Dmitri Shostakovitch

When the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich died in the summer of 1975, The Times labelled him “one of the greatest twentieth century composers and a committed believer in Communism and Soviet power”. This was far from the truth. Although he never made ringing declarations against Stalinist terrors, Shostakovich quietly attempted to retain his independence of thought and sense of humanity. In 1948, in the shadow of Zhdanov’s campaign, Shostakovich, together with Prokofiev, Khachaturian and other Soviet composers, was accused of formalism and “maintaining an anti-people tendency” and none of his major works were performed in public. The composer’s reaction to the campaign against him and the subsequent attacks on Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” was to withdraw from public view. Yet he was not idle. Many works which could only be performed much later were written in these terrible times for Soviet Jewry. The First Violin Concerto, the vocal cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry and the Fourth Quartet were all inspired by the catastrophe of the Shoah and the final years of Stalin’s misdeeds.

Shostakovich was well known for his profoundly philosemitic attitude. In his controversial and much disputed “memoirs—as related to Solomon Volkov”, Shostakovich is quoted:  In my youth I came across antisemitism among my peers who thought that Jews were getting preferential treatment. They didn’t remember the pogroms, the ghettos or the quotas. In those years it was almost a mark of sangfroid to speak of Jews with a mocking laugh. It was a kind of opposition to the authorities. I never condoned an anti-Semitic tone, even then, and I didn’t repeat anti-Semitic jokes that were popular then. But I was much gentler about this unworthy trait than I am now. Later I broke with even good friends if they had any anti-Semitic tendencies.

Shostakovich wrote his Thirteenth Symphony in 1962, virtually inviting official disapproval. He set to music five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko for solo bass, a male voice chorus and orchestra. The first poem was Yevtushenko’s famous “Babi Yar” which exposed official insensitivity to the mass murder of Jews during the Shoah and to the existence of a Jewish problem in the USSR. Malcolm Macdonald, who compiled the definitive catalogue raisonné of Shostakovich’s works, comments that the composer used words in this work “as an integral part of a weighty symphonic statement (the brief hortatory final choruses of the Second and Third Symphonies are clearly lightweight stuff by comparison); and . . . they are not comfortable words for any audience” (Shostakovich: The Man and his Music, ed C. Norris, 1982).

The day before the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, 400 writers, artists and intellectuals were unexpectedly assembled to be informed what was and what was not permissable under the prevailing Soviet wisdom of 1962. Nikita Krushchev formally distanced himself from the Stalinist past by introducing a  hitherto unknown writer to his audience, one Alexander Solzhenitsyn. On the other hand, he attacked the Thirteenth Symphony and specifically “Babi Yar”, proclaiming that there was no antisemitism in the Soviet Union—”but it would be better for the Jews not to hold senior posts since it would provoke resentment”. Krushchev actually asked Shostakovich to call off the performance but the composer refused. The work was thus premiered the following day, 11 December 1962, but the audience was not provided with texts nor did any review subsequently appear in the Soviet press.

Before the Symphony could be performed again, changes were demanded. Yevtushenko obliged by adding two new lines to dilute the “Jewish” content and heighten the “Russian” contribution:

I am proud of the Russia which stood in the path of the invader.

Here, together with Russians and Ukrainians, the Jews were slain in the Babi Yar ravine.

This permitted a second performance in early 1963. Yet the Soviet authorities were still unable to stomach a cultural event on such a sensitive subject. Thus Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony was performed for the third and last time by the Moscow Philharmonic led by Kyril Kondrashin in November 1965. Even under Gorbachev, the pervading influence of glasnost and perestroika has not lead to a new recital of the work—regarded by many as one of Shostakovich’s finest compositions.

Jewish Quarterly Winter 1988

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