The Problem of Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) is now generally regarded as one of the great composers of our time, but his reputation, at least in the West, was not always so high. Thereby hangs a complex tale involving questions about his personal conduct as a citizen of a totalitarian society and the way that conduct did or did not affect the music he wrote.
Shostakovich first came to the United States in 1949 to take part in the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, the notorious “Waldorf Peace Congress” whose American participants were characterized by the émigré Russian composer Nicolas Nabokov as “peacemakers, peace addicts, and peace dupes.” Shostakovich’s role in this Communist-run puppet show was to sit in silence while an interpreter read on his behalf a speech in which the Soviet Union’s most famous composer criticized American “warmongers,” attacked Igor Stravinsky (who had long since left Russia and was now living in the West) for having “betrayed his native land and severed himself from his people by joining the camp of reactionary modern musicians,” and apologized abjectly for his own periodic lapses into “bourgeois formalism.”
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.