"Dissident" Meanings in Shostakovich's Music

by Allan B. Ho

Richard Taruskin has suggested ("Casting a Great Composer as a Fictional Hero," New York Times, 5 March 2000) that the "dissident" meanings attributed to Shostakovich's works were fabricated by the composer, late in life, to revise his own historical image, or are merely the result of speculation and "fantasizing" by members of a Shostakovich "cult". In doing so, he ignores the numerous testimonies of people who knew the composer personally and understood these hidden meanings long ago, not just in hindsight.

As Margarita Mazo states, "Those of us who were 'in the know' were always searching for the second layer of meaning in Shostakovich's works." (DSCH Journal 12, p. 72. Emphasis added.) Kurt Sanderling adds: "For us contemporaries who knew and worked with Shostakovich, it has never been difficult to interpret his works along with their double meanings. For us, it was all very clear." ("Performers on Shostakovich: Kurt Sanderling", DSCH Journal 6, p. 12. Emphasis added.)

Shostakovich told his longtime friend Flora Litvinova that "without the authorities...'contort[ing] us... warp[ing] our lives'... without 'Party guidance', he would have been 'stronger and sharper' in his work and could have 'revealed his ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage...'" (Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, p. 426.) At the same time, he believed his music was still crystal clear to those "who had ears to listen." (Op. cit., p. 317.) As for those without ears, who "did not understand what he was trying to say in his music without having to be told," Shostakovich believed "there was just no hope." (Maxim Shostakovich, "Shostakovich Symposium", Shostakovich Reconsidered, p. 389.)

Consider the following works and testimonies...

The Fifth Symphony
(1937; an example of "forced rejoicing" in the USSR during the Terror)

(1) Mstislav Rostropovich, the dedicatee of Shostakovich's cello concertos and a close friend of the composer, confirms that the rejoicing in the finale is forced:

The applause went on for an entire hour. People were in uproar, and ran up and down through the streets of Leningrad till the small hours, embracing and congratulating each other on having been there. They had understood the message that forms the "lower bottom", the outer hull, of the Fifth Symphony: the message of sorrow, suffering and isolation; stretched on the rack of the Inquisition, the victim still tries to smile in his pain. The shrill repetitions of the A at the end of the symphony are to me like a spear-point jabbing in the wounds of a person on the rack. The hearers of the first performance could identify with that person. Anybody who thinks the finale is glorification is an idiot.... (Juliane Ribke, "From a Conversation with Mstislav Rostropovich," notes to Deutsche Grammophon 410 509-2. Emphasis added.)

(2) conductor Kurt Sanderling -- Yevgeny Mravinsky's assistant for twenty years with the Leningrad Philharmonic (which premiered many of Shostakovich's works) -- states:

In the Fifth Symphony, with the so called "Triumph" at the end -- we understood what he was saying. And it was not the "Triumph" of the mighty, those in power. There was no need for further explanation. ("Performers on Shostakovich: Kurt Sanderling," p. 12.)

(3) Alexander Fadeyev, who was present at the work's premiere, noted in his diary that "The end does not sound like an outcome (and ever less like a triumph or victory), but like a punishment or revenge of someone." (Solomon Volkov, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History, p. 425.)

(4) Russian musicologist Inna Barsova explains how Shostakovich would often "defend the truth of the music with untruthful words about it." ("Between 'Social Demands' and the 'Music of Grand Passions' [The years 1934--37 in the life of Dmitry Shostakovich]," paper, University of Michigan, 28 January 1994).) Galina Vishnevskaya, the wife of Rostropovich and a close friend of the composer, elaborates:

Before the Fifth Symphony was allowed to be performed, it was heard by the Party aktiv in Leningrad. A few dozen nincompoops together to judge a genius: to make objections, to lecture him, and in general to teach him how to write music. He had to save his newborn from their talons. But how? He tried to deceive them in the most rudimentary way, and succeeded! All he had to do was use other words to describe the huge complex of human passions and suffering that is so apparent in his music -- he described his music to the Party as joyous and optimistic -- and the entire pack dashed off, satisfied. (Vishnevskaya, Galina, p. 212.)

(5) The finale also includes a quotation from Shostakovich's song "Rebirth," the words of which corroborate the hidden meaning of the work. Curiously, Laurel Fay, in her recent book Shostakovich: A Life, does not even mention this quotation, which was acknowledged by Elizabeth Wilson, Gerard McBurney, and others at least six years ago:

The four notes that set the first three words of that poem ["A barbarian painter with his somnolent brush / Blackens the genius's painting, / Slapping over it senselessly / His own lawless picture"] form the kernel of the initial march theme, while a whole later section makes reference to the lilting accompaniment to the poem's final quatrain, "Thus delusions fall off / My tormented soul / And it reveals to me visions / Of my former pure days". (Wilson, p. 127.)

Here the "barbarian painter" is, of course, Stalin, who repeatedly defaced the works of Shostakovich and his colleagues, forcing them to conform to the dictates of socialist realism. Shostakovich also predicts (correctly) that these old delusions will eventually fall off, revealing the original work and its true meaning.

The Seventh Symphony
(1941; a work not just about the Nazis, but also about Stalin)

(1) Maxim Shostakovich, the composer's son, states:

Critics felt it described the tragedy of the war; but it was not just about the war....My father always said, "I think long; I write fast" -- the time preceding the war was probably the inspiration of Symphony No. 7, the tragedy of a nation. There were negative evil forces -- in Germany and in the USSR; the USSR had its own fascism and its own "Hitler." The Seventh Symphony is not just military... ("Six Lectures on the Shostakovich Symphonies," Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 410-11.)

(2) Rostislav Dubinsky, a member of the Borodin Quartet and a friend of the composer, notes that "Soviet musicologists conveniently forgot that the first movement of the Seventh Symphony already existed a year before the war, back when Stalin was still Hitler's faithful friend." (Dubinsky, Stormy Applause, p. 155.)

(3) Lev Lebedinsky, a longtime friend of the composer and a collaborator on several works, adds:

The "Leningrad" Symphony [...was] planned and begun before Hitler's attack on Russia in 1941. The tune of the notorious march in the first movement was conceived by Shostakovich as the "Stalin" theme (all who were close to the composer knew this). After the war had started, Shostakovich declared it to be the "Hitler" theme. Later, when the work was published, he renamed it the "Evil" theme -- justly, since both Hitler and Stalin met the specification. ("Code, Quotation, and Collage: Some Musical Allusions in the Works of Dmitry Shostakovich", Shostakovich Reconsidered, p. 482.)

(4) Flora Litvinova, the composer's neighbor when the Seventh Symphony was composed, documented in contemporaneous notes what the composer himself said about the work:

"Fascism, yes, but music, real music, is never literally bound to one theme. Fascism is not just National Socialism; this music is about terror, slavery, the bondage of spirit". Later, when Dmitry Dmitryevich got used to me and started to trust me, he told me straight out that the Seventh (as well as the Fifth) were not just about fascism, but also about our system, about any tyranny and totalitarianism in general. (Wilson, pp. 158-59; Shostakovich Reconsidered, p. 488.)

(5) Russian musicologist Vladimir Zak concurs: the Seventh Symphony is not only about "a foreign fascism -- German -- but also (and this is so very unbearable) of our own native fascism. This is the reason why many listeners seem to hear in the 'invasion theme' not only the aggressors drawing near and defacing the Russian land, but also the trampling of the boots of the NKVD..." (Shostakovich's Idioms," Shostakovich Reconsidered, p. 500.)

(6) The Symphony was begun before the Nazi invasion (22 June 1941) and thus could not have been inspired solely by it:

[the] Seventh Symphony was included in the program for the Leningrad Philharmonic's 1941--42 season, that is, before the German invasion. That could have been done only with the composer's consent and indicates that Shostakovich had a clear idea of his Seventh Symphony and was sure that he would complete it by the fall season. (Volkov, St. Petersburg, p. 427; Sofiya Khentova, Shostakovich. zhizn' i tvorchestvo [Shostakovich. Life and Work] (Leningrad: Sovetsky Kompozitor, 1986), Vol. 1, p. 543.)

Yuly Vainkop, who kept close track of the composer's activities, reported in May 1941 that "In the near future, D. Shostakovich, apparently, will finish his Seventh Symphony (the completion of which was postponed by the composer because of his work on the orchestration of Musorgsky's opera Boris Godunov [finished in 1940]." (Khentova, op. cit., p. 526. When contacted in November 1995, Khentova confirmed the accuracy of Vainkop's statement.) In addition, Aleksandr Sherel' claims to have seen a sketch of the "invasion theme" dated 26 June 1939. (Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 157-58.)

The Ninth Symphony
(1945; a light work intended to deflate Stalin's ego after World War II)

(1) Stalin wanted a largescale, heroic symphony with chorus to celebrate his victory in World War II. Shostakovich provided just the opposite. According to Isaak Glikman, the composer feared that "on the crest of this victory, Stalin would consolidate his tyranny, consolidate his despotism, and his inhumanity." (The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin [video, 1998].)

(2) composer Dmitry Tolstoy recalls:

When he first showed it, some people asked, "Is he serious about all this?" And many Communist zealots and ideologues said: "What, is he making fun of our victory? What is this?" This kind of melody. A kind of street whistling. Too light, I would say, for a symphony. Shostakovich did [in this work] what is called giving the "finger in the pocket." (The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin [video, 1998].)

(3) conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered many of Shostakovich's works, told his orchestra (re the finale): "You have the wrong sound. I need the sound of the trampling of steel-shod boots." (Wilson, p. 315.) Violinist Yakov Milkis adds, "We knew he wasn't referring to ordinary soldiers, but to KGB forces." (Ibid, p. 315.)

From Jewish Folk Poetry
(1948; written in support of beleaguered Jews at a time of growing anti-Semitism in the USSR)

(1) Manashir Yakubov, curator of the Shostakovich family archive, says this work was "a direct response to growing official anti-semitism." (Shostakovich 1906-1975, booklet for the Rostropovich/London Symphony cycle [1998], p. 11.)

(2) Natalya Vovsi-Mikhoels, the daughter of slain Jewish leader Solomon Mikhoels, recalls how, after the "presenter" declared about "Lullaby" [one of the songs] that "it all took place in Tsarist Russia...people barely restrained themselves from laughing [because they understood the contemporary references]. For a long time after that Dmitri Dmitriyevich liked to repeat, 'It all took place in Tsarist Russia, it all took place in Tsarist Russia.'" (Wilson, p. 230.)

(3) Nina Dorliak, one of the singers at the first (private) performance, recalls worrying that her "colleagues might balk at the idea of singing [this] 'unacceptable' music." (Wilson, p. 236.)

(4) musicologist Daniil Zhitomirsky, who was present at the above performance, wrote in his diary that it was "very good" that the performance scheduled for the Composer's Union in late 1948 was canceled. He "feared that new attacks would take place. Anti-Semitism was already gaining ground higher up." (Shostakovich Reconsidered, p. 471.) In another article, he notes: "But it [the scheduled performance] was not to be. First came casual warnings, followed by unexplained delays -- then, finally -- explicit prohibition decreed from above." ("Shostakovich: the Public and the Private.")

(5) Russian musicologist Abraam Gozenpud notes: "Shostakovich first showed his cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry at the Moscow Union of Composers early in 1953, just after the news bulletin in the press had appeared denouncing the [Jewish] Doctors....The performance of this cycle at that time was an act of civic courage." (Wilson, p. 238.)

(6) musicologist Joachim Braun, the leading authority on the Jewish aspect of Shostakovich's music, also comments on the dissident aspect of this work in two articles: "The Double Meaning of Jewish Elements in Dmitri Shostakovich's Music," Musical Quarterly 71, No. 1 (1985), 68-80; "Shostakovich's Vocal Cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry," in Malcolm H. Brown, ed., Russian and Soviet Music: Essays for Boris Schwarz (1984), pp. 259-86.

Braun notes that "the Jewish subject matter was, by its mere existence, provocative. At a time when Jewish culture was under fire, the performance of such a work would have been dangerous." (Musical Quarterly, p. 75.) He goes on to comment on "the more or less obvious dissidence of the text" which he describes as starting a new trend in Soviet music "notable for its anti-establishment...overtones" and use of "Aesopian language" (ibid, p. 78-79), notes that the use of Jewish elements "may be interpreted as hidden dissidence [and] is in fact a hidden language of resistance communicated to the aware listener of its subtle meaning," (ibid, pp. 78-79) and praises the cycle as "one of Shostakovich's most beautiful and richly symbolic compositions, a masterpiece of the composer's secret language of dissent" (Russian and Soviet Music, p. 260).

Why, then, does Laurel Fay, in her recent book, quote Braun describing From Jewish Folk Poetry as, in part, "stylized urban folk art," but remain silent about the dissident aspects of the work mentioned repeatedly above and even alluded to in Braun's title "The Double Meaning of Jewish Elements in Dmitri Shostakovich's Music"? Why does Fay mention Shostakovich's statement "I envy him" while visiting the family home of the murdered Solomon Mikhoels, but remain silent on his words that show his awareness of what was happening to Jews. Vovsi-Mikhoels reports that the composer, during his visit to the family home, also stated "'This' had started with the Jews but would end with the entire intelligentsia." (Ibid, p. 261.) This statement appears in a book edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown, to which Fay herself was a contributor.

(1948-1960s; a musical satire of Soviet officials and their policies regarding music)

(1) according to Rostropovich, this anti-Stalin satire, which viciously parodies the officially sanctioned music as well as the officials themselves (Stalin, Zhdanov, Shepilov, Khrennikov, and others) "proves how he [Shostakovich] really thought," refuting Soviet books that say "what a good Communist Shostakovich was." (John Rockwell, 'Rostropovich to Conduct Premiere of Unpublished Shostakovich Work', New York Times [11 January 1989], p. C17.)

(2) Vissarion Shebalin, a close friend, recognized the danger of composing such a work and advised Shostakovich to destroy all trace of Rayok: "You could be shot for such things." (Wilson, p. 296.)

The Eleventh Symphony
(1957; inspired by both the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the events of 1905)

Shostakovich links the tragedies of the past and present by quoting the music of several revolutionary songs, which, in turn, call to mind texts apropos for 1956-7. The first movement quotes the prison song 'Listen', the original text of which reads: 'The autumn night is as black as treason, black as the tyrant's conscience. Blacker than that night a terrible vision rises from the fog -- prison.' The finale quotes a famous revolutionary song with the words: 'Rage, you tyrants -- Mock us, threaten us with prison and chains. We are strong in spirit, if weak in body. Shame, shame on you tyrants!'

(1) Lev Lebedinsky points out:

What we heard in this music was not the police firing on the crowd in front of the Winter Palace in 1905, but the Soviet tanks roaring in the streets of Budapest. This was so clear to those "who had ears to listen", that his son, with whom he wasn't in the habit of sharing his deepest thoughts, whispered to Dmitri Dmitriyevich during the dress rehearsal, "Papa, what if they hang you for this?" (Wilson, p. 317; Volkov, St. Petersburg, pp. 461--62.)

(2) Manashir Yakubov confirms that "from its very earliest performances, [some] viewed the symphony as an allegorical reflection of contemporary bloody events in Hungary (1956), where the Soviet Union had acted as 'policeman of Europe' and executioner of a democratic movement." (Yakubov, op. cit., p. 57. Emphasis added.)

(3) Igor Belsky recalls the composer saying, "Don't forget that I wrote that symphony [the Eleventh] in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising." (Wilson, p. 320.)

(4) Irina Shostakovich, the composer's widow, confirms that Shostakovich had the events of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 "in mind" when he wrote this work. (DSCH Journal 12, p. 72.)

(1960; a commentary on present as well as past ideologies)

Vishnevskaya recognized how the texts referred to contemporary as well as past events. It was she who suggested to the composer that the song cycle be called "Pictures of the Past" because otherwise the authorities would never approve verses such as "Our Posterity," which, though written in 1910, was also "an indictment of the current Soviet regime and its insane ideology." "Throw them that bone and they might sanction it. Yesterday is part of the past, too; the public will see it that way." Shostakovich responded: "Beautifully thought out, Galya! Beautifully thought out. Under 'Satires' we'll put 'Pictures of the Past' in parentheses, like a kind of fig leaf. We'll cover up the embarrassing parts for them." (Vishnevskaya, Galina, pp. 268--29.)

The Eighth Quartet
(1960; an autobiographical work, the composer portraying himself as a victim of fascism)

(1) a letter from Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman (16 July 1960) corroborates that this work was not about the victims of fascism and war in Dresden, but an autobiographical work in which the composer himself is the victim:

When I die, it's hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself. One could write on the frontispiece, "Dedicated to the author of this quartet".

The main theme is the monogram D, Es, C, H, that is -- my initials. The quartet makes use of themes from my works and the revolutionary song "Tormented by Grievous Bondage." My own themes are the following: from the First Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, the Piano Trio, the Cello Concerto and Lady Macbeth, Wagner's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung and the second theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony are also hinted at. And I forgot -- there's also a theme from my Tenth Symphony. Quite something -- this little miscellany! (Wilson, p. 340; from Glikman, p. 159.)

(2) Rostislav Dubinsky, a member of the Borodin Quartet and a longtime friend, recalls that "when, at the first performance at the Composers' House, the chairman announced the quartet and started talking about the war and the heroism of the Soviet people and the Communist Party, Shostakovich jumped up and shouted, 'No, no... that is, you see, I, I, myself, personally, so to speak, am protesting against any sort of Fascism.'"(Dubinsky, Stormy Applause: p. 282.) The composer also confided that the Eighth Quartet "is myself."

(3) Lebedinsky adds:

The composer dedicated the Quartet to the victims of fascism to disguise his intentions, although, as he considered himself a victim of a fascist regime, the dedication was apt. In fact he intended it to be a summation of everything he had written before. It was his farewell to life. He associated joining the Party with a moral, as well as physical death. On the day of his return from a trip to Dresden, where he had completed the Quartet and purchased a large number of sleeping pills, he played the Quartet to me on the piano and told me with tears in his eyes that it was his last work. He hinted at his intention to commit suicide. Perhaps subconsciously he hoped that I would save him. I managed to remove the pills from his jacket pocket and gave them to his son Maxim, explaining to him the true meaning of the Quartet. (Wilson, p. 340. The abbreviated references to the "Dies irae" at the end of the third and fifth movements, sometimes juxtaposed to DSCH, may also allude to the composer's anticipated death.)

(4) Maxim Shostakovich confirms the special, personal significance of this work to his father:

My father cried twice in his life: when his mother died and when he came to say they've made him join the Party. [...T]his was sobbing, not just tears, but sobbing. It was in the 1960s that they made him join the Party. There was simply no other way for him at that time. [. . .] The powers-that-be put a lot of pressure on Shostakovich to give some kind of title to the Eighth Quartet in order to explain its pessimism. Something about Dresden, or the destruction of Dresden at the end of World War II. And, of course, only a stupid person could not understand the combination in that quartet of his musical signature ('DSCH'), along with the tune of a well-known Russian prison song ("Tortured by grievous bondage"). And the knocks on the door by the KGB, you can also hear them there. ("Shostakovich Symposium," Shostakovich Reconsidered, p. 390.)

The Twelfth Symphony
(1961; originally to be a satire of Lenin)

(1) Lebedinsky confirms that the Twelfth Symphony was originally to be a satire of Lenin:

In 1961 Shostakovich made another attempt to express his true attitude to what was going on in his country. He decided that his Twelfth Symphony was to be a satire of Lenin. When he told me this I tried to talk him out of it. It was too dangerous and nobody would understand anyway. He brushed off my advice with, "He who has ears will hear" (a favourite Shostakovich expression). [... Shostakovich later] explained: "I wrote the symphony, and then I realized that you had been right. They'd crucify me for it because my conception was an obvious caricature of Lenin. Therefore I sat down and wrote another one in three or four days. And it's terrible!" (Wilson, p. 346.)

(2) Sofiya Khentova, Shostakovich's authorized Soviet biographer, confirms that sketches of the earlier version of the Twelfth, satirizing Lenin, exist in the Shostakovich family archive and include "a parodying waltz based on material from the fourth song, 'Misunderstanding,' of the vocal cycle Satires. The waltz motif coincides with the song's text, 'he did not understand the new poetry.'" (Wilson, p. 344.)

The Thirteenth Symphony
(1962; another work in honor of Jews at a time of increased anti-Semitism)

(1) Manashir Yakubov states: "Evtushenko's poem inspired Shostakovich to compose a fierce protest against Nazi atrocities, and a passionate denunciation of anti-semitism and chauvinism in general." (Op. cit., p. 64.) He views it as another "direct response to growing official anti-semitism [in the USSR]." (Op. cit., p. 11.)

(2) Kiril Kondrashin, who premiered this work, reports Shostakovich's strong views on anti-Semitism. When the Russian soloist Vitaly Gromadsky asked Shostakovich "why are you writing about anti-Semitism when there isn't any?" Shostakovich, almost shouting, told Gromadsky, "No there is, there is anti-semitism in the Soviet Union. It is an outrageous thing, and we must fight it. We must shout about it from the roof-tops." (Wilson, pp. 358--59.)

Michelangelo Verses
(1974; a commentary on Solzhenitsyn's exile from the USSR)

(1) Manashir Yakubov states:

As always with Shostakovich, a work on "eternal themes" proved to be excitingly relevant for the audience and painfully topical for the authorities. Three central movements of the cycle echoed events in Soviet social and artistic life that were uncomfortably close: the persecution of dissidents, the exile of Solzhenitsyn and forced expulsion of Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya from the Soviet Union. (Op. cit., p. 72. Emphasis added.)

(2) Irina Shostakovich confirms that in this work there is a "parallel between Dante's expulsion from Italy and Solzhenitsyn's exile from the Soviet Union." (DSCH Journal , p. 72.)


(1) As can be seen above, the "fantasizing" members of the Shostakovich "cult" disparaged by Richard Taruskin include the composer's immediate family, longtime friends and colleagues, and authorized Soviet biographer, the curator of the Shostakovich family archive, and noted Russian musicologists: that is, people who knew the composer and have "ears to listen."

(2) It is curious that the "dissidence" in Shostakovich's music is now openly acknowledged in Russian journals, such as Muzykal'naya Akademiya (formerly Sovetskaya Muzyka), yet remains largely ignored in the Western writings of Taruskin and Fay. For example, Mark Aranovsky's article about Shostakovich "The Dissident" (Muzykal'naya Akademiya 4 (1997), pp. 2-3; translated in DSCH Journal 12, pp. 24-26) is not even mentioned in Fay's recent book, even though she cites 22 other articles from the same special Shostakovich issue (Muzykal'naya Akademiya 4 [1997]), including another piece by Aranovsky. Why does Fay remain silent on passages such as the following?

The victory of Shostakovich is even more amazing and extraordinary because, after all, it was his art (and we understand it more clearly now), which, over the course of many years, remained practically the only artistic event which, socially and substantively, actively resisted the totalitarian regime. Without risking exaggeration, we can say that dissidence was the unifying integral feature of the entire artistic output of this great musician. And, if we understand this, we must also note that the history of "dissidence" among the Soviet intelligentsia finds its roots decades ago, and in fact began long before the time when this term itself appeared.

...For those who listened attentively to his strong voice, filled with anxiety and, at times, breaking with despair, Shostakovich became a crucial symbol of intellectual integrity. For many years his music remained a safety valve which, for a few short hours, allowed listeners to expand their chests and breathe freely. At the time, his music was that truly indispensable lungful of freedom and dissidence, not only in its content, but also -- which is no less important -- in its musical form. However, first and foremost, we were grateful to Shostakovich for the fact that during those precious minutes of communion with his music, we were free to remain ourselves -- or, perhaps, to revert to ourselves. The sound of Shostakovich's music was not only always a celebration of high art, but also an interlude of truth. Those who knew how to listen to his music would take it away with them from the concert hall.

His music became an emblem of spiritual experience and of hope for the future. It can be said, without exaggeration, that Shostakovich was the authentic conscience of his time...

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