The available evidence indicates that Dmitri Shostakovich might have developed into the greatest opera composer since Verdi and Wagner if Josef Stalin had not gone to see "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" in 1936, hated it and launched a campaign of intimidation against the composer.
Legend has it that the Heroic Leader and Supreme Music Critic of All the Russias was seated too close to the brass section, which has some very vivid moments in this opera, which will be performed tonight in its original version at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C. But noisy orchestration and avant-garde harmonies were not necessary to upset Stalin. That could have been done by the opera's plot (a violent tale of adultery, murder and suicide), or by the image of Russian society that it presents: The boredom that drives the heroine to her crimes, the brutality of a key scene in a police station where prisoners are intimidated and beaten, or the powerful last scene, which has a chorus of convicts being marched along "a road strewn with bones, drenched with sweat and blood" to their prison in Siberia:
You steppes without boundaries,
Days and nights without end,
Our thoughts all comfortless,
And the guards without mercy!
These scenes must have harmonized oddly with certain long-range projects that were brewing in Stalin's mind at that time, near the beginning of the period known as the "Great Purge." "Even though my opera's plot did not deal with our glorious reality," Shostakovich comments in "Testimony," the controversial book of his memoirs, "actually there were many points of contact. You only have to look for them."
Whatever the reason, on Jan. 28, 1936, a few weeks after Stalin's visit to the opera, an unsigned article headed "Muddle Instead of Music" appeared in Pravda. Apparently based mainly on words dictated by Stalin himself, the article warned that Shostakovich's radical musical experiments "could end very badly." And so they did. An opera that had been a smash hit in Russia for two years and had been performed to critical acclaim in the United States, England, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Czechoslovakia, became an instant flop in the Soviet Union. It was withdrawn from production in Leningrad, where it had enjoyed a phenomenal 94 performances. And Shostakovich was branded an "enemy of the people."
"Now," he recalled in "Testimony," "everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed. And the anticipation of that noteworthy event--at least for me--has never left me."
For music history, the most significant result of the attack was that Shostakovich abandoned opera at the age of 30, after having produced two strange masterpieces--"Lady Macbeth" and an earlier, surrealist opera called "The Nose," based on a Gogol story, in which the hero's nose escapes and begins living a life of its own. The music is as unusual as the plot.
Not only did Shostakovich quit composing operas; except for a couple of noncontroversial song cycles, he gave up vocal music (because words are more dangerous than abstract sounds) until 1949. Then he composed a cantata called "The Song of the Forests," celebrating the end of World War II and glorifying a massive reforestation program launched by Stalin. The work is a model of the tuneful, sloganeering optimism that is known as "socialist realism" in music, with movements bearing such titles as "Let Us Dress Our Land in Forests," "The Young Pioneers Planting Trees," "The Komsomol Youth Step Forward" and "Walking Toward the Future." It won the Stalin Prize.
After Stalin's death, Shostakovich became bolder in his vocal music. In his final years, he revised "Lady Macbeth," which was produced in the Soviet Union under the new name of "Katherina Izmailova" and he produced three major works for voices and orchestra that are as startling politically as they are musically: "Babi Yar" (1962), his 13th symphony, with text by Yevtushenko dealing with anti-Semitism and some of the hardships of life in the Soviet Union; "The Execution of Stepan Razin" (1964), again with a Yevtushenko text, glorifying a Cossack rebel who defied the authorities even as he was being executed, and finally his 14th symphony, a stark, powerful series of meditations on death, injustice and tyranny with texts by a variety of non-Russian poets, including Rilke, Lorca and Apollinaire. This symphony, one of his masterpieces and one of the great compositions of the 20th century, will be performed by the National Symphony and Mstislav Rostropovich next season.
In its intense passion, its mastery of the use of instrumental comment to underline the meaning of the words, its natural sense of the melodies implicit in the Russian language, "Lady Macbeth" gives a foretaste of the great works that Shostakovich would produce 30 years or more later. We will never know what vocal music he might have written without that interruption.