My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.
In order for the artist to have a world to express he must first be situated in this world, oppressed or oppressing, resigned or rebellious, a man among men.
-Simone de Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity
In January 1934, Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” had its world premiere in Leningrad and was embraced by audiences and critics alike. The opera, born out of the complex power relations of 1930s Soviet Russia, tells the story of a lonely, suppressed woman who falls in love with one of her abusive husband’s workers and is driven to murder. It is steeped in violence, sexuality, and the macabre. The opera played for hundreds of performances and became so renowned that Josef Stalin, leader of the Communist party, attended a performance in 1936. But, disgusted by what he saw, Stalin did not stay for the whole performance. The next day, Shostakovich awoke to find his previously hailed “national treasure” vilified and condemned in Pravda, the state newspaper. Soon after, he was denounced as a composer and the authorities began to monitor his activities. At this time, it was very common for Soviet artists, viewed as subversive and in opposition to the cultural values of the Communist party, to be exiled or executed. In fact, many of Shostakovich’s colleagues and family had met those fates (McBurney 286–87).
Shostakovich needed to write another work to save himself, a work that would meet the Soviet standards of socialist realism and heroism. A year later, Shostakovich completed his Fifth Symphony, which consisted of four movements. Shostakovich decided to subtitle the work “A Soviet Artist’s Response To Justified Criticism.” It was commonly viewed as his last chance to save himself from imminent destruction, and it did just that. Not only did the symphony touch its public audiences, but it also satisfied the demands of the authorities (Wilson 158–59).
In contrast to what he did in his previous works, Shostakovich used a more traditional approach to composition, employing a conservative structure and minimizing abrasive dissonances and grotesque musical effects. While the first movement has a reclusively meditative quality and the subdued third movement exudes an emotional fragility, Shostakovich incorporated many lighter moments; the entire second movement is an homage to the waltz, and the final movement begins heroically and ends triumphantly. How can a contemporary listener interpret this work, which satisfied the ideals of the Soviet authorities yet deeply resonated with the composer’s suppressed compatriots?
In “Behind the Official Story,” James Scott addresses the dynamics of power relations and their impact on communication between dominant and subordinate groups. Scott refers to the open interaction between these groups as a “public transcript,” a discourse “shaped to appeal to the expectations of the powerful” (2). He notes that this public transcript becomes more skewed towards the dominant side as the disparity in power increases. Scott writes that “the theatrical imperatives that normally prevail in situations of domination produce a public transcript in close conformity with how the dominant group would wish to have things appear” (4). He argues that the effects of power relations manifest themselves most clearly in the public transcript, and that a cursory analysis of such interactions suggests that the subordinate groups accept the conditions of their interactions and become “willing, even enthusiastic, partners in that subordination” (4). The dynamics of Shostakovich’s interactions with his oppressors, the Soviet authorities, can be understood through the composition and reception of his work. The pressures exerted by the authorities compelled Shostakovich to write his Fifth Symphony using a simpler and more conservative architecture. However, as Scott himself acknowledges, it is difficult to judge the intent of the oppressed solely from an interpretation of the public transcript: “Without a privileged peek backstage or a rupture in the performance we have no way of calling into question the status of what might be a convincing but feigned performance” (4). And so, to analyze such situations, he introduces the idea of a hidden transcript, a discourse that contains the thoughts and feelings that cannot manifest themselves in the public transcript, and that are harbored individually and more often collectively by the subordinate group.
Shostakovich’s personal and artistic integrity, as well as his understanding of his role as a public figure, could not allow him to fully cater to the Soviet Union’s desires. As a man of his time and a voice for his people and his country, his compositions embodied the controversy and tragedy that millions of people lived day to day. During his rule of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin sent upwards of thirty million people to their deaths and suppressed the basic rights of many more. Shostakovich wrote his music for every family missing a loved one, every mother who lost a child, and every human being whose rights, freedom, and individuality had been trampled. The people had neither the voice nor the strength to cry out loud; Shostakovich did it for them, sharing their hidden transcript. His music provided the mass grieving and cathartic release that his countrymen needed. He made it his responsibility, even when his own life was at stake, to carry the people’s burdens on his shoulders.
Ordinarily, a public expression of the hidden transcript would bring about “one of those rare and dangerous moments in power relations” (Scott 6). In fact, Scott believes that the explicit expression of these views would create a power crisis and prompt a potentially violent response. But Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony does not explicitly dictate the hidden transcript, nor did it instigate a conflict. Nevertheless, audiences have long found emotional solace in the work, viewing it as a statement of resistance against Stalin.
This is what makes “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Justified Criticism” so intriguing. Scott’s essay implies that the public transcript and hidden transcript can only be expressed in mutually exclusive ways. However, his political analysis of the open relationship between the dominant and subordinate does not account for cases where the public and hidden transcripts can be expressed through one medium. Yet, it seems clear that the Fifth Symphony meets the requirements of the public transcript while at the same time subtly presenting the hidden transcript. The public nature of the work and the attention the work received from the authorities prevent us from disregarding its role in furthering the public transcript even as it comforted the masses.
Shostakovich’s symphony allows us to simultaneously examine the public and hidden transcripts. The fourth movement of the symphony begins with an upbeat and heroic character, a necessity considering the mourning quality of the third movement; without the triumphant ending, his symphony would not have appeased the Soviet authorities. A bleak ending to the piece would hardly create the veneer of Soviet pride. As the opening march-like theme picks up speed, waves of triumph stream from the orchestra. The excitement swells until the action comes to a sudden halt. What follows is a long, slow passage with a searching feeling, as though Shostakovich is paying respect to what has been left behind at the cost of the fanfare.
A traditional symphony would follow this section with a return to the original theme, expressing the polarity of dark and light. Shostakovich does bring back the first march theme, but at a drastically slower pace. In doing so, he presents a shift in the theme, from willing celebration, to a solemn, obligatory funeral march. From here, the music journeys from the darker key of D minor to the lighter key of D major. However, the journey is not an easy one. The orchestra climbs to the high pitches with much difficulty, clinging on to the weight of the D-minor tonality. The violins make their last stand, repeatedly stating the same high note, while the brass instruments burst out with pitches that create dissonance, highlighting the tension and resistance to accepting the joyous transformation to D major. Finally, the orchestra relents and the will of D major prevails. Shostakovich majestically presents and repeats a fragment from the original march theme, transposed from the key of struggle (D minor) to the key of triumph (D major). The struggle appears to be over, with the forces of socialist heroism prevailing over its enemies, but Shostakovich complicates the expected happy ending by tampering with the final cadence. He changes the penultimate note of the cadence from a B to a B flat, momentarily bringing us to the pathos of D minor. By changing just one note, he throws the brilliance of the conclusion into question. And to magnify this point, he repeats the same phrase once more and again changes the penultimate note. Finally, the cadence resolves to the D-major chord, and the ecstatic chord is repeatedly triumphantly by the brass and accompanied by the timpani. Does the symphony end with the conflict resolved? Or does it remind us of the continuation of the struggle? Regardless of the conclusion made by the listener, it is clear that Shostakovich expressed both the public transcript and the hidden transcript through the same work. The duality is essential in order to understand the juxtaposition of the darker moments and brighter sections, appreciate the veiled sarcasm of the work, and gain a circumscribing understanding of the pathos of Soviet Russia at the end of the 1930s.
Scott’s views on the dynamics of open discourse through the lens of public and hidden transcripts cannot take into account Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and, by extension, the dynamics of Shostakovich’s interactions with his oppressors. Scott does not comment on the way art can fit into an examination of power relations and their effect on our lives. Art, it seems, has the potential to express the public and hidden transcripts simultaneously. This realization, provoked by Scott’s essay, gives birth to another question that, as an aspiring musician, I must ask myself: What is the role and responsibility of an artist, in light of such a work?
Shostakovich has been a highly influential figure in my musical life. I first encountered his music as a twelve-year-old, playing the second violin part of his Eighth String Quartet. I was drawn to the emotional power and darkness of the work and driven to learn more about the quartet and the composer. With a renewed appreciation for the aesthetic and pathos of his works, I began to explore and perform his piano pieces, symphonies, and string quartets. When I was seventeen, I decided to learn Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, one of the most profound works in the solo violin literature. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to perform the work as soloist with a symphony orchestra. I became for forty minutes a medium for Shostakovich’s message, guiding the audience through the darkest depths of the coldest hour of the night, the tossing and turning of a tormented epoch, a grief-stricken yet defiant funeral march, and a sarcastically boisterous burlesque. As I explored the powerful soundscape, the fear and suppression of his distant world became real to me.
Having performed his works and experienced the impact and power of his music, I have realized that the genius of Shostakovich doesn’t lie in his technical abilities and innovations as a composer, but in his sense of responsibility to his people and his desire to express protest for those who had suffered and died. As Scott writes: “The first open statement of a hidden transcript, a declaration that breaches the etiquette of power relations, that breaks an apparently calm surface of silence and consent, carries the force of a symbolic declaration of war” (8). Shostakovich’s admirable dedication pushes me to keep my work in perspective: I strive to become a more capable and sensitive artist, not only to be a better violinist or to be satisfied with myself, but also to address the issues of my time and attempt to alleviate the burdens of others. Shostakovich was not a traditional hero; he could neither feed an orphan nor clothe a family, but he could make life more tolerable for those who suffered so much.
Scott, James C. “Behind the Official Story.” Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. 1-16. Print.
McBurney, Gerard. “Whose Shostakovich.” A Shostakovich Casebook. Ed. Malcolm Hamrick Brown. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 2004. 286-87. Print.
Wilson, Elizabeth. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. London: Faber & Faber, 2006. Print.