1. Testimony p.276

V A Different Socialist Realism

Attempts by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to control music were, in many ways, detrimental to the art form. There was a general decline in standards as, at times, political affiliation was more important in a prospective conservatoire applicant than musical ability. The application of the tenets of socialist realism, if any could be said to exist, had the effect of an enforced simplification of musical genres that was at odds with the form’s development. Much of the criticism that was aimed at composers was arbitrary in that it resulted from the inability to properly quantify the meaning of a piece of instrumental music. At times, there were even calls from some partisan critics to do away with instrumental forms altogether, claiming that the very idea of non-vocal music was anti-people. This, I believe, is symptomatic of the persistent misapplication of political ideals. Where Marx held that art should reflect the ideals of community and co-operation, the Party attempted to enforce art that would not challenge the status quo in any way. Where Marx dreamed of freedom, the Party supplied control.

In the case of Shostakovich, it seems that the result may have been quite the opposite of that intended. Through general lack of freedom, the control of thought, and destruction of individual memory, the composer may have found a way to evade the detection of his dissidence by hiding it in plain sight of the authorities. The inclusion of meanings external to musical logic in a piece of music is certainly not without its antecedents but Shostakovich may have brought the concept to a level never considered before. If the assertions of Ian MacDonald and others about the representative nature of certain motifs and structures throughout the composer’s works have any validity, then Shostakovich has brought about the most important development in musical language in the Twentieth Century. The practice of the representative use of thematic material and the manipulation of the meaning of this material through thematic transformation had existed for some time, most notably in the works of Wagner. Shostakovich has, however, extended the realm of this representation to include real people and events. The art no longer refers to itself and the meaning that exists within its own confines. It has moved on to a description and interpretation of a reality that exists external to the artwork. It has developed into a system of relationships between signified (that being named) and signifier (that which names it) that allow for conceptual development in the manner of spoken or written language without the necessity of compromising traditional musical logic.

The opening movement of the Seventh Symphony has been criticised as a compromise between programme and musical structure and, also, for the repetitive nature of the march section. I do not agree with such criticisms and feel that the musical logic of Shostakovich is undervalued by those who make such criticism. The lack of thematic clarity in the final movement has also been criticised by some but I would regard this as a technique rather than a fault. In the overall context of this work, I feel that the composer has successfully included a representation and discussion of extra-musical relata and relationships without compromising the musical interrelationships that have traditionally comprised musical form. This places the music of Shostakovich in the realm of socialist realism in a different manner to that officially desired by the State. It is a description of the realities of socialism as opposed to the official version of socialist realism, which was ultimately just a weapon in the arsenal of mind control utilised by the Communist dictatorship.

The development of this new application of musical language has not been completely arbitrary. Had not the composer been obliged to hide his personal thoughts and feelings from those who would gladly destroy him, it is possible that he would never have embarked upon the development of his musical language in this manner. A temperate climate and a democratic government might have seen a very different development of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Had he not been exposed to ideas of socialist realism that attempted to force concrete meaning on to abstract structures, he may not have conceived of placing his thoughts and feelings in musical form in the way in which he did. Thus it can be asserted, although with qualifications, that the ideals of communism have given rise to a development, and advancement, in musical language. Of some relevance, of course, is the fact that the ideals were deliberately misapplied by a totalitarian regime and that this specific musical development came about as a reaction against this misapplication. Also, there remains the possibility that this inclusion of extra-musical significance would have been part of Shostakovich’s musical language under any system and that, given different circumstances, he would simply have expressed different thoughts in his music.

Given an acceptance that the music of Shostakovich does contain meaning in the way described, there arises the question of why he chose to say what he did. Was he trying to keep his real memories of his life intact by encasing them in music? It is certainly a possibility, as no one in the USSR could rely with any confidence on their own memories of events when faced with the intimidating power of the official version of events. Writing down one’s thoughts was a dangerous business at the best of times and it is possible that Shostakovich found a method of writing his memories in music, a form in which the authorities could not establish specific meaning - therefore making it a safe medium in which to write. Was his music a form of protest against the times in which he found himself? Did he deliberately stand forth and denounce the Communists in music, something which he could not get away with in a language that they actually understood? There are numerous anecdotes on the delivery of official speeches by Shostakovich. He would read what he was told to read and sign what he was told to sign. His life depended on it. However, his delivery of such speeches was often described as “deadpan”, the material conveyed without the slightest sign of interest or involvement on his behalf. Such actions were not considered shameful in the Soviet Union. They were simply political reality. Many Soviet artists berated Western attitudes about such a way of acting being lacking in moral courage. Shostakovich expresses anger in Testimony about American journalists asking him questions which, if answered, would assure his death. It is possible that the composer’s music was the medium in which he said what he really believed.

Or was his music, in the end, just a form of self-expression, the anguished cries of a man forced to sit outside his apartment - waiting to be taken away? Many of his friends and acquaintances had died at the hands of the authorities, executed or deported to die in the death camps. The pathos and pain of his music may have been his only way of expressing what he felt in a world where not to smile could mean deportation and death. His music was an expression of individualism at a time when such expression was forbidden. It remains as a testimony to the unhappy times through which he lived, an oeuvre littered with the tombstones of those he knew; that were murdered by their brethren and by the state which came into being in order to set them free. The closing words of Testimony show the depth of suffering endured by one of the greatest composers of the Twentieth Century at the hands of those who ruled and ruined the lives of millions - a personal tragedy suffered by almost all Soviet citizens during Stalin’s time.

I have thought that my life was replete with sorrow and that it would be hard to find a more miserable man. But when I started going over the life stories of my friends and acquaintances, I was horrified. Not one of them had an easy or a happy life. Some came to a terrible end, some died in terrible suffering, and the lives of many of them could easily be called more miserable than mine. And that made me even sadder. I was remembering my friends and all I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses.1