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Creative Wages of Tyranny

Screening: 'The War Symphonies' film looks at composer Dmitri Shostakovich's life under and influence beyond the Stalin years in the Soviet Union.


For most of his life, composer Dmitri Shostakovich lived in a Soviet Union that was rapidly becoming--in the words of current Kirov Orchestra conductor Valery Gergiev--"one concentration camp."

How he survived and what his music meant to other Soviet citizens is vividly portrayed in Larry Weinstein's 1997 film "The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin."

The film will be screened twice Thursday at the Orange County Museum of Art under the sponsorship of the Philharmonic Society. Admission is free. Seating is limited.

The film covers events from 1936 to the death of Stalin in 1953. Thus the "war" of the title is not World War II so much as the composer's constant struggle during the regime of the Soviet tyrant.

Archival footage--including of the composer playing the piano--alternates with contemporary interviews of Shostakovich's colleagues and friends.

Symphonic excerpts are conducted with blazing authority by Gergiev, who also speaks about the composer.

"You beat, you punish [the strings]," demands Gergiev of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic during a rehearsal of the Fourth Symphony. Shostakovich withdrew this work after his opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" had been denounced in 1936 by Pravda, the national newspaper of the Communist Party.

The Fourth Symphony, written about the same time, "was a prophetic vision," says Gergiev, who leads his Kirov Orchestra at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa on Nov. 14, though there is no Shostakovich on the program.

In the Fourth, Gergiev says, Shostakovich "was telling the whole world about [the] coming tragedy of the years of Stalin . . . and the coming deaths of millions of people."

That work was not performed until 1962--after Stalin's death.

What Shostakovich's music meant to Soviet citizens can be gleaned from excerpts in the film:

"Finally, we have heard the music which we wanted to hear," says musicologist Marina Sabinia, recalling the triumphant premiere of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in 1937.

"This was a real symphony which we lived," says Tatiana Vasilyeva, remembering the premiere of Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony (No. 7 in C) in 1941. "This was our symphony. Leningrad's."

Despite popular support for his symphonies, Shostakovich came into conflict with Stalin's government. Two years later, Shostakovich wrote: "My Eighth Symphony has been declared counterrevolutionary and anti-Soviet."

Composer Veniamin Basner recounts how the composer was once summoned to KGB headquarters on a Saturday. He was told to mull over a denunciation of others and return on Monday at noon.

" 'It was clear I had fallen into this bloody wheel,' " Basner recalls Shostakovich telling him.


Shostakovich decided to denounce no one. When Shostakovich returned as ordered, suitcase in hand and ready to be arrested, he found that the investigator had been arrested the previous day. Shostakovich went home.

"I think all this [talk of Shostakovich's fear] has been terribly exaggerated," says composer Tikhon Khrennikov,, 48 years after he denounced Shostakovich and other Soviet composers at the First National Congress of Composers in Moscow in 1948. "There was nothing for him to be afraid of."

"All were afraid," counters composer Vladimir Rubin. "We were programmed with it, it infiltrated our innermost life."

Shostakovich, who died in 1975, survived in part because Stalin considered him an excellent film composer. The dictator took control of the Soviet film industry and insisted upon films being made to glorify him. An excerpt from "The Fall of Berlin," made in 1949, serves as a sample.

Shostakovich wrote the score, one of 40 he composed.

Stalin's musical taste, however, was none too good. The film includes a performance of "Suliko," a bland folk song that was Stalin's favorite. Shostakovich bitterly and dangerously parodied it in "Rayok," a 1948 setting for three singers that was suppressed. It is, in part, in the film.


The film, winner of the 1998 jury award at the 16th International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal, also includes footage of political prisoners being transported to labor camps. Newsreel footage depicts Olympic-style parades glorifying Stalin.

Be warned: It also includes footage of executions during Stalin's repeated purges as well as of mass graves of starvation victims during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.

Although Shostakovich's daughter, Galina, appears in the film to talk about her father, his son, Maxim, is conspicuous by his absence.

Maxim, who defected in 1981, will conduct the Pacific Symphony in his father's Tenth Symphony on Dec. 9 and 10 at the Performing Arts Center. The other major Dmitri Shostakovich performance coming to the county will also be his Tenth Symphony, played by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic on Jan. 8 at the center. The Kirov and New York Phil concerts are sponsored by the Philharmonic Society.

Neither of the conductors could be reached for comment.

In addition to the interviews, film director Weinstein has relied upon Elizabeth Wilson's 1994 biography "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered" (Faber and Faber).

Not listed in the credits is Solomon Volkov or his contested 1979 book, "Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich" (Harper and Row), although many of the Shostakovich quotes read in the film by Grahem Haley also appear in Volkov's book.

While there is still controversy about the degree to which Shostakovich was a collaborator or a dissident, the musical examples tell a pretty clear story.

"My symphonies are tombstones," Shostakovich wrote in 1943.

Listening to them, you will find it hard to disagree.

* "The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin" will be screened in Lyons Hall at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. 7 and 9 p.m. The screenings are sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. Free. (949) 553-2422.

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