Out with the New and in with the Old! How the Great Retreat affected the Soviet Opera.


B. Lebeșev, Opera “Khoroglu”, 1939
An advertisement for the opening of B. Lebeșev’s Opera “Khoroglu”, which opened in Moscow in 1938. An example of an opera that maintained the neo-traditonalist views of what an opera should be and was even awarded the USSR State Prize in 1941. 

Of all the forms of music and entertainment that once held modern, revolutionary ideas but was then stripped of them following the Great Retreat, I will admit, the opera was not one that first came to mind. The opera itself, has always held itself as being a champion for classical music and production, to showcase epics, tragedies, and comedies in a very…well traditional manner. However, during the 1930’s, as the Great Retreat swept across the Soviet Union, striking down that which were once revered as being fundamental for the betterment of the revolution and socialism but were now criticized and vilified for going against the neo-traditionalist views of Stalinism, one of the very few areas of entertainment that dared challenge such changes was opera. And one of the most notable people involved was composer Dmitrii Shostakovich, a man who would create an opera that would cause such a scandal that it would dominate the world of opera for the entirety of the 1930’s.

A signed photograph of Dmitrii Shostakovich, creator and composer of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsnesk District”, the most infamous opera that was discredited as violating Soviet cultural norms and later blacklisted.

Now, Dmitrii Shostakovich was by no means set out to actively defy Stalinism, only to explore what kinds of operas that he wanted to create for modern Soviet audiences to enjoy that would explore social ideas or phenomena or other such things that he thought should be talked to about. It should also be mentioned that he had started his operatic career as a composer in the 1920s, back when it was okay to experiment with such things. The play in question that would soon cause a scandal was known as  Lady Macbeth of Mtsnesk District, which was based on author Nikolai Leskov’s story of the same name. The opera follows the main character, Katerina Ismailova, as she attempts to navigate her loveless life with her husband and her newfound love affair with her house clerk named Sergei. And, unsurprisingly, it was a hit. On the opening night of Lady Macbeth of Mtsnesk District he received rave reviews from the audience, including ones that said:

“Could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best traditions of Soviet culture.”

“Shostakovich has torn the masks off and exposed the false and lying methods of composers of bourgeois society…Shostakovich brings off with success a new genre of tragic satire. His opera is a great victory and is the expression of the great creative upsurge that characterizes our musical front.”

His opera  had even, by 1936,  been performed 83 times in Leningrad and 97 times in Moscow. But, it was when Joseph Stalin and other high ranking members of his cabinet attended a showing of Lady Macbeth of Mtsnesk District on January 21st, 1936, where it was said that he walked out mid-performance, that would signal a change in how the opera, and in association their composers, would be conducted.  Two days after Stalin’s attendance at the opera, the Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist party, wrote a scathing review of Shostakovich’s opera in which they state that it was more “chaos instead of music” and incredibly “coarse, primitive and vulgar”. They also referred to the opera as to being riddled with bourgeois creations, such as jazz, and dangerous as it strayed from real art and opera and what the Soviet people truly want.  On February 10, 13, 15,  the Moscow Composers’ Union, at the request of Stalin, held numerous sessions to denounce Shostakovich and his work, before coming to the conclusion that he himself was not at fault but the direction in which he was going was. The union then defined that correct direction to go in as being “formalistic”, which meant: 

“Every composition should be considered “formalistic” in which the composer fundamentally does not have as his aim the presenting of new social meanings, but focuses his interest only on inventing new combinations of sounds that have never been done before

Even after being found not at fault, Shostakovich was still treated and seen as having betrayed Soviet opera and society. His works were banned from production and all operas from then on had to meet the strict guidelines set before them. The revolutionary exploration of social change and thought from the 1920’s was officially dead on the opera stage, and the traditional, “formalistic” views of the Great Retreat had taken the spotlight.

13 Replies to “Out with the New and in with the Old! How the Great Retreat affected the Soviet Opera.”

    1. If that’s the case, you should check out his first opera, The Nose, which is a satirical work and actually has a bunch of giant noses in it!

  1. Great post! As I was reading the first part I was curious as to what issues composers would run into trying to talk about social issues but you definitely answered that question. It must have been so difficult for composers like Shostakovich. Walking on egg shells while trying to make creative and inspiring work could not have been easy.

    1. oh it wasn’t. But even so, Shostakovich continued to create and compose operas even after all he had been through, granted that he had to do so under the new guidelines

  2. Thanks so much for writing about one of my favorite composers and one of the most notorious and complicated aspects of “The Great Retreat.” I agree that opera is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about “revolutionary” art!
    Lady M is really a fascinating case study, and one where Stalin’s heavy-handed intervention in artistic policy seems so clear cut. But when I listen to the opera and think about where the Soviet Union (and the USofA) were socially in the 30s, it gets a little more complicated — the opera’s protagonist (Lady M) is a triple murderer (husband, nephew, father-in-law) who then commits suicide when she can’t overcome her jealousy and despair. And the “content” of the drama and music was racy even by today’s standards (think bedroom scene with a trombone ejaculation). Audiences in Philadelphia were shocked by this — as were their counterparts in Moscow. To me it suggests that the social conservatism of the “Great Retreat” was widely shared and not just a product of Stalin’s prudishness or preference for more melodic and conventional (classical) music.

    1. Oh! Yeah you’re right! I never put two and two together! I honestly can’t believe I forgot about the United States in the ’20s being so outrageous and experimental! Thank you for pointing that out!

  3. This is a great post! I never would have imagined that the Great Retreat would impact the Soviet Opera like this. I agree with Jacob, it must have been difficult for composers to work in this time. I had never heard of Shostakovich before, and it honestly made me feel bad for him.

  4. One of the most interesting aspects of Stalinism to me is how Stalin tried to infuse neo-traditional and nationalist aesthetics in Soviet culture as part of the “Socialism in One Country” ideology he followed. It must have been challenging for artists to try to adhere to the standards of the regime while at the same time try to introduce new works of art and entertainment.

    1. oh absolutely! They were pretty much told, you cannot be creative and think outside of the box, but we still want you to keep creating new content for the people to enjoy, and do so within these specific guidelines.

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