Censorship, Shostakovich, and the musical wasteland of Stalin’s Soviet Russia

Muddle Instead of Music Episode Transcript

A stately gentleman dressed in a military jacket and pressed trousers carefully settled into his chair at the Moscow theater. It was 1936. An attendant collected his overcoat, his fur hat, then asked for his gloves. It was a bitterly cold January night in Moscow, and the gentleman was reluctant to give them up.

His military medals jingled together as he bent forward to tighten a shoelace. The medals sounded intimidating, they sounded proud. He sat up a little bit straighter and smoothed the corners of his steel-grey mustache. He smoothed his hair back. Each strand was like a Russian citizen–it needed to be accounted for, it needed to act exactly like the rest, and it needed to behave just how he wished it to. 

As he looked down at the assembling audience from his private box, he started feeling that he wouldn’t enjoy this performance of Shostakovich’s latest success, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. After all, the opera had debuted two years ago and achieved success with both the Soviet populace and opera-goers around the world. It had even become a beloved staple in the American city of New York. If the Western fools in New York liked it, he knew it was unhealthy for the people of the Soviet Union. 

But he would suffer through the opera anyhow.

He watched with interest as the actors carried out the plot. He didn’t give his thoughts away to those around him, except for a few dark shimmers in his eye. He even clapped politely between acts.

At some point in the fourth act, his patience broke. The audience was laughing, they were crying–they were genuinely moved. He thought they looked pathetic. It was not how a well-run Soviet citizenry should look. He abruptly stood up and left. 

Few people noticed when the man with the military jacket left, but a certain friend of Shostakovich had been watching. Startled, he leaned over to Shostakovich and whispered in the composer’s ear. 

Stalin’s gone. He just got up and left.

Shostakovich’s face paled. The audience began to applaud and demand a curtain call, oblivious to what lay ahead. But deep in his musical soul, Shostakovich knew something had gone terribly wrong.

This is Backstage Podcast.


Hello and welcome to this week’s Backstage Podcast: where we tell you true stories about music and its musicians. My name is Justen Blackstone and I will be your guide today as we traverse the mountain of narrative that my cohost, Adam Gingery has prepared for us. I hope you’re ready to join us as we take a look at the musical wasteland that was Stalin’s Soviet Russia, and how censorship affected the composers and musicians during this time. Before we start the story though, Adam and I just want to thank you for your support as we try and tell these true stories about music.  We love learning alongside our listeners as we seek out new and interesting stories from history past. We hope you are having as much fun listening to these as we are making them for all of you. So without further ado, let’s get right to the good stuff.  

The Soviet Union had a dark history of using music to manipulate the people of Russia. Following the October Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin imposed free music education in the school system. Sounds great, right? It was all fun and games, other than the fact that the Soviet Union effectively brainwashed a generation of Russians with devious music education. 

The next head of Russia, Josef Stalin, started forcing the students to sing songs in a corporate fashion about how kind, loving, and compassionate he was as a ruler. Things got weird quickly. Control of music went entirely over the state with the Resolution of 1932.

Basically, the government only allowed music that conformed to Socialist Realism, which was a movement in the arts that glorified the struggle of the lower class and strove for freedom and release from bondage. Ironic, isn’t it?

Music was henceforth to be simple and direct, and it was to espouse the virtues of the Soviet lifestyle. Complicated, elusive, or very dissonant music was referred to as “Formalistic,” and it was illegal. Prokofiev, Shostakovich and many others struggled with this throughout their lives.

It was into this cultural climate that Shostakovich burst onto the scene. He was witty, he was absolutely unique, and he was absurdly talented. He was also forward-thinking.

That was a bad mix for a Soviet composer.

Earlier, we left you hanging at the end Shostakovich’s Moscow performance of Lady MacBeth. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union himself, had attended and left early. That was never a good sign.

Shostakovich was left to tortuous worrying that night and all the next day. Why had Stalin left? Clearly this was a bad sign–what did it mean? He didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Two days later, on January 28th, 1936, he received a copy of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The headline read “Muddle Instead of Music.” 

In horror, he continued to read.

Quote 1:

Several theaters have presented to the culturally maturing Soviet public Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth . . .” as a novelty, as an accomplishment. Fawning musical criticism extols the opera to the heavens, trumpeting its fame. Instead of practical and serious criticism that could assist him in his future work, the young composer hears only enthusiastic compliments.

From the very first moment of the opera the listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of a musical phrase drown, struggle free and disappear again in the din, the grinding, the squealing. To follow this “music” is difficult, to remember it is impossible…At the same time as our critic–including musical critics—swear by the name of Socialist Realism, in Shostakovich’s work the stage presents us with the coarsest naturalism.

This unsigned editorial, which historians have suggested was anonymously written by Joseph Stalin, came as a shock to the young Soviet composer. He had never been accused of anti-soviet formalism before–in fact, he had been uplifted as a great example of Soviet ideals. Even his opera Lady Macbeth had been lifted up as the epitome of Socialist Realism in the past. Judging by the following quote from Dmitri in 1935, just a year earlier, it’s easy to see why he was confused:

Quote 2:

“At one time I was subjected to fierce critical attacks, principally for formalism. I did not recognize such reproaches to the slightest extent. I have never been and never will be a formalist. To disparage any work whatsoever as formalist on the grounds that the language of the work is complicated and sometimes not immediately understandable is unacceptable foolishness.”

Unfortunately for Shostakovich, he had also been documented at composer’s conferences discussing the merits of Western music and that of jazz, Schoenberg, and especially Alban Berg. No doubt those words came back to haunt him. Furthermore, Joseph Stalin had recently attended an opera by Dzerzhinskiy, a Shostakovich protege, entitled And Quiet Flows the Don. Stalin saw propagandic value in this opera, and publicized it as a good example of Soviet ideals. He even awarded Dzerzhinskiy the “Stalin Prize.” 

Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth, which was much less accessible listeners, clearly rubbed Stalin the wrong way–the dictator only permitted works that could be readily grasped. If an attendee could leave whistling the melodies easily, it was a success. If not, well, see what happened to  Shostakovich.

Around this time, the All-Union Committee for Artistic Affairs, which then became the USSR Ministry of Culture, was formed. It oversaw, or rather dictated, all of the arts in Soviet Russia, not just music.

Only a few days after the first damning editorial appeared in Pravda, a second hit the press. It viciously attacked his Shostakovich’s ballet score for another work playing in Moscow entitled “The Limpid Stream,” in part because it didn’t draw heavily from the Russian folksong repertoire. The editorial ran under the headline “Balletic Falsity,” and it was just as ridiculous as “Muddle Instead of Music.” Here’s an excerpt: 

Quote 3: “The authors of the ballet–both producers and composer–evidently reckon that our public is undemanding, that it was swallow everything that nimble and impertinent people cook up for it.”

This negative article in a government paper, now the second in as many weeks, ruined Shostakovich. 

A steady stream of negative editorial began to appear throughout the Soviet Union, prompting Dmitri to ask his friend Isaak Glikman to sign up for a newspaper clipping services. After only two weeks of receiving relevant newspaper clippings, Shostakovich’s notebook was full. 

It was 78 pages long.

Even Shostakovich’s fellow composers began to swallow the government’s Kool Aid about his music. On February 10, 1936, a group of composers met to discuss current events and artistic freedom, and unfortunately for Shostakovich, they didn’t side with him. He was now an outcast both socially and artistically—a long fall for the most promising composer in the Soviet Union.

Following the fateful Pravda editorial, Shostakovich’s friends, acquaintances, and enemies fell into varying categories. Some shunned him for their own safety, others maintained a secret admiration. Still others turned on him publicly. In short, we narrowed Shostakovich’s acquaintances into four general categories:

First, many people were openly critical of the composer. This would include the government, government sponsored publications, and most of the press. Whether or not the press actually thought Shostakovich was in the wrong or if they were coerced is a different matter entirely.

Secondly, many of Shostakovich’s fellow composers and peers had allowed their views to bow to the Pravda’s incessant editorials. They weren’t out to attack Shostakovich from the start, but they were weak and allowed the government’s sentiment to shape their own.

Thirdly, some well-meaning artists continued to support Shostakovich, although they did think his music needed to adopt realism more fully. They labeled him, in a fairly patronizing way, as merely a young and talented composer who needed more time to learn the Soviet way rather than be publicly humiliated. One such supporter was Maxim Gorky, an influential literary figure who had access to Stalin. He delivered the following message to the Soviet ruler:

“Shostakovich is young . . . an unquestionably talented man, but very self-assured and quite high-strung. The Pravda article hit him just like a brick on the head, the chap is utterly crushed…”Muddle,” but why? What does this so-called “muddle” consist of? Critics should give a technical assessment of Shostakovich’s music. But what the Pravda article did was to authorize hundreds of talentless people, hacks of all kinds, to persecute Shostakovich. And that is what they are doing–You can’t call Pravda’s attitude to him “solicitous,’ and he is deserving precisely of a solicitous attitude as the most talented of all contemporary Soviet musicians.”

The fourth group was a small handful of actual supporters. Shostakovich’s best friend Sollertinsky, a long-time critical ally in the Leningrad press, tried to argue with the Pravda’s articles, but the government newspapers bullied him endlessly. Composer Vsevolod Meyerhold had also been damaged by “Muddle instead of Music,” and he defended Shostakovich publicly. Thanks largely to Meyerhold’s influence, Shostakovich didn’t bend to the breaking point under pressure from the Soviet leadership. He refused to renounce Lady MacBeth. And I quote . . .

“Lady Macbeth, for all her enormous flaws, is for me the kind of work that I could never stab in the back. I could be wrong and it could be that my courage is insufficient, but it seems to me that one needs courage not only to murder one’s own things but also to defend them.”

The newly minted Chief of the Committee for Artistic Affairs even went so far as to publicly print Shostakovich’s so-called plan for rehabilitation. Here are his words:

 “If up to this point Shostakovich composed in privacy under the influence of such sorry excuses for critics as Sollertinsky, then now his work should proceed first and foremost from our country’s abundant repertoire of folk song. It would not be a bad idea for Shostakovich to take a page from the book of Rimsky-Korsakov, and become acquainted with the rich mine of musical folklore of the peoples of the soviet union.”

Shostakovich, the once favorite composer in the Soviet Union, was now absent from the press and from Russian theaters and concert halls. In essence, he was one step away from exile. Rather than repenting though, he turned towards his 4th symphony, completing it at the end of April, 1936.


So now we come to the part where we read your emails. Guess what Adam? Nobody has sent us an email. Not a single person!

We will take anything! Feedback, things you hate, things you like, questions about stories, random questions for Adam and me! We’ll take it all. Send us your emails.

Let’s get back to the Russians.

By the late spring of 1936, Shostakovich found himself in dire financial straits. Commissions weren’t rolling in anymore, and nobody was interested in performance appearances from the renounced composer. According to historian Laurel Fay, his income had gone from 10,000-12,000 rubles a month to 2,000-4,000. He had a mother, wife, and daughter in his care. He needed cash. 

His need was so great that he agreed to write the music for a play about the Spanish Civil War called “Salute, Spain!”. It was simple, easy, and stylized per Spanish music guidelines. He took no risks. It was a sad reminder that the great composer, the shining star of Soviet music, was now subjected to writing uncreative (so to speak), practical music for nothing but a paycheck. 

His Fourth Symphony was now complete though, and the debut was scheduled for with the Leningrad Philharmonic for December 11, almost a year after the fateful Pravda editorials. The date finally arrived, and he was terrified. 

As the Leningrad public opened the newspaper on the morning of December 11 though, they read the following front page excerpt: 

“Composer Shostakovich appealed to the Leningrad Philharmonic with the request to withdraw his Fourth Symphony from performance on the grounds that it in no way corresponds to his current creative convictions and represents for him a long outdated phase.”

Shostakovich had obviously not withdrawn his symphony out of free will. Government officials had attended rehearsals, labeled the music and formalistic and unSoviet, and Shostakovich was likely faced with two choices. He could either remove it himself or have it removed publicly by the government.

Rumors started circulating that Shostakovich had canceled the performance because the conductor, Fritz Stiedry, simply was incapable of carrying out such a difficult work. This is almost certainly untrue. Another theory that had more merit was that the orchestra rejected the music because it didn’t fit perfectly within the Soviet ideals of realism. It was a difficult work and not entirely accessible, so the orchestra may have revolted by not playing well in rehearsal. Shostakovich would have been forced to withdraw the opera under these circumstances.

The truth, however, was that Shostakovich’s work was once again vetoed by the Soviet government. His magnificent Fourth Symphony would not be performed until 1961.

Following the aborted premiere, he remained in obscurity and relative poverty until he and his friend Sollertinsky were hired at the Leningrad conservatory in 1937. 

By 1936  Soviet paranoia had exploded. Literary figure Maxim Gorky, the man who had once defended Shostakovich, mysteriously died in June of 1936. His assassination was ordered by Stalin.

The infamous Trotskyite-Zinovievite conspiracy led to death sentence after death sentence, and by spring 1937, Shostakovich’s own brother-in-law was arrested and his sister was exiled to Central Asia. His mother in law was also removed to a labor camp. His high-ranking officer friend in Leningrad, Dombrovsky, was purged and his wife was sent to labor camps. Shostakovich lived in constant fear of his life and liberty.

It goes without saying that Shostakovich had not presented anything new to the general public for performance in 2 years–his three most recent original works, Lady Macbeth, The Limpid Stream, and Symphony No. 4, had all threatened his freedom. 

In may of 1937, another of Shostakovich’s friends, a high ranking military officer named Tukhachevsky, was executed on false accusations of treason. A few months after that, another mutual friend of his and Tukhachevsky’s, a theorist named Zhilyaev, disappeared under mysterious circumstances..

Under these circumstances, Shostakovich attended the premiere of his 5th Symphony in Leningrad in November of 1937. Everyone knew that Shostakovich’s career, his freedom, and maybe even his life were at stake. One more failure to satisfy the Soviet government’s desire for Realist music would be the end of Shostakovich.

Fortunately, the composer had written the 5th Symphony in a standard four-movement pattern. It was accessible in style and melody, and in short, it was uncomplicated. He didn’t want to take chances, at least openly. The conductor, Mravinsky, was just a regular staff conductor. He was unknown to the world, and he apparently had no idea what he was getting into.

Shostakovich refrained from making public statements about his symphony prior to the debut for fear of saying something wrong. There was no room for a misstep this time around.

He waited with baited breath as Mravinsky guided the Leningrad Philharmonic through the symphony. He was justifiably terrified. And the symphony was an unprecedented and arousing success. 

Shostakovich’s famous largo section brought the audience to tears. By the end of the finale, the entire audience was standing on its feet, moved with unbridled passion.

The audience cheered, sobbed and applauded—they wouldn’t stop. Shostakovich had to make curtain call after curtain call, and the crowd, fully aware of the government’s witchhunt against the composer, began shouting: “That was his answer, and it was a good one!”

After a few minutes of this, it occurred to Shostakovich’s friends that he was actually in grave danger yet again, albeit for a different reason. The crowd, moved by his music, was dangerously close to demonstration status. Given the rate at which Shostakovich’s friends were disappearing or being executed, they didn’t want the government officials to accuse the composer of causing anti-government insurrection or sentiment.

Officials from the Committee for Artistic Affairs were, of course, uncomfortable with the incredible reception. They took the crowd’s response as a direct challenge to their judgement, and they attended subsequent performances to investigate. 

They began planting rumors that the roaring crowds were a claque planted in the audience by Shostakovich(if you’re unfamiliar with these, go back to episode 1 or check out the article on our site. Popular opinion put a quick end to these rumors though. For once, Shostakovich came out on top. He played the Soviets’ game, and he won. 

Critics began embracing the symphony cautiously once they realized it was safe to do so, and they declared that the brash composer was back on the right track to Socialist Realism. 

People who knew Shostakovich best saw through the charade though. They realized that the Symphony No. 5, though a huge success, signaled his compliance with Soviet artistic demands. 

His own best friend, Sollertinsky, claimed that it was merely written from the so-called “waste matter’ of the doomed 4th symphony. Other leading voices, including the poet Osip Mandelstam, thought they heard intimidation in the music. They were sad to see the creative vision of a genius altered by an oppressive government.

One thing was certain though–Shostakovich had risen from the ashes of 1936 and placed himself at the very top of Europe’s compositional scene once again.

And whether or not it was written in accordance with Soviet demands, the Fifth Symphony lives on as one of history’s greatest works. 


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