The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin. Rhombus Media/Bullfrog Films, 1997. Director, Larry Weinstein. Music by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra; conductor Valery Gergiev. 82-minute VHS video.
The year 1936 marked a definite turning point in Shostakovichs career. A star pupil at the Leningrad Conservatory, he had scored a major triumph with his First Symphony (1924-1925). During the 1920s, he composed two more symphonies (To October: 1927, and May Day: 1929) and many other works. On the whole, these were years of contentment for Shostakovich, who felt quite sincerely the spirit of hope and energy that pervaded early Soviet culture.
By the 1930s, Shostakovichs outlook began to change. The cultural revolution of 1928-1931 had taken its toll, and the oppressive nature of the Stalinist regime was becoming increasingly evident. Thus, a distinct edginess characterized Shostakovichs next important work, the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (also known as Katerina Izmailova: 1930-1932), based on Nikolai Leskovs tale of a woman who murders her abusive husband. Lady Macbeth premiered in early 1934; it met with overwhelmingly favorable response and was staged over 180 times. Then, in early 1936, disaster struck. On January 26, Stalin himself, with other Party officials in tow, attended Lady Macbeth at the Bolshoi Theater. In the middle of the performance, the Leader and his henchmen walked out. Two days afterward, a Pravda editorial blasted Lady Macbeth, calling it "chaos in place of music" and accusing Shostakovich of that most anti-Soviet of cultural crimes, "formalism." With the Stalinist terror of the 1930s about to go into high gear, such criticism was more than career-damaging. It was, quite literally, life-threatening.
It is here that The War Symphonies begins its story. Later in 1936, still reeling from the assault on Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich prepared Symphony No. 4 (1935) for its first performance. Like Lady Macbeth, this tragic and tumultuous work reflected a growing sense of fear and anxiety; consequently, it went unheard for a quarter-century. While in rehearsal, the symphony was denounced as overly pessimistic; unwilling to risk being attacked a second time, Shostakovich shelved the Fourth until 1961. He fared much better with the tranquil Fifth Symphony, which received a 30-minute ovation after its 1937 premiere.
During the last half of the 1930s, Shostakovichs careerand lifehung in an uncomfortable balance. He had regained respectability, but he and his family were also in danger of arrest or worse. Against a backdrop of show trials and mass persecution, The War Symphonies asks how the lyricism of the Fifth and Sixth should be understood: as a self-preserving attempt to conform to the optimistic "realism" demanded by the state? As an artistic escape from the terror of the times? Or both? Whichever, the documentary notes that, by now, Shostakovich was learning to "speak about the tragedy of the self in a cruel world that threaten[ed] the very existence of mankind."
Shostakovichs next three symphonies were wartime creations. When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, Shostakovich was teaching in Leningrad, which was quickly surrounded by Hitlers forces. From September 1941 to January 1944, Leningrad endured the longest, deadliest siege in modern history.
As the war dragged on, the contrast between the public and private Shostakovich grew progressively sharper. Taking advantage of the patriotic fervor and international sympathy generated by the Seventh, Stalin used its composer as a cultural spokesman for the regime. Shostakovich dutifully complied. As revealed in Testimony, however, his real feelings were much less pro-Soviet than the official rhetoric he mouthed was: "All fascism is repugnant to me, and not just German fascism. Hitler is a criminal, thats clear. But so is Stalin. I have called my Seventh Symphony the Leningrad Symphony. But its not just about Leningrad during the siege. Its also about the Leningrad that Stalin has been systematically destroying and that Hitler is merely trying to finish off."
In Symphony No. 8 (1943), Shostakovich gives free rein to his rage and sorrow. The Eighth is a forceful indictment of the 20th century, and The War Symphonies communicates this in an especially stirring segment. While propaganda imagesStalin atop Lenins Mausoleum, athletes parading across Red Square, airplanes and balloons filling the skybombard the viewer, the strings of Gergievs orchestra build to a maddening, feverish crescendo. One interviewee calls the Eighth "an enormous canvas depicting the cataclysm of our century"; another refers to it as a vision of "Satans feast," being celebrated "as the foundations of human existence crumble." Whatever analogy one favors, it is impossible to imagine any viewer remaining unaffected by this portion of the documentary.
Such insolence did not go unpunished. In 1948, the regime waged a vicious war against the Soviet intelligentsia; Shostakovich was among the most prominent victims. He was fired from the Leningrad Conservatory, his works were banned, and he was accused by the All-Union Congress of Composers of being "anti-people." To support himself and his family, Shostakovich was compelled to write scores for some of the most wretched pro-Stalin movies ever made, including the monumentally bad The Fall of Berlin (1949). In secret, Shostakovich consoled himself by composing works like the wickedly satirical Rayok (1948), which sets official cultural mantras"all good Soviet composers write realistic music"to folk tunes like Stalins favorite, "Suliko."
The War Symphonies was filmed on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the production quality is excellent throughout. Its greatest strength is its way of mixing interviews, film clips, propaganda footage, and present-day performances of Shostakovichs work with the overall narrative. The documentary consistently conveys considerable emotional power, as well as a piquant sense of irony. The War Symphonies has a slight (if understandable) tendency to over-identify with its subject; it could also do a better job of meshing Shostakovichs story with those of other Soviet composers, such as Prokofiev and Khachaturian. Moreover, it might have been useful to include a brief discussion of how the appearance of Testimony in 1979 led to the reevaluation of Shostakovichs work that made this documentary possible. Nonetheless, The War Symphonies should prove appealing to anyone interested in modern Russian history or music historyand it can only serve to enliven any academic course on those subjects.
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