Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Shostakovich Symphony No. 13

On December 18, 1962 – 61 years ago today – Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 received its premiere in Moscow.  The symphony stirred up a proverbial hornet’s nest of controversy, and we’re not talking here about your everyday hornet, but rather, those gnarly ‘n’ gnasty Asian Giant Hornets!

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975) in 1962
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975) in 1962

It was a symphonic premiere that almost didn’t take place, though, in the end, the show did go on.  Nevertheless, the authorities (the Soviet authorities, notable for their heavy blue serge suits, vodka breaths, and deficient senses of humor) did everything in their power to squash the symphony out of existence.  In this they failed miserably, and Shostakovich’s Thirteenth is today acknowledged as not just one of Shostakovich’s supreme masterworks but as one of the most musically and politically important works composed during the twentieth century. 

A Good Communist

During the late 1950s, Shostakovich was increasingly used by the Soviet authorities as a sort of artistic “figure head,” meant to represent the supposedly “free” Soviet intelligentsia.  In 1960, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) – decided to make the 54-year-old Shostakovich the chairman of the newly founded RSFSR, the Russian Union of Composers.  It was a huge honor, and Shostakovich felt that it was a position that would make him, finally and for all time, unassailable, untouchable, unpurgeable and, of equal importance, would guarantee the safety and success of his two now-grown children, Galina (24 years old) and Maxim (22 years old).  However, there was a catch: to take the position, Shostakovich had to join the Communist Party, something he had long-sworn he would never, ever, under any circumstances, do.  Well, he did join the Communist Party, telling his friends that he signed the necessary papers while under the influence of alcohol, SUI, “signing under the influence.”  For months afterwards, Shostakovich was – no exaggeration – literally hysterical with self-loathing.  The musicologist, folklorist, and friend of Shostakovich Lev Lebedinsky recalled:

“I will never forget some of the things he said that night [before his induction into the Party], sobbing hysterically: ‘I’m scared to death of them’; ‘You don’t know the whole truth’; ‘From childhood I’ve always had to do things I didn’t want to do’; ‘I’ve been a whore, and always will be a whore.’ 

He often lashed at himself in strong words.” 

And so, kicking and screaming, Shostakovich joined the Soviet Communist Party.  For all the world, he was the picture of a good and obedient Communist apparatchik.  Again, according to the previously quoted Lev Lebedinsky:

“Without fail he attended every possible ridiculous meeting of the Supreme Soviet, every plenary session, every political gathering; he even took part in the AGITPROP [agitation/propaganda] car rally.  In other words, he eagerly took part in events that he himself described as ‘torture by boredom.’  He sat there like a puppet, applauding when the others applauded.  Once I remember him clapping eagerly after Khrennikov had made a speech in which he made some offensive remarks about Shostakovich!’ ‘Why did you clap when you were being criticized?’ I asked.  He hadn’t even noticed! 

What moved him was not a lack of principles, but [fear].  Take his attack on Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.  It is well known that Shostakovich sympathized with both of them.  So God only knows what possessed him to put his signature on that filthy slander of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Nobody forced him to do it.  Afterwards he cursed himself, saying that he’d never forgive himself for having done it.” 

The Thaw

While all of this was happening, the nature of Soviet suppression was actually changing for the better.

Nikita Khrushchev (left) (1894-1971 and Josef Stalin (1878-1953), circa 1937
Nikita Khrushchev (left) (1894-1971 and Josef Stalin (1878-1953), circa 1937

Joseph Stalin – the “great leader and teacher” and truly, one of the worst people ever to have lived – died on March 5, 1953.  He was succeeded as “First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” by Nikita Khrushchev.  In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin as being “savage, half-mad and power-crazed” in his famous “secret speech.”  Delivered to the 20th Party Congress in February of 1956, the speech was, in fact, anything but secret.

Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin initiated a period called the “Thaw,” during which domestic repression and censorship in the Soviet bloc were scaled back, at least until Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964.  The Thaw reached its climax in 1962 with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13. Never mind that the Soviet authorities did everything they could to undermine the Symphony’s premiere, and that it was banned outright after it second performance.  It was composed, it was heard, and its impact could not be forgotten.  

The Poem and a Symphony

On September 19, 1961, a poem entitled Babi Yar was published.  Written by a 28-year-old poet named Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017), the poem – an outright condemnation of Soviet anti-Semitism – unleashed a firestorm of controversy.  Yevtushenko was vilified, ostracized, threatened, and spat upon.  (During Stalin’s lifetime, Yevtushenko would simply have been “disappeared,” leaving hardly a wet spot.  So we must consider the treatment he received in 1961 in response to his poem as being quite benign!)…

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