Ed Vulliamy is a senior correspondent for The Observer.

Juggler of his own genius

When Dmitri Shostakovich submitted his Fifth Symphony for première in November 1937, he embarked upon a life on the rack from which he would never be granted – or grant himself – deliverance. Here is music at the kernel of the 20th century, by its greatest, most haunted and compelling composer. But in submitting that score, he also embarked on another, posthumous battle, that for the memory of himself and his music.

This battle is one of the extraordinary scandals of cultural discourse. Ironically so, for in a post-modern age in which mainstream politics has been reduced to meaningless but toxic babble, the memory of Shostakovich has been politicized to the point of insult to his legacy.

To chart the story, we need to consider not the great Fifth Symphony but the work in the context of which it was written, in many ways its musical nemesis, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Its story derives from a fin-de-siècle novel by Nikolai Leskov, about a woman bored and oppressed, who takes her revenge through murder. Sexual and feminist themes are explosively charged by Shostakovich's operatic treatment to entwine ennui, lust, sex, defiance, crime and the politics of freedom. The pivotal character, Katerina Izmailova, is the sole life-force; a truly modern heroine, honest to herself and the world – transmuting her ennui into erotic defiance of oppressive social surroundings, but also of conventional morality and the law.

Premièred in 1934, the opera was hailed as a masterpiece internationally and at home, confirming the 25-year-old as the USSR's leading composer. Politically, it brought respite from the eye of a Communist Party already suspicious of his work, until the night of 26 January 1936, when Joseph Stalin rose from his seat at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and stormed out, appalled by what he was listening to. It was the delivery of a life sentence to purgatory.

Stalin's verdict appeared across page three of Pravda some days later: an "ugly flood of confusing sound... a pandemonium of creaking, shrieking and crashes... unadulterated cacophony". A hurricane of bigotry was unleashed against Shostakovich, with only a few bold friends standing by him. "We reacted differently," recalls Isaak Glikman, "I with disgust, irritation and sometimes indignation, whereas Dmitri Dmitreyevich remained silent and made no comments." For thirty years, Lady Macbeth vanished from public view. They were years of tremor and masks; he and his circle lived in fear of the foot on the stair, a knock at the door.

The axe fell on Shostakovich's life not to end but to splice it, forcing him to work in a masked world of dichotomy. He would allow his Fifth Symphony to be packaged by such fawning descriptions as "a Soviet artist's creative response to just criticism", adding sphinx-like that it contained "all my hopes and fears". Hovering authoritarian vultures would hail the composer's return from decadent modernism to heroic, socialist classicism, but ears more perceptive than the party hacks' heard conflicting moods of hope, dread, endurance, and yearning, tortured and torturous violins, and responded with an outpouring of tearful emotion. It was, thereby, the most compelling and forceful music ever written about the human condition and political man.

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