A Cacophony of Sound

In the mid 1930’s the works of a certain composer by the name of Dimitrii Shostakovitch continued to catch the eye and heart of the public with his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This opera was centered around a woman who has an affair, due to her loveless marriage, ends up causing the death of her husband and his father, and also was the turning point in Shostakovitch’s career. Due to the impressively high grossing nature of this controversial and musically diverse production he was viewed as “The premier Soviet composer” until one fateful day, when Stalin watched this production.


After walking out of a performance of this show Stalin wrote an editorial entitled “Chaos Instead of Music” in which he basically said that Shostakovitch had not only not lived up to the Soviet standard of opera, but also musical production. Stalin went on to say that the works of Shostakovitch were “leftist” or followed in the works of Meyerhold,  which in a nutshell, accused him of being against the Soviet way of life, therefore endangered his life. It is recorded in Shostakovitch’s logs that he took up sleeping in the doorway of his apartment in case he was arrested in the night so that his children would not see. Even though the public and professional critics were enchanted by his modernist styles and creative writings, this condemnation by the most powerful man in the USSR caused his ample stream of funding to dry up almost instantaneously.

It is speculated that Stalin not only disliked his works, but also used him as an example to the other artistic producers of the nation. His message was clear, and rather definite. There would be no criticism, or anything remotely critical aimed at the government, or the Soviet way of life. Shostakovitch eventually found favor in the eyes of Stalin and the public once more with the production of his Fifth Symphony, and continued to write in this conservative style until the death of Stalin in 1953.

5 thoughts on “A Cacophony of Sound

  1. I think this is a particularly interesting topic. It’s strange to think that the comments and opinion of one man could so greatly change (or suppress) the public opinion of an artist. It goes to show how powerful Stalin’s cult of personality and the control he had over Soviet society.

  2. It’s too bad that Shostakovitch relented and wrote music which Stalin would approve. Of course, I understand the desire to live and avoid any punishment, but Stalin’s influence on the course of so many different aspects of Soviet government is truly astounding. It’s hard to think that one person’s approval was so important to millions of people.

    1. I agree fully. Even if Shostakovitch’s Fifth is still quite beautiful, it doesn’t retain his artistic style, and that is an integral part of music in my opinion.

  3. And yet, the Fifth is still greatly-admired and retains a place in the repertoire! This post does a terrific job with primary sources and identifying some of the key issues informing the scandal over Lady Macbeth. This post, together with Leah’s discussion of Socialist Realism (http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/leahw93/2013/10/10/the-richest-in-ideas/) suggests how traditional aesthetic preferences worked in concert with censorship (and Stalin’s personal tastes) to shape cultural expression in the thirties. The trauma-drama of Lady Macbeth remains compelling even after all of these years. It’s hard to remember how scandalous that opera would have been anywhere in the 30s – an adulterous double murderer cum heroine? Trombones mimicking sex on stage? Stalin wasn’t the only one who was offended! I love Cory’s comment about Miley Cyrus on Amy’s fine post on this same topic: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/amy925/2013/10/13/the-phantom-purges-of-the-opera/#comment-18

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