Saturday 16 March I saw a performance by the city of Birmingham symphony orchestra (CBSO) of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5. The symphony took up the second half of the performance, with the period before the interval dedicated to a mixed bag from Shostakovich’s ‘the Limpid Stream’ and his Piano Concerto No 1.
Workers are entitled to ask – why should I care? Whilst classical music in Britain enjoys broad popularity, it is by no means accessible to the vast majority of workers and has a decidedly unfashionable image amongst large swathes of the population. A typical assumption would be that price excludes large numbers of workers, though hundreds of thousands of British workers are quite prepared to pay far in excess of the price for a mid-range ticket in a symphony hall (£35) to see some dreadful performance at the O2 or watch South Americans kick a ball about for Manchester City. Classical music, so long dominated by the intelligentsia and the ruling class appears to millions of workers as aloof, long-winded, high-brow and political, and who could blame them? For those not accustomed to its special laws; to the etiquette of clapping in the right places and holding in every cough until an interval, the entire proceedings can be as incomprehensible as they are inconvenient.
Marx on music
Workers are exposed to all sorts of musical influences, and many workers are exposed to classical music without even realising it, even if it is just Zadok the Priest prior to a Champions League football match. This music has mass appeal, but it is not the music that is always the easiest to comprehend. Depth and content are too readily discarded in modern society in favour of shallow meaningless forgettable music.
Marx, writing in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) had this to say when discussing music and beauty,
“…only music awakens in man the sense of music, and just as the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear… the meaning of an object for me goes only so far as my sense goes (has only a meaning for a sense corresponding to that object) – for this reason the senses of the social man differ from those of the non-social man. Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form – in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals. The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense. Thus, the objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man’s sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance.”
It is from such a position that communist workers should learn to enjoy classical music, and perhaps also begin to comprehend our distaste (often instinctive) towards those clattering, boastful, monotonous and ugly genres such as jazz and soul or the more modern (and even more commercial) rap and grime to name but four molesting musical rackets.
Mirga conducts Shostakovich
The outstanding feature of the pre-concert atmosphere was the naked and extreme hostility to the USSR. The advertisement and programme was explicitly political, as is often the case with Shostakovich. The bourgeoisie, who dominate classical music (as with all the arts, even those which appear to be dominated by us) never ceases to draw political, cultural and historical allegory from music old and new. Art for them has to serve their class interests, and the music at times is little more than an avenue by which to foist upon the audience their interpretation of historical events and political prejudice.
The CBSO performance was conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. Mirga is the CBSO Music Director. She is a Lithuanian, a rising star in the world of classical music, though she cannot play any instrument to the level of a virtuoso. This writer could find no display of blatant anti-sovietism in her interviews, although every journalist who interviews her is sure to note that she is Lithuanian, a witness to the Soviet ‘occupation’ etc. In fact in every interview you can be sure that some remarks, in addition to the comments that she is a woman sticking it out in a man’s world, will be made along the lines of these in the FT:
“she lived through the collapse of the Soviet regime in her country and experienced at first hand the “positive, unifying force” of the mass singing that played such an important role during the Baltic republics’ liberation” (FT July 28, 2017)
Dmitri Shostakovich is of importance and interest to advanced workers for three
reasons. Firstly he is universally recognised as a great composer of music, secondly, he was a Soviet artist with enduring worldwide fame, and thirdly, he represented a revisionist tendency in soviet music being a recognised leader of the ‘formalist tendency’. With regards to his position as a formalist, Shostakovich has been very useful to anti-soviet musicologists, sociologists and historians, for whom he is an ‘innovator’ and ‘individual’ which contributes towards his ongoing popularity in the West.
Everyone connected with classical music likes to quote from the words of Shostakovich, usually the words (published second hand) at the end of his life, the period of his decline, the 20 years he lived with the political ‘freedoms’ Khruschevite revisionism won for the remnants of the vanquished exploiting classes and in particular, for the sections of soviet society which clung onto the habits and ways of thinking associated with the epoch of exploitation. Shostakovich was one of these men. A formalist in the twenties he was part of the ‘avant guard’.
Historians and fans tend to dismiss all Shostakovich’s words which don’t fit the narrative of the ‘oppressed creative genius’, especially his articles in Pravda (which demonstrate his own fierce polemics against his contemporaries and worse still even praise soviet music) by saying that these were forced words, that he was often ‘contradictory’ and they even go so far as to say he was an outright liar when they find something reflecting too positively upon soviet life.
Politics and the CBSO
The programme notes for the CBSO evening entertainment are there to tell the audience
exactly what to think, exactly how to interpret the music they are about to hear. Gerard McBurney gave the pre-concert talk for members and supporters of the CBSO and he was responsible for a large part of the printed programme, giving his ludicrous and anti-communist reflections on all manner of aspects of the music. McBurney is viciously anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin. He is the son of an American archaeologist who ended up teaching at Cambridge. His grandparents on his mother’s side were British army officers, as were his great-grandparents on that side. The archaeologist father took an interest in the USSR and produced a book entitled “Early man in the Soviet Union”. His position at Cambridge University may have helped to get his children in, and after early schooling at Winchester College Gerard McBurney, our British composer and critic entered Corpus Christi Cambridge along with his brother Simon McBurney OBE (who you may have seen in Harry Potter or the Vicar of Dibley and all manner of other silly things).
McBurney’s ludicrous concert notes leave the audience in no doubt whatsoever that Shostakovich was a persecuted artist, like all good Soviet artists (the rest being mere tools of Stalinist tyranny), that he was in fear of his life and that he mixed with writers and artists who for no good reason whatsoever were executed by a tyrannical regime in the Kremlin.
“The extent of violent repression in the USSR in the 1930’s was, by any standards, shocking. This was the period of Stalins most ruthless consolidation of absolute power (no less!), beginning in 1928 with the Five-Year Plans [those awful things] and the monstrous project of the Collectivisation of agriculture…”
“It’s an oft-told story – one of the nightmares of the 20th century history – and certainly one factor in why Shostakovich’s music sounds the way it does”
“At the very start of this period, Shostakovich’s supreme compositional achievement was undoubtedly his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District… The composer began it in the autumn of 1930, at the age of only 24, and finished it two years later…
“A year or so later, around the time of the first performance of his opera, he completed his ballet The Limpid Stream. To begin with, this piece, like the opera, was successful; its first staging in Leningrad in the spring of 1935 was followed by a second one in Moscow in the autumn.”
“From then on, it was not only Shostakovich’s career that was threatened, but – as we know from memoirs of his friends and family – his personal safety.”
Shostakovich’s Limpid Stream (meaning Bright Stream) is set on a collective farm. The concert notes think Shostakovich was poking fun at the name of the workers holiday villages which the Soviet Union had set up. Only an entitled middle class snob could imagine such a pun. Our own country, with its Sandy Bay’s and Sunny Heights, its Naples of the North (Morecombe) and English Riviera (Devon) are decidedly untrendy holiday resorts for mobile middle class aesthetes like McBurney. He can only imagine that Shostakovich, like himself would have scoffed at those Soviet workers forced to take holidays in such wretched places. Indeed they may well have scoffed (though to their credit they didn’t) at the proletariat in the capitalist world who far from being able to take free holidays in resorts like the Bright Stream were permanently on holiday from the world of work and suffering the acute crisis of capitalism which destroyed millions of workers at this time (20% unemployment in Britain and 25% in the USA).
Shostakovich wrote the music for the ballet but not the entire story, and it is foremost the story which is criticised by Pravda in an article entitled ‘Ballet Falsity’. The Limpid Stream follows a troupe of musicians and dancers sent to perform for agricultural workers in the provinces. The scriptwriter, Adrian Piotrovsky who in 1937 was shot for espionage (58-6 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR), tells the story of the antics of the troupe, who essentially frolic, wife swop (unknowingly) and make games down on the farm. Shostakovich’s music accompanies these antics, especially the frolicking; it even led the New York Sun to label the music pornophony which is a far harsher criticism of the music than Shostakovich received from the Soviets! Indeed, a recurring theme in Pravda’s criticism is that soviet art criticism is decidedly lacking in criticism and most often takes on the role of lavishing praise on favourite artists.
Pravda’s criticism in 1936 of the Limpid Stream was essentially directed at the fact that the ballet had not bothered to investigate in any way the life and problems of a real collective farm, nor had it made even the slightest effort to depict the costume, folk dance and traditions of the people it was purporting to represent (from the Kuban). In our modern, touchy idPol dominated times it would be the most distressing to see such brazen ignorance of the cultural traditions and values of ethnic minorities, and it is surprising that McBurney is so insensitive to this. When it came to the musical score of Shostakovich, Pravda said:
“From the libretto, we learn that it has been partially transferred to the collective farm ballet “Bolt” which failed [a previous work by Shostakovich, he essentially reused his old tunes]. It is clear what happens when the same music should express different phenomena. In fact, it expresses only the composer’s indifferent attitude to the topic.
The authors of the ballet — both the directors and the composer — seem to expect that our public is undemanding, that she will accept everything, that she is crammed together by nimble and unceremonious people.
In reality, only our musical and art criticism is undemanding. She often commends works that do not deserve it.”
In our book such criticism hardly amounts to a death threat.
Muddle Instead of Music
The Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk is perhaps the most infamous of all Shostakovich’s works, and is undergoing a revival in the West where it is used repeatedly to push the lie that Stalin personally launched an attack on Shostakovich, the great innovator, and had this masterpiece censored. In Birmingham in March the celebrated Birmingham Opera Company performed this very piece, just another example of their innovative (i.e., very dull, predictable, liberal and PC) trajectory.
The story of Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk originated with Nikolay Leskov. Leskov wrote a sordid tale in which Katerina Ismailova, the wife of a provincial merchant has an affair with a clerk in her husbands office. She poisons her father-in-law who is unsurprisingly unimpressed, then joins her lover in strangling her husband and finally murders her little nephew. Leskov wrote Katerina as a depraved criminal, but Shostakovich attempted to present her as a tribute to women’s liberation. So effective was Shostakovich, that the Guardian (remarking upon a recent performance of the Opera in London) said, “we get to marvel at the way in which in this opera Shostakovich so brazenly and lovingly hands the moral high ground to a murderer, and keeps you rooting for her until the very last note.”
Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, received the praise of many a soviet ‘critic’ at the time of the first performance in Leningrad. Particular fawning praise came from Ivan Sollertinsky who was a professor at the Leningrad conservatoire as well as the artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, an impartial ear if ever there was one. It can be of no surprise that when Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth debuted in Leningrad it was well received by such good friendly critics and that it was not until it had a thorough inspection in Moscow that any independent criticism was given. It is unsurprising that the artistic director of the philharmonic would praise his own work, but it is a surprise that an artistic director could be considered a suitable critic for his own chosen performances! And Soviet publications, including Pravda don’t fail to capture the sense that nepotism and the old boys club operated just as well in certain circles of Soviet artistic production as they had done under capitalism. McBurney see’s it somewhat differently of course, in his notes he says,
“…in January 1936, the composer’s life was turned inside out by a devastating public attack on his Lady Macbeth, a now notorious article entitled Muddle Instead of Music, published prominently in Pravda [on page 3], the official newspaper of the Communist Party.”
McBurney, like Sollertinsky thinks Shostakovich should be above criticism, not criticism in general but most certainly Soviet criticism. Soviet criticism has as its aim the ‘extermination of the artist’, his ‘incarceration and physical annihilation’ etc etc. For McBurney, Shostakovich was certainly above criticism from the workers and their Communist Party, from those foul people who holiday in Sunny Heights and Fawlty Towers. McBurney fails to mention that Shostakovich, to his credit, like many Soviet artists had a completely different attitude to criticism, and self-criticism, even if it left a bitter taste years after the experience. In those times of open class struggle, many artists were as happy writing criticism of their contemporaries as they were composing new works, and only weeks before his rebuke Shostakovich had been published in Pravda describing as “weak” his contemporary Ivan Dzerzinsky’s ballet ‘The Quiet Don’ based on the world famous Sholokov story!
Stalin goes to the opera
It is said that Stalin, Zhdanov and a handful of politburo members went to the Moscow showing of the Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk and were decidedly unimpressed. Their opinions were shared by others such as Kerzhentsev, the Chairman of the Committee for Arts Affairs. ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ was their response, it was published by Pravda without an author:
“With the general cultural development of our country there grew also the necessity for good music. At no time and in no other place has the composer had a more appreciative audience. The people expect good songs, but also good instrumental works, and good operas.
Certain theatres are presenting to the new culturally mature Soviet public Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth as an innovation and achievement. Musical criticism, always ready to serve, has praised the opera to the skies, and given it resounding glory. The young composer, instead of hearing serious criticism, which could have helped him in his future work, hears only enthusiastic compliments.
From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.
Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. 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. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. Passion is here supposed to be expressed by noise. All this is not due to lack of talent, or lack of ability to depict strong and simple emotions in music. Here is 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. This music is built on the basis of rejecting opera – the same basis on which “Leftist” Art rejects in the theatre simplicity, realism, clarity of image, and the unaffected spoken word – which carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of “Meyerholdism” infinitely multiplied. Here we have “leftist” confusion instead of natural human music. 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.
The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear. Leftist distortion in opera stems from the same source as Leftist distortion in painting, poetry, teaching, and science. Petty-bourgeois “innovations” lead to a break with real art, real science and real literature.
The composer of Lady Macbeth was forced to borrow from jazz its nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music in order to lend “passion” to his characters. While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich’s creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism. He reveals the merchants and the people monotonously and bestially. The predatory merchant woman who scrambles into the possession of wealth through murder is pictured as some kind of “victim” of bourgeois society. Leskov’s story has been given a significance which it does not possess.
And all this is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts, and growls, and suffocates itself in order to express the love scenes as naturalistically as possible. And “love” is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar manner. The merchant’s double bed occupies 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.
The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life. Some critics call the glorification of the merchants’ lust a satire. But there is no question of satire here. The composer has tried, with all the musical and dramatic means at his command, to arouse the sympathy of the spectators for the coarse and vulgar inclinations and behaviour of the merchant woman Katerina Izmailova.
Lady Macbeth is having great success with bourgeois audiences abroad. Is it not because the opera is non-political and confusing that they praise it? Is it not explained by the fact that it tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music?
Our theatres have expended a great deal of energy on giving Shostakovich’s opera a thorough presentation. The actors have shown exceptional talent in dominating the noise, the screaming, and the roar of the orchestra. With their dramatic action, they have tried to reinforce the weakness of the melodic content. Unfortunately, this has served only to bring out the opera’s vulgar features more vividly. The talented acting deserves gratitude, the wasted efforts – regret.”
Shostakovich Fifth Symphony
Following the Pravda article Shostakovich met with Kerzhentsev, the Chairman of the Committee for Arts Affairs, and carried on his work, having expressed his willingness to comprehend the criticism and to alter his work. In his meeting with Kerzhentsev he was reportedly told that he should reject his formalist errors, work to attain in his art something that could be comprehended by the masses and that the authorities did not want a ‘public declaration’ that was insincere or formulaic. It was suggested to him that he should tour the USSR and listen and record the folk songs and music of its peoples, acquaint himself with the best 100 and synthesise his experience. Such an approach was in the best traditions of the greatest of Russian artists, not least the poet Pushkin who had set out on a similar journey a century before writing his best works.
Far from destruction, from Muddle Instead of Music arose Shostakovich’s greatest triumph, his Fifth Symphony, nearly universally recognised as his best. It was often referred to as “the practical creative answer of a soviet artist to just criticism”. Made up of four parts (movements), Moderato (moderate pace), Allegretto (brisk), Largo (slow and dignified) and Allegro non troppo (meaning fast, but not too much!) his work is comprehensible to the ear, has an easy to follow melody for the most part, and an incredibly distinctive and memorable finale which feels as though it will bring the roof in. The Birmingham CBSO, ending on this monumental piece, were clearly having a lot more fun than they had played the jarring and ugly parts of the first half of the evenings concert, and it was the only piece to bring truly rapturous applause from the Birmingham audience. It was the finale of the Fifth which caused such a sensation at the time as well, and is the source of controversy today. Bourgeois critics cannot possibly ignore the greatness of the piece, and so have to find a way to explain its existence, especially as the composer was at risk of losing his life, was reviled by the people and harassed at every turn. They turn to the old tune that yes it is a work of genius, with special hidden meaning only discernable to them. They are aided in this by Shostakovich’s ‘smuggled memoirs’ in which he says “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth… its as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’, and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” At the time, in his published writings Shostakovich said
“The idea behind my symphony is the making of a man. I saw him, with all his experience, at the centre of the work, which is lyrical from beginning to end…”
Writer Alexei Tolstoy witnessed that “the audience understood Shostakovich’s unshakable optimism… We were faced with the realistic, great art of our epoch…” The four movements of the symphony were likened to the psychological stages in the formation of a personality, in which “the Finale brings an optimistic solution to the tragic parts of the first movement…”
Formalism in music
Pravda’s criticism became known as criticism of the formalist trend in music. Formalism, as in the arts and literature, attempted to foist on soviet society art which could only be appreciated by ‘the chosen few’, those enrolled into its secret meanings, a small self-appreciation circle. These days we are so used to this ludicrous attitude to art and social life that we think nothing of it. Incomprehensible garbled words spat out so fast or sang so annoyingly slow they cannot be understood by most people, animal faeces on canvas and in sculpture which is open to ‘interpretation’, and a world of idPol acronyms and alphabetty spaghetti to describe sexuality and race; it is the stranglehold of political correctness enforced by imperialist-funded thought police in universities and art gallery’s, a world under the pernicious influence of toothless vegetarianism in art, literature and philosophy.
In the post war period, the CPSU(b) led a campaign against this trend. In its struggle to overcome the formalists in music it was necessary to overcome Dmitri Shostakovich, amongst others. Speaking to a Conference of Soviet Music Workers in 1948, the great Marxist-Leninist Andrei Zhdanov said,
“There is in fact, then, a sharp though hidden struggle between two trends taking place in Soviet music. One trend represents the healthy, progressive principles in Soviet music, based on the acceptance of the immense role to be played by the classical heritage, and in particular by the Russian school, in the creation of a music which is realist and of truthful content and is closely and organically linked with the people and their folk music and folk song — all this combined with a high degree of professional mastery. The other trend represents a formalism alien to Soviet art, a rejection of the classical heritage under the banner of innovation, a rejection of the idea of the popular origin of music, and of service to the people, in order to gratify the individualistic emotions of a small group of select aesthetes.
The formalist trend brings about the substitution of a music which is false, vulgar and often purely pathological, for natural, beautiful, human music. Furthermore, it is characteristic of this trend to avoid a frontal attack and to screen its revisionist activities by formally agreeing with the basic principles of socialist realism. This sort of underhand method is, of course, nothing new. History can show many instances of revisionism behind the label of sham agreement with a given teaching. This makes it all the more necessary to reveal the real essence of the formalist trend and the damage it has done to the development of Soviet music.
As an example, there is the attitude towards the classical heritage. There is no indication whatever that the supporters of the formalist school are carrying on and developing the traditions of classical music, however much they may protest to the contrary. Any listener will tell you that the works of Soviet composers of the formalist type differ fundamentally from classical music. Classical music is marked by its truthfulness and realism, its ability to blend brilliant artistic form with profound content, and to combine the highest technical achievement with simplicity and intelligibility. Formalism and crude naturalism are alien to classical music in general and to Russian classical music in particular. The high level of the idea content in classical music springs from the recognition of the fact that classical music has its sources in the musical creative powers of the people, in a deep respect and love for the people, their music and song….
Let us recall how Serov [Alexander Serov 1820-1871 – Ed.] described his attitude to folk music. I have in mind his article ‘The Music of South Russian Song’ in which he says:
“Folk songs are musical organisms which are in no way the work of individual creative talent but compositions of the whole people, and by all their attributes far removed from artificial music. These flowers break through the soil into the light quite of their own, as it were, and grow to full resplendence without the slightest thought about authorship and composers’ rights and therefore little resemble the hothouse products of the learned composers’ activity. So it is that, above all, in folk song we find unaffected creative genius and the wisdom of simplicity, as Gogol puts it so aptly in Dead Souls, which is the supreme charm and secret of any work of art.
As a lily in its magnificent raiment of purity puts to shame the glitter of brocade and precious stones, so is folk music, in its childlike simplicity, a thousand times richer and stronger than all the complexities of scholastic invention taught by pedants in conservatoires and music academies.”
How well and forcefully this is said! How true the formulation of the main issue: that the development of music must proceed on a foundation of interplay, that is by enriching ‘academic’ music from folk music. This theme has practically disappeared from our theoretical and critical articles today.”
Whatever Shostakovich’s merits and frailties as a man, his political weaknesses as an artist are discernable. Though he was a man lucky enough to have been born to witness the ascendency of the Russian proletariat and to record in music what he saw he could never shake off the elitism of his education and position. Toadying and nepotism are hang over’s from capitalism and exploitative society that socialism must overcome. As Zhdanov remarked “the crux of the matter is that the regime of the formalist sect in the musical organisations has not been entirely unpleasant, to put it mildly, for the leading group of our composers.” Shostakovich’s greatest musical work is a product of the most fantastic, and incredible era yet witnessed in the development of human culture, the period of socialist construction, and as such it should be of interest to all advanced workers, even if not to taste. His output is inextricably tied to the momentous achievements of the USSR, achievements never surpassed by any other socialist state in terms of the development of all round culture and the moulding of a new man. We must remember that the class struggle is fought across many battlefields, music being one very important front. Our job, as thinking workers and proletarian revolutionaries is to know our Soviet history so as to build the new world.