“Rhythmic delusions” and “muddle” dominate Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk district: on  January 26th, 1936, when Stalin took in a performance of Shostakovich’s opera at the Bolshoi Theatre, his evening was decidedly not a happy one. His reaction appeared soon afterwards, on January 28th, in the shape of an anonymous editorial in Pravda entitled “Muddle instead of music”. The review contained a naked threat against the composer: in this time of the greatest terror in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich can hardly have failed to understand the line “This game can only end badly”.

The unsigned editorial "Muddle instead of music" in Pravda, 28th January 1936
The unsigned editorial "Muddle instead of music" in Pravda, 28th January 1936

The implications of falling into disfavour with the regime were no secret. Several artists had already been deported or executed as a result of unfounded accusations. Shostakovich spent the following month in fear of arrest, sleeping in his outdoor clothes and with ready-packed luggage under his bed, expecting every night the knock on the door from the secret police. Insomnia and depression were his constant companions for the rest of his life.

This was his second opera, completed in 1932, and the disaster must have come completely out of the blue, since the 1934 première had been a huge success. Shortly afterwards, both the Maly Theatre in Leningrad and the Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre in Moscow gave their first performances. The reaction was euphoric from both audiences and critics; even in the West – outside Hitler’s Germany, that is – the work was received with enthusiasm. The opera received over 200 performances in Russia alone, before the appearance of the article in Pravda. Even today, it is not totally clear who was the article’s author. However, the fact that it appeared as an editorial implies that it had some level of Party significance. It is possible that Stalin wrote it himself; it is certain that the article reflected the dictator’s intentions.

The criticism was nothing less than damning. It talks about “deliberately discordant, chaotic notes”, of “musical noise” and that the opera “employs shouting in place of singing”. In place of the required “socialist realism”, the opera displays “vulgar naturalism” and is “formalist”. The author explained that the problem “not from lack of talent on the part of the composer” but that the music had been “deliberately created in a wrong-headed way”. Just as bad as the style of the music, as far as Stalin (or whoever was the author of the article) were the subject matter and the staging; he was especially displeased by the repeated, explicit “vulgarity” of the love scenes between Katerina and Sergei. In addition, the fact that Shostakovich chose to portray a “thieving businesswoman” and triple murderer as the so-called victim of bourgeois society and, in his music, clearly showed himself to be taking her side rather than denigrating her behaviour, as is the case in Nikolai Leskov’s original story, caused Stalin great indignation.

Nina Stemme as Lady Macbeth © Thomas Aurin | Salzburger Festspiele
Nina Stemme as Lady Macbeth © Thomas Aurin | Salzburger Festspiele

Read the the review of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District at the Salzburg Festival

After the publication of the Pravda article, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District disappeared from Soviet stages for nearly 30 years; even in the West, Shostakovich himself vetoed planned performances (with the exception of a 1959 production in Düsseldorf), arguing that he should work on a revised version. A much watered down version, both textually and musically, appeared on 8th January 1963, in the wake of the political thaw, under the title Katerina Ismailova; this was able to regain its place in the repertoire of opera houses in both the Soviet Union and the West.

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich © Deutsche Fotothek
Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich
© Deutsche Fotothek

The composer’s immediate response to the panning of his opera appeared soon in his symphonies. The expectations of Soviet cultural authorities were clear: for him to compose anything other than a classical work dedicated to socialist realism – and, above all, one with no trace of the notorious “muddle” – would be unthinkable. The première of the Symphony no. 4 in C minor, completed in May 1936, was cancelled: it remains unclear whether this was due to the composer’s own dissatisfaction with the work or to external political pressure. The Symphony no. 5 in D minor was completed in 1937, in just three months. Privately, for Shostakovich, this was a time of renewed terror: his brother-in-law had been interned in the camps; his sister was exiled and his friend and mentor Mikhail Tukhachevsky was executed. Before the Fifth Symphony could be performed, it was examined by the Leningrad Composers’ Union to verify whether it “would be acceptable to the public”. They determined that it could, and on 21st November 1937, its première was greeted with frenetic joy and 40 minutes of applause. The Soviet authorities appeared to have been reconciled, the symphony was labelled with the subtitle “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism” – a label on which Shostakovich himself did not pass comment. Superficially, the fifth appears to be a classical symphony, easily accessible and free from any futurist tendencies. The model which the composer chose starts from the principle of “per aspera ad astra”, as well as the journey from darkness into light expressed by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

At the same time, the work possesses a double nature, and is often interpreted autobiographically. So the beginning of the first movement clearly expresses rebellion, with melancholy string passages and energetic brass imbuing the music with ever-present menace. In the Allegretto, Shostakovich permits himself a level of satire concealed beneath meeting the orders of the day from the Soviet leadership, before the thoughtful third movement with its themes of mourning and apparent resignation. But the abrupt beginning of the fourth movement seems like a foreign body, with its sound rising to a triple forte. In the middle part of the movement, Shostakovich cleverly adds a quote from a setting of Pushkin, in which the artist is sure that his work will survive, even if he himself is to be painted out of the story.

The supposedly optimistic end, with its unexpected change from minor to major for the final march, remains the subject of much speculation to this day. Two different tempi have been published: one, crochet=188, gives the ending a positively jubilant character; the other, quaver=184, permits a grotesque and ironic effect. Shostakovich never gave any indication on this theme, but appeared to be equally happy with the slow version by Yevgeny Mravinsky, who conducted the work’s première, as with the fast tempo which Leonard Bernstein employed in New York in 1959. Shostakovich’s statement on the interpretation of the finale is supposedly clear, but in reality controversial: “what happens in the Fifth should, in my opinion, be clear to everyone. The rejoicing is created under threat… one must be a complete dolt to be unable to hear it.”

While Shostakovich himself was fully rehabilitated in the Soviet Union after the outstanding success of the Fifth Symphony, the rehabilitation of the original version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk district was denied to him. In 1979, four years after his death, Mstislav Rostropovich brought a copy of the 1932 score to the West. In the same year, the score was published in German translation, through which this initial version was given its première in German-speaking countries. In the East, the Katerina Ismailova version continued to be performed for a long period until 1996, when Valery Gergiev gave performances of both versions alongside each other; four years later, the Helikon Opera performed the original version in Moscow. Between then and now, the 1963 version has generally disappeared from operatic stages and the German translation has given place to performances in the original language. The “muddle” has been confined to the past, and Mtsensk’s Lady Macbeth has returned to thrill us in her original version.

Translated from German by David Karlin