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A GPU Music Critic Censors Shostakovich

(14 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 41, 14 October 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The cultural purge in Russia continues. The fierce dictatorial repressions based on fantastically ridiculous critical judgments have this time struck Dmitri Shostakovich, until now hailed by the Stalinists as a great composer. In the journal Culture and Life, published by the Agitation and Propaganda Committee of Stalin’s party (obviously the proper committee to evaluate music ...) one I. Nestiev accuses Shostakovich’s Ninth and latest symphony of lacking “warm ideological conviction.”

The Stalinist critic – who was probably intended for a job as a GPU guard in a Russian forced labor camp but became a music critic instead – writes that Shostakovich’s Ninth shows that the composer “has not overcome in himself the ironical skeptic.” It suffers further, the GPU Music Guard writes – as if ironical skepticism weren’t a serious enough fault! – from “the cynical and evil grotesque, the tone of merciless joking and ridicule ... the cold irony of stylization.”

The reader, even if not a musical specialist, will readily see that from the grievous error of ironical skepticism to the unforgivable crime of the cold irony of stylization – well, all that is left for a composer faced with such irrefutable charges is to plead for mercy.

Consider further that Shostakovich has been warned before. In 1936 the GPU Music Guards informed him that his ballet, Limpid Stream, was (as Pravda put it) “unwholesome and cheap.” What is more, Stalin couldn’t whistle its main tunes, and there is clearly no point in permitting music which Stalin can’t whistle. On that occasion, Dmitri showed the proper contrition – he confessed, so to speak – and wrote a few booming symphonies which Stalin could whistle. And all the little Stalinists could whistle them, too, from the Kremlin right down to 13th Street and the Freiheit Choir. Now, however, what will they whistle?

It’s pretty tough to be a Stalinist these days: you don’t even know what to whistle.

But – let us not forget Shostakovich. Will he adapt himself again? In the past he has shown a remarkable flexibility. When the Stalinists entered their ultra-left “third period” in the early 1930’s, he wrote the May Day and October Symphonies, the very names of which suggest their themes of struggle. After the Popular Front, both symphonies were withdrawn: themes of struggle smacked of Trotskyism! And when Stalin shook hands with von Ribbentrop and Molotov discovered that fascism was a matter of taste, Shostakovich who knew on which side of the party line his bread was buttered, composed his Fifth Symphony which – such a delicate touch! – contained large chunks of Strauss and Mahler, both “Germanic” composers.

So you see Dmitri has known how to adapt himself before. Yet the charges have never before been so serious. After all, ironical skepticism in a symphony is nothing to pass off so lightly.

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