Soviets Condemn Shostakovich’s Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The condemnation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was a landmark in Soviet cultural history, drawing worldwide attention and leading to the oppression of other Soviet artists.

Summary of Event

In January of 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich was only thirty years old and had already achieved world fame as a leading Soviet composer. At that time, he was in the city of Archangelsk on a concert tour, buoyed by the recent successes of his opera Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda (1930-1932; Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District). On January 28, he went to the railroad station to buy a copy of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party. He opened the paper and was shocked to read a scathing editorial condemning his opera. It was a turning point in his life and for the future of Soviet culture as a whole. [kw]Soviets Condemn Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Jan. 28, 1936) [kw]Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Soviets Condemn (Jan. 28, 1936)[Shostakovichs Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Soviets Condemn (Jan. 28, 1936)] [kw]Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Soviets Condemn Shostakovich’s (Jan. 28, 1936) Opera;Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Shostakovich) Music;opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Shostakovich) Theater;opera [g]Russia;Jan. 28, 1936: Soviets Condemn Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District[09130] [c]Music;Jan. 28, 1936: Soviets Condemn Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District[09130] [c]Theater;Jan. 28, 1936: Soviets Condemn Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District[09130] Shostakovich, Dmitri Stalin, Joseph Leskov, Nikolai

Shostakovich was born in 1906 in St. Petersburg. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, he became a child of the new Soviet state, and his hometown was renamed Leningrad. As a boy, Shostakovich exhibited great musical talent and studied at the Leningrad Conservatory. He composed his first symphony at the age of nineteen, and the work was premiered in the West to great acclaim. Shostakovich was the first Soviet composer who came of age after the revolution to become world famous. Symphonies, ballets, film scores, and incidental music followed. His first opera, Nos (1927-1928; The Nose), was based on a satire of czarist Russia by the novelist Nikolai Gogol.

Shostakovich was an indefatigable worker and versatile composer. By 1929, he had evolved a style that was dazzling, pungent, lyrical, ironic, and haunting—in a word, unique. His musical idols were Ludwig van Beethoven, Modest Mussorgsky, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, and innovative Western composers of the 1920’s such as Alban Berg.

Dmitri Shostakovich.

(Library of Congress)

His fame assured and his individuality seemingly unthreatened, Shostakovich in 1930 began to write a tetralogy of feminist operas about the struggles of Russian women. The tetralogy was modeled on Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs. The first opera would portray the misery of women under the old regime, the second would present revolutionary women who helped to overthrow the czars, and the third and fourth would celebrate the triumph of the new Soviet heroine of the future.

Only the first opera was to be completed. Shostakovich chose for his story of oppressed Russian womanhood the short nineteenth century novel Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda (1865; Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, 1922) by the Russian classical writer Nikolai Leskov. Shostakovich was also inspired by the operatic models of Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) and Alban Berg’s expressionist and atonal opera Wozzeck (1925). Both explored important social problems and stormy relationships between men and women.

Leskov’s novel is somewhat reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert’s great work Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886) in its exploration of an intelligent, frustrated woman in a narrow provincial society. Katerina Izmaylova is the wife of a boring merchant in a small, provincial Russian town of the 1840’s. Stifled by her existence, she takes a young lover, Sergei, poisons her father-in-law after he discovers her unfaithfulness, strangles her husband with the assistance of Sergei, and is sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia along with her lover. When Sergei becomes unfaithful to Katerina in Siberia, Katerina kills his new mistress and herself, and the story ends.

Shostakovich was captivated and inspired by this theme. He composed his opera from 1930 to 1932 and dedicated it to his future wife, Nina Varzar, with whom he had a stormy romance during that period. Shostakovich wrote a lengthy commentary on the opera in which he spelled out his intentions. He intended the drama to be a “tragic satire,” prompting some to liken his musical style to the content of the profound novels of Fyodor Dostoevski retold by the comic actor Charles Chaplin. He also strove to create a Marxist opera in which he would portray Katerina as a victim of a rotten bourgeois society that has corrupted her, leading to her self-destruction and the destruction of others.

Shostakovich played a key role in writing the libretto. He departed from Leskov’s story in four major respects. First, the opera was much more a satire on the middle-class, patriarchal society of nineteenth century Russia than the novel had been. Second, Shostakovich incorporated a new episode, a pointed satire on police corruption and arbitrary behavior, into the third act. Third, Katerina was treated sympathetically as a heroic victim of circumstance, despite her adulterous and violent behavior. Finally, the inhuman conditions of penal servitude in Siberia were vividly depicted.

The music and the orchestra were given special prominence to sustain the story line, and the music flowed without interruption. In the manner of the work of expressionist composers, the music indulged in violent contrasts between lyricism and dissonance and employed unusual effects to produce violent contrast, heighten emotions, and create effects of irony, crudity, and realism. Katerina alone was given lyrical solos to heighten her individuality and her tragic plight. The music also daringly attempted to describe the erotic behavior of the principal characters.

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District received its premiere on January 22, 1934, in Leningrad, and was produced later that year in Moscow. It was a resounding success, receiving eighty-three performances in Leningrad and ninety-seven in Moscow in just two seasons. Soviet writers hailed it as a great triumph of Soviet culture and a piercing satire of middle-class society. By 1935, it was introduced to the major cities of Europe and was premiered in Cleveland and New York. On the whole, Western critics viewed the work favorably, although there was some division of opinion. Some called it a masterpiece of true social criticism and dramatic intensity, whereas others were put off by its violence, unusual musical effects, and erotic themes.

The Soviet political and cultural scene, however, was changing rapidly. The relatively free, experimental period of the 1920’s in culture and the economy was coming to an abrupt end. From 1929 to 1933, the Soviet Union experienced a “second revolution from above” that took the form of forced collectivization of agriculture, rapid industrialization, and the use of state-sponsored terror and forced labor to ensure obedience and conformity. By 1932, the official doctrine of “Socialist Realism” imposed drab, optimistic formulas in art and literature, and newly organized writers’ and composers’ unions regimented the arts through the supremacy of Communist bureaucrats.

By 1936, Joseph Stalin had become the absolute dictator of the Soviet Union, personally intervening in all state-supervised areas of Soviet life and imposing his views and his will. When he visited the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in January of 1936 and heard Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the fate of Soviet music, and of Soviet culture as a whole, was sealed.


Stalin left the Bolshoi Theater in a rage, offended by the dissonance, stark realism, eroticism, and tragic theme of the opera. In addition, he was upset by the satirical attack on the police, which he interpreted as an affront to himself. His control of the police was a vital source of his immense power and a weapon of the terror he was unleashing against Soviet society.

The now-famous vehement editorial in Pravda followed the next day, on January 28. The long article was titled “Chaos Instead of Music.” It condemned Shostakovich as a bourgeois “formalist” and the opera as filled with “an intentionally ungainly, muddled flood of sounds [that] drown, escape, and drown once more in crashing, gnashing, and screeching.” The success of the opera in the West was attributed to its appeal to the depraved tastes of the bourgeoisie. The article warned Shostakovich that things “could end very badly.” A week later, a second editorial in Pravda condemned Shostakovich’s 1935 ballet The Limpid Stream. Nevertheless, the first editorial gave Shostakovich an opportunity to redeem himself: Pravda recognized his great talent and his ability to express strong and direct emotions in music. The article was unsigned, meaning that it reflected the views of the highest officials in the party. Some scholars think that much of the article was written by Stalin himself.

Shostakovich was shattered. He was certain that he would be arrested, for this was a time when arrests and executions were commonplace. He kept a suitcase at the ready that contained warm underwear and a sturdy pair of shoes. He could not sleep. This frightening episode cast a shadow over the rest of his life. His anxiety was increased by his friendships with other persecuted avant-garde cultural figures.

Shostakovich was shunned. His works were no longer performed, and friends who saw him on the street would cross to the other side to avoid meeting him. Still, he was allowed to continue teaching. He discreetly withdrew his completed Fourth Symphony and started working on his Fifth Symphony, which would rehabilitate him, a work so successful that when it premiered in November, 1937, it received a forty-minute ovation.

Why was Shostakovich not arrested or executed, as were so many other great Soviet cultural figures? First, he was well known in the West as a product of the revolution and a great Soviet artist. Ironically, most Westerners saw him as a committed Communist, although his Communist critics attacked him as a bourgeois formalist. Nevertheless, it could be argued that his notoriety made him even more vulnerable. Second, Shostakovich had written three very popular film scores prior to 1934. Stalin loved films as a form of relaxation and appreciated the potential for propaganda and self-glorification that the medium had to offer. Finally, Stalin might have used Shostakovich as an example of an artist who would recant, a model for others. Subsequently, Stalin heaped both rewards and humiliations on the beleaguered composer.

The major significance of the condemnation of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District lay in the powerful warning it sent to all Soviet cultural figures to abandon innovation and to toe the new line of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism The government also seized on the opera to mechanize and regiment Soviet cultural life. Shostakovich thus became a test case and a living example of what could happen to a modernist, experimental artist. The condemnation of Shostakovich was followed by a flood of directives controlling every area of cultural life.

The attack on Shostakovich increased the use of two favorite Soviet code words, “formalism” and “Socialist Realism.” “Formalism” denoted abstraction, symbolism, and experimentation. Stalin liked opera as well as film. After attending a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, he formulated certain guidelines to be followed for opera, guidelines that illuminated the meaning of “Socialist Realism.” Opera, said Stalin, should be optimistic in content, should be filled with simple folk melodies, and should glorify the Soviet system and even the Russian past.

The impact of the condemnation of Shostakovich on the composer’s style is still a matter of debate. Some Western critics have argued that his innovative, dashing style of the 1920’s was ruined by the incident and that he retreated into stilted formulas and mannerisms. Until the death of Stalin, Soviet critics argued that Shostakovich’s style had matured into serious and disciplined art, although he continued to be taken to task from time to time. Shostakovich’s posthumously published memoirs, however, make it apparent that he became a kind of secret dissident, eliminating the blatant themes of modernism but using tragic and satirical themes in a critical musical language, at the same time continuing to write film scores and popular works to placate the regime.

In 1958, during the more liberal period of de-Stalinization, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was revised; the new version was performed in 1963. Shostakovich retitled the opera Katerina Izmaylova and slightly revised the score and libretto. This time the somewhat changed conditions in both the Soviet Union and the West enabled the opera to be judged more from a musical and dramatic standpoint than from an ideological one, and critics hailed it as the greatest Russian opera since Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama of 1890. The verdict of 1936 was thus reversed, and, in this instance, art outlived tyranny. Opera;Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Shostakovich) Music;opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Shostakovich) Theater;opera

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fay, Laurel E. Shostakovich: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Comprehensive biography draws extensively on Shostakovich’s correspondence and other primary documents, such as concert programs and reviews. Includes list of works, glossary of names, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Shostakovich and His World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Collection of essays on Shostakovich as well as some of his personal correspondence and other documents that shed light on his life and creative process. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leskov, Nikolai. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In Six Great Russian Short Novels, edited by Randall Jarrell. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Useful edition of the short novel on which Shostakovich’s opera was based, with a fine introduction by Jarrell. Necessary reading for an understanding of the opera.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDonald, Ian. The New Shostakovich. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990. Excellent volume on Shostakovich’s life and work clarifies misconceptions about the composer in the West. Argues that Shostakovich was losing faith in communism at the time he wrote Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and afterward adopted strategies to evade censorship while at the same time composing great music to memorialize the sufferings of the Soviet people. Includes photographs and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwarz, Boris. Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1972. Excellent survey of the period, with fine sections on the episode of the condemnation of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Provides valuable insights into the political and social conditions of the period that affected Shostakovich’s music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shostakovich, Dmitri, and A. Preis. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Or, Katerina Izmailova. Translated by Edward Downe. New York: G. Schirmer, 1983. Clear, attractive translation of the English libretto that captures the essence of the spicy Russian original.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volkov, Solomon, ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. 1979. Reprint. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Limelight, 2000. Valuable source on the life and work of Shostakovich by a friend who pieced together many of their conversations, mostly from the period 1970-1974. Shostakovich emerges as a secret dissident, outraged by the sufferings caused by the Soviet regime. Posits the interesting theory that Shostakovich was in the tradition of the Russian yurodivy, the artist-saints of Russian history who fought tyranny with their spiritual strength. Includes excellent photographs.

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Categories: History