Symphony for the City of the Dead


  This is the spot where, in Shostakovich’s previous symphonies, a choir would have burst in, singing the victories of labor. Instead, there is this calamitous brass chorus of triumph, this dissonant bellow that crushes everything beneath it.

  After that, the symphony ends, not with a vision of future hope through massed singing, but rather with whispered, eerie, shell-shocked numbness. It is music for a child huddled in broken ruins, clutching his knees after something terrible has passed by, hoping that if he looks up, he will find it has stalked onward — but certain that, in fact, it stands over him, waiting to pounce.

  At a rehearsal of the symphony, a friend of Shostakovich’s “detected a strong sense of wariness in the hall; rumors had been circulating in musical circles . . . that Shostakovich had not heeded the criticism to which he had lately been subjected, but had persisted in writing a symphony of diabolical complexity and crammed full of formalist tendencies.”

  Then the final blow fell: While the orchestra was rehearsing, two men walked into the hall. One was the secretary of the Composers’ Union. The other was from Communist Party Headquarters. A few minutes later, the director of the Philharmonic appeared and asked Shostakovich to accompany him for a chat in his office.

  About fifteen minutes passed.

  When Shostakovich came out, he got his friend Isaak Glikman and left. They walked back toward the composer’s apartment. Glikman later wrote, “My companion seemed thoroughly downcast, and his long silence only added to my sense of anxiety. At last he told me in flat, expressionless tones that there would be no performance of the symphony.” Shostakovich had been forced to cancel its premiere.

  A notice was published in the magazine Sovetskoe iskusstvo (Soviet Art): “Composer Shostakovich appealed to the Leningrad Philharmonic with the request to withdraw his Fourth Symphony from performance on the grounds that it in no way corresponds to his creative convictions and represents for him a long outdated phase.”

  He was furious and ashamed — but he had a wife and a newborn daughter to think of. It was not the moment to take a stand.

  The Fourth Symphony, one of his most fascinating and ingenious works, both brutal and intricate, would go unheard for a quarter of a century, silenced by fear.

  It is worth pausing for a moment and asking how music speaks ideas. Shostakovich said,

  Meaning in music, that must sound very strange for most people. Particularly in the West. It’s here in Russia that the question is usually posed: What was the composer trying to say, after all, with this musical work? What was he trying to make clear? The questions are naïve, of course, but despite their naiveté and crudity, they definitely merit being asked. And I would add to them, for instance: Can music attack evil? Can it make man stop and think? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to various vile acts to which he has grown accustomed? to the things he passes without any interest?

  How does a symphony — especially one as colossal and ramshackle as Shostakovich’s Fourth — tell a story?

  Of course, some music has words, and they shape our understanding. Shostakovich’s Second and Third Symphonies both break out into triumphant workers’ choruses (“Listen, workers, / to the voice of our factories: / in burning down the old, we must kindle a new reality. / Into the squares, revolution, / march with a million feet!”). That seems to be a straightforward way of reconstructing what the composer wanted to get across.

  This assumption is made a little more complicated by the fact that Shostakovich privately thought that the poems he set in these symphonies were awful. (“Shostakovich did not like them and simply laughed at them,” a conductor remembered.) That doesn’t necessarily mean he disagreed with their sentiments, but he wished, at least, that the words weren’t so lousy.

  Most symphonies, however, are wordless. They are built only of tones, nonlinguistic sounds vibrating in the air, and somehow, we take them to heart and feel that they speak to us more deeply than words ever could. Cultures make up certain rules for music that we learn without even recognizing them; for example, in the West, we have decided that music in minor keys tends to sound sad or anxious, while music in major keys conveys confidence, triumph. Other cultures have made other decisions.

  Symphonies also sometimes include abstract musical forms such as the waltz, the polka, the minuet, or the fugue. The Fourth Symphony makes use of these forms, which people of Shostakovich’s day would have recognized, to tell its story.

  One way to understand symphonies is to think of them as movie music without the movie. This is particularly apt in Russia, where composers were often explicitly trying to tell a story through orchestral music (and were sometimes even adapting film scores to symphonic form). There was a long tradition, for example, of Russian symphonies and suites spinning tales of swords and sorcery, of monstrous enemies and swashbuckling barbarian lords. To these were now added symphonies sketching scenes in the life of Revolutionaries, laborers, and Soviet heroes of aviation. In such symphonies — as in many movie scores — melodies could act the part of characters. Tunes and themes could appear in different moods, in different scenes, cloaked cleverly and diversely. They could be sped up, slowed down, or warped grotesquely out of shape. In a moment of sadness, a character melody might be played softly by woodwinds and strings; after a victory, it might be declared by brass.

  Through the transformation of tunes, symphonies like Shostakovich’s Fourth can tell stories without describing any specific events at all. For example, several themes from the work’s first movement that seem groping, wounded, or incompetent reappear as characters at the end of the symphony, now played as cheerful little street dances. Then they are squashed — silenced. It is clear they are acting out some drama. There is no need for us to know names or to demand that these absolutely must be images of NKVD jackboots on the stairs or prisoners tapping out messages on hot-water pipes. It is the emotional narrative that is important.

  There are other ways that composers can encode stories and messages, making music more like a spoken language. Some use musical quotations. In one of the most famous pieces of Russian symphonic music, for example, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” the composer depicts the French invasion of Russia under Napoleon and the final defeat of the French by pitting the French national anthem (“La Marseillaise”) against a Russian Orthodox hymn and the Russian national anthem (“God Save the Tsar”) in a sort of battle royale, complete with cannon shots.

  Shostakovich used musical quotation like this to encode a sort of secret message in his Fourth Symphony. The demoniac anthem that blares out at the end of the piece actually contains a quotation from Oedipus Rex, an opera by Igor Stravinsky. In the opera, the fragment is sung by a chorus calling to their queen: “Glory, glory, glory! Praise to Queen Jocasta in pestilential Thebes!” They do not realize that the king and queen’s own sins have brought a plague down upon them all.

  There clearly is some irony in Shostakovich using this fragment right at the moment when, in previous symphonies, he would have included a workers’ hymn of praise to the Bolsheviks. Instead, his shout of acclamation comes from a city dying of sickness, calling out to a ruler responsible for the scabs.

  Shostakovich would often use quotation like this to signal meanings for his listeners. In the case of this passage from Oedipus Rex, it is unlikely that many of the people in the audience had ever heard the Stravinsky opera or could recognize the fragment. In later symphonies, however, Shostakovich often quoted the Revolutionary songs of his youth, songs he would have heard at funerals for Bolsheviks killed in action, songs his father would have sung as he marched on the tsar’s Winter Palace. These were tunes known by everyone in the audience.

  But we can never be certain exactly what he meant by them. Is he celebrating the Revolutionary cause or pleading for those who suffered later under the Russian Communist yoke — or both? And if we assume that every recognizable tune carries a valuable secret message, then what precisely does Shostakovich mean when, in his intense Se
cond Cello Concerto, he quotes an Odessan jingle called “Pretzels, Buy My Pretzels”?

  Later in his life, he used another form of musical code: reducing specific names to notes. For example, he worked out a musical monogram for himself: the letters of his initials, D-S-C-H (in Cyrillic, Д. Ш.), transformed into a four-note motif. He built his very personal Eighth String Quartet around this signature, repeated again and again in different forms, wound around quotations from his own earlier work, and culminating in a quotation from the Revolutionary song “Tormented by Grievous Bondage.” At the time, people did not know that this brief motif encrypted Shostakovich’s own name; to us now, the piece seems to speak privately of his own feeling of grief and entrapment.

  But as the musicologist Richard Taruskin warns us, “There is more to an artwork, one has to think, than there is to a note in a bottle.” What are we to make of the fact that in another symphony — one that some argue is supposed to depict Stalin — Shostakovich made a melody out of the name of a woman he had a crush on? Is it necessary to know that in order to “understand” the symphony? No one had any idea the reference was there until years after Shostakovich’s death.

  People often claim that Shostakovich’s music is absolutely clear in its meaning — but then slam their fists on tables at conferences and bicker about what it actually means. For a long time, the Soviets said the music meant one thing, the Americans said it meant something else — and a few lonely souls (Igor Stravinsky among them) complained that music really should mean nothing at all.

  What did Shostakovich himself say about musical meaning? According to a friend, “Shostakovich hated being asked questions about his music and whether this or that theme represented something or had any particular meaning. When asked, ‘What did you want to say in this work?’ he would answer, ‘I’ve said what I’ve said.’”

  This made sense in a society where everyone assumed music had a meaning — but where saying the wrong thing could get a person killed.

  The attack on cultural figures — many of them Shostakovich’s friends — was going full force. The shadow of the Great Terror fell upon writers particularly grievously.

  Osip Mandelstam, the poet who had whispered his squib about Stalin’s cockroach mustache to fellow poet Pasternak on the bridge, tried to placate the Great Leader and Teacher by writing a groveling hymn of praise from his exile:

  I would sing of him who shifted the axis of the world. . . .

  How I weep as I draw the portrait of the Leader. . . .

  In the friendship of his wise eyes

  One suddenly sees — a father! . . .

  (His powerful eyes — sternly kind.)

  Mandelstam thought flattery might do some good. He was, in fact, released from his internal exile and allowed to move back within the orbit of Moscow. He was even given a travel voucher for an all-expenses-paid vacation at a government resort. He and his wife were given a quaint hut stocked with books and spent several weeks skiing through the forests.

  Toward the end of his holiday, on a day when all the guests were thrilled that ice cream was on the menu, the NKVD took the opportunity to arrest Mandelstam on the way to the dining hall. He never got a chance to say a real good-bye to his wife. Mandelstam was sentenced to the gulag and sent to Siberia. He died on the way there, interred at a transfer station, raving piteously that Stalin was going to change his mind and save him.

  Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, wrote in her harrowing memoir of the Great Terror, “We were capable of coming to work with a smile on our face after a night in which our home had been searched or a member of the family arrested. It was essential to smile — if you didn’t, it meant you were afraid, then you must have a bad conscience. The mask was taken off only at home, and then not always — even from your children you had to conceal how horror-struck you were; otherwise, God save you, they might let something slip in school.”

  Elena Konstantinovskaya, the young translator Shostakovich had almost left Nina for, was arrested.

  Another one of his ex-girlfriends from his youth (Galina Serebryakova) was arrested and imprisoned for seventeen years. Two decades later, she spoke out about her imprisonment. In front of a crowded hall, she unfastened a couple of buttons and pointed to the torture scars on her back. Shostakovich was in the audience. Upon seeing the flesh he had once touched so tormented, he collapsed onto the floor.

  The man who had written the story of Shostakovich’s ballet The Bright Stream was arrested and disappeared. The head of the Moscow Composers’ Union was executed.

  Boris Kornilov, the lyricist for Shostakovich’s hit “Song of the Counterplan,” was arrested and shot. During Kornilov’s interrogation, his ex-wife, the poet Olga Berggolts, was dragged in for questioning. She was pregnant. The NKVD thugs beat her so brutally that she miscarried on the torture-room floor.

  We can only imagine the outrage and fear Shostakovich felt when he heard this, looking at his own wife and his newborn daughter.

  Nina’s mother was arrested and sentenced to a work camp in Kazakhstan.

  Shostakovich’s uncle was arrested and disappeared.

  Shostakovich’s sister Maria and her husband were both arrested. Maria was exiled to Central Asia. Her husband was accused of terrorism and imprisoned in a work camp, where he died.

  Shostakovich left no written record of his emotions during this time.

  Why would he? Diaries got people imprisoned. Letters got people shot.

  Mass rallies were held to celebrate Stalin. Troops of athletes strode through the streets of Moscow, carrying portraits of Communist Party leaders, as they once had carried painted icons of saints on religious holidays. Everywhere, Stalin’s picture appeared, with its kind smile and his hand raised in welcome.

  His slogan for the age was on everyone’s lips. “Life is getting better, comrades!” he said. “Life is getting merrier!”

  Planes spelled out his name in the sky.

  One night late in the Great Terror, Shostakovich and his friend Isaak Glikman came back from a soccer match, perhaps a little tipsy. They were going to have a cup of tea at Shostakovich’s apartment. When they got there, the composer couldn’t get the door to unlock. He fumbled with his keys.

  His friend Meyerhold appeared on the staircase. He happened to be passing by, visiting someone else in the building. Meyerhold helped Shostakovich with the lock. They got the door open.

  Shostakovich was delighted to see Meyerhold. They were talking about collaborating on a new project. Shostakovich invited him in for a cup of tea. Meyerhold said no — but maybe they could get together the next day.

  They said good night.

  It was the last time Shostakovich saw the director alive.

  Early the next morning, Meyerhold was arrested by the NKVD. The warrant was signed in blue pencil, which meant that he was probably slated for execution. He was taken by train back to Moscow. There, he was imprisoned in the Lubyanka, the NKVD’s headquarters right in the center of Moscow, across the square from the Child World department store. He was imprisoned there for six months.

  In public, at lectures, Meyerhold had defended himself and Shostakovich against the charges of formalism. “Where once there were the best theaters in the world, now — by your leave — everything is gloomily well regulated, averagely arithmetical, stupefying, and murderous in its lack of talent,” he insisted. “In hunting down formalism, you have eliminated art!”

  His pride and stubbornness may have led to his arrest. Now, deep within the Lubyanka, they led to his torture.

  In a pleading letter to a government official, he wrote:

  They beat me. . . . They laid me face-down on the floor and beat the soles of my feet and my back with a rubber truncheon. When I was seated on a chair they used the same truncheon to beat my legs from above with great force, from my knees to the upper parts of my legs. And in the days that followed, when my legs were bleeding from internal haemorrhaging, they used the rubber truncheon to beat me on the red, blue and yellow
bruises. The pain was so great that it was like boiling water being poured on the tenderest parts of my legs. (I screamed and wept with the pain.) . . . Lying face-down on the floor, I discovered the capacity to cringe, writhe and howl like a dog being whipped by its master.

  Meyerhold had to be transferred to the Lubyanka prison hospital so he would not die before they were done with him. As he was being carried off, his torturer threatened him. “If you refuse to write [a confession], we shall beat you again, leaving your head and right hand untouched but turning the rest of you into a shapeless, bloody mass of mangled flesh.”

  Indeed, they broke his left arm, but he could still hold a pen in his other hand to sign his name.

  Under torture, Meyerhold confessed to being in the pay of both the French and the Japanese. He agreed that for years he had been the head of a group of conspirators who “coordinated all anti-Soviet elements in the field of the arts.” He was forced to name names.

  He named Shostakovich.

  At the same time, the writer Isaac Babel was being interrogated. Babel implicated Shostakovich, too. When he was being asked about the supposed conspiracy among the intelligentsia, he said, “We all had in common holding the humiliated Shostakovich as a genius.”

  Shostakovich’s NKVD file now listed him as a “saboteur.”

  We do not know what saved him from being arrested at this point.

  One thing might have helped: A few months after Meyerhold listed the names of Shostakovich and other friends of theirs, the battered director demanded to sign another statement. This time, he agreed that he was in the pay of foreign governments and revolutionaries — but he insisted that there was no anti-Soviet conspiracy in the arts. He said that Shostakovich, and everyone else he had listed, was innocent. It was an incredible act of bravery.

  Shostakovich, for his part, never knew he had been implicated. At the pleading of Zinaida Raikh, Meyerhold’s wife, he wrote and signed a letter asking for Meyerhold’s release.

 
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