New York Times:

February 16, 2003
Making Music in the Shadow of Stalin

MR. ASHKENAZY, when did you decide to leave the Soviet Union?" a journalist asks me. This is the wrong question, because Soviet citizens had no right of foreign travel. I was lucky. The Soviet government sent me on a concert tour of Britain in 1963, and I was exceptionally allowed to take my Icelandic-born wife and our child with me. We seized this chance to stay in the West.

After 40 years in the West, I am still amazed at how little general understanding there is of Soviet reality. As a musician, I am particularly concerned that this incomprehension leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the motivations and activities of Soviet composers, and thus of the meaning of their music.

I read a while ago in The Economist, for instance, that "Shostakovich rarely explained his pieces with a program." The writer went on to argue that Shostakovich's music contained no references or allusions to his attitude toward the Soviet system.

The truth is, Shostakovich confided in only a small circle of trusted friends. To have said too much elsewhere at rehearsals, for example would have been career suicide, and perhaps worse. Not for nothing did Shostakovich's son Maxim, at a rehearsal of the 11th Symphony ("The Year 1905"), whisper in his ear, "Papa, what if they hang you for this?" As the outstanding Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin has said, "Nobody wanted to go to the gulag." One must not forget that we had no independent judiciary. The Communist Party was the only jury and, between the mid-30's and his death in 1953, Stalin the only judge.

In three concerts with the Czech Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, "Music and Dictatorship: Russia Under Stalin," accompanied by a symposium, we will offer various examples of music composed not only for the omnipotent regime that sought to control all its citizens physically and spiritually but also in spite of it. Most of the music is by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the two giants of Soviet music, who were denounced by the party in 1948. In a public statement, both were accused (along with Khachaturian, Miaskovsky and others) of not writing music accessible enough to the masses. Their music was called "antinarodnaya," anti-people. Their paths to that point had been very different.

Prokofiev, who was allowed to leave Russia in 1918, when it was still possible to do so, was gradually persuaded to return. He did, in 1936. At first he was comfortable and happy to be back, and he seemed able to shut his mind to the reigning terror in the Soviet Union, perhaps wanting to find something more hopeful in "victorious socialism."

"Zdravitsa" ("A Toast"), written in 1939 for Stalin's 60th birthday, was one of several pieces in which Prokofiev demonstrated his new loyalties. He was stunned when, despite these efforts, he was denounced in 1948. This ordeal may have contributed to the worsening of his already failing health. Oddly, he died on the same day as Stalin: March 5, 1953.

Shostakovich, on the other hand, had already been attacked in 1936, for his opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District," in a Pravda article undoubtedly inspired by Stalin and probably dictated by him. In the Soviet context, this was a disastrous and threatening setback, and Shostakovich's music took a decidedly different direction. But by the mid-40's, it was still far from what the party wanted; even worse, there was no glorification of Stalin in any of Shostakovich's pieces.

With the denunciation of 1948, Shostakovich was immediately dismissed from his posts at the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories. In addition, performances of most of his and Prokofiev's major pieces were banned. Since this fiat was printed in all the major Soviet newspapers, either composer could have been arrested by the MGB (a predecessor of the KGB).

Vano Muradeli, a Soviet composer who had connections to the MGB, makes clear in his memoirs that Shostakovich was warned to protect himself as much as he could. The only thing left to him was to accept without hesitation commissions from the authorities for an oratorio, "Song of the Forests," and music for the films "The Fall of Berlin" and "The Unforgettable Year 1919." Similarly, Prokofiev had to write his "On Guard for Peace." All these pieces offered obsequious glorifications of Stalin.

No doubt the dictator was delighted; both composers received Stalin prizes, and danger was averted for the moment. Whatever criticism one may make of this often unadventurous and simplistic music, it is not hard to speculate what turn the composers' lives would have taken if these compromises had not been made.

Our programs, which offer the "party music" "Zdravitsa" by Prokofiev and that film music by Shostakovich, include by contrast the remarkable Second Cello Concerto by Dmitri Kabalevsky, who was miraculously spared the proscriptions of 1948, and two of Shostakovich's most significant works. These are the poignantly autobiographical Eighth String Quartet (composed in 1960 and arranged for chamber orchestra by Rudolf Barshai) and the monumental 13th Symphony ("Babi Yar"), with its underlying indictment of the Soviet system. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose poems Shostakovich used in this symphony, will recite the original verses, which were modified at the insistence of the party after the work's premiere, in 1962.

The first performance with the altered lyrics took place in March 1963. By coincidence, I played a Beethoven concerto in the first half of that concert, and I well remember the intense and gloomy atmosphere in the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The universality of these works is beyond question, but we are also trying to communicate something more to our audiences: their context and subtexts. There is no doubt in my mind that this music reflects the pain and suffering that were inflicted on the Russian people by the most murderous, abusive and intolerant regime in history. If we manage to communicate this message to our audiences and inspire them to find out more about this tragic period in Russian history, then our series will have done its job.