All material contained herein is copyright © Patrick Valentino, unless otherwise credited. All rights reserved.
No content on this website may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission.

Opera and the Power Balance in Soviet Russia:

A Comparison of Official Reactions to Shostakovich’s

The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

6 October 2011



The tumultuous relationship between Shostakovich and the Soviet government, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, serves to illustrate the greater power dynamic between the Soviet system and its artists, and thus the complex issue of art’s role in society. Although Shostakovich experienced a series of public successes and failures throughout his lifetime, it is the purpose of this study to focus specifically on the inspiration, composition, premiere, reception, and ultimate repercussions of his two completed operas, The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The situations both leading up to these works and the circumstances which followed are complex, owing to the chaotic history of 20th century Russia and the opacity of the historical record. Complicating matters further (and standing as testimony to the enduring interest of the story) is a persistent lack of unanimity among scholars as to the details and motivations of Shostakovich’s life, the nature of his relationship with the Soviet regime, and the image of Shostakovich the Soviet composer to the members of the Central Committee.

To begin any analysis of these events, one must have an understanding of the contextual history of Soviet Russia in order to relate to the world in which Shostakovich lived and worked. The first quarter decade of the 20th century was a period marked by revolution, civil war, and rapidly changing social structures. The Revolution of 1905 (a year before Shostakovich was born, and to which he later dedicated his Symphony No. 11) was the climax of over 5 decades of anger at the Tsar over social inequality, poverty, and war. The resultant constitutional monarchy did little to change the landscape, and the many diverse factions who stood unified at the Winter Palace in January 1905 splintered and quarreled among themselves. Shostakovich’s formative years were spent in the chaotic Russia that was the aftermath of this upheaval.

The Revolution of 1905 came as the people wearied of the Russo-Japanese War, and the Revolution of 1917 (when Shostakovich was 11) came as they wearied of World War I. When Tsar Nicolas II responded to popular uprisings with brutal force, the tide turned conclusively against the autocrat; when he was forced to abdicate a 300-year-old dynasty was ended, and the unified forces of the populists and the military saw their freedom as the dawning of a new day in history. Their provisional government reflected national unity, and the locally governing Soviets they set up were strikingly similar to direct democracy. However, the liberalism of this era included such gestures as repatriating political exiles, one of which was Vladimir Lenin. Accusing the revolutionaries in the provisional government of perpetuating World War I, Lenin led his Bolsheviks to challenge, overthrow, and seek vengeance against those in power who just a few short months earlier had been their brothers in arms. Lenin’s communist party assumed power and using an assassination attempt in 1918 as justification, sought to liquidate any political rivals. The establishment of the secret police, the assassination of the royal family, and an increasingly bloody and desperate civil war plunged the young Soviet country once again into chaos. Amid this bleak and violent background, a 13-year-old Shostakovich entered the Petrograd Conservatory.

Having moved from a society governed by a constitutional monarchy with direct voting rights to an top-down oligarchy which led to civil war within 24 months, the decade of the 1920s saw another swing in the pendulum. Lenin realized that he could not destroy the intelligentsia (as he had hoped) while still maintaining the productivity of the country. The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921 created liberal social policies, encouraged cultural experimentation, and sought to embolden Soviet artists and musicians to devise a new ‘Soviet’ voice in the artistic world. Opera in particular was upheld after the revolution as a vehicle for national symbolism and was actively supported. This was partly, as Bartlett suggests, because “opera [held] central importance within Russian musical and cultural life” (179), but it was also simply a matter of necessity; the sheer number of composers was low after most had either left the country or met their end during the civil war.

One of the tangible manifestations of the reforms of the NEP period was the establishment of musicians’ organizations in Petrograd and Moscow, which provided a forum for the leading minds of the age as well as emerging talents to discuss the rise of Soviet art and critique each others’ work. The two organizations that impacted Shostakovich the most were the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM), based in Moscow, and the Association for Contemporary Music (ACM), both founded in 1923. RAPM was rigidly conservative, even stifling, in its views, and the ACM (of which Shostakovich was a member in Leningrad) was the primary progressive advocate of forward-looking composers. There were clashes from the start, and they reflected not only the common artistic dispute between traditionalism and experimentalism, but also came to represent in a bureaucratic way an overarching style and outlook that could be defined by their respective home bases. This distinction between cosmopolitan, urbane Leningrad and entrenched, homey Moscow presaged the difference in governing style which was to come when one year later, in 1924, Lenin died and power shifted to Stalin, and thus back to Moscow.

Shostakovich, a prodigious musical talent and still a young conservatory student, flourished in the vibrant cultural climate created by Lenin’s NEP in the early 1920s; although where exactly on the ideological spectrum his loyalties lay is to this day a point of disagreement for many. Robert Stradling, for example, is convinced Shostakovich was a “lifelong communist” (190) while Ian MacDonald maintains it was impossible for him to be communist (41); somewhat more dramatically, Simon Volkov paints him as a Faustian figure who accepted certain restrictions from the ruling class in exchange for expanded artistic freedom (boundaries which he often crossed)[1]. Shostakovich, for his own part, contributed to musical journals and participated in public debates over artistic topics, including the ‘Sovietization’ of opera, during this time period. But why would a composer who by all outward appearances was the poster child for the new Soviet artist fall into such disfavor in such a short time?

To understand how Shostakovich fit into this world, and to better understand his reactions to it, it is imperative to see him not only as a product of his external environment, but his family’s lineage and social status. Shostakovich’s father (an engineer who worked for the famous chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev) and his mother were both originally from Siberia, transplanted to the capital of St. Petersburg in the late 19th century. The level of education attained by his father, Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich, as well as they type of work he did, put him squarely in the upper middle class referred to interchangeably as the intelligentsia, or the bourgeoisie, depending upon whether it was held in high or low regard at the time.[2] During Dmitri Dmitrievich’s conservatory years, for example, their social class would have been exalted as the best hope for the future of Soviet culture; however a few years later, when the first Five Year Plan began, it would have been an economic liability; a few years earlier, after the assassination attempt on Lenin, it would have been a threat to one’s very existence.

Besides the privilege of an educated upbringing, plus the toughness that is inherited from Siberian forebears, one other factor in Shostakovich’s lineage is significant. His paternal grandfather, who was a Polish revolutionary who participated in the January Uprising of 1863, was exiled to Siberia after the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexandr II[3]. With freedom fighters in his family tree and educated, loving parents at his side, the young Shostakovich developed a deep respect for family, loyalty, and personal achievement.

Shostakovich was a piano prodigy and started composing early on in his life. His first public success came with the Symphony No. 1, his 1926 graduation piece from the Leningrad Conservatory (so named after the leader’s death in 1924). The First Symphony occupies a central place in the composer’s development in this stage, and can be seen as the first step in the journey which would arrive at The Nose three years later. Yet again, critics are divided on the Symphony’s inspiration, effect, and musical value. Martynov thinks that despite the popular acclaim of the work, Shostakovich was dissatisfied with it, and sought new paths (16). Norman Kay, however, sees a logical flow from Shostakovich’s early “conservative” musical voice to his more experimental works, indicating less of a dialectic relation in his output. He goes on to link the Symphony’s inspiration not only from Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but also Russian theatre, an important link to his future fascination with opera (15). Kay does identify in the Symphony a mastery of style, honesty and confidence (ibid.), but Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich’s closest friend during this period, maintains the success of the work did not give the composer confidence in his work or abilities (37). So perhaps it is that the Symphony was in fact Shostakovich’s fulfillment of an academic requirement, (presaging his numerous works for the State in his later life) while inside he harbored truly revolutionary artistic ambitions, about to be aroused by the new circle of progressive friends and colleagues he would meet in the coming years.[4]

One of his strongest supporters during his conservatory days was none other than Marshall Tukhachevsky, the hero of Lenin’s Red Army who definitively put down the final resistance to the Bolsheviks at Kronstadt.[5] Tukhachevsky was a music lover who was impressed with the young composer’s knowledge and wit, and served as a sounding board and motivator for the First Symphony (Fay 27). Tukhachevsky would later play a supporting role in the unraveling tragedy of Lady Macbeth by writing a personal appeal to Stalin on behalf of the composer. Nikolai Malko, who conducted the premiere of the First Symphony, also introduced him to two men who would be indispensible to his development in the years to come: Vsevolod Meyerhold, at whose theatre Shostakovich witnessed the cutting edge of Soviet theatre, and Ivan Sollertinsky, a polymath and musician who would become his most intimate friend.

Going hand-in-hand with the liberal atmosphere created by the NEP in the 1920s, the government sought to popularize a youth culture. Partly fashioned on similar movements throughout the world at the time (though perhaps a little late to the table), and partly envisioned as a tool to empower and control the upcoming generation while removing the vestiges of the old, the Soviet call to create while opposing inherited norms resonated with the young Soviet generation. In later decades experimentalism was renounced, but for the time being young composers were encouraged to break new ground. The prominent music critic and later associate of Shostakovich, Boris Asafiev, sent out the call to Soviet artists to create, and fill the world with new art reflecting the arrival of Soviet culture. It would be the question of the nature of this culture, however, which would plague the coming decades.

While it may appear Shostakovich was caught up in the sweep of 1920s youth-oriented culture, he always identified with the aspects of the zeitgeist which glorified or challenged the individual, only relating to the collective inasmuch as he self-identified as a Soviet composer. The artistic call to arms from the Party to its composers was music to the ears of a talented and ambitious young musician seeking success.

The overarching reach of the Party’s attempt to codify all aspects of society and direct individual thought interested Shostakovich less, and in the 1920s this was largely a forgivable offense, especially for a rising talent.[6]

As previously mentioned, in 1923, two professional music organizations were founded and quickly rose to prominence: RAPM and ACM. The term “proletarian” in the case of RAPM refers to an artistic ideology of hyper Soviet conservatism, stressing national themes, accessibility to the masses, and the imposition of fairly strict formulas for musical and dramatic construction (although the not-yet-coined term “Formalism” would ironically signify its antithesis). Asafiev formed the Leningrad branch of the ACM, and attracted the most promising and progressive composers to the cosmopolitan city, including the young Shostakovich; meanwhile, the Moscow-based RAPM enjoyed the favor of Stalin after Lenin’s death in 1924.  The two groups continued to antagonize each other as the rift in artistic visions grew. Both proclaimed to be the wellspring of Soviet music, and while RAPM labeled the sophisticated experiments of Leningrad elitist, the ACM saw the proletkult’s desire to codify strict rules of artistic creation stifling.

Shostakovich’s interest in opera was present since he met Tukhachevsky in 1925; from this point on, his name appears on debates on the ‘Sovietization of Opera’ (Bartlett 183). Asafiev’s call for Soviet art, in particular opera, was prompted not only by the high regard the rulers had for the arts, but also the dearth of composers left in the country (a number impacted by the self-imposed or official exiles of the previous decade). The revolutionary operas (the term referring more to their historical subjects and less to their musical quality) produced at the time often failed, sabotaged by their own ultra-conservative musical language (Bartlett 183). As the liberal atmosphere of 1917 allowed political exiles back into Russia, the open age of the NEP in the mid 1920s permitted the production of contemporary (albeit foreign) opera in Russian houses, mainly thanks to the ACM. “For a few years it was opera houses in Soviet Russia that led the world in daring productions of contemporary operas that Western theatres shrank from” (Bartlett 182). Norman Kay corroborates, “The atmosphere in the new Soviet state was at this time still surprisingly liberal, and numerous Western composers – Hindemith, Krenek, and Berg, for instance – were freely performed and discussed…Theatres featured Western avant-garde drama, the art galleries exhibited Picasso and the works of other leading cubists. Even jazz appeared on the popular stage…” (17). As hostilities emerged between the ACM and RAPM over the foreign productions and the ACM responded by fostering native talent, RAPM shot back, ever mindful to oppose the ACM at every turn, by implying that there was no place for opera in the new regime (183). The rift between the two organizations continued to grow.

Shostakovich produced a string of ever more experimental works following his Symphony No. 1. From the Piano Sonata Op.12, through the Aphorisms Op. 13 and Symphony No. 2, Op. 14, one sees the emergence of a highly individual voice, marked by angular rhythms, grotesque sonorities, and harmonic complexity. But all these works appear as studies in preparation for his first serious foray into operatic writing, in what would become The Nose.

Shostakovich was 20 in 1927 when he started work on The Nose. There was a stagnation in Russian theatre at the time, brought on both by the lure of the new medium of film music and the string of monochrome productions which dribbled forth from the pens of newly-minted Soviet composers unwilling or unable to definitively create something unique for their young state to hold as a cultural standard (Brown 230).

Shostakovich’s increasingly public voice in the search for true Soviet opera served as a sharpening stone for his own musical convictions and instincts. His progressive circle of friends, including Asafiev, Sollertinsky, and others, provided him constant inspiration and feedback for his ideas. And although he would later deny it (even though The Nose­’s interlude for pitchless percussion would support it), Shostakovich seemed to be deeply affected by an ACM-sponsored production of Wozzeck in Leningrad in 1927 (Norris 120). But possibly the most important influence on Shostakovich was his experiences working in the avant-garde theatre of Vsevolod Meyerhold in 1928. Here he was exposed to the real cutting edge of theatre, and absorbed much which would emerge later in his plot construction, conception of characters, and overall unity of music and drama.

Kay has proprosed, “against this background [of jazz, cubism, and foreign avant-garde composers], Shostakovich’s early style was far from revolutionary” (17). This would change with The Nose. It was Sollertinsky who first proposed to Shostakovich that he adapt the text of the Gogol tale, and his time working at Meyerhold’s theatre that gave him the radical tools he would need for such a project.

Gogol’s tale of the petty bureaucrat Kovalyov whose nose abandons him in search of a life of its own was written as a social satire during the reign of Tsar Nicolas I; it is perhaps no mistake that Shostakovich chose Gogol, as the social structure of Soviet Russia was strikingly similar in the 1920s. Interestingly, Shostakovich did not exclusively use The Nose as a source, but embellished the story with scenes and elements from other Gogol stories as well, creating a kind of cubist libretto with collaborators Alexandr Preis and Yevgeniy Zamyatin.

Curious changes were also made. Shostakovich moved the market scene to Kazan Cathedral, for which he suffered more than a bit of pushback from RAPM for depicting religion (perhaps his satirical treatment of it did not go far enough for the proletkult). Ironically, Kazan Cathedral was the original setting of the market scene, until the characters were evicted by the censors of Tsar Nicolas’ time (Seroff 169).

The musical language was brash and bold; extremes of register and dynamics, rapidly shifting rhythms, and sharp dissonance prevails almost uninterruptedly throughout. The vocal parts were likewise notoriously difficult; the relatively short opera calls for 78 solo singing roles, mostly doubled by actors playing multiple parts. The orchestra was a small chamber ensemble with usually no more than one of each instrument, but included 14 separate percussion parts, 4 domras and 2 balalaikas (which was, ironically, the first time the traditional folk instruments had been used in the orchestra of a work of this kind) (Bartlett 187).

Every aspect of the work was fresh and new, often shockingly so. From the bitingly satirical storyline to the truly revolutionary union of music and text, the orchestra of solo players to the wildly grotesque sonorities and harmonies, it seems the work as a whole was undertaken simply to have fun with its audience. In fact, amid all the academic arguments over the greater social implications Shostakovich had in mind in creating The Nose, Sollertinsky confirms the simple inspiration for the work was for Shostakovich to challenge himself as he had with the Aphorisms and the Second Symphony, and that indeed his artistic purpose was nothing more than to play with his listeners (45).

In The Nose we have a work of unapologetic originality, breaking with tradition, and attempting to establish a new language, one that could be used by the emerging body of Soviet opera composers. Scholars have noted that three years after his ‘conventional’ First Symphony, Shostakovich had produced a work “straining at the leash of musical convention” (Kay 18), which was “an assault on traditions” (Bartlett 185). And in the climate of youth culture rejecting established norms and fighting to create new foundations of tradition, The Nose would seem to fit right in. MacDonald suggests The Nose firmly places Shostakovich within his generation, doing what a good Soviet youth should be doing: attacking bourgeois values, exhibiting intolerance toward those not of his class, and in this case rejecting most norms of the operatic tradition (41). Shostakovich recognized the value of the work himself, and in a characteristic quote perhaps implying the work was more than mere musical impishness, said “I am convinced that The Nose is one of most successful works…the path taken by The Nose is the correct path” (quoted in Fay 56). Even Asafiev, originally skeptical about Shostakovich’s ability to unify word and music in such a groundbreaking way, was eventually convinced (Mishra 314).

While the opera was coming together, all the buzz was about its implications for the future of Soviet art. “By mixing the musical ideas of the Western avant-garde with the artistic innovations of the most radical figures in Soviet culture he had come into contact with, including Meyerhold and Eisenstein, [Shostakovich’s] aim was to write a truly revolutionary opera, laying at last a foundation stone for Soviet opera which would stand the test of time” (Bartlett 185). There was only one problem, and that was the marked difference between 1927, when The Nose was being formulated and composed, and 1928, the year it was in rehearsals. In Russian history of this period, a year or even a few months can make a huge difference in the political and social climate, and this was very true for the year 1928. It was the year Shostakovich completed The Nose, and it was the start of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan.

On the face of it, the Five Year Plan (which was mostly a program of hyper industrialization to catch up to the West) had very little to do with art. But Stalin’s quest for absolute power, begun in 1924 when he shifted the country’s capital back to Moscow, required control over every facet of Soviet life. The arts were especially important; Stalin wanted to foster a new Soviet cultural voice, unfortunately for the Soviet artists he alone already knew what he wanted it to sound like. Stalin favored the proletkult factions in RAPM and they reveled in their expanded power to impose their view of the proper path Soviet art should take. It has been argued that the problems faced by The Nose in the rehearsal process were less due to the difficulty of the work and more to the creeping proletarianism in music criticism (Fay 56, MacDonald 58). Shostakovich did not hesitate to stand up to this changing of the aesthetic tide, and lobbied repeatedly that public and precise criticisms be made on art deemed inferior, with specific recommendations given to the composers on how to improve (Fay 57). The irony and defining characteristic of the coming years is that justification for criticism would become harder and harder to discern, and ultimately become irrelevant, once the balance of power had tipped definitively in the Party’s favor.

But in 1928, it appeared Shostakovich was legitimately interested in being part of the vanguard of Soviet art for the sake of Soviet art itself. He “had always believed that Soviet music was closely bound up with the life of the country. The bitter proof that he was right came when his own work fell beneath the pressure of events on his own State” (Seroff 222). The sin he and his fellow ACM musicians committed was in their method, not their spirit. The criticisms lodged against Shostakovich in particular simultaneously praised his talent while questioning his choice of projects, or his style. This refrain would resurface in the infamous Pravda article attacking Lady Macbeth, and was certainly present in the criticism of The Nose. This bizarre dichotomy, wherein an artist was praised for their talent but denounced for the fruits of that talent illustrated the illogical zeitgeist of the age, and showed the instability of the system as it stood.

In keeping with this, RAPM never attacked Shostakovich as a person, only his work. This might have been because his fame had already been established; at this time, RAPM realized he was very popular and had many supporters who might rise against them for ad hominem attacks. Later, the attempts to kill the art but leave the artist intact came from the desire to use him as a tool to serve the state. The seeds of this strategy were already present in the mid-1920s when, amid criticism for The Nose and other projects, Shostakovich received praise from proletarian critics for his work with the Theatre of Working Class Youth (TRAM). He worked with this vapid ensemble, which mounted tedious productions glorifying factory life, largely to assuage RAPM and other proletarian critics. Mishra notes “Shostakovich’s carefully worded reports to the Conservatory, his dubious participation in RAPM’s campaign against light music, and, of course, his own proletarian-styled compositions show that he had quickly learned the art of survival in the Cultural Revolution” (68).[7] In the eyes of the proletkult, anything that served the state was worthy of recognition. Logically, it would follow that the proletkult would oppose anything that stood against the state; but it was the ambiguity of this very issue that allowed the proletkult to exert ever more power and control over the artistic world in the years to come.

It is here where the issue of power in the artistic realm comes to the fore for the first time in Shostakovich’s career. As Christopher Norris wonders, “What is the relation, in short, between art and ideology where the matter is dictated by political fiat but subject to the ruses and obliquities of artistic expression?” (166). While The Nose was in rehearsal many articles were written about it, mostly proclaiming the arrival of Soviet opera. But in 1929 it was evident the tide was turning; the opera had to be explained by director Nikolai Smolich to the Artistic Council of the Maly Theatre on May 20. “The opera certainly confirmed Shostakovich’s new role as the enfant terrible of Russian music” (Kay 19). To defend the production, a concert performance (for a working class audience selected by RAPM) was scheduled for June 16; Shostakovich volunteered to be deported if working men could not understand the piece (Bartlett 187). The surprise came to RAPM though, when their questionnaires distributed to the factory workers and coal miners returned a 100% favorable rating for the new opera. Sollertinsky was recorded as saying somewhat glibly, “It will be difficult for the opera buff accustomed to Italian opera, but understandable to the worker” (Fay 55). But RAPM, instead of acknowledging the desires of the working people it purportedly represented, viciously attacked Shostakovich’s work still. In the heated public debates that followed, “Some of the musicians, members of RAPM, accused the composer of every sin known to mortal man” (Sollertinsky 53).

The cultural climate of Russia in 1929 had changed much from what it was five years before. Stalin had consolidated power through show trials and other public displays of power, he had endorsed RAPM and basically given it free reign to impose hyper conservative, hyper nationalist restrictions on the production of all art. In June 1929 Shostakovich was denounced by RAPM, but “as yet RAPM and the ACM were fairly evenly matched and the composer had enough supporters among the Modernists to protect himself” (MacDonald 61).  Still, as Michael Mishra suggests, if The Nose had premiered in 1927, it would have faired far better (62).

In 1928, many things changed in Soviet society that made the previous works of Shostakovich liabilities rather than assets, and particularly bode ill for The Nose, which was at this time in rehearsals for the premiere. After the restriction of ‘Western degeneracy’ from art put in place by the first Five Year Plan, and the infamous Shakhty show trial, where dozens of miners were exiled on trumped-up conspiracy charges, it was clear to the intelligentsia that the tide was turning. The personal socialist ideals of the intelligentsia were tempered by their knowledge of what would happen to them if the system borne of their beliefs were fully implemented. Stalin supported RAPM and similar organizations in what was quickly becoming a crusade for the proletkult. According to MacDonald, Stalin brought in “men [who] needed little encouragement to allow their resentment of educated privilege to degenerate into an outright hatred of cleverness itself…if [Shostakovich] had not already formed a disenchanted view of the ruling regime, he can hardly have avoided doing so after the summer of 1928” (MacDonald 65, 57).

The opera premiered on January 18, 1930; opinion was divided between critics and RAPM. Music critics, including Asafiev, thought The Nose was the real establishment of a Soviet opera tradition, but RAPM thought it displayed too much outside influence – from this point on, “opera could no longer be apolitical” (Bartlett 187). The question of whether or not Shostakovich was purposely satirizing Soviet society is largely irrelevant; the criticisms lodged against the work attacked not only this premise but also his selection of Gogol as a source text, the lack of Russia folk themes, the avoidance of mass choruses in preference for solo singing, and the aforementioned ‘all sins known to mortal man’. It is difficult to emerge unscathed when a work is attacked from so many angles simultaneously. That this occurred illustrates that at this time, the proletarian movement had entered a new phase. Anchored by power from above, the proletkult relished in the nearly unchecked authority they had to determine the direction of Soviet art.

This they did with a zeal that warrants the term bloodlust. In one positive irony, perhaps the only serendipitous moment in his life at this point, Shostakovich dodged the proletkult’s liquidation of the conservatory intelligentsia purely by chance; his studies were over by this time. But still, the proletkult ransacked the halls of higher education and music conservatories. Their final victory over organizations such as the ACM appeared complete. MacDonald notes, in a few weeks in September 1929 “the literary individualists with whom [Shostakovich] was so closely associated had, as a body, been wiped out” (67).

In the middle of all this turmoil was The Nose, still playing in Russian opera houses - although its days were numbered. Seeing the writing on the wall, and true to his own statement “the path taken by The Nose is the correct path…but if The Nose is not perceived the way I would like, then it is necessary to withdraw it.”[8] Shostakovich petitioned for his opera’s withdrawal on April 16, 1930; it played for 2 performances in the next season and then disappeared until 1974. Perhaps he recalled it because he knew he would eventually lose control of the production and it might be changed into something else; perhaps hard hit by the collapse of the intelligentsia around him, he felt guilty perpetuating a farcical project; or perhaps it was a calculated move on Shostakovich’s part to remove from the scrutinizing eye of the proletkult a work which “carrie[d] the [Soviet] formalistic method to its apex and thereby fully revealed its absurdity” (Martynov 24).

As the dust settled on the fiasco of The Nose, Shostakovich was still working at TRAM and writing articles for RAPM publications (including the curiously titled “On the Ills of Music Criticism”). Stalin’s Five Year Plan had started to fail, and fascism was looming in the west. The ACM was disbanded in 1931. Universities and Conservatories had their faculties purged. But amid all this, Shostakovich had started sketching another opera. It would be based on another Russian story, and with a female protagonist. And its fallout would make The Nose ordeal look like a dinner table discussion. It was Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

As previously mentioned, the various contradictory accounts of events of this period, combined with wildly divergent scholarship, and perhaps a dash of Shostakovich’s own characteristic secrecy, make it difficult to paint an accurate picture of the composer – his beliefs, motivations, desires. But one thing seems certain, and that is, for however much Shostakovich stood in opposition to outside artistic controls, he remained a Soviet musician and not some western-stylized freedom fighter. As the criticisms lodged against him never attacked his intrinsic talent, so his writings and public statements of this era fall short of critiquing the entire Soviet system; it is clear that only the arbitrary and inconsistently enforced laws of proletarian dogma irritated him, inasmuch as he viewed them as an obstacle to the truly free creation of valid art to represent the Soviet state. When RAPM criticized The Nose, he did not add to the polemic or deny their accusations – he simply requested that they justify their criticisms with evidence, and offer recommendations for improvement (Fay 56-7). This stemmed partly from the simple desire to understand, and partly as a shrewd tactic to ensure groundless accusations from a cliquish monopoly did not mutate into political weapons.

By 1930, these efforts were too little, too late. The only thing that saved the intelligentsia at this point, ironically, was Stalin. As with Lenin’s institution of the NEP in the 1920s, Stalin now saw the proletkult as completely out of control, and sought to return some of the power to the intelligentsia. Stalin’s aim was always power, and the success of the Soviet state insofar as it supported that power. Under the inquisition-like reign of the proletkult, the intellectual institutions of Russia were fractured; music composition and innovation stagnated; philosophic thought and social discourse were censored and censured into homogeneous nonsense…this was no way to prove to the world the superiority of your way of life. In 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party abolished all creative associations, and in an instant, RAPM was gone. “To emphasize that an era was over and new one in force, Pravda printed a swingeing [sic] attack on the Proletkult, characterising its recent rule as a period of ‘cliqueism, left vulgarisation, and time-serving’” (MacDonald 79). The resolution “came as a complete surprise to most Russian artists. Few understood that it was merely the cultural by-product of a political gear-change ordained by Stalin for purposes which had nothing to do with art, and everything to do with social engineering.” (ibid.)

Of course, Stalin’s change of heart had nothing to do with supporting or condoning the actions of the intelligentsia; it was simply another layer of control. [9] The creative associations were replaced with a centralized Composers Union whose official charge was mainly exactly what RAPM and ACM had debated over for years, with one important difference – the Union spoke for the Party itself, and its word was law. The stakes had just been raised. “What was needed, Stalin decided, was a self-policing intelligentsia trapped in a centrally regulable [sic] system of rewards and punishments. Thus unions, banned by Lenin in 1919 for being hotbeds of independent thought, were resurrected in 1932 as an ideal machinery for intellectual coercion” (MacDonald 80).

This pulled the oft-debated issue of the nature of Soviet art, in particular opera, back into the foreground. “According to the theorists, Soviet opera should be broad in its topical and historical scope, heroic and public in its themes, and built on the mass choral scene supported by sober realistic recitative” (Emerson 65). By this definition, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth would at the very least make quite a stir.

He had intended Lady Macbeth to be the first in a cycle of operas, a “Soviet Ring of the Nibelungs[10] glorifying real and archetypal women and thus the Soviet cause. For the text he turned to the 1865 Nikolai Leskov story, still widely read at the time, of betrayal, murder, and intrigue. Of it, Shostakovich asserted: “Why did I choose this particular subject for the opera? Perhaps there is not in the whole of Russian literature another work portraying the position of a Russian woman in the pre-revolutionary times more vividly” (Seroff 194). The selection of the story was a point of contention, as were numerous changes Shostakovich made to the plot and characters. The heroine, Katerina Izmailova, is an adulteress and a triple murderer (although Shostakovich eliminates one of the murders to show Katerina in a more sympathetic light).

Shostakovich said of his heroine: “I interpreted Katerina Izmailova as a vigorous, talented, beautiful woman, who perishes in the dismal, cruel domestic environment of the Russia of merchants and serfs” (C. Norris 115). However, Mr. Norris takes it a step further, adding “He sought to portray on stage, in a manner not seen either before or since in the Soviet opera theatre, the depths of misery that can be inflicted on a human being by the evil and putridity of society around her” (119). This incongruity with official Soviet doctrine of social optimism and Stalin’s 1930s ‘life had become better, life has become happier’ mantra was there for all to see. And yet, as with The Nose, critical acclaim resounded through the dark plot and negative atmosphere. Kay says Lady Macbeth “was hailed as a model of the new Soviet art when it first appeared” (25); the Soviet music critic Alexandr Ostretsov called it “a great victory”[11], and Fay adds “even the most skeptical critics…were swayed by the undeniable originality and power of Shostakovich’s music” (75).

Lady Macbeth, for all its negativity and lurid subject matter, was enthusiastically received in 1934; but as with The Nose, external forces had changed the social and cultural landscape during its composition, and in the case of Lady Macbeth these changes would ultimately force it off the stage. In 1932, one month after the dissolution of RAPM and ACM and the formation of the Composers Union, a new stifling doctrine had been proposed – Social Realism[12]. Championed by party line author Maxim Gorky, the doctrine sought to subsume elements of romanticism to the aims of proletarianism (Norris 195). Like Stalin’s choice to not outlaw unions but rather use them toward his own ends, Social Realism sought not to proscribe genuine emotion in music, but to permit it as it served the greater proletarian cause. The problem with Lady Macbeth lied in the inability of its main emotions – betrayal, boredom, vengeance, and lust – to be contorted to serve proletarian optimism. 

But even amid all these contradictions, it appears that the Soviet public did not perceive anything amiss in the opera. Their praise was emphatic: conductor of the premiere Samuil Samosoud said:


“I declare Lady Macbeth a work of genius…one cannot help feeling proud that, in a Soviet musical theatre, an opera has been created that overshadows all that can possibly be accomplished in the operatic art of the capitalist world. Here, too, our culture has indeed not only overtaken, but surpassed, the most advanced capitalist countries.”[13]


Asserting even further Lady Macbeth’s definitive ‘Sovietness’, Alexandr Ostretsov, writing in Sovetskaya Muzyka (the journal of the Composers’ Union) said:


“[this opera] could only have been written by a Soviet composer brought up in the best traditions of Soviet culture. In its serious artistic worth and high level of music mastery...the opera is the result of the general success of socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party toward all sections of the country’s creative strength evoked on the musical front by the historical degree of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of 23 April 1932.”

Such high praise from musicians, critics, the public, and the Party should have ensured that Lady Macbeth become the flagship achievement in Soviet Opera. “The vast majority of musicians and critics had concurred wholeheartedly with the advancement of LMM as a shining example of the best of Soviet art” (Fay 88).

 But in 1934, the year Lady Macbeth opened, two other changes rocked Soviet society. The first, in an ironic echo of The Nose’s doomed premiere, was the start of Stalin’s second Five Year Plan.[14] The result of the new isolated nature of Russian art, and the mandates that art show progress and growth, was that while The Nose stood out by its radical nature, Lady Macbeth became conspicuous simply by being a tragic opera. The second issue was the assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1935, which ushered in the horrific purges and set all of Soviet society on edge.[15]

The story of Stalin’s trip to see Lady Macbeth and the ensuing Pravda denunciation “Muddle Instead of Music” that surfaced two days later have become legend, but the story may not be as linear as it appears. After all, the opera had been playing for two years before Stalin saw it, and it was wildly popular – if there was some sort of inherent flaw, it certainly would have been questioned before 1936. Then there is the reality of the fallout from the Kirov plot and the reorganization of the government, amid which Stalin would likely not have made ruining an opera, even a popular one, a high priority. Indeed, Bartlett proposes that the Party was too busy with poets and politicians to notice Lady Macbeth when it opened, but after Stalin’s viewing of it, critique was inevitable (190).

The enduring mystery surrounding the Muddle article comes not only from its disputed authorship but its inspiration. If it was not written by Stalin, why did it only appear after he had seen the opera, when it had played to packed houses in both Leningrad and Moscow for nearly two years? If it was written by Stalin, why did he not simply have Shostakovich exiled or killed, as had happened to so many others?[16]

Part of the mystery may have to do with the production Stalin saw. At the time Stalin attended Lady Macbeth, it was showing in three separate productions in two cities. The production conducted by Samosoud opened January 22, 1934 in Leningrad; Shostakovich was closely involved in its development. On January 24, 1934, the Musical Theatre of Nemirovich-Danchenko opened a production in Moscow, which actually cleaned up some of the crass language.[17] However, Stalin had seen the production at the Bolshoi Teatr’s ‘Filial’ in Moscow that opened December 26, 1935, which even Shostakovich complained about. Smolich, the conductor, had unnecessarily boosted the numbers in the wind and brass sections, and he conducted in an over-the-top, frenetic manner (Mishra 89). This, coupled with Stalin’s hatred of sex portrayals in art could have contributed to his leaving the theatre before the opera was even finished (Volkov 95).

Whatever the cause, two days after Stalin attended the opera, Pravda ran the Muddle article and Shostakovich’s world was turned upside down, nearly overnight. In February the Composers’ Union organized a public debate that quickly took the tone of a witch-hunt. Shostakovich sent Isaak Glikman to take notes. He observed: “in those days (and for long afterwards) great importance was attached to confession and repentance; these central postulates of Christianity had been lifted bodily out of the church and translated into the social and political life of the country.” (218-9)

According to Glikman, the debate was a “tragic farce”. Speakers came and confessed to many sins, including “their previous tolerance of the grievous formalistic errors perpetrated by Shostakovich in his earlier opera The Nose. This work was, as could now be seen, nothing more than a ‘formalist offspring of the devil’.” (220) What is interesting in this kangaroo court of a debate is not so much the denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera, or the ad hominem attacks that boiled up within the penitents and emerged as an overflow of anger (legitimate or feigned). What is significant is the about-face executed, as if in unison, by nearly all of the Russian musicians, critics, and audience members. Critics as a body published reduxes, stating that only after reading the Muddle article did they realize the shortcomings of the opera they previously praised (Glikman 215). After witnessing the debates, Glikman concluded “musicians all over the country were made to learn that the wielder of absolute power was by the same token the arbiter of absolute and infallible taste in their art” (223). The Shakhty trial in 1928 was just a test run; the Kirov purges established Stalin’s power as unquestioned ruler of the Soviet Union. Stalin was the Party, and the Party was the mouthpiece for Stalin – to disagree with the Party was to take one’s life in one’s hands. As Glikman explains, the article “rapidly acquired the status of holy writ. Teachers quoted from it, expounded on its significance, analysed [sic] its content, bowed down in superstitious reverence before its superior wisdom. It continued to resonate far beyond its time” (222). A new reality had been declared, and all were expected to follow.

But what exactly did the Muddle article say?[18] For one thing, it carefully avoided questioning Shostakovich’s talent. There was much criticism, though, of the dissonant and ‘unnatural’ musical language, and of course the sexual nature of much of the story. It was quick to mention the success the opera enjoyed abroad, but ignored the obvious popularity it enjoyed in Russia. By only giving one side, the message was clear: the western bourgeois enjoys this music – therefore ‘we’ do not.

But perhaps the most dangerous part of the review, inasmuch as it codified aimless criticism in an identifiable direction, was the charge of Formalism. Like bourgeois and proletarian, Formalism was a term of the state that had a definition only as it related to its corollary. And the antithesis to Formalism was Social Realism, the largely self-proclaimed doctrine of Soviet Art. Shostakovich had somehow managed to consciously create a Soviet opera, which was hailed by virtually everyone as a cornerstone of the genre, only to have it disappear in shame for undermining and attacking the very system for which it was previously praised for elevating. “Adapting to the simplest outlooks and shortest tempers, Pravda and Izvestia presented Formalism as incomprehensible music written by bourgeois counter-revolutionaries, quite possibly in code and definitely in flagrant contradiction to the interests of the international proletariat. For the ordinary Russian this, while puzzling, was at least as plausible as any of the other new crimes which the papers were forever ‘unmasking’.” (MacDonald 104) The only way to perpetuate this kind of alogism is through the use of force.

In 1935, Shostakovich had complained about the doctrine of Social Realism at the Composers’ Union, which was possible because he protected by Lady Macbeth’s popularity (MacDonald 101). “It has been said that the basic flaw in Socialist Realism is Communism’s inability to legislate for an individualistic pursuit like artistic creativity. While true enough in itself, this overlooks the fact that, rather than waste time formulating a consistent theory of art, Communism’s priority has always been to assimilate art as quickly as possible into its general propaganda effort” (101-2).

Although Lady Macbeth was ultimately attacked from all sides once the Pravda article permitted, or rather required, critics to do so, earlier on in its run few found fault with it. Though the proletkult responded with typical calls of elitism, the opera was less dissonant than The Nose and less complex than the Second Symphony (Kay 28). It was actually in its lyricism that Lady Macbeth expressed perhaps its most disturbing element: that of Shostakovich’s portrayal of Katerina as a character with whom the audience should sympathize.[19] She is the only character in the opera that experiences any real emotion, and her music is unique as a result. Shostakovich eliminated scenes which he felt made Leskov’s Katerina seem to sinister, and added an entire act (the third) which has no corollary to the Leskov story, in order to have Katerina confess her transgressions and repent (Emerson 63). Perhaps in this sympathy with a murderous adulteress Shostakovich went too far, or was perceived to have done so. Years later, Mstislav Rostropovich would muse:

“Who is Katerina Izmailova? Shostakovich is constantly sympathising [sic] with Katerina. She has committed murder, she's being driven into hard labour, and the choir sings about 'heartless gendarmes'. [...] Shostakovich calls on us to pity the killer. [...] Did Shostakovich hate the social system so much that he justified a murderer? [. . .] The way I look at it, Shostakovich showed us a human anomaly”  (71).


Perhaps through this ‘human anomaly’, Shostakovich was representing himself. As MacDonald quotes Volkov from Testimony, “a turn of events is possible, in which murder is not a crime” (87). Whether the story of Lady Macbeth, as presented by Shostakovich, is a critique of the illogical world in which he found himself, or a call to escape the same may never be known. But one thing was clear after the Pravda article: “In such a climate [as Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s] the attitude exemplified by Lady Macbeth could hardly have been supported. And in a society based upon state monopoly of power, what cannot be supported must be violently rejected” (Lipman 25).

Shostakovich was not without his defenders, especially at the beginning. Marshall Tukhachevsky, his early sponsor, personally wrote Stalin. He practically gave the leader a polite way out of embarrassment by suggesting that, given the overwhelming popularity of the music, the Pravda article must have been a misunderstanding of Stalin’s intent (Glikman 217). Stalin, however, was in no position to be embarrassed by a little illogical incongruity.[20] In MacDonald’s words, “In a single day, Shostakovich went from being a cosseted piece of Soviet property to an anathematised outcast” (103).

Gorky, of all people, creator of the doctrine of Social Realism, also wrote to Stalin: “What does this so-called ‘muddle’ consist of? Critics should give a technical assessment of Shostakovich’s music. But what the Pravda article did was to authorize hundreds of talentless people, hacks of all kinds, to persecute Shostakovich” (Mishra 92). Although unrelated to this letter, Gorky was killed three months later.

Shostakovich himself challenged the opera’s denunciation, or at least tried to; in 1936 he requested and audience with Stalin and the Soviet Composers. He was denied (Fay 91). When he was summoned to the Composers’ Union meeting in Moscow after the article surfaced, unlike a year earlier, he had to sit in silence and take the abuse (104). “there wasn't one single person who was willing to come out against Pravda's editorial. No one was willing to admit that the arguments of formalism were incoherent nonsense. All the members of the Moscow composer's union voted against supporting Shostakovich's music” (Dudeck-Wiseman 34). Shostakovich was experiencing a mild form of an all-too-common punishment in Stalin’s Russia for which the Soviets devised a term – being ‘unpersoned’. There was no one to stand up for the composer, as everyone around him had either seen the error of their ways and denounced him or disappeared. After the article, Lady Macbeth was given one more time in Leningrad on March 7, 1936. Glikman notes: “the final chorus sounded like the death knell of a great opera” (324). [21] “Productions of Lady Macbeth ceased. It was as if Shostakovich had never existed. There no longer was any mention of him in Sovietskaya Musica [sic], except for an occasional publication of a nasty review of his music from abroad”[22]

Both operas were banned for decades, their recordings destroyed and mention of their performances removed. Even when Shostakovich retooled Lady Macbeth in 1954 as the much toned-down Katerina Izmailova, its premiere did not occur for another nine years, in which time he had to play it for the censors twice. The Nose was only revived the year before he died. In a telling vignette, ten years after the Pravda article, a professor in Petersburg mistakenly referred to Lady Macbeth as Muddle Instead of Music and there was no reaction from his class.[23]

Thus one sees the ultimate exertion of power in the fallout from Lady Macbeth. Interesting clues to the totality of this power still lie in the pages of criticism and scholarship. Ivan Martynov, to his credit, did note in 1947: “Unlike the music of the first opera…the finest pages of the second opera are rich in Russian folk melody” (although avoidance of traditional folk music was one of the charges laid against it). However, Martynov did not find it necessary to comment further than the release of the Pravda article, ignoring the fallout throughout the entire decade before his book was published (45). Victor Seroff, who co-wrote a book on the composer in 1943 with Nadejda Galli-Shohat, expounded more on Lady Macbeth, but in an act of chivalry, was quick to point out that he got none of his information from his partner, and she knew nothing of the subject.[24] Even Sollertinsky, Shostakovich’s closest friend, who defended him during the Composers’ Union debates, writes practically nothing about the fallout in his own book.[25]

In the end, Shostakovich’s tragedy was being a human trapped in an inhuman environment. In the era of Lady Macbeth, MacDonald notes the Proletkult were trying to cast the individual “not only as obsolete, but fundamentally counter-revolutionary” (89). Shostakovich was useful only inasmuch as his talents served the state, but his early artistic development just happened to take place during a period where the state was reinventing itself every couple of years. Contrasted to the permanence and constancy of the artistic drive, conflict was inevitable. Add to this the bloody, absolute way in which the ruling class attempted to reinvent society again and again, and the individual seems adrift in a life-and-death struggle with unpredictable chaos. Against this background, Shostakovich’s moments of true originality seem to get overblown treatment when they are depicted as conscious attempts to defend freedom or dupe the state; in reality, Shostakovich’s loyalties lay with true Soviet art – that is, Soviet in style but created with the freedom required of all art. As MacDonald states, “It was perfectly possible to be, in a general way, ‘for the Revolution’, yet against the theory and practice of the party which engineered it” (41). Shostakovich remained loyal to the Revolution, the original Revolution of 1917, with its roots in 1905: a Revolution for true freedom.













Complete Text of Pravda’s Review of

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

In English and Russian









28 January 1936, Pravda

Muddle instead of Music

With the general cultural development of our country there grew also the necessity for good music. At no time and in no other place has the composer had a more appreciative audience. The people expect good songs, but also good instrumental works, and good operas. Certain theatres are presenting to the new culturally mature Soviet public Shostakovich's opera Lady MacBeth as an innovation and achievement. Musical criticism, always ready to serve, has praised the opera to the skies, and given it resounding glory. The young composer, instead of hearing serious criticism, which could have helped him in his future work, hears only enthusiastic compliments.

From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this "music" is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.

Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos - in places becoming cacaphony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. Passion is here supposed to be expressed by noise. All this is not due to lack of talent, or lack of ability to depict strong and simple emotions in music. Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all. This music is built on the basis of rejecting opera - the same basis on which "Leftist" Art rejects in the theatre simplicity, realism, clarity of image, and the unaffected spoken word - which carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of "Meyerholdism" infinitely multiplied. Here we have "leftist" confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.

The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear. Leftist distortion in opera stems from the same source as Leftist distortion in painting, poetry, teaching, and science. Petty-bourgeois "innovations" lead to a break with real art, real science and real literature.

The composer of Lady MacBeth was forced to borrow from jazz its nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music in order to lend "passion" to his characters. While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich's creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism. He reveals the merchants and the people monotonously and bestially. The predatory merchant woman who scrambles into the possession of wealth through murder is pictured as some kind of "victim" of bourgeois society. Leskov's story has been given a significance which it does not possess. And all this is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts, and growls, and suffocates itself in order to express the love scenes as naturalistically as possible. And "love" is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar manner. The merchant's double bed occupies the central position on the stage. On this bed all "problems" are solved. In the same coarse, naturalistic style is shown the death from poisoning and the flogging - both practically on stage.

The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete "formalists" who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life. Some critics call the glorification of the merchants' lust a satire. But there is no question of satire here. The composer has tried, with all the musical and dramatic means at his command, to arouse the sympathy of the spectators for the coarse and vulgar inclinations and behavior of the merchant woman Katerina Ismailova.

Lady MacBeth is having great success with bourgeois audiences abroad. Is it not because the opera is non-political and confusing that they praise it? Is it not explained by the fact that it tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music?

Our theatres have expended a great deal of energy on giving Shostakovich's opera a thorough presentation. The actors have shown exceptional talent in dominating the noise, the screaming, and the roar of the orchestra. With their dramatic action, they have tried to reinforce the weakness of the melodic content. Unfortunately, this has served only to bring out the opera's vulgar features more vividly. The talented acting deserves gratitude, the wasted efforts - regret.





Bartlett, Rosamund. “Shostakovich as opera composer.” The Cambridge Companion to

Shostakovich. Ed. Pauline Fairclough and David Fanning. New York:

Cambridge UP, 2008. 179-197. Print.


Brown, Royal S. “The Three Faces of Lady Macbeth.” Russian and Soviet Music: Essays

for Boris Schwarz. Ed. Malcolm Hamrick Brown. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1984. Print.


Dudeck-Wiseman, Bianca. Dmitri Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth, and the Soviet

Government. Undergraduate Honors Thesis Collection, Paper 23. 1998.

WorldCat. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.


Emerson, Caryl. “Back to the Future: Shostakovich’s revision of Leskov’s ‘Lady

Macbeth of Mtsensk District’.” Cambridge Opera Journal 1.1 (n.d.): 59-78. WorldCat. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.


Fay, Laurel. “Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?” A Shostakovich

Casebook. Ed. Malcolm Hamrick Brown. Bloomington: Indiana UP, c2004. 11-

68. Print.



---. Shostakovich: A Life. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 33-86, 97-106, 225-246.



---. “Shostakovich, LASM, and Asafiev.” Shostakovich in Context. Ed. Rosamund

Bartlett. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 51-66. Print.


---. “The Punch in Shostakovich’s Nose.” Russian and Soviet Music: Essays for Boris

Schwarz. Ed. Malcolm Hamrick Brown. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1984. Print.


Freeman, John. Stories of the Great Operas. Vol 2. New York: Norton, 1997. 343-351.



Glickman, Isaak. Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitri Shostakovich to Isaak

Glickman, 1941-1975. Trans. Anthony Philips. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001.

Moscow, 1993. 213-224. Print.


Hakobian, Levon. “The Nose and the Fourteenth Symphony: An Affinity of Opposites.”

Shostakovich and His World. Ed. Laurel E. Fay. Trans. Dmitri Shapovalov.

Princeton: Princeton UP, c2004. 163-182. Print.


Ho, Allan B. and Dmitry Feofanov. Shostakovich Reconsidered. London: Tocatta, 1998.



Hulme, Derek C. Dmitri Shostakovich: a Catalogue, Bibliography, and Discography. 3rd

ed. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2002.



Kay, Norman. Shostakovich. New York: Oxford UP, 1971. 7-29. Print.



Lipman, Samuel. The House of Music: Art in an Era of Institutions.  Boston: Godine,

1984. 17-35. Print.


MacDonald, Ian. The New Shostakovich. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1990. 32-138. Print.



Martynov, Ivan. Dmitri Shostakovich, the Man and His Work. Trans. T. Guralsky. New

York: Greenwood, 1969, c1947. 16-58. Print.


Maximenkov, Leonid. “Stalin and Shostakovich: Letters to a ‘Friend’.” Shostakovich and

His World. Ed. Laurel E. Fay. Princeton: Princeton UP, c2004. 43-58. Print.           


Mikheyeva-Sollertinskaya, Lyudmila. “Shostakovich as Reflected in his Letters to

Sollertinsky.” Shostakovich in Context. Ed. Rosamund Bartlett. New York:

Oxford UP, 2000. 67-78. Print.


Mikkonen, Simo. “‘Muddle Instead of Music’ in 1936: A Cataclysm of Musical

Administration.” Shostakovich Studies 2. Ed. Pauline Fairclough. New York:

Cambridge UP, 2010. 231-248. Print.


Mishra, Michael. A Shostakovich Companion. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 1-26, 51-

118, 313-340. Print.


Moisenko, Rena. Realist Music. London: Meridian, 1949.



Norris, Christopher. Introduction and “Shostakovich: Politics and Musical Language.”

Shostakovich, the Man and his Music. Boston: Boyars, 1982. 17-12, 63-218.



Norris, Geoffrey. “The Operas.” Shostakovich, the Man and his Music. Boston: Boyars,

1982. 105-124. Print.


Roseberry, Eric. Shostakovich. New York: Omnibus, 1986. 75-87. Print.



Sachs, Joel. “Notes on the Soviet Avant-Garde.” Russian and Soviet Music: Essays for

Boris Schwarz. Ed. Malcolm Hamrick Brown. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1984. Print.


Seroff, Victor Ilyitch and Nadejda Galli-Shohat. Dmitri Shostakovich; the Life and

Background of a Soviet Composer. New York: Knopf, 1943. 162-229. Print.


Шостакович, Д. Д. Письма И. И. Соллертинскому. Комм. О. Л. Данскер. Санкт-

Петербург: Композитор, 2006. 273 с. Книга.



Shostakovich, Dmitri. Katerina Izmailova. Perf. Chorus and Orchestra of the Kiev Opera

and Ballet Theatre. Cond. Konstantin Simeonov. Decca, 2006. DVD.

[Originally released by Lenfil’m as a motion picture in the Soviet Union in 1966].


Shostakovich, Dmitri and Preis, Alexander, librettist. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Perf.

Gran Theatre del Liceu. Cond. Alexander Anissimov. EMI Classics, 2002. DVD.

[Recorded live 2002].


---. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Perf. Nederlandse Opera. Cond. Mariss Jansons. Opus

Arte, 2006. DVD. [Recorded in performance, June 25/8, 2006, Het

Muziektheater, Amsterdam].


---. Lady Macbeth von Mzensk. Hamburg: H. Sikorski, c1979. [piano vocal score].



---. The Nose. Perf. Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre. Cond.Valery

Gergiev. Mariinsky, 2008. CD.  


---. The Nose. Perf. Moscow Chamber Theatre. Cond. Gennady Rozhdestvensky. BMG

Classics, 1998. CD. [Recorded in 1975].


---. The Nose. Moscow: Myzyka, 1981. Print. Collected Works in 42 Volumes, Vol. 19.

[piano vocal score].



Sollertinsky, Dmitri and Ludmilla. Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich. Trans.

Graham Hobbs and Charles Midgley. New York: Harcourt, 1980 [tr], 1979 [orig].

37-63. Print.


Stradling, Robert. “Shostakovich and the Soviet System, 1925-1975.” Shostakovich, the

Man and his Music. Boston: Boyars, 1982. 189-218. Print.


Volkov, Solomon. Shostakovich and Stalin, The Extraordinary Relationship Between the

Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator. Trans. Antonina, Bouis. New York:

Knopf, 2004. 73-141. Print.



White, Richard. “Shostakovich versus the Central Committee: The Power of Music.”

Clinical Medicine 8.4 (2008): 405-408. WorldCat. Web. 13 Sept. 2011.


Wilson, Elizabeth. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton

UP, 2006. 127-170. Print.


Yakubov, Manashir. “From Lady Macbeth to Katerina: Shostakovich’s Versions and

Revisions.” Shostakovich Studies. Ed. David Fanning. New York: Cambridge

UP, 1995. 160-188. Print.



[1] From Shostakovich and Stalin, p94

[2] The chimerical relationship between the learned classes and the ruling parties in Russia rapidly shifted back and forth during Shostakovich’s life. Lenin’s Marxist training had allowed him in 1917 to redirect the people’s anger from the ruling royal family to any person deemed to be upper class. It was this same hatred of the ‘haves’ that led to the initial scuffles of the civil war, when the people of Russia, well-trained by Lenin’s Marxist ideology, questioned and eventually fought to remove the ruling Bolsheviks when they noticed the new cars, fancy meals, and expensive houses they enjoyed. It was purely his iron clad grip on power that allowed Lenin to liquidate so many of the ‘bourgeoisie’ (outside the ruling class) during the civil war; everyone, eventually including Lenin himself, realized learned classes, doctors, artists, philosophers, and businessmen were essential to a functioning state. However, some have argued the NEP was simply another level of control, created to lure liberal members of the ‘bourgeoisie’ into plain view for later reprisals.

[3] It is interesting that while the 1863 uprising failed, it was Alexandr II who ultimately liberated the serfs. The plan was flawed though and led to widespread poverty, and eventually his assassination. His successor Alexandr III uncovered and executed the assassination conspirators, which in turn led to an assassination attempt on Alexandr III. Among those executed was Alexandr Ulyanov, Vladimir Lenin’s older brother; his older sister Anna was exiled. These events helped transform Lenin into a political radical.

[4] It is also interesting (but less pertinent as an academic analysis than a historical anecdote) that Rena Moisenko, in her party line 1949 book Realist Music, defends the First Symphony as highly original (while denouncing Lady Macbeth). The rest of the book, beginning with her laborious explanations of the intricacies of the ‘Theory of Socialist Music’, reads as an instruction manual to Soviet music criticism, but is important in that it shows the historical context of the age.

[5] In yet another ironic twist, the sailors of Kronstadt were among the first to rise up in 1917, and stayed true to their original revolutionary aims of removing a privileged ruling class when the Bolsheviks mutated into that same class and started eliminating their enemies. The failure of the Kronstadt Uprising is seen as the final event in the consolidation of the Bolshevik’s power.

[6] An early indicator of Shostakovich’s clashes with the Soviet system’s emerging totalitarian ideology was his dismissal from the newly-required exam in Marxist Ideology at the conservatory, because he burst out laughing when another student was asked to explain the economic and social differences in the music Chopin and Liszt, and he himself was chastised for not fully understanding the sociological principle of Bach’s temperament system (Fay 36). He was eventually allowed back into the exam and said what was expected of him to pass, but it was obvious the grander implications of socialist thought meant nothing to him. The altercation itself, though minor at the time, also serves as an unsettling vision of what was in store for the composer in the years to come, as the arts became mere tools for the socialist ideology.           

[7] Shostakovich even wrote a letter in RAPM’s magazine denouncing ‘petit-bourgeois gipsy foxtrot ensembles’. The one he himself had written one a year earlier, he admitted it was a ‘political mistake’, although the sincerity of his apology is suspect as he later used the foxtrot in The Golden Age (MacDonald 71).

[8] Quoted in Fay, p.56

[9] MacDonald suggests this loosening of the grip happened because of the failure of the first Five-Year Plan. When the food shortages and inflation reached a point of potentially igniting the ‘rebellious resentment’ within the people, Stalin acted by creating ‘an illusion of relaxation’. (80)

[10] Shostakovich, quoted in Fay (78)

[11] from Seroff (198)

[12] Social Realism was actually a misapplication by Gorky of a theory originally proposed in the late 1920s by Anatoly Lunacharsky, an old Leninist and People’s Commissar of Education. It was Lunacharsky who condemned Shostakovich’s use of the foxtrot, which the composer identified as a ‘political mistake’. Lunacharsky was dead by 1933, and the purges began in 1934.


[13] From G. Norris (120)

[14] In addition to all the problems raised by the first plan, in this new plan Stalin was also seeking the doctrine of  “Socialism in One Country”, as opposed to Lenin’s global vision of a worldwide worker’s society. Fascism was spreading in Italy and Germany, and Stalin’s response (more for protection from foreign ideologies than discouragement of their arts) was to shut off most contact the Soviet Union had with the outside world.

[15] The assassination of Kirov had much the same effect on society as did the assassination attempt on Lenin; supposed conspirators were rounded up, secret police forces were mobilized, and people started getting paranoid. It only differed in scale – MacDonald suggests that by 1936 literally millions of people had been implicated in the murder. The irony is that Kirov was actually murdered by a small group working for Stalin himself, after the Leningrad-based revolutionary started to challenge Stalin’s power base in Moscow. The purges were thus a thinly veiled excuse to clean house, and the underlying implication is that most Soviet citizens were aware of this. The beginning of the purges thus marked, as the Red Terror did years earlier, a moment when the people started living in constant fear of their government.

[16] Had the various regimes lost need of Shostakovich, or if he made himself too big a thorn in their side, he undoubtedly would have been eliminated. Ultimately, in pardoning him repeatedly, the government was still pulling the strings: “In ‘forgiving’ Shostakovich so quickly on each occasion, the Party continued to demonstrate its power, this time using the proverbial carrot to replace the stick” (Mishra 3).


[17] Noted by Commissar Bubnov, at a vetting, in the Literaturnaya Gazeta of January 24, 1934. This production may have also included an abbreviated rape scene (cited in Fanning 171-2)

[18] The entire text (in English and Russian) is provided at the end of this paper.

[19] Rena Moisenko, in her torturous tome on the glories of Socialist Music, is perhaps more candid than she intends when she refers to the positive portrayal of Katerina as Shostakovich’s “cardinal psychological mistake” (203; emphasis added)

[20] A year later Tukhachevsky fell victim to the purges.

[21] As is the case occasionally with overzealous Soviet bureaucrats, in 1938 an official mistakenly removed Lady Macbeth from Leskov’s, not Shostakovich’s, catalogue of works (Seroff 214).

[22] Dudeck-Wiseman 36. Ms. Wiseman also notes “So concerned was the government of making an example of Shostakovich's experiences that an entire propaganda play was written about it. The play, written by Sergei Mikhalokov depicts Shostakovich's downfall after Lady Macbeth. For his amazing portrayal of the "truth" about Shostakovich…Sergei Mikhailkov earned the Stalin prize for drama in 1949” (42).

[23] Glikman 223

[24] In Dmitri Shostakovich: the Life and Background of a Soviet Composer, chapter 9.

[25] Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich

All material contained herein, including website design, is copyright © Patrick Valentino, unless otherwise credited.
All rights reserved. No content on this website may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission.