Music to a Dictator's Ear ; Stalin Insisted That Russian Music Express the 'Human Face' of Soviet Socialism to the World

By Miron, Susan | The Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

Music to a Dictator's Ear ; Stalin Insisted That Russian Music Express the 'Human Face' of Soviet Socialism to the World


Miron, Susan, The Christian Science Monitor


Solomon Volkov, who helped Shostakovich with his controversial memoir, "Testimony" (1979), claims he never planned to write a biography of the famous composer. But he felt compelled to do so after watching the composer's image being distorted "long after Stalin's abuse of him was relegated to the proverbial 'dustbin of history.' "

Now, with access to much previously classified material, as well as to both the composer and his son, Volkov has written a powerful and gripping account of the treacherous times in which Shostakovich and his colleagues in music, film, theater, and literature created works that more often than not enraged Stalin with dire consequences.

In this dual psychological portrait, Stalin, unsurprisingly, emerges as the more fascinating of the two men in their long struggle of power versus art. A diabolically gifted political student who rarely repeated a mistake, Stalin comes across as a tyrant whose greatest fear was appearing ridiculous and who understood the power of public opinion.

To Stalin, art and culture were instruments of politics. He was the ultimate micromanager when it came to the arts, leaving no detail unregulated, including its critical reception in the media, which he often wrote himself.

The covetous and highly political Stalin awarded his coveted and highly political Stalin Prize to singers, composers, and instrumentalists whom he admired, and he paid great attention to young musicians who could demonstrate the "human face" of Soviet socialist to the world.

Unfortunately for Shostakovich, his 1936 opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" represented to Stalin the antithesis of the new "Soviet morality," which was meant to "banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life." Stalin's "critical" reception was fierce and unrelenting toward the 29-year-old composer: three outraged editorials against him ran in "Pravda" in 2-1/2 weeks.

Volkov believes that Stalin, in this notorious case, was blinded by emotion. "Not only did the plot and music infuriate him, and not only did the opera contradict Stalin's cultural direction for that period, but on top of that, the composer was hailed as a genius, not just in the Soviet Union, but in the West," where the "morbidly proud" Stalin couldn't control and manipulate popular opinion. …

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Music to a Dictator's Ear ; Stalin Insisted That Russian Music Express the 'Human Face' of Soviet Socialism to the World
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