IN 1936 Dmitri Shostakovich, who is being honored this week by the National Symphony Orchestra, was denounced by Soviet officials as "an I enemy of the people." Ten years later, in 1946, he was awarded the Order of Lenin, the first of three times he would receive that high honor. Yet again in 1948, he and his great contemporary, Sergei Prokofiev, were singled out for particularly vitriolic abuse by Andrei Alexandrovitch Zhdanov, Josef Stalin's right-hand man in the Politburo.
Zhdanov, known in the Soviet Union during World War II as the hero of Leningrad, had been put in charge of purifying Soviet music according to Stalin's views. At a historic meeting late in January 1948, Zhdanov called together the leading composers of Russia and lectured them on their duties as artists. He warned them about having "persistently adhered to formalist and anti-Soviet practices in their music, which is marked by formalist perversion and many undemocratic tendencies. These include atonalism, dissonance, contempt for melody, and the use of chaotic and neuropathic discords -- all of which are alien to the artistic tastes of the Soviet people." So harsh was the general's attack that his formula became known in the West as "Zhdanovism."
Zhdanov went so far at that meeting as to name the guilty musicians in the order of their guilt: "Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khatchaturian, Miaskovsky, Popov and Shebalin." As part of his punishment, Shostakovich was dismissed from his post as professor at the Moscow Conservatory.
It is unlikely that any composer in the history of music has ever so violently alternated between high honors and vicious abuse by officials of his own country.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for artists in a free world to conceive of the awful weight of official disapproval descending from the highest man in a country upon the head of an artist. A parallel would have been President Franklin Roosevelt ordering the public denunciation of Aaron Copland or Roy Harris, both of whom were often accused in the 1930s of "dissonance, contempt for melody, and the use of chaotic discords."
In 1936 Shostakovich had provoked Stalin's rage with his opera, "Lady Macbeth of The Mtsensk District." Within days of the dictator's seeing the opera, which had been performed to great public enthusiasm in the Soviet Union nearly 200 times since its premiere two years earlier, Pravda printed an article entitled "Not Music But a Mess." It condemned the work as a disgusting piece of immorality written in the worst decadent Western manner, and a menace to the Soviet people. One week later, the Shostakovich ballet, "The Limpid Stream," was denounced in similar extravagant language.
Shostakovich later wrote that following the two scathing articles, he packed a small suitcase and lay awake nights wondering if "they" would come to take him away, as they had so many of his friends.
Today the world on both sides of the Iron Curtain honors and loves the music of this tortured genius. With each performance of his major works, more of their autobiographical content becomes clear. In the 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets, many of which are still too seldom heard in the United States, are embedded clues to the composer's unceasing anger against political oppression, his inescapable concern with death, and his constant anxiety for the plight of Jews.
As he became older, Shostakovich also became less concerned about the possibility of official disapproval. His 13th Symphony, "Babi Yar," employs poems by the Ukrainian, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The 14th uses poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Kukhelbecker and Rilke on an officially disapproved subject: death. The 15th and final symphony pays open tribute to Rossini and Wagner, in ways that are sardonic as well as deeply moving and tragic.
It is this still little-known man whose music will make up the entire program of the National Symphony Orchestra this week. In honor of the late composer his son, Maxim, will conduct. The program will include the Sixth Symphony, a work first made known in this country by Stokowski, Reiner and Ormandy. Maxim Shostakovich's son, Dmitri, will be the soloist in the Second Piano Concerto, which was written for, and first played by, his father. And Mstislav Rostropovich will play the First Cello Concerto, which was written for him, and of which he gave the U.S. premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy in 1959 at a concert attended by the composer.
It is a concert that will not be played in any other city but Washington, thanks to the presence here of Rostropovich and his friendship for the son and grandson of the composer he knew and loved.