In the crossing over of music and politics, there are few composer-ruler/composer-regime relationships as interesting as that of Dmitri Shostakovich, and the Soviet Union (Particularly under the reign of Joseph Stalin). While there are several interesting instances of these entities struggle to co-exist -and truly to be completely separate- this essay will focus on Shostakovich’s second operatic work Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Hereby referred to simply as Lady Macbeth), and the reaction of Stalin’s regime to Shostakovich’s work. From the defamation of Shostakovich’s talents in a 1936 issue of the Soviet paper Pravda, to half a century later when a collection of Shostakovich’s works were published by Soviet publisher ‘Muzyka’ with the revised 1966 film version of the piece. The give and take of this relationship forces us to question everything about the art produced under such circumstances, as we can never know if the composers of the time would have created the works the way they did without the fear Stalin’s regime generated in the artistic community.
If we look at Shostakovich’s attitude to composition around 1931 we see a man disillusioned by the growing culture of commissioning, a man who seeks more creative freedom in his musical endeavours. This is evident by his swearing ‘off of theatrical commissions for five years’ in his Declaration of a Composer’s Duty in 1931. To illustrate his point, this would have been a time when he was deep in the composing process for Lady Macbeth, a work that itself was not commissioned. A work that also saw Shostakovich turning again to older Russian literature for inspiration, as he explained that the writers at the time could not see the worth in writing for ‘”petty work”‘ like the opera libretto, and that the heroes they put forth were ‘anaemic, impotent… and inspired neither sympathy nor hate’. This demonstrates an interesting dynamic at the time in writing Soviet operas, as Shostakovich himself rejected a number of libretti and was then in turn found himself rejected by writers whom he himself reached out to.
So even before we take into account the control Stalin and his people would seize over the work of creatives like Shostakovich, it was already hard for them to get going sometimes. But after the initial struggle, Shostakovich had the 1865 Nikolai Leskov novel of the same name as the opera for inspiration, a writing partner in Alexander Preys, and seemingly an inspiration for slight character/plot alterations in his future wife Nina Varzar. In January of 1934, when Lady Macbeth debuted both in Moscow and Leningrad -just two days apart- Shostakovich dedicated the work to his wife Nina, whom he married in May of 1932. However Nina’s connection to the piece could be argued to be much stronger than a simple dedication. We can observe very clear changes to the main character (Katerina Izmailova) in the opera compared to the source material, all of which seem to aim to make her a more sympathetic protagonist. One could argue that the nature of the story being told through an opera would do that to some extent naturally, as we are given a further more personal insight into character motivation, and inner-most feelings through various arias. But in the novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Katerina partakes in the killing of three people; her father-in-law, her husband, and her father-in-law’s child nephew, to escape her provincial life.
However in Shostakovich’s opera she only kills her husband, and father-in-law, seemingly because Shostakovich though it would be hard for the audience to reconcile with an individual who has killed a child. Also in the opera the suffering Katerina goes through at the hands of her oppressors is intensified, almost to help justify her crimes. An interesting thing to note about this change is the context in which Shostakovich was writing Lady Macbeth with his co-librettist Preys. Shostakovich had initially planned to write a series of three, and ultimately planned four operas that would tackle ‘Revolutionary or Socialist Realist feminist themes’. Back in the 1930s the Socialist Realist art movement used images of women to ‘confirm their emancipation and access to public activity.
‘ Though these images were not promoting a truth, but rather using the female image to represent Soviet society, as the lives of women were the most changed during the period of ‘socialist industrialisation’. The use of a female figure to contrast the old and the new as it did in visual art can be seen very clearly in Lady Macbeth especially in light of the changes Shostakovich made to the character, and plot. In the source material we have a woman who poisons her father-in-law, then taunts her husband by kissing her new lover in front of him, ending in a brawl that leaves him (The husband) dead, and then she and her new lover suffocate a child, ensuing the two lovers’ downfall. Yet in the opera we see her poison her father-in-law to save her new lover from more torment, and he in return intervenes when Katerina is being beaten by her husband, which ensues the violence that ultimately kills him. So in the opera we are given an account of two lovers whom fiercely protect each other, until the masculine half turns his back on the relationship, again seemingly forcing Katerina to act out in the final act. So as our protagonist we have someone who is initially fighting for a better life with her new lover, and later her own dignity, which in a broader, less violent context is perhaps something we can all relate to.
Also given Shostakovich’s love for as modern and independent a woman as the physicist Nina Varzar, he may have wanted to be a bit fairer to the character of Katrina than her original creator had been. This ability for the audience to consolidate with Katerina gives the work a gleam of Social Realism, as we are no longer demonising the woman for wanting a better life than she had under such harsh rule, and the art depicts some imperfections in the society depicted. A far cry from Socialist Realism that Stalin pushed during his time at the helm of the Communist party. To fit in the doctrine Socialist Realism Katerina would have conquered some of her adversities, and gone on to inspire those around her to be happy and, efficient workers. It was in January, 1936 that Stalin first attended a production of Lady Macbeth in Leningrad, two years after the debut of the piece. Over the course of the two years Lady Macbeth had been showing at the Leningrad Maly Operny and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where it had been a great success. Filling the theatre night after night. That was until Stalin walked out of the Moscow based theatre before the opera had finished, and shortly after an unsigned piece was published in Pravda (Meaning ‘truth’), the official paper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
This piece of writing famously referred to Shostakovich’s work as ‘Muddle Instead of Music’, and ultimately brought an end to the two years of unprecedented success that Lady Macbeth had had. There are people out there who believe that Stalin himself wrote the piece that appeared in Pravda, which -if true- should have been very worrying for Shostakovich, as the article says at one point that “things may end very badly” for the composer if he carried on composing in a way that the Russian people did not find accessible. The report also tried to put down the opera’s success saying it was “having great success with bourgeois audiences abroad”, as the common people of Russia who would have read this review were conditioned to dislike such people.
Yet the opera had seen tremendous success for two years in Leningrad itself, the only instance of someone of note disliking the piece is when Stalin himself walked out. Thusly it would seem that it was not the Russian people Shostakovich needed to please, but Stalin. Either way the article had its desired effect, seeing the impending premier of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony withdrawn. The composer now found himself in a very contentious position, he set to work on his Fifth Symphony -which was to be the work that saved his legacy- but had to make sure that it would be something that pleased Stalin, as another act of musical defiance would possibly not be tolerated by Stalin. Another reason Stalin likely took issue with this particular opera is the representation of a woman who takes control of her own life. The 1930s saw a turning point in the Soviet attitude to women, especially in the world of art.
Women had been used as symbols of the forward thinking regime, they were seen as just as able to work, and give back to their communities. But there came a turn towards more conservative views in the ’30s that saw women being separated from men in the artistic world, an example of this would be the March 1938 Exhibition of Women Artists, which was seen by some female artists as a reduction of their work as professional artists. The change also saw an old ‘academic hierarchy of media and genres’ restored, which did not favour the majority of female artists. This also meant that the symbol of the woman as a driving force for change receded too. Therefore the story of a woman breaking free from oppression, and fighting back against men with more power than herself would probably be seen as threatening to this pre-Revolutionary way of thinking. Viewing the situation through this lens would make it seem that the actual problem Stalin had with Lady Macbeth was the content of its plot, and its message rather than the music Shostakovich had composed. This also gives the Pravda article a dark tone, as the warning about the music not being accessible almost turns into a threat regarding the message Shostakovich was presenting, and how the Soviet people “could not relate” as in Stalin’s eyes they lived in a wonderful state. It is also worth noting that the other operas Shostakovich had wanted to write, to explore women’s issues in Soviet society never came to fruition.
Given the two years of success Lady Macbeth had before the Pravda take down, it would make sense that the reason Shostakovich decided against going on with this project was not fear of artistic failure, but rather a fear that he would be seen as defying the Soviet regime. The most striking thing about the dictator/artist relationship -in any case- is how much of a shame it is that we will never get to experience what might have been some of the artists’ greatest works. Given the beauty and complexity Shostakovich achieved in what was only his second opera (Lady Macbeth), it makes one wonder what could have been in the pieces he never got to forge.
In many ways we are lucky to even have the original version of Lady Macbeth, as official Russian publisher Muzyka published the revised, ‘officially sanctioned and “cleaned up”‘ 1966 version (Katerina Izmailova) when releasing a collection of Shostakovich’s work in 1985, years after Stalin and Shostakovich had both passed away. The most interesting thing about being able to look at these two very different versions of the same artist’s take on the same story is, we can almost see the kind of effect the political landscape had on artists. We have the untouched original, and the somewhat devolved re-telling, this could be how many composers saw their works changed by those in power. Sadly we will probably never know the extent to which composers changed their original musical ideas to appease leaders like Stalin. Following on from Stalin’s reaction to the opera and the Pravda article, the ‘State Committee for Artistic Affairs’ held a meeting to discuss forming what would become known as the ‘Soviet Opera Project’. This project saw that new works would be composed based on state approved libretti, that themselves were written to feature characters and themes the state approved of.
Another part of this new imposed way of creating was that the operas should ‘give a positive picture of the Soviet citizen in his relations with his fellowmen under the Soviet regime’, a criteria Lady Macbeth clearly could not fill. Deepening the issue of what could be shown, there were also rules about how things were allowed to be shows. For instance, an opera could feature Stalin’s predecessor Vladimir Lenin, but the portrayal could not be a singing role. Those that were written as singing roles were not allowed to be written with any virtuosic content, which saw the professional opera singers ‘use their influence’ to avoid partaking in any of the project’s accepted operas. Twelve years after the forming of this new artistic endeavour saw a purging of musical content. What seemed to be a reaction to Vano Muradeli’s opera The Great Friendship, being condemned by Stalin ‘on both musical and ideological grounds’.
After an enquiry into the piece it was found that its composer had some less than pure dealings, being under 17 different theatrical contract for this one piece, which saw him called to a meeting with the ‘State Committee for Artistic Affairs’. This, like the 1936 treatment of Shostakovich, made many composers feel uncomfortable composing operas, as they feared their work would be criticised to the point that they would be unable to make a living. It was after the death of Stalin in 1953 that the ‘Soviet Opera Project’ was seemingly disbanded, following a string of failures that demonstrated the best art cannot be created under such strenuous circumstances. It is clear that there were many challenges facing composers of operas during Stalin’s time at the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. From the way women were portrayed in art, to how they were treated by the regime they lived under.
Most notably how the regime leaders’ change of opinion had such a dramatic impact on the art works that were able to be shown, and the stories that were allowed to be told. To walking the fine line of keeping artistic integrity, to keeping the officials happy, there were many factors that would effect the art, to such an extent that we will now likely never know how works would have sounded without any political intervention. However with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth we are able to compare and contrast two versions, the one which carries the name Lady Macbeth that saw Shostakovich going against the culture of commissioning at the time. The version that’s honesty and musical complexity was not to Stalin’s taste. Then we have a version that was more widely accepted, a “cleaner” version of the original, Katerina Izmailova. Lady Macbeth as an opera had such an impact on the world of Soviet music, as it seemingly was the catalyst for the ‘Soviet Opera Project’. A chapter in Soviet music that all stemmed from Shostakovich’s work, which -unlike the majority of state approved work- is the work that has weathered the decades passed and is still celebrated today.