I recently read a translation of the libretto for Dimitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. I am playing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony for the second time this year and I understand that the symphony was a response to the criticism of this opera in Russia's most famous newspaper, Pravda. I wanted to learn more about the opera. Before I talk about the opera itself, here is some history to put the work into context.
Music & Totalitarianism:
As we enter into Early Modernism and Twentieth Century music, European composers found their lives profoundly affected by the economic, political, and military upheavals of the time. In Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, artistic modernism in most of its appearances was rejected and banned. In each country the justification for repression was the same distorted outgrowth of nineteenth-century nationalism: Art ought to speak straightforwardly to the national “folk” and give voice to its aspirations and history. This was foreign to modern art’s emphasis on originality and individualism, its formal intricacies, and its experimentation. For Nazis and Stalinists alike, modern art had no reason to exist.
Perhaps the most famous victim of artistic muzzling was one of Russia’s greatest composers, Dmitri Shostakovich. Growing up under Communism, he originally followed the dictates of the state without question. Shostakovich wasn’t necessarily a radical modernist of the Schoenberg sort; but his music did show novel tendencies, including especially strong dissonant harmonies. Official Composer to the Regime in the early 1930s, he nevertheless walked a dangerous path.
The Publication in Pravda of the Article Chaos Instead of Music:
On January 28th, 1936, Dimitri Shostakovich awoke to read on the front page of Pravda a review condemning him as an unpatriotic intellectual whose work endangered and corrupted the spirit of the Soviet people. Two days earlier, in Moscow, Stalin graciously attended Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. But Stalin and his entourage left before the performance ended.
Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, opened in 1934 and became hugely popular. Audiences loved it, critics loved it, and opera companies competed to produce it. So why, two years later did Stalin hate it so much? At its simplest level, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is about the murder of an authority figure. One can hardly imagine that Stalin would view such a plot with favor. The older father who is murdered is a brutal character, coarse, drunk, a tyrant. There were obvious parallels in people’s minds. The music of the opera pushed the envelope of musical decency in Soviet Russia. It was a wild jumble of sounds sometimes. Stalin, whose seat was right over the percussion and brass, probably got the full force of this music in his ears. He may not have been able to grasp what the singers were singing, but could grasp that there was a lot of pretty racy stuff taking place on the stage.
My Reflections on The Opera:
From today it seems utterly amazing that the front page of the most major newspaper of the country could be devoted to a scathing review of a year old opera. I had to learn more about this opera.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a tale of domestic violence based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov. The protagonist, Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, is trapped in a miserable marriage. Katerina is an intelligent, talented, and interesting woman owing to the nightmarish circumstances in which life has placed her. Her life has become sad, dull gloomy. She does not love her husband. She has no joys, no consolations, and all at once, there appears the foreman, Sergey.
I wasn't completely aware of some of the more questionable topics that would come up in the opera. It is noted for being the first opera to have an on-stage rape scene; the music of which one, critic from the United States called "pornophony". After reading the libretto, I watched two different performances of the opera, both of which were very modest with these scenes. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a raunchy, bitter, but also compassionate, and hilarious work.
Similar to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the central theme of this opera is unchecked ambition. She will do anything in order to sustain her relationship with Sergey, even if it means the murder of her despotic father-in-law, Boris Timofeyevich Izmailov, and then her hapless husband, Zinoviy Borisovich Izmailov.
I found the opera to be an interesting and thought provoking read after having ready Shakespeare's Macbeth, but the music of the opera takes the show!
Shostakovich, always acutely aware of the political dimensions of any theatrical work, insisted that his opera wasn’t at all about a crazed wife, driven to homicide by sexual frustration. Instead, he claimed that Lady Macbeth showed how bourgeois society, before the revolution, warped the humanity of the tsar’s powerless subjects. However, after the criticisms of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and his ballet The Limpid Stream, Shostakovich went from Russia’s golden boy composer to the border lines of being a non person.
Fearing exile to a Gulag prison camp, Shostakovich was writing for his life. He had to come up with a piece that would show he could write politically acceptable music. The result was his fifth symphony. The symphony was more popular than anything he had ever written and rehabilitated him in the eyes of the Soviet Government. But does the music really mean what it appears to say. That’s the problem with Shostakovich in general. Did he understandably write crowd-pleasing propaganda in order to save his skin, or did he find a way to write music that, for those who knew how to listen to, it contained hidden meanings?
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