Mention the name Shostakovitch to many music lovers and they will often respond with such phrases as “doom and gloom music” or “soviet bombast” and it has to be admitted that some of his music does contain elements of all these.
Someone once described his eighth symphony in the following way “if I was on the verge of suicide, listening to the eighth would just about tip me over the edge.” At the other end of the scale you have pieces like “Festival Overture” written to satisfy the soviet authorities demand for “soviet realism” in musical works.
In 1934 Shostakovich had released a new opera, called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Based on a lurid story, it combined vivid and exciting music with graphic violence and sexuality — and it was an instant hit. Over the next two years, it was performed almost 200 times in Leningrad and Moscow, and was produced on stages from London to New York to Argentina. Early in 1936, three different productions of the opera were being staged in Moscow alone.
Then the bottom fell out. In January of 1936, a delegation of Soviet officials, including Joseph Stalin, attended the opera at the Bolshoi — and reportedly walked out before the final act even began. Almost immediately, an article appeared in the government newspaper Pravda, denouncing the opera. It was unsigned, but many think it originated with Stalin himself.
The denunciation put Shostakovich under extreme pressure, and he feared not just for his freedom, but perhaps his life, as well. He responded by quickly composing his more traditional and approachable Fifth Symphony, which he called “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.”
Shostakovich never completed another opera, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk vanished almost completely until the 1960s, when it reappeared in a new, less controversial version. Today, that revision is no longer necessary, and the original score is heard and admired for what it is — a devastating yet beautiful drama, filled with music and messages that stay with the listener long after the curtain falls.
One of the areas of music that Shostakovich wrote for was the film industry, and he wrote the whole Suite of music for the Russian movie adaptation of the Ethel Lilian Voynich book ‘The Gadfly‘, that movie being released in 1955, and rarely, if at all, seen outside of Russia. The author Ethel Voynich was in fact a short term mistress of Sidney Reilly, who ‘bared his soul’ to her during the affair. Voynich then composed a fictional novel based loosely around the life of Sidney Reilly. There is the usual conjecture that both novels on Reilly, the fictional book by Voynich, and the factual account by Lockhart are in fact not all that close to the actual life of Reilly, but the two books, and the Shostakovich music are closely bound together, and the fact that this Shostakovich piece of music was used for the BBC mini series has probably escaped a lot of people (Reilly, Ace of Spies).
If you want a very pleasant surprise then give a listen to Nicola Benedetti playing the “Romance” from the suite at the Proms in 2012 and I will almost guarantee that you will say “I have heard that somewhere before………….”