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The New International, September 1942

Frank Davis


The Fire Bell Tolls but Once


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 8, September 1942, pp. 255–256.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Evaluating a contemporary work of art is beset by many pitfalls, not the least of which is the personality of the artist involved and the social forces that surround him. The hypocritical ballyhoo surrounding Shostakovitch – the Soviet composer – dating from the time that America became allied with the Soviet Union, can arouse in the honest persons disgust to a point where he cannot even bring himself to listen to the music! One must be careful. And yet what we know about a contemporary artist’s relation to society and to his followers cannot but be a factor in our estimate of his art. To ignore this relationship one would have to maintain an abnormally detached viewpoint.

Certainly the most objective among us must prick up his ears when someone like Serge Koussevitzky – darling of the Back Bay Bostonians – goes all-out for the darling of the Soviets, Shostakovitch, who extinguishes fires in Leningrad while nursing the fires of inspiration. It is still more astonishing to find this gentleman, born and bred in the aristocratic circles of Czarist Russia, nurtured among White Russian refugees, leader of a non-union orchestra that plays only to the supremely refined – it is indeed astonishing to find Conductor Koussevitzky shouting hurrahs for the “mass appeal” of Shostakovitch’s music!

The Company a Composer Keeps

A composer cannot be blamed for the people who like his music. But today, when every individual is influenced by and is dependent to the point of existence itself, on the political forces that surround him and where every field of art is exploited for its propaganda value, may it not be said that a composer should be judged, if not by the company he keeps, then by the company that keeps him?

This does not mean that the Shostakovitch Seventh Symphony (recently introduced to America with such fanfare) has no musical value for these reasons. The enthusiastic reception of this work by the bourgeois music critics need not lead us to condemn it, but must arouse our suspicions. The political and social setting in which it was presented can help us to understand the form in which it was cast. Shostakovitch knew well its propagandistic purposes and the audience that would listen to it (the middle class of America and England, worked up by advance publicity, eagerly awaiting the message, itching to go all-out in emotional praise).

With this in mind, Shostakovitch rose to the occasion. He gave them what they wanted, but the occasion was such that only a miracle could produce a great and sincere work of art.

Such a miracle did not occur. For we have here am instance of music playing second fiddle to the obviousness of the dramatic situation which invoked it. If the mass appeal of the Seventh Symphony was assured before its inception, its artistic worthlessness was equally predetermined!

It must be realized that music is of such an intense emotional and abstract nature that it can be used just as readily to befuddle people as to enlighten them. Unlike literature or the graphic arts, it says nothing concrete. Thus, when a piece of music, heralded for obvious political reasons as a genius’ masterpiece, is written only to stir the emotions of people with a confused political orientation, then this music can resolve itself into nothing more than drum beating, as indeed the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony is – both figuratively and literally!

However that may be, there is some pretty competent drum beating found here. Whatever his faults, Shostakovitch manages to be effective. After a brief introduction, the snare drums introduce a military rhythm which continues crescendo throughout the movement. Above this a theme of several short phrases appears, symmetrical and imitative in character. The most casual listener is struck by two things – first, the close resemblance to Ravel’s Bolero and, second, the banality of the theme.

Bang, Bang and BANG!

Shostakovitch is no fool and knew what he was doing. Did he take the attitude that a particular form is never a composer’s private property? Or did he want to show the possibilities of the form when handled by a greater composer for a more important subject? “The Bolero is merely a tour de force, but I, the great Soviet composer, use it for a great purpose.” This form, consisting of a theme repeated over and over again with cumulative orchestral effect. It is of such an obvious nature that it must be treated in a subtle and non-too-serious manner. The great crescendo in the Bolero is intense as well as quantitative – that is, it undergoes remarkable and dextrous changes in color. Not so with the Seventh, which simply adds and adds and adds. Shostakovitch tries to overwhelm you with the theme’s insistence and with sheer power of sound. He is only childish and monotonous. He might just as well have let the drums go bang, BANG, BANG – (that’s Hitler coming at you!).

And the theme. Is it meant to be the onward march of fascism, and therefore deliberately banal? Or did the composer consider it a good theme? Did he think the theme itself didn’t matter and was secondary to the treatment given it? Unfortunately, no amount of lofty idealism or vital message can hide badly written music.

The first movement is clearly meant to be a mighty, marching force – but whether it is Hitler or the Revolution, we don’t know! Shostakovitch is too clever to tell us. But the movement ends on a note of forboding, denoting either that (1) Hitler is perched on our doorstep; or (2) the Revolution has triumphed and awaits the inevitable counter-assault by reaction.

The following scherzo movement turns out to be leisurely, cheerful and melodious – perhaps leaving today’s grim problems to momentarily sing the joys of Stalinist socialism. This movement is not programmatic in character, but is sandwiched in between the other two movements. It illustrates the fact that, to Shostakovitch. music is a string of contrasting themes, harmonized, developed and orchestrated. Any organic idea binding this material into a purposeful whole is notoriously lacking. All of his ideas are alive and some have a youthful freshness, but each climax falls short of being a fulfillment! The expected return of the first theme in the second movement has no reason behind it. The dramatic and emotional possibilities contained in the relationship of parts to one another and to the whole are a closed book to his nimble but superficial mind.

The final movement returns to today’s stern realities. It attempts to overcome them by blowing them away! Climax upon climax, the brass blares louder and louder; the strings soar and rhapsodize (sometimes with sonorous effect). The stale memory of Tschaikowsky – the sugary petty bourgeois romantic beloved of Lewisohn Stadium concerts – and Strauss pervades this movement. Shostakovitch is a man of tremendous resources, with a facile mind. He is quick to learn from the assets and errors of others; he borrows unashamedly where he can; he gathers in all the musical weapons of the last fifty years. When he throws all this at you, with the purpose of leaving you limp, he is likely to succeed to the point where you almost forget what you have listened to!

For Shostakovitch, at any rate, has freed himself from the fads and cacophonies of the 1920’s without sinking into the mire of post-romanticism. Having at his finger tips the enormous technique developed by the twentieth century, he avoids mere orchestral effect, but uses it to project his ideas. Unlike Ravel (whose orchestrations were scintillating and iridescent), Shostakovitch brings the orchestra back to a normal level, but covers a greater range. Of course, most of the Seventh Symphony is not “modern,” except for some moments of value.

A Victim of Stalinism?

What conclusions may we draw? Is Shostakovitch a victim of Soviet corruption and censorship? Perhaps there are great musicians lost to us because of the Stalinist dictatorship, but he is not one of them! Shostakovitch reveals his own superficial character and lack of sincerity by the idiom in which he chooses to write. His is the kind of talent that flourishes most readily in a corrupt political regime. He knows much, but believes in nothing. His glib mind can produce any style it pleases – “revolutionary” music, conservative music, satirical, serious, Strauss, Ravel, Stravinsky and even Stalinist music! It doesn’t matter much to him. He cheerfully conforms to his master when ordered to change his style. His early works were all satirical. Then came his First Symphony – slight, competent, light-hearted, without an important theme. But the Comintern was ultra-leftist in those days (third period), so Shostakovitch wrote the May Day and October symphonies, both broad epic works. After the Popular Front Seventh World Congress, both were withdrawn. The Fourth Symphony, for unknown reasons, was never played. Was it by coincidence that the Fifth (born during the days of the Nazi-Soviet pact) contained large chunks of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, both “Germanic” composers?

Stalinist musicians and apologists have a ready answer to the overrated music of Shostakovitch: “The important thing is to win the war; we must forgive this enthusiasm.” Let us remind them that this so-called work of art is presented with pomp and fanfare as a work truly representative of art within the Soviet Union; as a work of genius; presented as indicative of the spirit within that country. As such, it reflects profoundly upon the character of the regime that has produced it. Let these musical apologists ponder well the meaning of this.

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