Censured Soviet composer who had a score to settle with Stalin
Whenever you hear the lilting lusciousness of the sweet little waltz that Stanley Kubrick used to decorate the title sequence of his final movie Eyes Wide Shut, it's hard to credit that it came from the pen of a composer whose life was anything but as smooth and straightforward as the music.
Dmitri Shostakovich, who was born on this day in 1906, was the first Soviet, as opposed to Russian, composer, and with that came all manner of issues. The upbeat cheeriness of his waltz, in contrast to its minor key, may be a hint of the conflict that was never far from the surface in Shostakovich's creativity.
Yes, he was a Soviet hero, but he was also a villain. Though he saw it as his duty to serve the state as an artist, that state didn't always appreciate what he produced. On occasion banned and blacklisted, he experienced both sides of celebrity in Stalin's Russia.
Shostakovich was always going to be a success. His first symphony was his graduation piece at the Leningrad conservatory. His was a prolific career that spanned over 50 years. He composed 15 symphonies in all, as well as six concertos, chamber music, songs and choral works, and film scores, too. And there was the lighter material, like the little waltz, and his fully orchestrated version of 'Tea for Two', the creation of which had won him a bet!
He staged several operas. One of them – a take on the tale of Lady Macbeth – offended Stalin. This saga of divorce and murder, when the state was promoting the value of family in the Soviet master plan, prompted an editorial in Pravda headlined "Muddle instead of Music", which went on to suggest that things had the potential to "end very badly" for the artist responsible.
But despite the official opprobrium, and the fact that Shostakovich's opera would stay banned for 30 years, he was left to carry on composing, quite possibly because of his success in the movies.
It was Lenin who had said that cinema was the most important of all the arts for getting the communist message across. Shostakovich had been a silent cinema pianist. Several successful films had featured his music. He couldn't be simply swept aside.
And yet, 10 years later, he was losing his job as a teacher because his music was deemed ideologically unsound. When Stalin died in 1953, Shostakovich was free to elaborate on his experience and he did, in his 10th symphony, a damning indictment in music of all he'd been through.
And therein lies one of several paradoxes. The young idealist could write music that would revile the state he'd been so keen to serve. And the man with the serious message could deliver music as light as his 'Waltz No 2', which is not actually from his second Jazz Suite, as is widely believed, but belongs in his Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra – a different collection entirely – and a digression for another day.
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