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Shostakovich, the First Amendment, and the Russian Revolution

By Charlotte Cerminaro
web posted January 4, 2016

When we think of the first amendment to the United States Constitution we generally think of the most fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, the press, religion, the right to peaceably assemble and the forbidding of any legislation restricting or otherwise institutionalizing these rights. This amendment, more fundamentally, spells out our right to self- expression. What is also implicit, though not often thought about, is artistic expression---music, painting, cartoons (even political satire) -- these all fit into the "freedom of speech" category.

Sadly, it is a well-known fact that musicians (composers and instrumentalists alike) were often pawns of socialist and fascist regimes, and those who found favor with a particular dictator would sometimes have their music "adopted" as an official anthem or even marching music. And for the musicians who found themselves at odds with a dictator for real or imagined artistic and ideological differences, the same censorship and threats applied to them as any other political dissident or adversary. It is indeed one of the first signs of governmental imbalance, the infringement on a people's right to free speech.

ShostakovichOne of the most interesting stories regarding this struggle between artistic freedom and censorship is the life and work of composer Dmitry Shostakovich. Growing up during the brutal regime of Joseph Stalin, the composer attracted negative attention early on from the Kremlin. His music embodied everything the socialists hated: Intellectualism, uncertainty, questioning, and the embracing of western ideas. Not long after the world premiere of both his second and third symphonies, an article in the Pravda was published specifically about his music, denouncing it, and him. The article had in it the usual threats and warnings to anyone who wrote something that was displeasing to the Soviet leadership. Among the things considered displeasing were, music evoking sympathy, dread, sorrow or uncertainty. Shostakovich, clearly understanding this as a death threat, shelved his completed fourth symphony and immediately began work on what was to be one of his greatest masterpieces, his fifth symphony.

During this time Shostakovich sought the counsel of many high-level Soviet officials, fellow musicians, critics and friends, trying to understand the danger he was in and how to find his way out, artistically. Several of these people, including some of Shostakovich's own family members, were arrested and imprisoned during this time, and a couple of them even executed. Of course, the composer expected the same for himself.

As the fifth symphony reached completion the tension was too much to bear. It was November 1937, six months after the composer began his new work, that it received its world premiere. The piece was an unqualified success -- it satisfied Stalin's desire for "Soviet realism" and, at the same time, it satisfied Shostakovich's fans, other musicians, composers and music critics the world over. How did he do it? It was almost as if people were hearing two different pieces -- the Kremlin was hearing what they wanted to hear, and real music lovers and musicians heard a great work of art -- a composer who didn't sell out to threats or terror.

To this day musicologists still debate how Shostakovich was able to use such subtlety and cleverness, combined with artistic license, to fool a government and to vent the oppression and fears of a nation, all in fifty minutes. His fifth symphony, like many of his works, is a study in contrasts. It is large, dark and brooding. Interspersed throughout the piece, though, are the kinds of marches, military pomp and gleeful sounding romps that made the Kremlin happy. What they didn't hear was the mocking satire in these same sections. Much of the piece does reflect the despair and tragedy of those times but again, because of its subtle, understated politics it slipped under Stalin's radar. For example, the majority of the first movement is bombastic romanticism, classically written, but definitely a parody of Soviet pomp. As the movement draws to a close, though, a hushed atmosphere descends, helped by very stark orchestration. Soft, minor chords in the strings, accompanied by ascending chromatic scales on the celeste, leave a beautifully haunting and poignant reminder of the desolation of his country.

The rest of the symphony is really a continuation of this artistic balancing act. The real triumph of the work comes in its finale, where the mood is victorious without being mocking, grand without being pompous. It is a statement of the greatest artistic triumph, the undefeated human will standing firm (and alone) against tyranny. It was as much a reminder to himself as it was an announcement to the world that we are endowed, by our creator, with certain inalienable human rights. These rights are not granted by governments, otherwise governments would have the right to revoke them. The freedom of self-expression is among the most basic, yet important, of these rights. If we cannot objectively claim that we each still have our own individual life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, then we are already under a new, global socialist regime. If this is really the state of our civilization then we, like Shostakovich and many, many others, have a heavy burden to shoulder and our work cut out for us. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2016





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