Pasternak and Shostakovich: From Turmoil to Triumph

In this talk I want to discuss the reception given to the novel Dr Zhivago in the Soviet Union. I also want to consider this in the context of the cultural and political climate of that time; link it with what the composer Dimitri Shostakovich was doing during this period against that same cultural/political background; outline how this reception fed into a general Cold War context that was having a significant impact on the career of the composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein in the United States; and how all this comes together in 1959 when Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in Moscow in the final concert of the orchestra’s tour of the Soviet union, with both Shostakovich and Pasternak in the audience. It’s a happy ending of sorts, triumph emerging out of adversity, a tale of a kind that the Soviets were fond of labelling as ‘optimistic tragedy.’

After working on his novel, Dr Zhivago for around 10 years, Pasternak had completed the manuscript in 1957 and submitted it for publication in the Soviet Union in the expectation, it seemed, that it would be published but in an abridged form. He was certainly aware that some parts of it might be deemed controversial, even inflammatory. Apparently when he gave it to his Italian publisher he said, ‘You’ve invited me to take part in my own execution’. ‘I have borne witness as an artist,’ he was to tell the New York Times, ‘I have written about the times I have lived through.’ As we know, it is at once a great love story and a great documentary of the Russian revolution. He knew it would be contentious because of its focus on the personal more than the political and the way it uses the Revolutionary experience almost as a backdrop to its theme of the maturation of a great Russian poet, Zhivago, who is a surrogate of Pasternak himself. Certainly there are passages which he could have predicted with some certainty would have raised the hackles of the Soviet authorities: e.g. Zhivago: ‘he understood that he was a pygmy before the monstrous machine of the future’;1 or: ‘he found he had only exchanged the old oppression of the tsarist state for the new, much harsher yoke of the revolutionary super-state’.2 And then there is Lara: ‘The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the bare, shivering human soul…’ –3 not to mention the terse, tragic description of her disappearance. But the novel offers no alternative to the Soviet system, no favourable Western model; and Pasternak thought it was more anti-political than anti-Communist. ‘Politics don’t appeal to me,’ he said, ‘I don’t like people who don’t care about the truth.’

It was undoubtedly Pasternak’s nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 that brought matters to a head. It is worth noting that the award was not only for Zhivago but also recognition of Paternak’s stature as a poet: the citation was ‘for his important achievement both in contemporary lyric poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.’ But it was immediately seen by the Soviet authorities as a deliberately provocative act by the West and, in the climate of Cold War, a political more than literary award. The Nobel Award had been announced on October 23rd. On October 26th, there was a long condemnation of the award published in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda under the heading ‘Ballyhoo of Reactionary Propaganda around a Literary Weed’ and written by a Soviet Party member, David Zaslasky, whom Shostakovich was to refer to in his memoirs as ‘that well-known bastard’. Pasternak’s book, Zaslasky said, ‘was the life-story of a malicious Philistine and enemy of the Revolution’ and, as the Nobel Prize proved, had been predictably seized on as ‘a weapon for stirring up the Cold War by the reactionary press.’4 A day later, Pasternak was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, despite an appeal from English writers such as J.B. Priestley and Graham Greene who argued for the novel’s aesthetic value and that it was ‘not a political document’. In his letter to the Soviet Writers Union, incidentally, which he knew would be scrutinised by Soviet authorities, Greene thought it would be a great propaganda coup for the Soviet Union if the novel were to be welcomed as a ‘constructive, not destructive book’; and there is some evidence that Soviet Premier Khrushchev was later to come to the same conclusion, but too late. (There is a passage in the novel where Zhivago describes his stylistic ideal – ‘a language so reserved, so unpretentious as to enable the reader to master the content without noticing the means by which it reached him’ –5 that Greene was to adopt as a personal mantra.) The political pressure on Pasternak was so ferocious, that on October 29th, less than a week after being given the Nobel Prize and in an unprecedented step, Pasternak sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy refusing the award. The campaign against him – and people close to him – was to continue, nevertheless. The novel was banned in the Soviet Union; and in the 1959 lyric, ‘The Nobel Prize’, Pasternak was to describe himself as ‘a hunted beast at bay in a dark wood’.

Pasternak’s experience raises the question of how other Soviet artists were faring during what was supposed to be a new era of liberalisation in the arts following the death of Stalin in 1953. Certainly Dr Zhivago came to be seen as an important landmark in the struggle of Soviet writers for freedom of expression, which was to be continued – and indeed, well-publicised – in the following decade by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others. There was a new vibrancy about Soviet cinema at this time, with some films, like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957), Grigori Chukrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1960), Joseph Heifetz’s Chekhov adaptation, The Lady with the Little Dog (1961), the early films of Andrei Tarkovsky, being highly acclaimed in the West and finding an international audience. But at this point I want to concentrate on the composer Dimitri Shostakovich because no one better exemplifies the trials and tribulations of the Soviet artist. He and Pasternak knew each other, though not particularly well. Shostakovich seemed to prefer Pasternak’s translations to his poetry, particularly his translations of Shakespeare. Apparently, Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 66 registered deeply with both of them, particularly line 9:

And art made tongue-tied by authority.

I’m not aware that Shostakovich made any public or private comment on Dr Zhivago, but there’s one passage in it that must have struck him with particular force, and it’s a moment late in the novel when Zhivago says: ‘The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike, and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune.’6 That is an extraordinary passage. In some ways, Shostakovich’s entire creative life could be explained in terms of that duality, and could be seen as a struggle to reconcile artistic integrity with the requirements of the State, and to be true to himself as an artist whilst appearing to toe a Party line that kept shifting beneath his feet. Two decades before Zhivago, in 1936, Shostakovich had also been vilified in Pravda and denounced for writing ‘leftist bedlam’, and ‘music of extreme modernism full of chaotic nonsensical sounds’. The article had been prompted by his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and instigated almost certainly by Stalin himself, who had attended a performance and had been seated quite near the bass section, apparently, and had left with a violent headache! But the headache was now Shostakovich’s: what to do next, recognising that his decision, if he got it wrong, could literally cost him his life. (And I do mean ‘literally’: this is the time of the Stalinist purges and is by no means an exaggeration.) So he withdrew his audacious and experimental 4th Symphony from performance (it was not be performed for another 25 years) and wrote a 5th Symphony that was more conservative in style and designed to conform to Soviet Party requirements. It was sub-titled (the actual provenance of this sub-title is somewhat obscure): A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.

One might have expected, then, a conventional, tentative, probably superficial work: what we got instead was an incredible masterpiece, a work that is certainly one of the most performed and recorded of all 20th century symphonies – there are many more modern recordings than of Beethoven’s 5th, even – and, for what it is worth, possibly my favourite work of art of all time. It would be hard to imagine a more difficult set of circumstances under which to compose – literally, a matter of life and death, for a man who has only just turned 30 – yet it fulfils the requirements of art whilst seeming to fulfil the requirements of the State as well. The finale is appropriately affirmative and triumphant: but what kind of triumph is it? In his memoirs entitled Testimony – and it must be pointed out that the authenticity of this memoir has been much disputed – Shostakovich has said about the ending of the Symphony: ‘It’s a hollow triumph- imagine somebody beating you over the head and repeating, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing”’.7 And yet; the Symphony is a triumph of artistic expression in the face of extraordinary political pressure, and it is possible to perform it perfectly straight as such a triumph. I want to return to this Symphony later.

During World War Two, Shostakovich will write three more Symphonies. Symphony No.7, the so-called Leningrad Symphony, is an overtly, or ostensibly, propagandist piece (though there is a sub-text to it) extolling Soviet resistance against Nazi barbarity and ending with the ‘Victory’ motif hammered out against a battery of percussion and brass, an ‘optimistic tragedy’ if ever there was one (victory – but at a terrible price). However his 8th Symphony written in 1943 – and Pasternak attended a rehearsal of this – is a tragic work, dark, brooding, occasionally brutal, and ending quietly, equivocally, enigmatically. His 9th Symphony, written at the end of the war and which is expected to be a sort of Ode to Joy, a large-scale celebratory piece, turns out to be a anything but: modest in scale, and quirky, satiric, anti-heroic. He is about to run into trouble with the State authorities again. In 1948, along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian and other prominent Russian composers, his music will be denounced by the Culture Minister Andrei Zhdanov for ‘its formalistic perversions’ and its ‘anti-democratic tendencies’: again he finds himself cast as an Enemy of the State. He is supported at this stage by Pasternak, who was incidentally a very keen and talented musician, who writes to him: ‘In these days I consider it my duty to press your hand, and to say that we must be true to ourselves.’8 But Shostakovich publicly recants, again seeming to acknowledge the error of his ways (‘If only they would keep silent,’ Pasternak lamented): he withdraws his formally complex 1st Violin Concerto from public performance until after Stalin’s death in 1953. In that year Shostakovich writes his Tenth Symphony, which many consider his finest, with a ferocious Scherzo which he will say later is a musical portrait of Stalin (‘it’s like a wind, flattening everything in its path’), and a finale which includes a little motto theme which is to amount to a coded personal signature – it’s built around the Russian musical notation, DSCH (i.e. Dimitri Shostakovich) – and it occurs in the first Violin Concerto, his later 8th String Quartet of 1960 (his most autobiographical composition) and blazes out in the finale of the 10th Symphony as, I always think, a shout of defiance: ‘I’m still here’.

So what was Shostakovich up to in 1957, the year when Pasternak had delivered his manuscript of Zhivago to his publishers? Well, coincidentally, he was also completing a work about the Russian Revolution, his 11th Symphony, ostensibly (a word you find yourself using a lot when talking about Shostakovich) to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of its success. Actually, though, the Symphony is sub-titled ‘The Year 1905’, and is a musical depiction of the events that precipitated the first abortive Revolution, notably the Bloody Sunday of January 9th of that year when Cossack troops opened fire on peaceful protesters in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and hundreds were killed. The Symphony is full of quotations from revolutionary songs of the period and wins the Lenin Prize in 1958 as a mark of official approval. It seems to tick all the correct ideological boxes, though Solzhenitsyn will explicitly criticise the composer in his novel Gulag Archipelago: how can Shostakovich quote these songs with approval, he asks, when political prisoners are singing them now in grim irony and being tortured by this same party?

Yet is the Symphony quite what it seems? Even Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, during the work’s dress rehearsal, was heard to say: ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?’ A friend of the composer, Lev Lebedinsky, said: ‘What we heard in this music was not the police firing on the crowd in front of the Winter Palace in 1905 but the Soviet tanks roaring into the streets of Budapest [in 1956]’9. As for the revolutionary songs, as the poet Anna Akhmatova put it: ‘Those songs were like white birds flying against a terrible black sky.’ Akhmatova, another great emblematic Soviet artist, was to dedicate her poem ‘Music’ to Shostakovich: it goes:

It shines with a miraculous light…
It alone speaks to me
When others are too scared to come near
When the last friend turned his back
It was with me in my grave
As if a thunderstorm sang
Or all the flowers spoke.10

At first dismissed as Party propaganda or glorified film music, the 11th Symphony is now more commonly regarded as one of his most important works, a musical depiction of violence and resistance that goes way beyond its immediate context to become almost a document of the age. We have seen more than one Bloody Sunday, after all, and if you’ve heard Rostropovich’s epic performance of it with the London Symphony Orchestra, you feel by the end as if you’ve lived through the whole century. ‘I wrote it in 1957,’ said Shostakovich, ‘and it deals with contemporary events even though it’s called 1905….Can music attack evil? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to various vile acts to which he has grown accustomed? …It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.’ As the great Soviet film-maker and long-time Shostakovich collaborator Grigori Kozintsev said: ‘In Shostakovich’s music, I hear a virulent hatred of cruelty, of the cult of power, of the persecution of truth.’11

In 1959 there occurred an event which was to bring Shostakovich and Pasternak together: the final concert in its tour of the Soviet Union by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the Moscow conservatory. It was conducted by the Philharmonic’s new principal conductor, Leonard Bernstein, the youngest person ever to hold that post in the orchestra’s history and also the first American. Bernstein’s ascent to this position has most often been presented as the meteoric progress of a musical superstar. He had become a national celebrity overnight in 1943 when at short notice he substituted for Bruno Walter as conductor in a New York concert and his rise thereafter had seemed unstoppable, with one success after another as conductor and as Broadway composer, most recently with the classic West Side Story. An all-American success story, in fact. The truth is somewhat different from that. Under FBI surveillance since 1939 as a suspected Red and progressive liberal, Bernstein’s career had been in danger of stalling completely during the Cold War, McCarthyist years. During this period he was on a list of suspect people to be interned in the event of national emergency; he was blacklisted; and then forced to sign an affidavit – ‘a ghastly and humiliating experience,’ he was to call it – which was a disavowal of his beliefs in order to regain his passport which had been confiscated. This is not dissimilar to Shostakovich’s apologies to the authorities for unwitting sins against the system; or dissimilar to the situation that Zhivago spoke of: saying the opposite of what you feel, grovelling before what you dislike. In 1957, Bernstein had written a comic operetta based on Voltaire’s Candide, in part collaboration with the blacklisted Lillian Hellman; and, almost like a work of Shostakovich, the sub-text belied the sparkling surface – something which Bernstein made absolutely explicit, incidentally, in his very last London performance in 1989, a year before his death, when he conducted a concert performance of Candide and addressed the audience from the stage and referred to his political persecution. So Bernstein’s route towards becoming Principal Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, far from being uncomplicated, was troubled and even perilous. I haven’t time here to relate the circumstances which enabled him to succeed, but he was certainly no stranger to the situation of the artist threatened with suppression or persecution because of his political ideas when he and his orchestra undertook the Soviet tour, the cornerstone of their repertoire being Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony.

On arriving in Russia, Bernstein immediately invited Pasternak to the opening concert, an invitation which didn’t reach him in time because the author was now living in virtual exile in a small village about 15 miles outside of Moscow. Undeterred, Bernstein obtained his address and wired an urgent invitation to attend the final concert in Moscow. Rather endearingly Pasternak sent 3 notes in reply, at first accepting and inviting Bernstein to visit him, then taking the invitation back, then restoring it: if you want to come, come; or as Pasternak put it in his lovely Russian English: ‘Come, as it were, unawaitedly’.12 And he signed off: ‘I wish you the renewal of your habitual triumphs I know of from hearsay’. However, they’d still not received these replies as the concert date approached and one day, when Bernstein was deep into rehearsal, his wife Felicia just said, ‘I’m going to look for him’, took a Russian-speaking member of the orchestra, hopped into a cab and headed for the address they’d been given. She thought they might have been misdirected, but then she saw him walking in the forest and was so excited that she ran towards him and started babbling in French, Italian and Spanish before remembering that he actually spoke good English. Pasternak invited them back to his home that evening where they enjoyed a meal, apparently, of cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, pickled mushrooms, and a roast, washed down with Georgian wine. Bernstein was to describe him as ‘a man of enormous warmth and great humour…he conveyed the impression of a Tolstoyan Christian, a worshipper of nature and the divine spark in man…he is the most complete artist I ever met.’

And so to that concert in Moscow, which Pasternak did attend – his first public appearance since his exclusion from the Writers Union – and which concluded with Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It was all the more memorable because Bernstein’s interpretation was quite unlike what Soviet audiences and musicians were used to. And I’d like to play you 2 interpretations of the very end of the Symphony: one in the style of what the audience would have been used to, and then Bernstein’s interpretation as they would have heard it that night, and then attempt to characterise the difference:

The first is by Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, the same team who’d performed the work at its premiere in 1937. Mravinsky was a fearsome disciplinarian who was to be the chief conductor of that orchestra for 50 years: the orchestra’s nickname for him was ‘Stalin’, though not to his face: he was also a fabulous musician; And I think you’ll sense, even in this brief extract, something very grand, powerful, militaristic, martial, music of the parade ground, with Mravinsky as the drill sergeant:

Now this is Bernstein: It’s much faster – nobody’s going to be able to march to that- and it’s not just power but energy: exultant, it lifts you off your feet, as if to say: this Symphony is a triumph, a personal triumph. [Seeing them doing it makes the contrast in interpretation even more striking, of course: Mravinsky, when he conducted, absolutely still, ramrod-straight, erect, conducting with hawk-like eyes, concentrated expression; Bernstein, by contrast, all movement, extrovert, energised, pointing, jumping around, acting out – no, living – the music in all its glory.]

Well, Soviet musicians were taken aback, but Shostakovich loved it. Unknown to the orchestra, he was at the performance, at the end coming on stage with tears of emotion streaming down his face (he was later to describe Bernstein as his favourite American conductor of his work). In the dressing room afterwards (there’s documentary footage of this by Richard Leacock) Pasternak said to Bernstein: ‘I’ve never felt so close to the artistic truth. When I hear you I know why you were born.’ Bernstein, who was not exactly a shrinking violet, blushed at that. ‘You have taken us up to heaven,’ Pasternak said, ‘now we must return to earth’ – and, as we know, he was to die the following year.

A brief coda: one of Zhivago’s greatest poems, quoted at the end of the novel, is called ‘Hamlet’:

The noise is stilled. I come out on the stage
Leaning against the door post
I try to guess from the distant echo
What is to happen in my lifetime.

And it concludes:

To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field.

Hamlet was a great favourite of both Pasternak and Shostakovich; and the great cinematic event of Shakespeare’s Quatercentenary in 1964 was Grigori Kozintsev’s magnificent film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from the Pasternak translation, with music by Shostakovich; fittingly his greatest film score (and the first Shostakovich I ever heard, which got me hooked on his music). In this interpretation, unlike Olivier’s, say, Hamlet is no prevaricator, but a poet-warrior in an oppressive society who uses thought and contemplation as his main weapons. Shostakovich once said: ‘An artist on stage is a soldier in combat. No matter how hard it is, you can’t retreat.’ In his superb book on the making of the film, Shakespeare, Time and Conscience, Kozintsev has a wonderful image of Hamlet: it is also, I think, applicable to both Pasternak and Shostakovich:

‘He sticks in the perfected pace of the wheels of government mechanism. They grind him up. Yet he all but broke the machine.’13

[This piece is a paper given at the University of East Anglia on 27 May 2010 as part of a Day Conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Boris Pasternak’s death. It is dedicated, with love, to Melanie Williams.]

Neil Sinyard

A brief note on sources:

The following texts were consulted in the preparation for this talk: Robert Conquest’s The Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961); Grigori Kozintsev’s Shakespeare, Time and Conscience (1967); Ronald Hingley’s Russian Writers and Soviet Society, 1917-1978 (1979); Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, edited by Solomon Volkov (1979); Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994); Humphrey Burton’s Leonard Bernstein: A Biography (1994); and Barry Seldes’s Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician (2009).

Yevgeny Mravinsky (with the Leningrad Philharmonic) and Leonard Bernstein (with the New York Philharmonic) both recorded Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony on a number of occasions. Mravinsky’s finest recorded performance was one of his last in 1984, almost half a century after he had premiered the work; Bernstein’s finest is his 1959 recording, made shortly after he and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra had returned from Moscow. In 2011, the BBC issued a dvd of Bernstein performing the 5th Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1966: not great sound, but a great performance.

A recording of Shostakovich’s complete score for Kozintsev’s Hamlet, with the Russian Philharmonic orchestra conducted by Dmitri Yablonsky, is available on the Naxos label. A Suite from the score was memorably recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann and is still available.


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  1. Dr Zhivago, p. 168. []
  2. Ibid, p. 202. []
  3. Ibid, p. 362. []
  4. Conquest, p. 129. []
  5. Dr Zhivago, p. 394. []
  6. Ibid, p. 432. []
  7. Shostakovich, Testimony. []
  8. Wilson, p. 321. []
  9. Wilson, p. 317 []
  10. Anna Akhmatova, ‘Music’. []
  11. Wilson, p. 371. []
  12. Burton, p. 309 []
  13. Kozintsev, p. 248. []

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