Against Totalitarianism: The Fate of a Great Artist

A Documentary Film, The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin

Translator: MOS Translation Group – AnnaYu, Parrot, Wenya621

The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin

In the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule, everyone had to adhere to the totalitarian system. If one wanted to retain his own true feelings and attempt to express them, he could face imminent disasters at any time. Dmitri Shostakovich, a prominent composer of Soviet Union, had been living like  treading  on thin ice during his entire life because he could not help expressing the satire of the tyrant in his works all the time. On the other hand, his relatives and friends who had been persecuted and vanished kept him in deep depression. The documentary film, The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin, precisely narrates the process of the confrontation between a talented artist and the totalitarian force. Such confrontation damaged Shostakovich’s health, eroded his life, interfered with his creativity, and cost him extremely. But this is the fate of a great artist, like what his friend stated.  

Shostakovich is very gifted. His First Symphony, written at the age of 19, achieved fame in the world. However, in 1936, Stalin abruptly left the theater while watching Shostakovich’s popular opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The anti-Shostakovich campaign in the official media followed, forcing him to give up the creation of operas from then on. This was a heavy blow to the young and exuberant Shostakovich, who said he was a child before but a criminal after being criticized.

Nevertheless, Shostakovich did not give up on his art. The Fourth Symphony which he wrote in the same year remained what he did. Shostakovich knew, of course, that Stalin wanted artists to work for him. As a composer under Soviet Union’s dictatorship, he must glorify his leader using his works. Stalin did not find what he was looking for in Shostakovich’s symphonies, instead found the composer’s exploration of personality and his doubt and irony of reality. This was intolerable. Shostakovich was forced to withdraw the symphony from the public and began composing film music for Soviet Union mainstream movies instead. 

The documentary used footage from the Soviet film The Fall of Berlin, a film created with Stalin’s direct participation, which showed Stalin himself in an extremely ridiculous and overly flattering way. The music in this movie that Shostakovich was forced to compose for, like countless other mediocre works processed on a workshop assembly line at that time, completely lost itself. A great artist was compelled to bow his proud head under Stalin’s terrifying authority.

But the immense suffering of the Soviets during the Siege of Leningrad reignited Shostakovich’s enthusiasm for composition— Besieged Leningrad was trembling in hunger and harsh freezing weather—he dedicated his Symphony No,7 to Leningrad. As the symphony was performing, the sense of hope, dignity and the joy of life were instantly brought back to the audiences of Leningrad . The documentary film “The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin” interviewed the musicians and the audiences who attended that performance, which all of them were in their twilight years, but memories of the scene brought a tender smile to their faces. Despite the fact that almost half of the orchestra’s musicians had died of starvation and freezing weather, those who were still among the living dragged their sick and frail bodies with their dusty instruments participating in that performance; the audience endured hunger and jammed the Philharmonic Hall. When the music started, many people burst into tears. It is an indelible concert in people’s memory, and forever living in the history of music of mankind’s struggle against suffering.

Audiences who watch this documentary will be moved by its famously stirring melody, even if they are not fond of symphony, even if they have not heard it yet. The documentary “The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin” filmed in the hall where the Seventh Symphony was performed during the siege, with the rhythm of the music, the camera moved through the hall, past the rows of seats, and reached  the zenith in an increasingly exuberant melody. This symphony is an ode to mankind, to  praise the “greatest men” who do not succumb to violence and terror, and a faith and affirmation of the triumph of the soul over evil. As the Russian conductor Gergiev, who conducted the symphony in the documentary, says, you don’t have to be the General Secretary of the Communist Party to be powerful, Shostakovich is not a great politician but a mighty artist, in fact, he is more powerful than any politician.

In the film, Shostakovich’s friends and daughter all mentioned the composer’s increasingly gloomy character. In his late memoir “Testimony”, Shostakovich mentioned that he was forced to write and sing, just like someone forced you to laugh with a whip. No matter how desperate reality is, everyone must show joy. This memoir reflects Shostakovich’s sobriety, witty, and sharp linguistic style. The monologues in the documentary film The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin are taken from this memoir, where the composer himself describes his situation and brings us into his inner world.

This documentary attracted me  to watch it over and over again because the director’s use of Shostakovich’s own work in the film was so brilliant. To show off his will to power, Stalin was fond of grand parades. Out of that atmosphere of centralized rule, it is unbelievable for today’s viewers to see people staging such ridiculous parades to please the ruler. But the video footage of the event shows people trying to smile genuinely and trying to make stiff and standardized gestures. The director of the documentary has carefully selected clips from Shostakovich’s symphonies to accompany these images. In the absurd melodies and eccentric orchestrations, the parade becomes a comic performance, just as human stupidity provides a feast for Satan.

The film begins with a quote from Shostakovich: “I refuse to think that every Russian is a fool, everyone said I didn’t know then, I didn’t understand, we believed in Stalin, we were cruelly cheated. I am very angry with these people, and of course, they understand. How could they not understand? This is a war against them.” Under Stalin’s rule, at least 30 million innocent lives were lost. It was a war waged by a centralized tyrant to destroy human flesh, dignity, values, ideas, and all human culture. The tyrant’s empire finally fell in 1989 in response. But the evil ghosts have been wandering around the world until today. This is what it means for us to look back on that period of history again. Shostakovich used his music to tell us that in the abyss of enslavement, people value freedom more than anything else. And the road to freedom comes at a great cost.

Editor: Mr. Z ; Brain Sanitizer | Posted By: Mr. Z


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