Life Chronicles

On 28 January 1936, an editorial article entitled ‘Muddle instead of Music. On the Opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ was published in Pravda. ‘This is music composed on the principle of negation of opera, according to which leftist art ingeneral negates simplicity, realism, comprehension of image, and the natural sound of words in the theatre. It transfers the most negative aspects of the ‘Meyerholdists’ in multiplied form to opera and to music. It is leftist muddle instead of natural human music.’ On 6 February, another article was published called ‘Balletic Falsity’ about the ballet The Limpid Stream. Аfter these articles came out, Shostakovich lived in Moscow for a long time and often went to see Meyerhold on Bryusov Lane.

January 28th - the article “Muddle not Music” in the newspaper “Pravda” about the opera “Lady Macbeth”.
February 6th - “Falseness in Ballet” in the newspaper “Pravda”.
November 23rd - Shostakovich cancels the premiere of Symphony No.4.
Birth of daughter Galina.

January 28, 1936, Archangelsk

“‘Lady Macbeth’ was being performed. Comrade Stalin and Comrades Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov were present...”

“’Lady Macbeth’ is enjoying great success among the bourgeois public abroad. Perhaps the reason for its success with the bourgeois audiences is that the music is muddled and absolutely apolitical?...”

April 12, 1936

“I feel one has to have courage not just to kill off one’s own compositions but also to come to their defence... The main thing is honesty. But will I have enough honesty and for how long...”

January 28, 1936, Archangelsk

“I came to Moscow on the 26th. <...> ‘Lady Macbeth’ was being performed. Comrade Stalin and Comrades Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov were present. The performance went well. After it the author was called up on stage (by the audience) and I came out to take a few bows... Down at heart... I went to the station... My mood is not of the best.”

“Certain theatres are presenting to the now culturally mature Soviet public Shostakovich’s opera ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ as the latest innovation and as a great achievement. Docile music critics are praising it to the skies and building up a glorious reputation for it. The young composer pays heed only to the rapturous compliments instead of the solid and serious criticism, which might help him in his future work. Right from the start of the opera a deliberately dissonant and muddled flow of sound is hurled at the listener. Scraps of tune, wisps of musical phrases are drowned, scooped up again, only to disappear in the din, the crunch and the squeaking. It is difficult to follow this ‘music’, it is impossible to remember it.
<...> This is music deliberately made ‘topsy-turvy’ so that nothing should resemble operas of the classical kind... This is contrived sophistication, which might end in a sorry impasse.
‘Lady Macbeth’ is enjoying success among the bourgeois public abroad. Perhaps the reason for its success with the bourgeois audiences is that is that the music is muddled and absolutely apolitical?”

February 7, 1936
(Top Secret)

“To Comrade Stalin and Comrade Molotov.
Today I was paid a visit (on his own initiative) by the composer Shostakovich.
In answer to my question as to what conclusions he had drawn for himself from the article in ‘Pravda’ he replied that he wished to demonstrate through his creative work that he has accepted the directives in the editorial.
When I asked if he fully agreed with the criticism of his work, he said that he did agree with most of it, but had not yet fully grasped all of it...
I instructed him to free himself from the influence of certain docile critics like Sollertinsky, who encourage the worst aspects of his work stemming from the influence of western Expressionists...
I advised him to follow the example of Rimsky-Korsakov and travel through villages of the Soviet Union and write down folk-songs from Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Georgia and select and arrange the Hundred Best among them. This suggestion appealed to him and he said that he would do this.
I proposed that next time he started to compose an opera or a ballet he should send us the libretto and that, while engaged in such work, he should try out some completed pieces in front of an audience of workers and collective-farmers.
He asked me to let you know that Soviet composers would like very much to meet with Comrade Stalin for a discussion.”

February 15, 1936, Leningrad

“I feel all right. I am carefully reading newspaper cuttings, which I am receiving in great numbers. Tomorrow I shall get a piano and that makes me happy. I shall be playing and composing the third part of a symphony... I am sitting at home most of the time. I am settling into the flat. I hardly see anybody because I want to be on my own and have some peace.”

April 12, 1936, Leningrad

“I have recently suffered a lot and done a good deal of thinking. So far I have reached the following conclusion: inspite of all her great flaws I cannot bring myself to slit Lady Macbeth’s throat. Its perfectly possible that I am in the wrong and that I actually lack the courage to do so. I feel one has to have courage not just to kill off one’s own compositions but also to come to their defence. Since the second option is impossible and useless now, I am not doing anything about it. Be that as it may, I am still thinking hard and a great deal about everything that has happened. The main thing is honesty. But will I have enough honesty and for how long? If you ever hear that I have ‘disassociated’ myself from ‘Lady Macbeth’ you should know that I would have done it utterly honestly. I think, though, that this will not happen for a very long time. Not for a good five or six years. Mine is not an agile mind and I am very honest in my work.”

June 12, 1936, Leningrad

“The birth went fine. A marvellous daughter. We shall probably call her Galina.”

July 14, 1936, Melnichii Ruchei

“I am still feeling very despondent. I don’t want to compose. Just for fun I have written a literary work. A short story. I have already flushed it down the toilet. I enjoyed the activity though and so I plan to continue. That’s all nonsense by the way.”

September 8, 1936, Odessa

“I’m not working on anything at the moment. I think I shall rest for a bit. On the other hand how can one rest with an aching heart. I am mustering all my reserves of optimism and that’s how I cope...”

September 13, 1936, Odessa

“Life is fine. My mood is not too good and getting worse. My wounds won’t heal. That’s not the main thing though.”

September 13, 1936
V. Meyerhold:

“Dear friend! Be brave! Be of good cheer! Don’t give in to despair!
Shtidri told me that soon your new symphony is going to be performed in Leningrad. I shall do everything in my power to get to this concert in Leningrad. I am sure that after listening to your new composition you will once more throw yourself into the battle on behalf of new monumental music and that your spleen will evaporate as you work.”

September 23, 1936

“The performance of my Fourth Symphony is planned for Decmeber 11th. As you probably gathered I am shaking with fear...
The time has come for the money problems to hit me, which I had been expecting ever since the historic days after January 29, 1936. Whereas I used to earn 10-12,000 a month, now I hardly make 2,000-3,000. <...> I am not losing heart but one has to economize on everything. We have to go without a good deal. This does not frighten me. What does frighten me is having to take on commissions. We’ll cope somehow.”

October 14, 1936, Leningrad

“We are all getting on quietly and rather well. My little daughter is healthy. She is growing, putting on weight and happy. She is sweet and happy, but full of mischief. The most important thing is that her stomach functions as it should. <...>
I have not been in Moscow for a long time and don’t know what’s going on there in the musical world.”

M. Gorky
(from a letter to J. Stalin):

“Shostakovich is a young man of about 25 undoubtedly talented, but very self-confident and very nervous. The article in ‘Pravda’ hit him like a ton of bricks and the fellow is very down. <...> ‘Muddle’, but why? Where is the ‘muddle’ and how is it expressed? In a case like this the critics need to provide a technical assessment of Shostakovich’s music. But what the ‘Pravda’ article did was to encourage a pack of mediocre hacks to harass Shostakovich at every turn. The attitude to him, as expressed in ‘Pravda’, cannot in any way be termed ‘caring’, whereas he deserves a ‘caring’ attitude as one of the most talented of all contemporary Soviet musicians.”

Irina Shostakovich,
the composer’s widow:

“He never tried to seek revenge from anyone for what they had said about him and, in my view, this was the most appropriate behaviour, because the impact this had on people was much stronger, than if he had taken some kind of action against them. At any rate, I know that some of his revilers later on turned into passionate supporters and admirers and sincerely regretted their previous behaviour.
No, Shostakovich never tried to take revenge for the evil done to him, never. That was the line he took and, moreover, he deliberately went out of his way to do good and to help people wherever he could and this was another important principle of his.
Before the premiere of the Fourteenth Symphony, at the dress rehearsal, Shostakovich made a speech and started by quoting a famous phrase from N. Ostrovsky: ’Life is given us only once’. He rounded off the phrase in a rather unusual way: ’Life is given us only once and it must be lived honestly, decently and without evil deeds.”