The most controversial Soviet composer to suffer Zhdanov’s denunciation in 1948 and the ensuing public onslaught was Dmitri Shostakovich. This taut, nervy genius remained throughout his life a grid of high-voltage tensions: international in outlook yet fiercely protective of the Russian tradition; a Communist who publicly praised the Party’s interventions in music yet feared and despised them; a modernist who frequently warned against the excesses of Western innovation. Shostakovich developed a kind of tidal motion in his compositions by which the dark depths contradicted the happy surge of the surface.
Born in St Petersburg in 1905, and educated at the Petrograd (Leningrad) Conservatory during the years following the Revolution, Shostakovich had shot to fame while in his twenties only to suffer all the fears—if not the worst fate—of the Stalin Terror. His contact with European music was intense in the late 1920s. Printed music arrived from abroad and there were frequent concerts of Western music in Moscow, even more in Leningrad. Even so, his Second Symphony was dedicated to the October Revolution, his Third was titled May Day. He was ‘a real Soviet composer, and one the West took seriously’.1 More radically modernist was his opera The Nose (from Gogol’s rather tedious story Nos, which begins with the civil servant Kovalyov losing his nose while in the barber’s chair), which had its première in Leningrad on 18 January 1930 but soon disappeared from the repertoire. The parade of dozens of people changing places kaleidoscopically and moving like mechanical dolls was attacked by Soviet critics as a malignant ridicule of operatic tradition; the musical idiom was intricate and tangled. ‘To all this was added the most impossible tricks in orchestral onomatopoeia, a sort of cascade of musical witticisms.’2
His opera Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District), first performed when the composer was only 29, enjoyed an enormous success—until Stalin struck it down. Although this happened a decade before