The City of the Dead: Musical Populism and Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”

In which death threats are made through the newspaper, cities are bombed from the air, and the bourgeois such as myself perpetuate their elitist nonsense.


To my dear reader,

One morning, four years before he was to complete his famous seventh symphony, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich opened a Leningrad newspaper and suspected that his death was imminent. There on the page was a condemnation of his recent, dark, musically tumultuous opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, written by none other than Russia’s tyrannical communist leader Joseph Stalin. Repulsed by the opera’s dissonant musical language and the depiction of something other than carefree communism, Stalin called the opera elitist, bourgeois garbage, and demanded a public apology from Shostakovich – effectively, a threat on Shostakovich’s life. As Stalin saw it, the composer’s work was inaccessible to the masses, and thus against communism’s principles, and anything that stood in the way of those principles should be removed at any cost.

I learned of this from M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Leningrad Symphony, and of the many books I’ve read in the past few months, it was the most upsetting. That is not to say that I disliked this clear, insightful book, but rather that every time I read some of it, it literally upset me. I could only read a few pages before having to put the book down to go do something that made me want to cry uncontrollably/punch someone less. Anderson’s book upset me so much because it was an account of the heartbreaking birth and reception of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony.

The symphony gained worldwide fame because Shostakovich completed it while trapped in Leningrad, under siege by Hitler. After Shostakovich announced its completion, the Russian government smuggled the musical score out to the British and American governments. With performances of this symphony, written in war-torn Russia by this internationally beloved composer, Russia hoped to encourage sympathy in Brits and Americans, so they might join forces with Russia against Hitler. Despite the West’s mistrust of Stalin, the scheme eventually succeeded, and the rest is history.

There are already many upsetting things happening here. Hitler, for one, is upsetting. War is upsetting. Starving to death while trapped in a crumbling city as armed forces hammer away at the walls between you and them is upsetting. What really, upset me, however, was the horror that Shostakovich and his fellow Russians endured under Stalin before World War II had even begun. Driven by a manic combination of paranoia, greed and bloodlust, Stalin had already gutted his country’s economy, military and agriculture, systematically killing what historians estimate to be 20 million people during his reign.

If not for the populist power of Shostakovich’s celebrity, Americans and Brits might never have joined forces with the Russia against Hitler. Stalin also, however, endorsed populism in the years preceding World War, and this was, in ways, central to the communism he championed. The will of the working masses (the proletariat) was to rule, and art was to reflect the real struggles of their lives. In truth, Stalin didn’t want an actual reflection of the mass’ struggles, which would depict the brutality he inflicted upon them. Nevertheless, this populist sentiment flourished then, as it often does now.

As upsetting as this all may be, I can distantly sympathize with such populism.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a starving peasant under the unsympathetic rule of the Czar, and all that you know of art is that fancy people in pearls and expensive furs enjoy it. (If this is your actual life experience, know that I am deeply sorry.) It’s not a reflection of a life you know; it’s a masturbatory act by the wealthy that you despise. For many non-musicians today hearing contemporary art/academic music such as Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, what they hear is a bizarre racket. When the bourgeois tells them that the composer is embracing postmodern irony… by inserting tonal instability … as representative of the chaotic effects of sexuality on industrialized society… these concepts will seem elitist, and this music will seem out of touch with ordinary people.

There’s an irony to this. I’m a college graduate with a degree in classical music. I compose music and write stories full of contemporary, cerebral twists and turns, some of which are not only inaccessible, but may be downright off-putting. I write a blog analyzing music and commenting on its musicological, social, and political implications. Who’s got two thumbs and is an example of the elitist bourgeois?


This kid.

Despite this, I can see reasoning for populism.

I don’t believe that populism should dictate art. I do believe that everyone deserves to see a reflection of their lives somewhere in the art around them. I also believe that much “high” art runs the risk of being so wrapped up in its own desperation to be clever and ground-breaking that it fails to see that some people do, in fact, have real problems (read: you’re a starving peasant under the unsympathetic rule of the Czar). Stalin was a monster, but, in this case, I can understand what he claims to be his reasoning for populism.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert


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