To the Editor:
In “Shostakovich in Four Parts” [November 1982] Samuel Lipman gives us a very thoughtful discussion of the personal and professional troubles that Dmitri Shostakovich suffered because of Soviet cultural repression. There are two amplifications that I would like to offer which should complement his general argument about how Soviet authorities impose an ideological “line” on the arts.
Mr. Lipman is quite accurate in pointing out how Shostakovich felt it necessary to compose symphonies with appropriate revolutionary themes. The Twelfth Symphony was one such work, and it was entitled not simply “1917” as stated in the article, but rather “1917: In Memory of Lenin.” Shostakovich’s full title demonstrates Mr. Lipman’s point more completely, that is, the degree to which a Soviet artist feels compelled to produce what is demanded by the official culture.
Even when Shostakovich composed non-programmatic music, Soviet cultural bureaucrats would provide the appropriate ideological gloss. For example, party spokesman Dmitri Kabalevsky commented as follows about the Tenth Symphony: “As before, I am still convinced of the symphony’s profound truthfulness. . . . In the finale, moreover, he draws a bright picture in which we can clearly hear the pulse beats of wonderful young life liberated, at last, from the threat of calamities and suffering.” Thus does the party provide the heroic optimism necessitated by the official doctrine of socialist realism.
Given the relentless artistic censorship and the more than occasional purges conducted by Soviet authorities, one can sympathize with Shostakovich even when he temporized with the regime. As he comments in his Testimony: “I was stuck with the label ‘enemy of the people,’ and I don’t need to explain what the label meant in those days.” In Stalin’s time, it meant the concentration camp or execution; now it means artistic interdiction or banishment. We can only be grateful to Dmitri Shostakovich that despite all this repression, he gave us the remarkable body of string quartets for which he will no doubt be best remembered. But these chamber masterpieces came from the inner man while so many of the “official” symphonies were composed as the political tribute necessary for the artist to work—and sometimes to survive.
Kevin V. Mulcahy
Director, Institute of Government Research
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisana