The truth about Shostakovich in his centenary year

Dmitry Shostakovich survived Stalin's rule by the skin of his teeth. But is his music really the Soviet propaganda that many people claim? Or is there a deeper, coded critique of the tyranny he endured? A hundred years after the composer's birth, Sholto Byrnes travels to St Petersburg in an attempt to uncover the truth

On the corner of Nevsky Prospect, by the banks of the River Moyka in St Petersburg, hoardings conceal what used to be the Barricade Cinema. Here, as a young man, Dmitry Shostakovich played the piano to accompany silent movies. It's just one of the cinemas where he earned much-needed roubles in the 1920s, when times were so hard that his family had to sell their own piano in order to survive.

The Barricade, known as The Bright Reel Theatre in Shostakovich's youth, shut a year ago. Now, it's being turned into part of the Taleon Club, a swanky hotel and casino. Round the corner is another club, whose delights are advertised by a 50ft poster of a reclining, topless woman. As so often in St Petersburg, the upmarket co-exists with the sleazy.

The staff at the Taleon know of the building's association with Shostakovich, though. And standing in the snow outside, one feels the greater significance of the lifelong link between the composer and the then new art form of the moving image. Film didn't just earn him money. It saved his life, as he said, "more than once or twice".

When he was accused of "formalism" in 1948, his symphonies were banned, and children were taught in schools of the "great harm" his works had done to art, Shostakovich was rescued by the fact that Stalin still liked his film music. The composer's feelings about the propagandist dross for which he was required to supply suitably heroic soundtracks were distinctly ambivalent. But Stalin himself took control of these projects. "Considering the situation," the composer noted dryly in his memoirs, "it would have been irrational for me to refuse." No, says the ghost of the Barricade, cinemas were not merely places where Shostakovich played the piano.

Further down the Moyka, close to the junction with the Kryukov Canal, lies the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, where the 13-year-old Dmitry began studying under Glazunov, "the Russian Brahms", in 1919. The conservatory's name has changed several times in the 100 years since Shostakovich was born in St Petersburg, as has that of the city itself, first to Petrograd, then Leningrad, before reverting to its original name. Across the street is the Mariinsky Theatre, which has also regained its pre-revolutionary title, having being renamed the "Kirov" in 1935 after Sergei Kirov, the Communist party chief of Leningrad.

Shostakovich told a tale about the Mariinksy to explain the bachelor status of his mentor; Glazunov never married, he said, because he had contracted venereal disease from a ballerina who worked there. Today, it is the base of Valery Gergiev, who is conducting all 15 of Shostakovich's symphonies at the Barbican in London to commemorate the centenary of his birth. Gergiev hopes to bring Shostakovich's music to "millions of people, or if not then hundreds of thousands". "We want to play it for people who have never experienced classical music before," he says.

The maestro, who will take up the position of chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra next year, thinks the symphonies should be heard free of their historical baggage. But in this of all years, Shostakovich's story must be told again. And wherever you go in St Petersburg, the city speaks of the terrible fear under which he had to labour and the compromises he had to make in order to survive, as so many of his friends and contemporaries did not.

On Vyborg Side, north-east of the centre, the Finland Station looks down to the River Neva. Here, 10-year-old Dmitry and his classmates from the Shidlovskaya Gymnasium watched Lenin arrive in a sealed car in April 1917. When Shostakovich died in 1975, obituaries in Western newspapers saw this as a major point in his life, fitting conveniently into their view that he was, as The Times put it, "a committed believer in Communism". Shostakovich himself later claimed not to be able to remember anything about that momentous evening at the station. "If I had been told what a luminary was arriving," he said, "I would have paid more attention." But he was aware of, and concerned with, revolutionary events. Two months before Lenin's arrival, during the February rising in Petrograd, he saw a boy murdered by a Cossack with his sabre in the street. He ran home to tell his parents, who were inclined to the Narodnik, or "peasant democracy", school of thought. Inspired by this experience, he wrote one of his first compositions, "Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution".

Shostakovich's early works were deemed pleasing by the Soviet regime; his Second Symphony celebrated Red October, and the Third "the festive mood of peaceful reconstruction". Later, his public comments were taken at face value as those of an artist who wholeheartedly accepted the guidelines laid down by the state. Did the composer himself not accept the verdict of one critic, that his Fifth Symphony was "the practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism"?

In the Khrushchev era, when the accusation of formalism against him was dropped, he accepted the position of First Secretary of the Russian division of the National Composers' Union. He became a member of the Supreme Soviet, and died laden with honours, including that of having an Antarctic peninsula named after him.

But all was not what it seemed. On Ulitsa Marata, off Nevsky Prospect, I look up at number nine. In an apartment in this building Shostakovich lived from 1914 to 1934, writing both his triumphant First Symphony, with which he made his name, and his opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District. The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich bought the apartment hoping to turn it into a museum to its former inhabitant's memory, but difficulties with the neighbours have interfered with the plan. Shostakovich's labours there, however, brought him far worse reversals of fortunes.

Lady MacBeth opened in Leningrad in January 1934, under the name of its heroine, Katerina Izmailova. It was a tremendous success, and was soon produced in opera houses across the world. Two years later, Stalin went to see it at the Bolshoi in Moscow. It was a visit that was to have disastrous consequences. Two days later, Pravda printed an article entitled "Chaos Instead of Music". Influenced or even dictated by Stalin, the article severely criticised the opera for its "screaming, neurotic music", and warned that all this "could end very badly". "Everyone turned away from me," recalled Shostakovich in his memoirs. "They were all waiting for the bad end to come."

Shortly afterwards, Stalin attended the ballet Bright Stream, for which Shostakovich had also written the music. A second attack in Pravda followed. "Now everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed," said Shostakovich later. "The anticipation of that noteworthy event has never left me." Performances of his music received grotesque notices in the press. One newspaper announced: "Today there will be a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich". The composer described himself as having been "near suicide. The danger horrified me and I saw no other way out".

Around this time, he was finishing his Fourth Symphony, but withdrew it from public performance; it contained too many of his thoughts about what was happening, both to him and around him. It was not to receive its premiere until long after Stalin's death, in 1961.

Testimony, Shostakovich's memoirs, "as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov", was not published until after his death. They immediately provided both a contrary view to the lazy obituarists who said he was the dutiful creature of the state, and a glimpse of what had really been going through Shostakovich's mind but dared not say explicitly. With his friends, such as the stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold, with whom he had roomed in Leningrad, and even his protector, the "Red Napoleon", Marshal Tukhachevsky, being taken away and shot, Shostakovich cannot be blamed for his public reticence. As the pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy writes in a new introduction to the memoirs: "The need to protect oneself was something all of us who had to survive in the Soviet Union understood ... This was barely perceived by the gullible West".

The constant presence of the state in the life of the artist is evident near Kronverksky Prospect, off which Shostakovich lived from 1938. A bronze image of him, looking, as ever, serious and slightly nervy behind his glasses, stands just inside the entrance to the apartment complex on the Petrograd Side of the Neva. A few years earlier, there had been another famous inhabitant of the buildings - Sergei Kirov, whose keen interest in the arts led to another misfortune for the composer. Kirov took against his opera, The Nose; and it was taken swiftly out of the repertory.

"I really don't think he made too many compromises in terms of being a party member or writing about Lenin and the revolution of 1905," says Gergiev when we meet in the Mariinsky's restaurant. "In the West, you are very comfortable because you are not in this situation. You are outside looking at some distant and unclear picture. It's very foggy. So maybe we fly today, or maybe not. But if you are in the plane and hoping to survive an air crash, you feel very differently."

It's a dark, but appropriate, analogy. "I want to be an honest man in all respects," Shostakovich said to Volkov. "But now the person who knows the truth is the one who lives in fear." He had an advantage, in that when he wrote purely instrumental music his criticisms were veiled by their wordlessness. But even then, there was danger.

His Fifth Symphony, composed and performed in 1937, at the height of the terror unleashed on Leningrad after the assassination of Kirov (who was actually shot on Stalin's orders), was much less dissonant than some his earlier work, and ended, apparently, with the optimism required of a Soviet artist. Later, Shostakovich was to describe the triumphal finale thus: "it's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying 'your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,' and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering 'our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing'." The more the audience understood what lay beneath the surface, he said, the greater the chance that someone would inform the authorities.

It was at the apartment off Kronverksky Prospect that Shostakovich (by this time the father of two small children from the first of his three marriages) wrote most of his Seventh Symphony, the "Leningrad". The city was under siege, and the symphony became an emblem of Soviet resistance to the Nazis; so much so, that Time magazine put the composer on its cover, his head covered by a warrior-like helmet. On the 9th of August, 1942, at the Great Hall of the Philharmonia in St Petersburg, close to the Grand Hotel where Shostakovich had had a historic meeting with Prokofiev, the pitiful remnants of the city's radio orchestra performed the Seventh, which was broadcast by loudspeakers on the battlefront and "fired" at the invaders.

Even this, however, was not all that it seemed. The first movement contains a repetitive motif which begins on side drum and plucked strings, known as the "invasion theme". This was taken to refer solely to the Nazis. Later, however, Shostakovich claimed he was thinking of "other enemies of humanity" when he wrote it. "I can't imagine that this image that starts 'buh, buh, dugadugah, dugadugah' is just an organised machine," says Gergiev. "I refuse to think it's just German tanks, or the KGB, or Hitler, or Stalin. For me it's something much bigger. Once it starts, I feel that something in my life has changed for ever, and you become a little scared.

"That's the future, I believe, for Shostakovich. I felt totally different in 1985 - I was much more influenced by the old dogmas. I was told: 'this is the moment the German army invades the Soviet Union'. Today, I don't think this way. It's very quiet, distant, but there's an immediate sense of danger and fear. For me now it's me, it's you, it's my whole world of dreams."

Volkov has a theory that Shostakovich was a "yurodivy", a traditional figure from Russian history, a licensed "fool" who was allowed to tell the truth in code to the Tsar, just as he did in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, a work which Shostakovich took much trouble to re-orchestrate between writing his Sixth and Seventh symphonies in Leningrad.

It's an interesting theory, and one to which credence may be given by Stalin's participation in condemning Shostakovich, both in the 1936 Pravda articles and in the 1948 decree accusing him of "formalism"; while at the same time it was the Soviet leader who rescued him from the depths of disgrace, personally telephoning the composer to ask him to attend a conference for World Peace in New York in 1949, and continuing to commission him to write film scores. With one hand he struck him down; with the other, he protected him.

If Shostakovich was a yurodivy - and if he was, then perhaps Stalin was much more the fool; for however much he recognised the power of Shostakovich's film music, he surely would not have been prepared to put up with the criticism implicit in the symphonies if he truly understood it - then the composer only survived through the non-verbal and non-visual nature of his chosen medium.

In the museum of Anna Akhmatova, in the grounds of the Sheremeteev Palace on the banks of the Fotanka River, there is a dedication on the wall from the poet to the composer: "To Dmitry Dmitrievich Shostakovich, in whose epoch I live". Akhmatova, like so many other artists in their circle, suffered because the meaning of their work was that much more obvious. As the Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg said about Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony: "Music has a great advantage: without saying anything, it can say everything".

Gergiev concurs. "After Lady MacBeth, maybe he told himself 'enough is enough'," says the conductor. "If you use words, people can ask why you're using this one and not the other. If you use just music, you are much more mysterious. And if people say: 'but I can sense this music is against Stalin', you can say, 'well no; it's about the greatness of our country'."

From this point on, thinks Gergiev, Shostakovich became "a silent warrior". "This was a very special era in his life," he says. "He was fighting his own war against tyranny." Gergiev considers the Fourth Symphony, written in the city at the lowest ebb of the composer's life, to be a "reservoir" into which he put "everything he wanted to express throughout his life".

Twenty-five years later, the Fourth was finally performed, shocking the audience with its violence and wildness. I think again of the ascetic, distracted gaze of the man whose life was so intertwined with this city. In the bitter cold of the St Petersburg winter, where ice clogs the Neva and the wind deadens the marrow, echoes of Shostakovich's story are still to be heard, and it is not hard to believe his words about the true meaning of his music. "The majority of my symphonies," he said, "are tombstones." m

Sholto Byrnes stayed at the Hotel Astoria, St Petersburg, and travelled with Russia specialists Exeter International ( www.exeterinternational.co.uk)

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