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.

Shostakovich angers Stalin with his opera
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
From The War Symphonies.
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"Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a butcher, knew that, and that was why he hated music": so wrote Soviet composer Dmitrii Shostakovich (1906-1975), the subject of The War Symphonies. The central argument of this excellent documentary is that Shostakovich was "the voice of his time." Living under and occasionally cooperating with a dictatorial regime did not prevent him from composing some of this century’s finest music. But, as The War Symphonies vividly demonstrates—through interviews with friends and relatives, as well as readings from his remarkable memoir, Testimony—the private Shostakovich, both as composer and human being, felt very keenly the painful moral and artistic dilemmas of living and working in a totalitarian state. Unsurprisingly, Shostakovich found it most difficult to resolve these dilemmas during the Stalin years. The goal of The War Symphonies is to show how he used six of his symphonies—the Fourth through the Ninth—to express, in Aesopian fashion, his dissatisfaction with the regime, his sense of individual and aesthetic entrapment, and his sympathy for the millions of men and women repressed by the state. In Shostakovich’s own words, these symphonies are "tombstones for the victims of Stalin."

The year 1936 marked a definite turning point in Shostakovich’s 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, Shostakovich’s 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 Shostakovich’s next important work, the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (also known as Katerina Izmailova: 1930-1932), based on Nikolai Leskov’s 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.
Stalinist oppression was a real threat.
From The War Symphonies.
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Soviet officialdom was wildly enthusiastic about the Fifth, viewing it as Shostakovich’s musical recantation and formally dubbing it "A Soviet Artist’s Response to Justified Criticism." Symphony No. 6 (1939) attracted less attention, but was also deemed acceptable.

During the last half of the 1930s, Shostakovich’s career—and life—hung 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."

Shostakovich’s next three symphonies were wartime creations. When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, Shostakovich was teaching in Leningrad, which was quickly surrounded by Hitler’s forces. From September 1941 to January 1944, Leningrad endured the longest, deadliest siege in modern history.
A silent memorial.
From The War Symphonies.
Shostakovich tried to join the Red Army, but his poor eyesight disqualified him; he and his family were ordered to evacuate. Shostakovich continued to feel deeply the suffering of his native city, so he dedicated his current project, Symphony No. 7, to Leningrad. When it premiered in March 1942, the Seventh brought international renown to Shostakovich, and orchestras worldwide rushed to include it in their repertoires. Making effective use of harrowing footage—corpses lying in the snow, a child dragging a coffin across the Neva—The War Symphonies tells the famous story of how the Leningrad Radio Orchestra decided to perform the Seventh as a gesture of anti-German defiance, despite the fact that almost half the orchestra’s musicians had perished. On August 9, 1942, a large audience—hungry, dressed in rags, some wearing gas masks or carrying weapons—gathered in the Philharmonic. As a silent memorial, instruments were placed in the empty seats of the many orchestra members who had earlier died. The performance remains one of the most inspirational moments in the story of Leningrad’s heroic struggle; as Ksenia Matus, the orchestra’s oboist, reminisces, "[Shostakovich’s] music inspired us and brought us back to life; this day was our feast."

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, that’s clear. But so is Stalin. I have called my Seventh Symphony the Leningrad Symphony. But it’s not just about Leningrad during the siege. It’s 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 images—Stalin atop Lenin’s Mausoleum, athletes parading across Red Square, airplanes and balloons filling the sky—bombard the viewer, the strings of Gergiev’s 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 "Satan’s 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.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9.
From The War Symphonies.
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Shostakovich’s last wartime symphony was the Ninth (1945), commissioned by the state to commemorate the USSR’s victory over Germany. Here, Shostakovich brings his emotions back under control and turns to mockery. Observing that Stalin "was now like a frog puffing himself up to the size of an ox," he chose to deflate the leader’s ego by producing not a majestic ode to military triumph, but a light, almost comic piece, full of lilting, Haydnesque melodies and piccolo solos. As composer Dmitrii Tolstoi remarks, Shostakovich "was giving Stalin the finger, but keeping his finger in his pocket."

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 Stalin’s favorite, "Suliko."

Shostakovich punished.
From The War Symphonies.
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elief came in 1953, when Stalin finally passed away. Shostakovich resumed his career and went on to finish six more symphonies. But the imprint left on him by Stalin’s dictatorial excesses never faded completely. Over two decades, Shostakovich had lost his exuberance and idealism, gaining in their place a maturity that brought with it as much pain and sadness as it did wisdom. As he himself lamented, "The illusions that sustain us crumble slowly, they wither away, until one has no illusions left at all. But they do not vanish. They remain, rotting in one’s soul. I will carry my illusions buried within me, as long as I live." As The War Symphonies clearly shows, Shostakovich may have used his art as a weapon with which to resist Stalin—as he once told poet Yevgenii Yevtushenko, "I never lie in my music; that must suffice"—but he himself was partly broken by that struggle.

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 Shostakovich’s 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 Shostakovich’s 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 Shostakovich’s work that made this documentary possible. Nonetheless, The War Symphonies should prove appealing to anyone interested in modern Russian history or music history—and it can only serve to enliven any academic course on those subjects.

John McCannon
Long Island University

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Video Review of The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin
Copyright © 1999 by The Journal for MultiMedia History.

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