Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

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Here’s to the Cowardly Ones: On Dmitri Shostakovich and Emotional Rebellion

Dmitri Shostakovich was, by Julian Barnes’s reckoning, a coward. The leading composer of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s USSR, Shostakovich never stood up to power; he was a constant compromiser, accepting what was asked of him by Soviet leaders and giving speeches written by party ideologues. When Soviet Culture Commissar Andrei Zhdanov lectured Soviet artists on the merits of socialist realism and the ills of formalism, ordering them to follow the Zhdanov Doctrine (“The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best”), Shostakovich did not oppose this shallow culture commissar. He was even compelled to join, in a music congress in New York, the public denunciation of the Soviet Union’s leading exiled composer Igor Stravinsky. In return, Shostakovich was rewarded with every available prize the party handed out to the faithful.

The opening chapter of The Noise of Time, Barnes’s portrait of the composer, puts us on the platform of a train station. The scene seems to come directly out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. A beggar (“the man — in reality half a man”) propels himself using a strange vehicle, “a low trolley with wooden wheels” that can only be steered by wrenching at “the contraption’s front edge.” In order to avoid overbalancing, the beggar uses a “rope that passed underneath the trolley [and] was looped through the top of his trousers.”

This Beckettian beggar’s only concern is to make it to the end of each day, and in this he sets an example for other characters in the novel. Like Shostakovich, “he had become a technique for survival. Below a certain point, that was what all men became: techniques for survival.” Not until we reach the end of Barnes’s latest novel do we realize the significance of its sketchy opening scene, reminiscent of the sink scene at the start of Barnes’s Booker-winning, similarly slim novel, The Sense of an Ending. The scene conceals in it Shostakovich’s Rosebud, the mystery of which drives the reader throughout the book.

Barnes has composed The Noise of Time like a piece of orchestral music. The third-person narrative features numerous leitmotifs: the fear of detainment, the obsession with being on the right side of the party line, the fear of getting blacklisted from Soviet concert halls — none of which had been fears of a paranoid mind: Shostakovich experienced them all. His life was shaped by a series of catastrophes.

Shostakovich came from an urban Saint Petersburg family. His mother had danced the mazurka in front of Nicholas II; after the death of her husband, she took menial jobs to support her two daughters and “a musically precocious son of fifteen.” Shostakovich’s first public performance at the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire was a sad affair. But it had an ostensibly positive outcome: he met Marshal Tukhachevsky, a patron of arts, who helped the young Shostakovich get on with his career (and would eventually get him into serious trouble).

In between 1926 and the premieres of his first masterpieces in the mid-1930s, Shostakovich had already faced numerous hostilities. At the Conservatoire, leftist students tried to have him dismissed; the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians had accused him of being part of the bourgeois stranglehold on the arts and campaigned for his blacklisting. In 1929, at the age of 23, he was denounced, on the grounds that his music was “straying from the main road of Soviet art;” he was accused of formalism by youth organizations.

But it was in 1936, with the publication of a Pravda article on the day after the performance of his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk that Shostakovich’s real troubles began. In a powerfully imagined and chillingly lucid scene, Barnes depicts the composer anxiously watching the government box in the concert hall, across from the director’s box where he was stood. “Stalin was hidden behind a small curtain, an absent presence to whom the other distinguished comrades would sycophantically turn, knowing that they were themselves observed,” we are told. “Given the occasion, both conductor and orchestra were understandably nervous.”

Soon afterwards, on the third page of Pravda, the ominous headline, written probably by Stalin, stabbed a knife in him: MUDDLE INSTEAD OF MUSIC. Shostakovich’s music quacked, grunted and growled, according to the paper; it had a “nervous, convulsive and spasmodic” nature. It “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.”

The next year, in the spring of 1937, Shostakovich had his first direct conflagration with Soviet power when he was dispatched to the party building on Liteiny Prospekt. There he was questioned by a certain Zakrevsky, who asked him about Marshal Tukhachevsky, accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin. Barnes does an excellent job at depicting the psychology of his protagonist during the days when Shostakovich believed his life was about to come to an end. “They always came for you in the middle of the night,” we are informed. “And so, rather than be dragged from the apartment in his pajamas, or forced to dress in front of some contemptuously impassive NKVD man, he would go to bed fully clothed, lying on top of the blankets, a small case already packed on the floor beside him.”

Terrified and unable to think about anything besides power, Shostakovich started spending his nights by the lift, watching the opening of the elevator, waiting for the arrival NVKD men in terror. We watch Shostakovich as he kisses his wife and holds his child one last time before taking the bus to the gray building where he expects to be deported to a labor camp. “He was always punctual, and would go to his death being punctual. He gazed briefly at the River Neva, which would outlast them all.” A set of chance events (it turns out that Zaykrevsky has himself been arrested) helped Shostakovich get off the hook. But the experience has a transformative effect on him; the composer spent the rest of his life fearing the repetition of such a chilling experience. Barnes chronicles how, years later in 1949, the terror returns to Shostakovich’s life with his dismissal from his professorships at Moscow and Leningrad conservatories. The performance of his music are banned. Another miraculous event saved him when the telephone rings in March 1949, and the composer hears the magical words: “Stalin is about to come on the line.”

I was particularly impressed by this scene that brings to mind Louis Althusser’s concept of hailing: we become subjects as we answer to the hail of power — be it the policeman on the street or Comrade Stalin on the phone. The voice of power first asks the artist how he is and only learns that Shostakovich is suffering from stomach ache. Who in his case wouldn’t? “I am sorry to hear that. We shall find a doctor for you,” power says. Shostakovich informs him about his blacklisting; one word from power can surely fix that. And it indeed does. “The mistake will be corrected,” Stalin says. “None of your works has been forbidden. They can all be freely played. This has always been the case.”

Throughout the rest of this moving book, Barnes takes us inside the composer’s mind, observing how he reacts to the ceaseless demands of power. As power gradually thorns apart his soul, Shostakovich learns how to be a strategist. He is a cunning, silent character (not unlike James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus), but chooses not to live in exile, which might potentially save him. Barnes shows how being a coward is not easy as you think. “To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment,” he writes. “When you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t even relax.”

Barnes convincingly argues that it is precisely due to his cowardly qualities (these are very English qualities, according to Barnes) that Shostakovich was a hero. He did not make a show of his soul in public speeches or political statements; he was a misfit, an emotional rebel but only from the inside; only by being strategic was he able to preserve his artistic self in the face of party hostility and oppression.

The day after I finished The Noise of Time I started listening to Shostakovich albums on Spotify — I became fixated on the preludes. You should, too. I had little idea that a text could inflict such an effect on music. But there it was. As I listened to his “Prelude and Fugue no. 4,” all the pains Shostakovich took, all the paranoid acts Barnes meticulously details in his book, suddenly made sense. The introvert misfit whose public persona was so unlikable reveals himself fully in those notes.

If Shostakovich succumbed to power, it was in an effort to leave the world with beauty that cannot be marred by power. The composer’s real feat had been to be able to produce such fugues and preludes while mechanically submitting: as politics killed Shostakovich from inside, his misfit, soul remained magnificently alive in his fugues and preludes. Shostakovich, in his forced cowardice, found his own revolution in his music.

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