Friday, June 17, 2016

JULIAN BARNES AND THE SHOSTAKOVICH WARS By Nikil Saval

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1950. What the composer’s music had to do with history has been one of the most fraught questions in the history of music.

On the evening of January 26, 1936, Joseph Stalin and several other Soviet leaders went to the Bolshoi Theatre, in Moscow, to see a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” Shostakovich, only twenty-nine years old, was a rising star among Soviet composers, and his show was a hit; when Stalin came to see it, it was enjoying its eighty-fourth performance at the Bolshoi, after a successful première in Leningrad in 1934, and appearances in several European and American cities. A portrait of the desperate life of the Russian lower-middle class, the opera was sardonic, nervy, and violent, veering constantly between satire and vaudeville and naturalism.

The plot, based on a short story by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, tells of a bored and frustrated housewife, Katerina Ismailova, who begins an affair with a clerk, Sergey, when her merchant husband leaves on a business trip. When her overbearing father-in-law discovers her transgression, she murders him; when her husband returns, she murders him, too. Controversially, Shostakovich portrayed Katerina’s murders and sexual liberation as justifiable responses to the awful environment of Tsarist Russia. The music is often more scandalous than the moral it points to: at one point, the orchestra whips itself into a mechanistic, pounding fury to accompany the lovemaking of Katerina and Sergey, before declining over a long trombone glissando, mimicking a post-coital comedown.

Though the opera had pleased audiences, it did not please Stalin. Somewhere during the third act, he and his comrades conspicuously departed the theatre. Two days later, Stalin’s displeasure was made manifest in an unsigned editorial in Pravda, titled “Muddle Instead of Music”—possibly the most chilling document of philistinism in music history. The author of the review begins by lambasting Shostakovich’s opera for its obscenity, both musical and dramatic (“The music croaks and hoots and snorts and pants in order to represent love scenes as naturally as possible”), and suggests that its success abroad came from the fact that “it titillates the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences with its witching, clamorous, neurasthenic music.”

Read More: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/julian-barnes-and-the-shostakovich-wars

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