Below: Sergei Mikhalkov


About Shostakovich's downfall in 1948

During a visit to Moscow in 1950, the French reporter Michel Gordey saw a performance of a play by Sergei Mikhalkov which had been awarded the Stalin Prize for drama in 1949. Entitled Ilya Golovin, it recounted ("with hardly any dramatisation", claims Gordey in his memoir Visa to Moscow), the story of Shostakovich's downfall as a result of the Composers' Union Congress of January 1948.

In the play, which, Gordey recalls, was well attended and enthusiastically received, the Shostakovich figure Golovin (a name suggesting the Russian words for "cerebral" and "villain") is first discovered at his luxurious dacha outside Moscow, enjoying a life of indulgent ease. The composer's wife adores smart gowns, treats her maid harshly, and complains that their Moscow apartment "has only four rooms" - a disclosure which, notes Gordey, raised indignant murmurs in the auditorium. (I.e., everyone in the audience was living in one or two rooms at the most.)

A critic flatters Golovin, pointedly quoting eulogies of his work published in America. Enter a servant with the day's copy of Pravdawhich, to his consternation, Golovin discovers contains an attack on his "incomprehensible and formalist" music and accuses him of "cosmopolitanism" (an anti-Semitic insinuation current at the time). As the critic hastily exits, Golovin's daughter, a "very earnest" Communist, informs her father that Pravda is right about him.

In Act II, Golovin, too cowardly to face his critics, hides miserably in his dacha, deserted by his friends and wife (who has fled to a Crimean spa). Since his works are no longer played on Moscow Radio, he tunes to the Voice of America which obligingly praises the "great composer who is being persecuted in the USSR" and plays a record of one of his latest symphonies (cue discordant orchestral noises off).

A friend appears: his patron, a Red Army general, who urges him to write music for the masses the way he used to. The general has even brought some singing soldiers with him who perform a melodious piece Golovin wrote in earlier, happier days. Listening with tears in his eyes, the composer sees the light and immediately sets to work on a tuneful piano concerto. (An excerpt from this, played over the loudspeakers, drew applause from the theatre-goers.)

In Act III, Golovin, a wiser and more modest man, returns from a congress for "fighters for peace" in Paris. After another melodious new piece by him is played, he tells his wife how moved he was to witness in Paris an enormous demonstration in which "five hundred thousand men, women, and children cheered Stalin". Golovin then delivers a prolonged "harangue" in praise of Stalin and the play ends, drawing "frantic" applause.

Gordey, who had never witnessed anything like this before, was shocked both by the childishness of the play and the apparently wholehearted approval with which its audience greeted it (despite the fact that, as he notes, Shostakovich's music had recently been "exceedingly popular" in Russia). He was similarly amazed at the elevation of Pravda to the status of holy writ and, as a Frenchman, particularly struck by the play's peroration of ritual obeisance to Stalin which reminded him of the encomium to Louis XIV at the end of Molière's Tartuffe ("and also of La Fontaine's fables, with their compulsory 'morals"').

The most curious of Gordey's observations, however, is that the incidental music for the play, both discordant and melodious, was specially composed by Khachaturian. However, it will be seen that, despite Gordey's assumption, Ilya Golovin does not represent Shostakovich alone, being actually a composite of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. (As for the play's author, Sergei Mikhalkov, his reward was being made First Secretary of the RFSFR Writers' Union, a post which, Khrennikov-style, he thereafter held for over forty years.)

Back to Contents. Back to Shostakovichiana