Learning English - Words in the News
25 September, 2006 - Published 14:19 GMT
Today marks the centenary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer described by many critics as the greatest of the twentieth century. This report from Lawrence Pollard:
In the mid 1930s Shostakovich scored a great success with his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." Then one day in early 1936 it was viciously attacked in the the newspaper Pravda in a review entitled "Muddle not Music" attributed to Stalin himself. At a time when artists who displeased authority were liable to simply disappear Shostakovich was in great danger, but he survived, possibly because of his popular work for Soviet films and propaganda.
By the time of his death in 1975 he was seen as a solid Soviet artist, but a few years later his reputation was turned on its head by the publication of a highly controversial account of his life called "Testimony". This claimed that Shostakovich secretly hated Stalin and the Soviet system, and that his works held hidden dissident meanings. Critics in the West seized on this new image of an anticommunist Shostakovich, but others pointed out how hard it is to interpret private motives under a climate of fear.
Certainly Shostakovich was lucky to work in a wordless abstract medium, where interpretation is strongly subjective. But it does appears at least some of his original audience did find oppositional power in his work, but as a member of the party and the Supreme Soviet Shostakovich also allowed his name to be put on denunciations of dissidents. Certainly no composer has undergone so radical a reevaluation. But what can't be argued is that his 15 symphonies and smaller scale chamber music make him a musical giant of his time, whatever the political meanings we find in his art.
Lawrence Pollard, BBC
scored a great success
turned on its head
a wordless abstract medium