Shostakovich: Settling old Soviet scores

Stalin denounced Shostakovich's opera but had a soft spot for his ballet. Now the Kirov wants to take the politics out of the music. David Lister reports
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The relationship between the great 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the dictator Joseph Stalin was a complex one, and is still sometimes misunderstood.

When Stalin walked out of a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936, the composer feared he would be arrested and killed. He had even more reason to fear when Pravda attacked him later in the year in an editorial headed "Muddle Instead of Music": Stalin is thought to have written it himself. The composer's work was dismissed as "an intentionally discordant, muddled flow of sound". He was later attacked again by Pravda, which branded him an "anti-people" musician. But on neither occasion was he arrested.

Stalin played a strange game, attacking the composer in Pravda while showering him with awards. This has led to a misunderstanding of Shostakovich's political sympathies. As recently as 2000, he was described in The New York Times as "cowardly" and "a mediocre human being", and in the Toronto National Post as a "wuss".

That's not how his fellow Russians saw him. The author Solomon Volkov, who wrote Shostakovich and Stalin, recalls: "We in the USSR grew up with Shostakovich's music practically under our skins. Its gloomy melodies, trampling rhythms and bellowing orchestral writing perfectly suited our moods and inner thoughts, which we tried to conceal from the watchful eyes and sharp ears of the Soviet authorities."

And, very occasionally, the musical tastes of the Russian people and of Stalin himself coincided. One such occasion occurred in 1930, when the 23-year-old Shostakovich composed the music for a ballet, The Golden Age. It was, of all things, a ballet about football. Shostakovich was fanatical about the game, going every week to watch one of the teams in his home city of Leningrad. He kept a notebook detailing scorers, and bet on matches - though, as a pessimist, he would bet against his team.

The ballet's theme of a Soviet football team at large in the corrupting West appealed to the dictator, and he relished its potential propaganda value.

This summer, the football ballet and a ballet of the composer's Leningrad Symphony (the wartime music adapted for dance in 1961 well after Stalin's death) are part of a season coming from St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) to Britain. But what we will see will not be what Stalin or his Sovet heirs wanted us to see.

The Mariinsky's celebrated artistic director, the conductor Valery Gergiev,, wants to bring the composer out of the shadow of politics and of his unwilling association with Stalin and subsequent Soviet regimes, and to concentrate on his theatricality. Gergiev brings a Shostakovich On Stage season to the London Coliseum in July. The Golden Age will be shorn of the propagandist element as Stalin saw it. In the case of the Leningrad Symphony, the stirring version of the ballet, which I watched in St Petersburg, is deliberately ambivalent. With its red backdrop, is it purely a triumphalist piece about the Soviets rebuffing the Nazis during the siege of Leningrad -- or is it a more complex piece on the siege of Russian souls by the Sovet leaders?

Backstage at the Mariinsky, I talked to Gergiev, Shostakovich's son, Maxim, and the American choreographer Noah Gelber, who said of his new version of The Golden Age: " The original story revolved around a Russian football team that comes to Europe, and we do keep a Soviet team, coming to an Olympic event. And there's a football star from this team who meets a European girl, and they have some inter-reaction and later they look back on their lives from the present day."

And so, what was a story of athletic, pure Soviet youth overcoming the temptations of the decadent and corrupt West, has become a love story between Soviet and Westerner. "The original version," Gelber says, "is extremely biased. It was a big shield for capitalism, and designed to show that capitalism was wrong."

It will be interesting to see what Maxim Shostakovich makes of the update. Gelber says: "Dmitri Shostakovich was before his time and would have been fully open to new ideas," but Maxim Shostakovich told me: "I would like it to be as it was. It will be the original ballet."

So there may be some talking still to be done. But it is the philosophy of Gergiev, the presiding genius of this revelatory season, that will hold sway. He said of The Golden Age: " We will try to get across the theatrical side of him. If you want to bring the intellectual and rational, you won't get a very good result. It's more crazy and unpredictable. For the younger generation, the more crazy it is the better."

Perhaps that is to underestimate the potential fascination with the original across the generations, a fascination to see what Stalin rightly or wrongly judged to be a true Soviet ballet. To take the work out of the politics of the time is also a political gesture.

Shostakovich on Stage, Coliseum, London WC2 (0870 145 0200;, 20 to 29 July