Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Who Says There’s No Such Thing as a “Bad Review”?

Pravda, page 3, January 28, 1936
Pravda, page 3, January 28, 1936: “Muddle Instead of Music” is on the bottom left quadrant

On January 28, 1936 – 83 years ago today – an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared on page 3 of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The article – dictated by Joseph Stalin himself to one of hit principal literary hit men, a writer named David Zaslavsky – condemned in the most brutal terms Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In one swell foop, the 29 year-old Shostakovich went from being the brightest artistic star in the Soviet firmament to a cultural enemy of the people, in desperate fear for his life. The condemnation and the terror the article inspired irreparably damaged Shostakovich’s psyche; though he lived for another 39 years, it’s something from which he never recovered.

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1933
Dmitri Shostakovich in 1933

Shostakovich completed his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, in 1932. It’s based on a nasty/gnarly story written by the Russian novelist and playwright Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) in 1864. Katerina Izmailova is the young, bored, illiterate, and sexually frustrated wife of a provincial merchant. She goes gaga over a handsome, macho workman named Sergei. Katerina and Sergei become lovers, and in order to keep things going with Sergei Katerina finds it necessary to murder both her husband and her father-in-law. Eventually she is caught and along with Sergei, she is exiled to Siberia. While on the road to Siberia Sergei takes up with another woman named Sonyetka. Crazed with jealousy, Katerina kills herself by jumping into the Volga River, dragging Sonyetka with her.


 The opera historian Donald Grout writes:

“The music is brutal, lusty, vivid in the suggestion of cruelty and horror, full of driving rhythm and willful dissonance.” 

Katerina and Sergei doing their thang in a Munich production of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
Katerina and Sergei doing their thang in a Munich production of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

I would further point out that the music that represents Katerina and Sergei’s rutting (there’s no other word for it) is pure audio pornography, to the point that we as an audience actually must laugh out loud when we hear it. 

The opera was first performed on January 22, 1934, in Leningrad, and opened in Moscow two days later. From the first, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth was a hit, SRO: “standing room only”. It was declared a masterpiece, a stunningly original dramatic work, the best Russian opera since Mussorgsky; one reviewer said that such an opera:

“Could only have been written by a Soviet composer brought up in the best traditions of Soviet culture.”

Thanks to Lady Macbeth, the 26 year-old Shostakovich’s international reputation as the leading Soviet composer was assured. By 1936, Lady Macbeth had been performed 83 times in Leningrad and 97(!) times in Moscow; within five months of its premiere it was broadcast five times. Within two years of it’s premiere Lady Macbeth had been performed in New York, Stockholm, London, Zurich, Copenhagen, Argentina and Czechoslovakia. Inside the Soviet Union, Shostakovich became a celebrity. His artistic plans and progress, his comings and goings, were tracked by the press, his ideas on topics both musical and nonmusical were sought out, and he was elected a deputy of Leningrad’s October District. 

But on January 26, 1936, the sky fell. Joseph Stalin, along with Vyacheslav Molotov and various other high-ranking members of the Soviet nomenklatura (meaning ruling elites) attended a performance of Lady Macbeth at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. If only they had stayed home.

Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov in 1935
Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov in 1935


Vladimir Lenin – who had led the Bolshevik/Communist revolution – died on January 24, 1924. After a three-year power struggle, Joseph Stalin came to power in 1927.

In 1928, Stalin set into motion the first of his so-called “Five Year Plans”, which intended to shift the Soviet Union from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy in just five years. The results were catastrophic: as many as five million peasants were starved to death between 1928 and 1932. Stalin’s reaction? “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

With the inception of the second “Five Year Plan” in 1932, no one – countryside or city dweller, peasant or urban artist – was safe from the increasingly long arm of Soviet repression.

On April 23, 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party released the following resolution concerning music:

“Henceforth, musical works should have a socialist content and should be expressed in a readily understood language and addressed to the people at large. The party also requires the expression of nationalist feelings and the use of folk materials in musical works.” 

The party then closed the Soviet Union to all Western modern music. 

The most dreaded charge that could be leveled against a composer was that of “Formalism”: a catchword for anything deemed to be modernistic and/or personally expressive, anything that did not reflect the “heroic ideals of the Soviet working class”. The composer Sergei Prokofiev observed that:

“’Formalism’ is the name given to music not understood at the first hearing.”

Back, then, to Dmitri Shostakovich. Because he was the first great composer to develop under the Soviet regime; because of his precocity; and because of the popularity of his music, Shostakovich had managed – for the most part – to float above the dictates of Soviet Socialist Musical Realism. Well, not after Stalin and his homies attended that performance of Lady Macbeth on January 26, 1936 and stomped out of the theater after the very first act, livid over what they called “this degenerate music!”

Two days later, on January 28, 1936, the Soviet artistic community was stunned by the appearance of an unsigned article entitled, “Muddle Instead of Music” in Pravda:

“Several theaters have presented to the culturally maturing Soviet public Shostakovich’s latest opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as an accomplishment. Fawning musical criticism extols the opera to the heavens, trumpeting its fame. Instead of practical and serious criticism that could assist him in his future works , the young composer hears only enthusiastic compliments.

From the very first moment of the opera the listener is flabbergasted by the deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of a musical phrase drown, struggle free and disappear again in the din, the grinding, the squealing. To follow this ‘music’ is difficult, to remember it is impossible. The music quacks, hoots, pants, and gasps in order to express the love scenes as naturally as possible . . .” 

The article ended with an undisguised threat: 

“This is a game . . . that may end very badly.” 

So? Just a bad review? No, not in a country where, between 1936 and 1938, during what is now is called the “Great Purge” or the “Great Terror”, millions of Soviet citizens deemed to be “enemies of the people” died of starvation, execution, or were shipped off to the Gulag. 

An example had been made of Dmitri Shostakovich; the best and the brightest had been cast down, converted – by official sanction – from the greatest Soviet composer to a pernicious purveyor of depraved bourgeois formalism: a cultural enemy of the people!

Shostakovich remembered:

“That article on the third page of Pravda changed my entire existence. It was printed without a signature, like an editorial – that is, it expressed the opinion of the Party. But it actually expressed the opinion of Stalin, and that was much more important. 

All right, the opera was taken off the stage. Everyone turned away from me. There was a phrase in the article saying that all this ‘could end very badly’. They were all waiting for the bad end to come.

It went on as if in a nightmare.

Everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed. And the anticipation of that noteworthy event – at least for me – has never left me.

From that moment on I was stuck with the label ‘enemy of the people’, and I don’t need to explain what the label meant in those days. Everyone still remembers that.

I was called an enemy of the people quietly and out loud and from podiums. One paper made the following announcement of a concert at which I was to appear: ‘Today there is a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich.’ In those years my name wasn’t welcomed enthusiastically in print unless, of course, it was used in a discussion about the struggles against formalism.” 

Solomon Volkov, author of the excellent Shostakovich and Stalin (Knopf, 2004) writes:

“In 1936, the composer and everyone around him were certain that he would be arrested. His friends kept their distance. Like many other people at that time, he kept a small suitcase packed and ready. They usually came for their victims at night. Shostakovich did not sleep. He lay listening, waiting in the dark.

After the ‘Muddle’ article, Shostakovich was in despair, near suicidal. The constant anticipation of arrest affected his mind. For nearly four decades, until his death, he would see himself as a hostage, a condemned man. The fear might increase or decrease, but it never disappeared. The entire country had become an enormous prison from which there was no escape.” 

The presumably “rehabilitated” Shostakovich in 1938, outwardly intact but inwardly much the worse for wear
The presumably “rehabilitated” Shostakovich in 1938, outwardly intact but inwardly much the worse for wear

The Committee for artistic affairs told Shostakovich that his rehabilitation depended upon his rejection of “formalist mistakes”, the production of music accessible to the masses, and, in the future, the submission of any proposed project to advance screening. 

Shostakovich found solace in his wife, his newborn daughter Galina, and the fact that he was still – incredibly – able to compose. He did indeed “rehabilitate” himself with the composition and premiere – on November 21, 1937 – of his Symphony No. 5. But that is another story for another time!

For lots more on the crazy life, times, and music of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, I would direct your attention to my eight-lecture biography of Shostakovich, published by The Great Courses.

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