Dmitri Shostakovich

Picture of Dmitri Shostakovich

By this time you may be forgiven, if you imagine that we were merely bit pot-hunters in the musical world and our main concern to make personal contact with as many big-shot composers as we could inveigle up to Glasgow. As a matter of fact, some of the most interesting Active Society concerts were given by my friends and myself, relying entirely on our own resources. For example; we gave scenes from the four Busoni operas, performed Debussy’s "Boite a Joujoux" presenting the story by means of lantern slides; we performed scenes from "Boris Godunov" in the original orchestration and for the first time in Britain. Did you ever hear of an Austrian composer with the resounding name Alexander Spitzmuller-Hamersbach? No? Well, we did his Prelude and Double Fugue, Op. 7, and some songs in April 1936. He is a pianist as well as a composer, although never having heard him play, I can't say whether Mr. Spitzmuller-Hamers-Bach or not! Have you heard of Paul A. Pisk? or Ernest Kanitz? or Paul Ladmirauld? Or Wilhelm Maler? or Nicolai Lopatnikoff? or Vera Vinagradova? No?? or Robert Oboussier, or P Humberto, or Roman Masiejewski ? We performed music by all these persons so that when we became the In-Active Society, we could boast - if that's the right word - of nearly 200 first performances!

I want to say something about the Soviet top composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, for although he never appeared personally at our concerts, we played quite a lot of his music: in October 1935, I gave the first performance of his 24 piano preludes; three months later, we gave an all Shostakovich programme. A very fine cellist, pupil of Casals, daughter of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, now lecturer in music at Manitoba University, called Peggy Sampson, partnered me in Shostakovich's cello Sonata Op. 35, and I also played the solo part in his concerto for trumpet and strings and conducted Act 11 of his opera, "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk'. This is the opera which had been playing successfully at the Bolshoi Theatre, until Stalin attended a performance, didn't like it and banned it. There was a great uproar about this, particularly in the West, and European states which do damn all for their own composers, held up their hands in horror at this gross indecency, this unholy interference by Stalin and Co. with the work of a Soviet composer: tacitly assuming that ignoring them altogether, and allowing two of the greatest (Bartok and Berg) to all but starve to death was infinitely to be preferred to such presumptuous intrusion into the creative practises of their artists could possibly be. Very few people, I'm afraid, bothered to find out if there are any cogent reasons why the performances of Lady Macbeth should be discontinued.

This opera was one of a projected series of four by Shostakovich, presenting Russian conditions politically and socially as they were a century ago under Czarist rule, before they had the light of Marxism-Leninism to shine on them. Katharina Ismailova, the heroine of the opera (the Lady Macbeth part in the title is used ironically) poisons her husband, who knouts her lover, who tortures his mistress, whose father-in-law tries to seduce his daughter-in-law, who pushes her lover over a bridge, whose mistress commits suicide. Bela-Bartok's "The Wondrous Mandarin" which is about pimps and prostitutes is banned from the stage of most European capitals: Paul Hindemith's opera "Sancta Susanna" is about a madly infatuated nun who gives herself physically to a statue of Christ still awaits its first performance. Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Lady MacBeth” is so foul a story it would certainly be on the banned list of all Catholic countries. In the extreme improbability of it ever reaching a South African stage it would be condemned on the spot as emanating from a boiling vat of moral evil - an-ante-chamber of hell. I had the greatest difficulty in persuading our not usually prudish Glasgow singers to sing the rich and fruity words of the libretto. A revised version of the opera has been made by the composer and given at Covent Garden last December - I expect considerably toned down from the original. The music is harsher than the Russians were prepared to take at that time, but now that the last émigré composer, Stravinsky has been welcomed back into the fold, and his music honoured and regularly performed in the Soviet Union, we can confidently expect this wonderful example of non-Italian Verismo to take its place in the repertoire of Soviet Opera houses.

I don't propose to tell you anything about this great Soviet composer which you cannot read for yourselves in any musical encyclopaedia, but only a few of the impressions of my own, after meeting him in Moscow in 1957 and again in Edinburgh, 1962. Nor that two composers in the same age could be so utterly dissimilar as Sorabji and Shostakovich: Kaikohsru composing for himself alone, enthroned in his lofty tower, Dmitri writing music for the people, the official musical spokesman of the Russian proletariat!

When I was in Moscow in 1952 at the invitation of the Soviet Government to conduct some concerts with the U.S.S.R. State Orchestra, I was asked if I would serve on an International Jury and help to adjudicate about 200 new compositions submitted in connection with one of these World Festivals of Youth which float around the world, mostly in Socialist countries. The Chairman of the Jury of 13 musicians (from 13 different countries) was Dimitri Shostakovich; one of the jury and deputy-chairman was Hans Eisler from East Berlin, composer of a huge Deutsche Symphony, a Faustian opera and many popular socialist songs, and the gentleman who just escaped the clutches of McCarthyism, and, incidentally, quite innocently involved Charlie Chaplin in being hauled before the Committee for the un-American Activities for supporting Eisler’s escape.

Some of you may remember we played an atonal piano sonata at the Hiddingh Hall a year or so ago by another member of the jury, the Swedish composer, Erik Sven Johanson, for it became the centre of a newspaper controversy.

Most of the 200 compositions submitted for the competition were on tapes or records, and scores were available for the jury. To hear about 200 compositions, including sonatas and concertos with several movements in each, takes an awfully long time: on the other hand, one gained experience in listening and assessing the relative value of the new works (their idiom was not all that new) and it seemed unnecessary to have to listen to, say, the entire four movements of a concerto before fixing a mark to it. So Hans Eisler and I - both the impatient type - got together during recess, and decided to ask our chairman to put it to the vote if we could hear only part of each work instead of the whole. Shostakovich agreed to this, and we gained a majority vote, the only person voting against the motion being our distinguished Chairman.

Shostakovich is a very highly-strung, very shy, simple, timid and exceedingly nervous person, who smokes an endless chain of cigarettes, and is constantly fidgeting. He enjoys enormous prestige and popularity in the Soviet Union. (and in the whole world, for that matter) and his symphonies are played everywhere. He is favoured with a campaign of publicity which might well turn anyone’s head: one of his symphonies (I think it was the twelfth) was premiered by 50 different orchestras in the Soviet Union.

I met him again at the l962 Edinburgh Festival which was practically given over to his music: at a press conference he was asked: “What do you think of your own music, Mr. Shostakovich?" He replied: "We have a saying in Russia that of all his children the father loves best his sick son. So excuse me if I say that - I love every note of music I have ever written.” I have only spoken to Shostakovich through an interpreter - he could speak no English and I no Russian.

Shostakovich is a very fine pianist and perhaps some of you have the Parlophone recording of him playing 6 Preludes and fugues from his collection of 24, Op. 87.

I have here a record of one of his lighter pieces which I brought back from Moscow - a concertino for two pianos, Op.94 - played by Shostakovich and his son.

The 13-man International Jury for the musical Competition. Hans Eisler in centre front - with braces. Immediately above him to the left looking like one of the three Musketeers, is the Swede - Eric Sven Johannsen. In the front row, extreme right is Kim-OK-Sen from Korea; and above his head is the greatest of us all Dmitri Shostakovich
This looks as though Shostakovich and I were having a conversation - it wasn’t very profound though, as neither of us spoke the same language