Writings

Dmitri Shostakovich

Chisholm writes in Men and Music

By this time you may be forgiven, if you imagine that we were merely bit pothunters 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, my friends and myself, relying entirely on our own resources gave some of the most interesting Active Society concerts.

For example. We gave scenes from the four Busoni operas, performed Debussy’s Boite a Jou joux presenting the story by means of lanternslides. 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 couldn’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, P Humberto, or Roman Masiejewski? We performed music by all these people so that when we became the In-Active Society, we could boast - if that's the right word - of nearly 200 first performances!

We also played quite a lot of music by the Soviet top composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, although he never appeared personally at our concerts.

In October 1935, I gave the first performance of his 24 piano preludes and three months later, we gave an all-Shostakovich programme. Peggy Sampson, a very fine cellist, pupil of Casals, daughter of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, and then lecturer in music at Manitoba University, partnered me in Shostakovich's cello Sonata Op. 35. I also played the solo part in his concerto for trumpet and strings and conducted Act 11 of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mzensk. 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. They held up their hands in horror at this gross indecency, this unholy interference by Stalin and Co. with the work of a Soviet composer. They appeared tacitly to assume that by 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 practices of their own artists.

Very few people bothered to find out if there were 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. That was before they had the light of Marxism-Leninism to shine on them. Katarina Izmaylova, the heroine of the opera (the Lady Macbeth part in the title is used ironically) takes a lover, poisons her father-in-law, strangles her husband and when her lover deserts her, she kills her rival and herself.

Bartók'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. It was not performed in my lifetime. Shostakovich’s Lady MacBeth is so foul a story it would certainly be on the banned list of all Catholic countries. And 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 antechamber 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 was made by the composer and given at Covent Garden in December 1963. I expect considerably toned down from the original. The music is harsher than the Russians were prepared to take at that time. However now that the 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 my own impressions after meeting him in Moscow in 1957 and again in Edinburgh, 1962.

Two composers of the same age could hardly be more dissimilar than Sorabji and Shostakovich, Kaikohsru composed for himself alone, enthroned in his lofty tower. Dmitri wrote 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 USSR State Orchestra, I was asked to serve on an International Jury and help to adjudicate about 200 new compositions submitted to one of these World Festivals of Youth, which float around, mostly in Socialist countries. The Chairman of the Jury of 13 musicians (from 13 different countries) was Dmitri 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. Incidentally, quite innocently he involved Charlie Chaplin in being hauled before the Committee for the un-American Activities for supporting Eisler’s escape.

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 each with several movements, 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 was our distinguished Chairman.

Shostakovich was a very highly-strung, very shy, simple, timid and exceedingly nervous person, who smoked an endless chain of cigarettes, and constantly fidgeted. He enjoyed enormous prestige and popularity in the Soviet Union, and in the whole world, for that matter. His symphonies were played everywhere. He was favoured with a campaign of publicity, which might well have turned anyone’s head. One of his symphonies, I think the 12th, was premiered by 50 different orchestras in the Soviet Union.

I met him again at the l962 Edinburgh Festival that 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 only spoke to Shostakovich through an interpreter. He could speak no English and I no Russian.

Shostakovich was a very fine pianist and made a Parlophone recording of playing Six Preludes and fugues from his collection of 24, Op. 87. I brought back from Moscow a record of one of his lighter pieces - a concertino for two pianos, Op.110-played by Shostakovich and his son.