Classical Haiku: Dmitri Shostakovich

At the Soviet
blasphemers of good taste, I
thumb my Russian nose.

What would it be like to live in a totalitarian state? Those of us who have enjoyed two hundred years of individual freedom might have a hard time grasping what life in the clutch of a dictator is like.

As though the plight of the average fellow under a dictatorship weren’t grim enough, consider that of the artist: self-expression is the artist’s work, but under censorship, the artist’s (often dissenting) voice is silenced. No voice, no art.

Dmitri Shostakovich tried to create a happy medium for himself, a situation by which he could still compose while finding subversive ways to express his dissatisfaction with the Soviet regime. To some extent, Shostakovich seems to have tried to get along with (of all things) Stalin’s government.

But it didn’t work. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, a problematic work to be sure, was denounced by Stalin’s government, and performances of it were forbidden in Russia for more than two decades.

Stalin’s death brought Shostakovich a glimpse of hope for a comeback. And indeed, Shostakovich’s career took a clear turn for the better, only to end up between a different rock and a different hard place when he joined the Communist Party. It is not clear whether he did so truly voluntarily and with clear conscience.

This is merely the barest outline of the troubles Shostakovich faced as a creative person trying to live life under a government that aimed to stamp out individual expression.

Today’s Classical Haiku honors Shostakovich, the composer of the great opera The Nose, who colored enough inside the lines to keep his skin, while thumbing his nose at oppression.