazi terror, and the suffering of the people of Leningrad. Stalin himself decreed that recordings of the piece be flown to the other Allied countries, and Shostakovich was out from under official scrutiny (Volkov 176-7).

Shostakovich himself told a slightly different story. In his autobiographical Testimony, he wrote that he originally conceived the symphony as a protest against the terror Stalin had been perpetrating in the country in the 1930s. In his version, the meaning of the symphony only changed when he realized the necessity, both political and human, of instead dealing with the German invasion and subsequent events. The veracity of this claim has been disputed by historians and musicologists since; some have accused Shostakovich of political expediency, since when Testimony was published in the 1970s, some awareness of Stalin’s crimes had entered into the official historical narrative.

The composer had another serious period of political difficulty after the war, from which he again escaped with both his life and his freedom, although he had to cease composing for a time. He lived until 1975 in Moscow, composing the whole time, but the Leningrad Symphony is still among his best known and most performed works (Fay 30-1).

The Great Patriotic War is still in many ways a living history for the Russian people, who generally think of it in a near-sacred way. Likewise, the Siege of Leningrad, being both the part played by the city in that all-important conflict, and a significant event in itself both in historical and human terms, is revered and remembered throughout modern day St. Petersburg. Small museums and memorials have cropped up in many of the places important to the siege in the surrounding area: drivers leaving St. Petersburg notice by the side of the road a memorial marking the furthest advance of German troops, and the spot on Lake Ladoga where the emergency supply road was laid (known as “The Road of Life”) boasts a museum featuring an awe-inspiring panorama.

Inside the city, there is a museum specifically dedicated to the siege, and then the memorial described above. Flanking the pillar on either side are larger-than-life statues of soldiers in heroic poses, while the back side features the a massive ring of stone suspended above the ground, incomplete in one place to represent the breaking of the siege. Multiple eternal flames, bas-reliefs of Vladimir Lenin, and inscriptions about the heroic defenders of the city adorn the monument. Classical music plays from hidden speakers, and here for the first time Dmitri Shostakovich is heard in connection with the siege. His Leningrad Symphony is one of the pieces, but it alternates with works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, famous for leaving Russia upon the revolution in 1917 and spending the rest of his life in America. Past the broken stone ring, there is a discreet entrance, and Shostakovich’s name can be found again after a descent down a flight of stairs to a solemn and impressive museum to the siege. In one of many display cases, a score of the Leningrad Symphony is preserved as a monument to how life went on during the siege; a movie of clips from the siege off to the side also features parts of the symphony as a soundtrack. The overall mood is solemn, as befits a memorial to the death of a million non-combatants, and Shostakovich is certainly a part of that solemnity.

Nearer in location to the heart of St. Petersburg is the acclaimed Mariinsky Theater. Celebrating its 150th jubilee, the theater has played host to many of Shostakovich’s works, both during and after his lifetime (Mariinsky Theatre: History of the Orchestra). Most famous for its operas and ballets, the Mariinsky offers a showing of the first movement of a ballet written in 1961 to the music of the Leningrad Symphony, featuring the original choreography. The performance, while well done, contains little subtlety: the story it tells is plain, and spelled out in black and white
terms. Opening with a energetic theme that before long fades into plaintive melancholic melodies, which occupy the first few minutes of the nearly half hour movement, the dancers spell out what life was like in Russia before 1941. The hero and his love cavort around the stage, clearly happy, until they are separated while the orchestra plays a quietly innocent march, as the hero and his comrades prepare for war, in a fit of camaraderie. The same march repeats itself every 22 measures for nearly ten minutes, during which time its melody, originally played on flute, is gradually taken up by more instruments and given more and more (often dissonant) ornamentation, resulting in a frightfully powerful caricature of the original theme. Midway through this transformation, the Germans appear on stage. Dressed in easily-recognizable pseudo-Nazi uniforms, the soldiers’ role in the drama is made immediately obvious: in addition to the sinister music accompanying their arrival, each sports a pair of almost comical horns on top of his helmet, dances with motions that could only be described as brutal (including an oft-repeated “Heil Hitler” salute), and is lit only by a red light. The battle is enacted under fitting music, while the Russians heroically face down the Germans, but one by one fall. The setting is made clear, as a backdrop appears featuring silhouettes of the buildings of Leningrad with searchlight beams playing across their surface. The Nazis appear to have won, but after a sorrowful dirge-like interpretation of one of the original themes during which the women dance in a very reserved manner, the hero rises again, and struggles with the last German, finally defeating him. The last minutes are reserved for the reunion of the men and the women, and the unveiling of a monument to the victory.

Several interesting conclusions about the memory of Shostakovich in the city can be drawn from this performance. The first is the obvious: Shostakovich, and particularly his 7th Symphony, are both identified with a somewhat simplified narrative of the siege of Leningrad, and used to promote that narrative. That story, of course, is the one that the state would have wanted their people to remember from both the general war and the siege: the brave Soviet people standing up against aggression threatening to destroy their peaceful lives, and giving all their strength in an ultimately successful fight, one that will be gratefully remembered for years to come. This narrative also affects how the Leningrad Symphony can and will be remembered and interpreted. As mentioned above, Shostakovich claims to originally have planned the 7th Symphony as a protest against Stalin’s brutality (Shostakovich 135). Prominent musical scholars have argued that the march theme discussed above, accordingly, was meant to show the evil of totalitarianism in general. However, this ballet in some ways pre-empted that interpretation, instead establishing what was for a long time the universally accepted point of view on the theme, the movement, and therefore the entire piece. The idea that Shostakovich’s piece instead is a sharp criticism of the men who presided over the dramatic victory portrayed in the ballet is rather hard to swallow after seeing the spectacle of the heroic Soviet citizens arrayed against the Nazi horde. In fact, the march theme was—and still often is—called the “Invasion Theme,” a reference to its portrayal in the ballet (Ottoway, “Shostakovich’s Fascist Theme,” 274).

The second conclusion this performance of the ballet offers is less certain. From both scholarly literature and word of mouth, I had heard that performances of the Leningrad Symphony in St. Petersburg were usually wrought with emotion, and the reception given the piece was still second to none. Upon entering the Mariinsky theater that night, I became aware that a large part of the audience were foreigners: only natural, as St. Petersburg in June is an immensely popular tourist spot, the Russian government’s stringent visa requirements notwithstanding. The crowd may have influenced somewhat the audience reaction, which was strangely subdued—in fact, the applause was noticeably less than for the other act on the program, a performance of Carmen, which several of my companions described as a much poorer show in general. However, the complete absence of listeners weeping at the finale, or subjecting the orchestra to innumerable ovations, both of which I had been led to expect, leads to some questions.

One problem is simply a matter of age. Naturally, the siege will occupy a much larger and more emotional place in the consciousnesses of those who experienced it. Those who did are growing fewer and fewer: a child ten years old at the end of the siege is by now 76; those who were adults in wartime Leningrad are, simply judging by actuary tables, rare. What would the blockade mean to a young Russian today who had only learned about it in school, or perhaps from their grandparents’ stories? And what of the symphony whose emotional first performance only those alive then can tell of? Certainly, it still means something; just as certainly, less. Memory cannot perfectly transmit itself in every detail to a younger generation; emotions that perhaps survivors cannot find words for remain forever unexpressed, and something is always lost.

This decay of memory is perhaps aided by a puzzling detail of the ballet performance: the complete lack of national symbols. In glaring contrast to the museum on Moskovsky prospekt, in which the predominant color is red and the walls adorned with flags and other Soviet symbols and relics, neither the U.S.S.R. nor Russia is explicitly evoked: in fact, as mentioned above, red—the offical color of the Soviet Union—is instead used to light the Nazis. The only other appearance of the color is as the banner used to cover the monument; this is hardly an image calculated to evoke patriotic fervor. What happened to Shostakovich’s role in the siege, then? It is impossible to say for certain, but two possibilities can be examined. The first is that Shostakovich’s symphony is a part of a narrative of the siege that ignores nationalism and propaganda for a tribute to the human suffering of the war-torn city, as per the fact that the country that defended the city no longer exists; while the second suggests that his symphony has simply ceased to be part of the official memory of the siege; that is, that the Leningrad Symphony, whatever its artistic merits, is declining in use as a symbol of the events that used to mean so much to the city. The truth, however, is probably more complicated than either of those ideas.

By no means is Shostakovich forgotten in his home city. The various other monuments to him, however, bear out the hypothesis that he is remembered mostly artistically: as a man who gave his city, his country, and the world, music deserving of remembrance. His legacies as a political figure, and as a hero particularly of the war-time metropolis, take a backseat.

The first and one of the most notable tributes given to him is not a physical monument: the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the most prestigious orchestra in St. Petersburg, is named in honor of him. Although the use of his name in connection with the orchestra is unevenly applied, he has obviously been shown a great honor; this honor, however, is entirely artistic in quality and has no apparent connection with either his complicated political relationship with the Soviet government or the war that caused him to write the symphony for which he is so well known. A tribute to Shostakovich that, although in physical form, carries a similar meaning, is a bust on a pedestal on a normal St. Petersburg street. The city is adorned with hundreds such busts and statues, and while the monument certainly means his greatness is remembered in former Leningrad, its plainness says nothing exceptional about his relationship with the city beyond the high quality of the music he wrote. Of an almost identical character are the plaques outside his three St. Petersburg residences: like innumerable others throughout the city, the plaques are simple notes to passers-by that, for example, “from 1933-1942, the composer D.D. Shostakovich lived and worked in this building.”

One of these plaques marks an apartment which deserved special attention. At 9 Marata ulitsa, where the composer lived from 1919 to 1933, his former apartment number 7 was bought by two musicians in 2002 who wished to turn it into a museum to the composer: included were to be concert programs, photographs, the composer’s personal effects, and a small auditorium for chamber performances. The couple hoped to open the museum on the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich’s birth, in 2006 (Lenta.ru, “V Peterburge Otkrilsia Muzei Dmitriia Shostakovicha). Unfortunately, the repairs they initiated severely damaged their neighbor’s apartment, for which they had to pay a settlement; the apartment has since not been opened to the public, although it was to be donated to the city (Stolyarova, “Court Orders Cellist to Pay,” St. Petersburg Times).

The ill-fated museum, however, is not the only sign of recent interest in the composer around St. Petersburg. A street in one of the more recently-developed districts of the city was named after Shostakovich; and walking down that street until its termination at a major avenue leads to another reminder of the man: a larger-than-life statue in a small pedestrian square that hosts a more-or-less steady stream of commuting pedestrians. The iron statue is certainly not an anomaly in a city with so many public sculptures: some prominent figures, such as Lenin and Pushkin, can be found in multiple locations. The more distinctive part of the memorial is the sound: upon approaching the statue, music begins to distinguish itself from the quotidian chatter and bustle of Russia’s second largest city. A camouflaged speaker in the grass behind the statue plays some of Shostakovich’s more famous works next to benches that look designed for people to relax on and listen. No one has taken that opportunity here; although many pass by, the location just doesn’t seem right: too busy, too noisy, not a place to stop and rest.

The statue depicts the composer (with a somewhat more heroic face than most photographs of him suggest) sitting on a bench, hand poised as if to begin playing piano, eyes gazing into the sky. The memorial was only installed a year ago, with the supervision and financial support of Shostakovich’s still-living son, also a musician (St. Petersburg Times, 09/29/09). The existence of the monument is proof that the composer’s memory is kept alive in St. Petersburg, even if the main catalyst for retaining this particular memory is related to him by blood.

A somewhat more interesting tribute to Shostakovich is closer to the heart of the city, on the fashionable Petrogradskaya storona. A small park on the island’s main artery near where Shostakovich lived for several of his years was given a makeover by a local avant-garde artistic studio in 2008. The playground and well-manicured grass were joined by a set of sculptures, each representing a combination of a violin with some unrelated object: for example, an apple, or a shoe. The rough stone objects are complemented by a series of bas-reliefs of artists, and here Shostakovich’s bespectacled face can be seen grinning almost imperceptibly. The depiction in itself is interesting: the composer’s disembodied head sticks out from the wall of the bright yellow apartment building that houses the relief underneath his name (a more modern “Dmitri Shostakovich,” instead of his full name or “D.D. Shostakovich”), and from that head in every direction along the wall spread rays, as if from the sun. Shostakovich is not alone on the wall, however: the faces of Daniil Kharms, Salvador Dali, and Dmitri Likhachev, also embroidered in interesting fashion, form a row with the composer in the 3rd place from the left.

The selection of the figures on the wall provides some interesting clues. Daniil Kharms was a surrealist poet who lived in St. Petersburg (the city changed names twice during his lifetime) his entire life, and died in a Leningrad prison during the siege. Likhachev, likewise, is a figure of the city: a scholar who theorized about Russian national identity, he lived his long life in the city, and was the first person to be named an honorary citizen of the newly rechristened St. Petersburg, in 1993. The placement of Dali next to the three men of St. Petersburg is rather curious: the famous avant-garde artist never even visited Russia. Juxtaposing the three public figures associated with St. Petersburg with Dali appears to imply that the choice of figures was largely due to their artistic merit, with a connection to the city of secondary importance; likewise, the violin sculptures seem to suggest the installation is merely a work of art, with no political overtones.

Political overtones seem to be, as a rule, absent from memorials to Shostakovich in the city of his birth. Although one of his most popular works is still the Leningrad Symphony, charged with the patriotism that still surrounds the Second World War in Russia and the horror of the siege, Shostakovich is remembered in large part as an artistic figure.

His current image is just as well, for a political interpretation of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich is by no means simple: many scholarly pages have been spent arguing the precise political meaning—or even the precise political beliefs—of the composer. In Russia today, this issue is twice over complex: Shostakovich, as discussed above, had a somewhat complicated relationship with Joseph Stalin, the dictator who ruled the U.S.S.R. for the greater portion of the former’s life, and modern Russia does not have a clear stance toward the leader who both presided over a reign of terror claiming millions of lives, and shepherded the country through perhaps its most powerful era in history. The performance of the Leningrad Symphony’s ballet is an excellent example of how difficult it is to attach Shostakovich to anything more than a simple war story; the other public memories of the composer in the city do not even attempt to assess his political significance, or really the meaning his work has towards the city in particular. Instead, Shostakovich is known as a composer, plain and simple: a great man of art, a man of his country and city, and little more.

Works Consulted and Cited