Shostakovich Fans Look for Music's Political Meaning The political identity of composer Dmitri Shostakovich has been a topic of debate for decades.
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Shostakovich Fans Look for Music's Political Meaning

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Shostakovich Fans Look for Music's Political Meaning

Shostakovich Fans Look for Music's Political Meaning

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Books have been written and movies have been made about the man, but his music and what he meant by it remains clouded in controversy.

NPR's Tom Huizenga reports:

TOM HUIZENGA: Much of the debate about Shostakovich centers on whether the mild-mannered composer was speaking a secret language of dissent through his music, or whether he was little more than a court composer to a brutal communist regime.

As a young man, Dmitri Shostakovich was touched with brilliance. His first symphony heralded him as a whip-smart composer, who, at age 19, obviously knew what to do with an orchestra.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

HUIZENGA: Before long, Soviet papers covered Shostakovich like a Hollywood celebrity. In 1934, he unleashed a sexy thriller of an opera called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

(Soundbite of opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk")

Unidentified Female (Opera Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HUIZENGA: In January 1936, Shostakovich was riding high. In Moscow, three different theaters were hosting separate productions of Lady Macbeth. And what happened next, says Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay, changed the composer's life and the history of Russian music.

Ms. LAUREL FAY (Author of Shostakovich: A Life): Stalin happened to go to see one of these and was not pleased. And he caused to be written an unsigned editorial which severely condemned the opera and its pretensions to art. This was no mere review; this was a denunciation and of course it had a chilling effect not just on Shostakovich but on the whole arts world.

HUIZENGA: In one stroke Stalin redefined Russian art, which began a seesaw battle between Shostakovich and the government that would last for decades. One moment, he was an ally writing propaganda pieces. The next, he was an adversary whose complex art-for-art's-sake style of music was labeled formalist.

Shostakovich's son, Maxim, is now 68 and he says he remembers living in fear as a child.

Mr. MAXIM SHOSTAKOVICH (Son of Dmitri Shostakovich): People walked around our house and they scream (foreign language spoken) Shostakovich formalist, you know. It was so many articles in newspaper about my father, how bad he is. He's enemy of the people, his music is ugly, formalistic, et cetera.

HUIZENGA: The year after Stalin's crushing editorial, Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony. It has a heart breaking slow movement and an enigmatic finale that conductors like Valery Gergiev still puzzle over today.

Mr. VALERY GERGIEV (Conductor): The finale is the only big question and big mystery. What exactly he wanted from this finale? Is it too fast when you play it fast or is it too slow when you play it slow?

(Soundbite of orchestra "Symphony No. 5 in D Minor")

HUIZENGA: And here's where the Shostakovich code-breakers come in. For years, some thought that a finale played too fast missed the point. The sensation of rejoicing, they believed, must be slowed down to a point where it feels forced, as if by Stalin's regime.

(Soundbite of orchestra "Symphony No. 5 in D Minor")

HUIZENGA: Fast or slow, the Fifth Symphony won praise from audiences and the Soviet state. Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony built up his reputation even further. He composed most of it in his hometown of Leningrad in late summer 1941, while the city was being shelled by Nazis.

The completed score was flown out of the country on microfilm and the great anticipation of hearing the symphony in the U.S. landed Shostakovich on the cover of Time magazine.

Six short years later in 1948, Shostakovich was again officially denounced. He lost his professorship and no Soviet musicians dared play his music. After Stalin died in 1953, Shostakovich breathed a little easier but his nerves were still on edge. And for some inexplicable reason he joined the Communist Party. Biographer Laurel Fay says it was a mistake he regretted.

Ms. FAY: By 1960 there was no reason to join the party and I think he was basically sort of at a weak moment. He agreed and then they wouldn't let him back out.

(Soundbite of orchestra "String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor")

HUIZENGA: Shostakovich poured his anguish into his Eighth String Quartet. David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, says the Eighth is filled with stunning music and a cache of coded messages.

Mr. DAVID FINCKEL (Cellist, Emerson String Quartet): The famous three-note knocks...

(Soundbite of orchestra "String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor")

Mr. FINCKEL: ...which some people have described as sounding like gunshots. Other people say that they are the famous knock on the door in the middle of the night from the KGB coming to get you. It's a dissident cluster of chords that's hammered out three times.

(Soundbite of orchestra "String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor")

HUIZENGA: Two years after the Eighth Quartet in 1962, Shostakovich was in trouble yet again. This time it was his 13th Symphony which contained poetry hinting at government-sanctioned anti-Semitism.

In his final years, Shostakovich's music retreated to dark and inward spaces. His last symphony, No. 15, is an enigma. He stitched in a four-note theme containing his own initials; he riffed on Rossini and Wagner and dusted it with tinkling shards of light.

(Soundbite of orchestra "Symphony No. 15 in A Major")

HUIZENGA: A century after his birth, there's more interest in Shostakovich than ever with books, a movie, new recordings and concerts. And people continue to look for clues as to what it all means. Was he a closet dissident or a faithful party servant?

Conductor and scholar Leon Botstein says it's not that simple.

Mr. LEON BOTSTEIN (Music Director, American Symphony Orchestra): People are more complicated than we give them credit for. You can't reduce them. He was a patriotic composer and understood very well the cruelty and suffering under which he lived. He was at one hand a careerist and the other hand painfully guilty about his accommodation with the regime.

HUIZENGA: The debates over Shostakovich, the man, may one day lose steam, but his music at this point seems unstoppable.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(Soundbite of orchestra "Symphony No. 15 in A Major")

MONTAGNE: Dmitri Shostakovich wrote one of his greatest works at the height of the Stalinist purges of 1937, when millions of Soviet citizens were forcibly relocated, exiled or killed. At npr.org there's an essay about that work, Symphony No. 5, and a list of three must-have Shostakovich CDs.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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