Perversion and Knotted Knickers (Shostakovich cont...)

One fateful night in 1936, Stalin deigned to attend a performance of Shostakovich's rampantly popular Lady Macbeth opera. The composer went to the theatre, expecting an invitation to the Royal Box for congratulations from the Great Leader. However, things didn't go as planned. Stalin left at intermission in apparent disgust. And the next day, a vehement denunciation appeared in the official Party publication Pravda (meaning ‘truth’.) It was entitled, ‘Muddle Instead of Music.’ This is where the shit hits the fan for Dmitri.

Pravda Article: 'Muddle Instead of Music'

Knickers in a Knot

And it wasn’t just the lurid story that got the official knickers in a knot (see previous blog 'Dancing with the Devil' for the full synopsis.) As the title suggests, it was the music. The music is sarcastic, satirical, scornful, and grotesque.

Let’s listen to an example: in this bitterly burlesque scene, a group of bored laborers sexually abuse a terrified woman. The men encircle Anyushka and are laughing while they roughly grope and bruise her, tearing at her clothes. One of the men likens her desperate screaming to ‘a sow singing like a nightingale.’ It is completely vile and loathsome.

Shostakovich composes the scene with characteristically sardonic, derisive, and caustic music. He condemns the men by giving them repetitive and mindless short phrases, mirthless monotone laughs, and witless group shouting. They are portrayed as a hooligan mob, incapable of individual thought.  All the while, the orchestra is screaming on behalf of Anyushka, the hopeless victim of the scene. Towards the end, Katerina (the boss’s wife) enters and with a giant gong, the mob abruptly stops. Katerina contemptibly lambastes the men for their repellant behavior.  

Lady Macbeth: The (near) rape of Anyushka

Style Points

The orchestral accompaniment is like a film score that provides the emotional framework and context for the drama. For instance, the opera opens sluggishly, broodingly. Clarinets sing a discontented lament. It is lethargic and bored – just like Katerina. 

Shostakovich’s style incorporates elements of Expressionism and Verismo. Expressionism is the deliberate avoidance of conventional, predictable, or formulaic elements – especially those associated with beauty. The purpose of this is to heighten the emotional response. A visual example of Expressioniam is Edvard Munch’s The Scream, with its tormented central character and the heaving, swirling sky. (The effect of the foreground is intensified by the oblivious figures walking placidly in the background.)

Verismo is an approach that portrays the drama ‘realistically’ (deriving its root from the Italian vero, meaning 'truth'.) This means there are no grand arias with great big tunes that you can walk away humming. It is essentially dialogue that is sung instead of spoken. And it is composed in a way that preserves the natural patterns of speech.  The best example of verismo is during the first sex scene between Katerina and her lover, where the orchestra slaps, grunts, and groans, with infamous trombone slides imitating a man in the heat of passion.  Check it out here.

Fall from Grace: A Death Sentence?

The censure heaped upon Shostakovich was rabid. It was a public ostracism. And it was not mere words. This was a dire warning that the full fury of the Party would soon rain down upon the unsuspecting composer if he didn't shape up. And smartly.

‘Singing is replaced by shrieking,’ the article rants. ‘The music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps.’ International success is dismissed as simply ‘tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming neurotic music.’ (Remember that the privileged bourgeoisie were the avowed enemies of the proletariat-workers who rose up to fight the Russian Revolution. So this is a harsh bitch-slap of a smack down.)

The threat of danger is scarcely veiled. It is practically stamped in bureaucratic triplicate. ‘The ability of good music to enthrall the masses has here been sacrificed on the altar of petit-bourgeois formalism. This is a clever game of ingenuity - and such games can only finish badly.’

Can only finish badly... Shostakovich packed a suitcase and slept in the stairwell of his family apartment for nights on end after the article appeared. He wished to spare his children the trauma of seeing him black-bagged and dragged off in the middle of the night. A very real possibility. 

Stay Tuned...

Keep reading the next installment for how this comes full-circle in the Fifth Symphony with Shostakovich’s ‘triumphant’ political rehabilitation.

Kirsten Hicks