Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Concerts I Would Like to Have Attended (and One I am Glad to have Missed!)

January is usually a concert-heavy month, following, as it does, the holiday-heavy month of December. In a non-COVID environment, theaters thrive in the cold and early darkness of January, as folks look for something to do while they wait out the winter in anticipation of warmer, longer days and baseball season. 

January 18th is particularly notable for concerts that have taken place on this date, concerts that with one glaring exception I personally would have been thrilled to attend. Stuck at home as we presently are thanks to you-know-what, let us live vicariously through these January 18 concerts, even as we anticipate – hungrily, hopefully – the soon-enough-to-be attended concerts of January 2022. 

We will focus primarily on the first of these concerts – the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose – after which we’ll do a quick prance through five other January 18-specific concert events of note.

The Nose

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich in 1925
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975) in 1925

We mark the premiere performance on January 18, 1930 – 91 years ago today – of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, which was performed by the Maly Opera Theater in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Completed in 1928 when Shostakovich was just 22 years old, The Nose is based on a satirical story by the great Russian nationalist writer Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-1852). That story, in the smallest of nutshells, goes like this. A bureaucrat is being shaved by his barber. Unbeknownst to both of them, the barber accidentally cuts off the bureaucrat’s nose. It’s only on the following day that the barber discovers the nose (in his bread of all places!) and that the bureaucrat, on awakening, discovers that his nose is missing. And so the subsequent action of the opera: the barber does his darndest to dispose of the nose while the bureaucrat tries to find it. Meanwhile, the nose grows an entirely new body which is ranked higher in the bureaucracy than its original owner! Craziness ensues, with the nose ultimately being “beaten down” into its original form and reunited with its original face. In the end, the story is about – among other things – the idiocy of the Russian bureaucracy and police.

Shostakovich’s The Nose in a production by the Metropolitan Opera in 2013
Shostakovich’s The Nose in a production by the Metropolitan Opera in 2013

According to the British composer Gerard McBurney (born 1954):

 “The Nose is one of the young Shostakovich’s greatest masterpieces, an electrifying tour de force of vocal acrobatics, wild instrumental colors and theatrical absurdity, all shot through with a blistering mixture of laughter and rage. The result, in Shostakovich’s ruthlessly irreverent hands, is like an operatic version of Charlie Chaplin or Monty Python.”

Shostakovich was inordinately proud of this, his first opera, and for the rest of his life he judged people by whether they were “for” or “against” it. That’s because The Nose, inadvertently, became a lightning rod for criticism in those developing days of Soviet artistic oppression. 

You see, despite the overwhelmingly positive audience response to The Nose, the increasingly politicized critical community slammed the opera for its serious ideological flaws, modernistic style, and rejection of traditional Russian operatic values. One review said The Nose was the result of:

“The infantile sickness of Leftism.” 

Shostakovich (1906-1975) was stunned. He had never received criticism like that; he was deeply wounded. But it was nothing personal. By the late 1920s, the previously liberal artistic atmosphere of Leningrad was beginning to suffocate at the hands of Soviet ideologues. Since Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) had slowly and irresistibly been consolidating his power. On Stalin’s orders, a cultural revolution swept the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1931: militant party hacks, acting in the name of the “proletariat” (but in fact acting for Comrade Stalin) crushed the various artistic and musical societies that had come into being during the early and mid-1920’s, and replaced them with “unions” – writers unions, cinematographer’s unions, musician’s unions, and so forth, which stressed above all conformity and uniformity with party policies regarding art and expression. 

Dmitri Shostakovich – the best, youngest, and brightest of the “new” Soviet composers – had managed to walk a fine line between personal self-expression and the increasingly repressive artistic tenets of the Soviet government. But that all changed with the critical abuse heaped upon The Nose. 

Which begs the question: how did Shostakovich publicly react to the criticism of his opera and the increasingly hostile artistic environment that criticism represented? First, to his great credit, he continued – for the time being, at least – to compose the sort of music he wanted to compose, and the opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsenk (composed between 1930-1932) and his Symphony No. 4 (1934-1936) would be the crowning glories of his so-called “modern period”. But while he might have walked the walk, Shostakovich most certainly did not talk the talk. His need to live and to compose in an increasingly hostile artistic environment turned him into a hypocrite (which, in Shostakovich’s case, is another word for “survivor”). 

Having never had to walk in Shostakovich’s shoes, we are in no position to criticize him, craven though his talk could be. For example, when in 1930 the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians condemned what they called “light music” (gypsy music and jazz, two genres of music that Shostakovich adored), he put his name behind the campaign to purge the community of musicians guilty of disseminating it. He wrote:

“Only together with all of Soviet Society, leading widespread educational work on the class essence of the light genre, will we succeed in liquidating it.” 

Please. And this from a guy who had incorporated an arrangement of Vincent Youman’s and Irving Caesar’s pop song Tea for Two into his ballet The Golden Age that very same year! 

Some perspective. In 1930, when Shostakovich wrote those words, he was just 24 years old. His whole life was still in front of him, and not in his worst nightmares – or in anyone else’s, for that matter – could he have imagined the horrors of Stalinism that were about to engulf the Soviet Union. So he toed the party line verbally and continued to write the sort of music he wanted to write. 

Reflecting on the near-death sentence he received in 1936 for having composed the opera Lady Macbeth, we know in retrospect how well that turned out. …

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