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Why Did Shostakovich Join the Party?

One of the most controversial acts in the ever controversial life of Dmitri Shostakovich was his tortured decision in 1960 to join the Communist Party – a decision that has variously been portrayed as cowardly, politically pressured, or basically volitional. It is not mentioned in Testimony (1979) – the composer’s influential memoirs, collaboratively written with Solomon Volkov. But Volkov offered his own view, for the first time, in a Zoom chat the other day produced by PostClassical Ensemble as a sequel to the PCE “More than Music” video “Shostakovich and the State.”

As is well-known, Nikita Khrushchev had established a Russian Composers’ Union additional to the longstanding Soviet Composers’ Union established under Stalin – and offered Shostakovich the position of General Secretary. But Shostakovich had to join the Party in order to say yes. Was this essentially a ploy to secure Party membership for the most famous Soviet composer? Volkov says:

“It gives us some insight into Shostakovich’s thinking. He was a very public person, he was very active in Soviet musical life. And he wanted to participate. . . . He really hated this [decision]. But he joined because, I believe, he really wanted to shape and influence Soviet musical policy.” 

Khrushchev, too, was a complex and sometimes inscrutable actor. On this occasion, he was apparently seeking to strengthen an alliance with the post-Stalin intelligentsia. 

Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, recalled that the decision reduced Shostakovich to tears and that he told his wife that he had been blackmailed. There are also reports that Shostakovich was suicidal. His musical response was the Eighth String Quartet, which – as Testimony makes clear – is (among other things) a morbid musical autobiography. (An exceptional performance of Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra version of the Eighth Quartet, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez, is a component of PCE’s “Shostakovich and the State” video.)

An essential factor in the entire episode, long underestimated in the West, is Shostakovich’s potent role as a Soviet musical policy-maker. A recent book by Marina Frolova-Walker,  Stalin’s Music Prize: SovietCulture and Politics, affords Western readers a more sophisticated, more comprehensive picture of Soviet musical life, and of East/West contradictions and resemblances revealed or concealed by the cultural Cold War. For first-place composers, the Stalin Prize conferred publication, performances, and 100,000 rubles – a lavish sum. (Manual workers averaged 300 rubles a month, heads of university departments 1,500 rubles monthly.) The winners were recommended by a consultative panel comprising both musicians of distinction and Party bureaucrats.

Stenographic records of the proceedings survive. Studying these documents, Frolova-Walker made two discoveries, neither predictable. The first was that the decision-making process, though multi-layered and subject to Stalin’s approval, was as much bottom-up as top-down; when musicians and bureaucrats disagreed, the outcome could go either way. The second was that ideology was not necessarily determinant. Though the bureaucrats applied rigid Socialist Realist criteria, some compositions nevertheless won purely on musical merit. At the same time, it was frequently observed by the deliberators that the prize did not designate “best piece”; rather, its intention was to designate the best piece fulfilling criteria insisting on communal uplift and popular appeal.

So it was that the first three first-prize compositions, in 1941, included Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, a neo-classical work bereft of social or political connotations; it was accurately assessed as a major contribution to the Russian chamber repertoire that warranted acknowledgement. Shostakovich won a first or second prize four more times – in 1942 for the Seventh Symphony, in 1946 for the Second Piano Trio, in 1950 for The Song of the Forestand the film score The Fall of Berlin, and in 1952 for Ten Poems for chorus. The 1950 prize, following the Party’s notorious 1948 anti-formalist decree, was purely political; Shostakovich himself, as a panelist, actually requested that these works not be honored. Two Shostakovich compositions that were passed over, the Eighth and Tenth Symphonies, were of far greater consequence. The debate on the former work was so charged that the composer was invited to supply an additional piano performance of his own (which was found more ideologically appealing – more “tragic,” less “pessimistic” in tone — than Evgeny Mravinsky’s premiere performance with the Leningrad Philharmonic). Both symphonies were criticized – not unintelligibly — for their discouraging density, complexity, and darkness. (The Second Piano Trio, though a winner, was also predominantly dark, but was considered more tuneful.) 

One learns from Frolova-Walker that Shostakovich thought the Stalin Prizes a bad idea: an intrusion. But once he became an active participant in 1947 – a tenure interrupted while he was in disfavor from 1948 to 1951 — he was singularly outspoken and controversial. He did what he could to instill integrity, to “both play the game and remain true to himself.” He sometimes succeeded, and sometimes – as with his efforts to secure a prize for the Jewish Mieczysław Weinberg, who deserved one – did not. 

Frolova-Walker summarizes that the Stalin Prizes – awarded in Musical Composition, Musical Performance, Musicology, and “Non-Musicians in Production or Performance,” as well as a host of non-musical fields — played “a crucial role” in shaping Soviet cultural life. Of Shostakovich she concludes: 

“Hearing Shostakovich’s voice at the [Stalin Prize] meetings can leave us asking the same questions that we pose after listening to his music. Was he being sincere or ironic? Principled or cynical? Fearless or cautious? It seems he was, at various times, all these things. But the one thing he never did was to keep silent. He could have done so . . . Shostakovich’s interventions . . . give us a glimpse of a fiery public temperament that could not conform to professional etiquette or delicacy, nor to hypocrisy or tedium. Shostakovich clearly had a strong desire to participate in public life, and following this compulsion sometimes allowed him to make a principled stand, or to help out friends, and at other times drew him into shabby compromises . . . Once he had accepted the mantle of a public figure, he could not slip it off and on at all. But it was surely that same public temperament that shaped much of his music. Without that innate need to speak up, to interfere, whether to take a stand or to find official approval, we wouldn’t have had either the Seventh or the Thirteen Symphony [protesting anti-Semitism via Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’], nor, on the other side, Song of the Forests or the Twelfth Symphony [“The Year 1917”]. “

Shostakovich’s Western antipode Igor Stravinsky, a free man in Los Angeles, claimed to relish and require his autonomy. But at times he contemplated leaving: he commensurately resented and deplored his invisibility.

The next PostClassical Ensemble More than Music video, “The Russian Gershwin,” will be posted on Sunday, May 31. The follow-up Zoom chat will be a Gershwin Roundtable with yours truly and Angel Gil-Ordonez, hosted by Bill McGlaughlin – on Thursday, June 4 at 6 pm. The fabulous jazz artist Karrin Allyson will be joining us to sing some Gershwin songs. Our other guests will be the bass-baritone Kevin Deas, the opera guru Conrad Osborne, and Mark Clague, who heads the Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan.

To register in advance for the Gershwin Roundtable, click: 

For an archive of “More than Music” videos, click here.


  1. Evan Tucker says

    Great post but do you mean the eighth or the ninth symphony rather than the seventh? I’m fairly sure the seventh was praised to the skies by official Sovietdom.


  1. […] One of the most controversial acts in the ever-controversial life of Dmitri Shostakovich was his tortured decision in 1960 to join the Communist Party. It is not mentioned in Testimony (1979) – the composer’s influential memoirs, collaboratively written with Solomon Volkov. But Volkov offered his own view, for the first time, in a Zoom chat the other day produced by PostClassical Ensemble. – Joseph Horowitz […]

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