Shostakovich and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District
This program is a direct link to a time of unprecedented upheaval in Russian and Soviet culture, reflecting tectonic changes in society, politics, philosophy and economics. The opera, ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ nearly cost its 28-year-old composer, Dimitri Dimitrevich Shostakovich, his life.
The opera opened in late January 1934 to generally positive reviews. It was undoubtedly modern and bold in its musical arrangements, imagery and subject matter. It was performed over 200 times in the next two years all over the USSR and abroad in both New York and London. Demand for tickets was so great that in Moscow alone there were three separate theatres each showing their own production in January 1936.
The performance at the Bolshoi Theatre on January 26th. of that year was attended by Shostakovich. The audience also included a group of government officials, among them – Stalin. He and his entourage did not stay to see the climactic scene, but flounced out of the hall early in a state of socialist indignation. The behaviour of the beloved leader was worthy of an operetta of its own.
Two days later, an anonymous article appeared in Pravda. It tore the opera to pieces from every point of view. The composer was saddened and worried. Ten days after that, a further piece appeared, this time attacking a ballet by Shostakovich. The worry became a persistent fear of imminent arrest, torture and death.
The denunciation of the composer and his high-profile, popular work signified the start of Stalin’s Great Terror. Until the end of the decade, many of the leading figures of Soviet culture were thrown into labour camps with little chance of survival or simply wiped out by the over-worked executioners. Members of Shostakovich’s family, close personal friends and artistic collaborators vanished.
The cover of the program is gloomy, one may say almost funerial in its style. It suits the subject of the opera well, because it is concerned with cruelty, betrayal and death. The graphic is also unknowingly prophetic of the era of oppression to which this opera provided the overture.
Shostakovich in the words of his contemporary
Page 3 of the program contains shows a picture of the composer and the following tribute:
Dimitri Shostakovich belongs to the generation of composers whose creativity was formed exclusively in the post-October era. His debut into the world of ‘big music’ was on the 12th of May 1926, when the symphony written by the young man was performed for the first time at the Leningrad Philharmonia. Since then, seven or so years have passed. Shostakovich was able to stand up and be counted alongside the leading composers of the Soviet Union. With every new work he poses serious questions with unfailing sharpness of mind and talent.
In the wonderful 1977 documentary ‘The War Symphonies, Shostakovich against Stalin’, (available to watch online here), Valeri Gergiev, the great Russian conductor, commented on the clash between Shostakovich and Stalin:
‘You don’t have to be the General Secretary of the Communist Party to finally appear to be a very powerful man. He was not a powerful politician – he just was a powerful artist – in fact, more powerful than all politicians.’
In 1996, to mark the 90th. anniversary of the birth of Shostakovich, the opera was performed in Moscow, conducted by Rostropovich. The program for that evening reproduces a photo of its counterpart from 1934. The original in the QED Rarities collection is in significantly better condition than the one in the picture.