Upheaval in the Opera

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

It was better to be a critic than a composer of operas in 1936. Two very different artists were subject to vicious attacks that year that left them frightened and the musical world confused. Dmitrii Shostakovich, the innovative composer, and Demian Bednyi, the pundit, poet and comrade of Lenin, were both accused of violating cultural norms. This year of purges made such accusations life-threatening. Shostakovich packed a night suitcase in the expectation of arrest, and slept in his apartment entryway, lest his children see his arrest. Though he never was, his nerves never fully recovered. The nerve of the Russian musical world as well was shaken, as artists asked “If they can go, why can’t I?” For the next twenty years, any music capable of arousing controversy was shunned.

Shostakovich and Bednyi were revolutionaries in very different ways. Bednyi was a Bolshevik long before the Party took power, and saw verse as a scourge and weapon in the battle against reaction. Satire was his forte, and he directed it against tsars, prime ministers, bankers and white generals during the Civil War. His star faded in the subsequent decade and a half, but he could still mount a battle against cultural traditions that infuriated any old Bolshevik. His comic opera, entitled Ancient Heroes (Bogatyri), lampooned the first Russian national heroes, the knights of the oral epics of Kievan Rus’ dating back to the twelfth century, making them into drunken fools. His libretto was set to a medley of Russian classical composers, first and foremost an opera of the same name by Aleksandr, who had meant to praise the tradition, not mock it. Mockery was the method that had gained him fame and revolutionary acclaim; thus he and many others were shocked when Pravda published an unsigned (and thus authoritative) editorial condemning him for, of all things, disparaging the role of Christianity in Russian history.

He shared the fate of an unlikely comrade, the great composer Dmitrii Shostakovich. Only twenty-nine when attacked in 1936, Shostakovich was already acclaimed for his music, which combined avant-garde influences and strong melodic gifts, classical harmony and the throbbing pulse of jazz. His second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on a story by Nikolai Leskov, earned admiration and controversy at home and abroad when it debuted in 1934. Western critics took it as an embodiment of the “Communist” style in music; and the Russian music world hailed it as a bold composition. The story of a strong-willed woman trapped in a loveless marriage in nineteenth-century provincial Russia, who comes to ruin when a passionate affair leads to the murder of her husband and his father, the opera thrilled and shocked listeners with its bold dissonance, such as the brazen trombone slide as the moment of consummating the liaison. Some prudish listeners abandoned the performance at such moments, but none so ominous as Stalin himself, who walked out of a performance on January 26. Two days later, the editorial, entitled “Chaos instead of Music” appeared, castigating Shostakovich. “The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony.” Musical modernism was equated with perversion, and disappeared from the stage for many years.

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