OF all the many periods of suffering that mark out Russian history, 1937 is the annus horribilissimus. This was the apogee of the ‘Stalinist repressions’, during which millions were arrested in a frenzy of collective paranoia. It was in that year that the 31-year-old Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony, famously styling it a few weeks after the premiere as “a Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism”. Aided by that self-spinning slogan, the work ensured Shostakovich’s rehabilitation following Pravda’s 1936 denunciation of his sensational and wildly successful opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. This was not the only cycle of humiliation and rehabilitation he would endure. A dozen years later he was targeted in the artistic purges known as Zhdanovshchina (after Andrey Zhdanov, the Party functionary charged with responsibility for ideology) in which he stood accused of writing “formalist” and “anti-people’s” music. Twelve years later, with his health starting to fail, his first wife dead, and a brief, unsuccessful second marriage behind him, Shostakovich gave way to pressure to join the Communist Party. In the remaining fifteen years of his life, he attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable: artistic/human integrity with a position of power and authority in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes.
Back in March 1937, the violinist David Oistrakh, two years younger than Shostakovich, had won first prize in the first Ysa˙e Competition (later renamed after Queen Elisabeth of Belgium). His victory opened the doors to his international career, but was hailed in the Soviet press as a triumph not so much for him as for the wise guidance of the Party. It was sometime in the same year – according to the two surviving colossi of Soviet music, Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband Mstislav Rostropovich (recently feted at the Kremlin and throughout the musical world on his 80th birthday) – that Oistrakh spent sleepless nights with his bags packed, as the last male in his apartment block not to have been arrested. He would join the Communist Party in 1942 and thereafter play out his drama of dual loyalty – to his art and to the State – overshadowed by the same soul-rending fear.
There was the morally purer choice of defection or emigration, taken spectacularly by Nureyev in 1961 (not so much for artistic reasons as to escape persecution for homosexuality) and by Ashkenazy two years later; by Rostro-povich and Vishnevskaya in 1974, and by hordes of Jewish musicians around the same time; and later still by composers and other musicians either taking advantage of Gorbachov’s perestroika or escaping the post-Communist collapse of Russia’s cultural infrastructure. But when quizzed on the subject by his friend Yehudi Menuhin, Oistrakh retorted that he owed the Soviet regime his life and his career; and there is no reason to suppose that this was said insincerely or under pressure. He might have added that artistic solidarity in the Soviet Union – not least with Shostakovich, who composed two Violin Concertos and a Sonata for him – remained a huge magnet. And Shostakovich could have said as much in return: Oistrakh’s 1956 recording of the First Violin Concerto has a tone of high compassion that says more about Shostakovich’s music than any amount of words.
For Shostakovich, not fluent in any foreign language, the option of emigration was in any case never a very viable one. As for joining the Party, at a time when there was no absolute compulsion, he capitulated in full knowledge that he would lose esteem with a younger generation of musicians and with much of the wider intelligentsia. But in doing so – whether he reasoned this way or not – Shostakovich in the long term sealed his closeness to his fellow-citizens, all of whom were forced at one level or another to live a dual existence.
As conductor Gennadi Rozhdest-vensky put it, “For us Music was the only window onto the sun, onto freedom, oxygen and life”. Far more than their colleagues who left the Soviet Union, or who stayed and nurtured their oppositionist views more or less ‘underground’, Shostakovich, Oistrakh and their like, having achieved one kind of greatness in the pre- and early-Stalin Soviet Union, found another kind thrust upon them in the high- and post-Stalin years. Their role was precisely to keep that window open. That they entered into pacts with authority in the process made it harder for some to worship them as gods, but easier for many to cherish them as fellow human beings. It is an irony that they are now more cherished in the West, where the search continues for cultural values beyond luxury entertainment, than in their homeland, where luxury entertainment still feels to many like a welcome change.