What really happened on December 11, 1936 will forever be a mystery to the music world. At the height of Soviet oppression of the arts, Dmitri Shostakovich, a very influential composer in the early twentieth century, took a strong stance against the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin’s rule. He used his music to speak his mind, and it was rumored that his 4th Symphony would be his loudest, most ambitious piece that he had ever composed. The symphony even called for over one-hundred instruments.1 However, on the day of its debut, Shostakovich abruptly cancelled it. The symphony would not be performed for over two decades. But given how significant the piece was to him, why did Shostakovich cancel it?

Shostakovich spent most of his life in the public eye. He was first introduced to music by his mother, who was a pianist. At eight years old, his mother put him in front of a piano and realized that he was gifted with perfect pitch and an impressive memory that allowed him to play exactly what she had taught him. At only thirteen years old, Shostakovich attended school at St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he started to write and compose music.  He was nineteen when his first symphony debuted. It was a huge success and it kick started his music career. From that point on, Shostakovich had become famous.2

From left to right: Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian, 1945 | Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By 1931, Shostakovich had composed ballets, operas, film scores, orchestral pieces, and two new symphonies. His art was pure self expression and he was loved by the public. He had so many plans for his next compositions, and he even started to compose music for Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, the famous Shakespearean tragedy that was being turned into an opera.3 Shostakovich dedicated the opera to his new bride, Nina, and he poured his heart into it.4 It took him several years to fully finish it because of how much sentiment it had for him. But little did he know, that in these years, his art would become completely restricted and even threatened by the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was notorious for censorship of the arts, and especially of self expression. In August of 1934, Joseph Stalin declared Socialist Realism as the only form of art that the Soviet Union condoned. Socialist Realism was an established form of art that promoted propaganda for the Soviet Union, and for the Communist Party’s ideals. Its art was described as artificial and narrow. It was ruthlessly enforced by the Soviet Union, and it was the start of a severe censorship of the arts.5 Unfortunately for Shostakovich, and for other Russian artists who did not agree with the Soviet regime and its Socialist Realism, it made them huge targets for Stalin. But that did not stop Shostakovich from finishing his work on Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk.

Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk was monumental. The opera was very progressive and focused on the defiance of a woman who wanted to be free from her marriage. It was interpreted that the opera was blurring social norms for women and music. It was described as vivacious, sexual, and highly creative. It was the complete opposite of Socialist Realism, and following its debut, it was an instant success. The public liked it so much, that it was performed over two-hundred times, and each performance filled over 90% of the theater’s capacity.6 Critics loved Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk and the work Shostakovich put into it. Some critics even said it was the best art that Russia had seen in over half a century. But Shostakovich soon faced the repercussions of a harsher critic. On January 26, 1936, Joseph Stalin and several highly ranked officials abruptly showed up to a performance of Lady MacBeth and left before the opera had even finished.7 It was a clear sign of turmoil. Two days after the performance, Russia’s official newspaper, Pravda, came out with the article “Muddle in Music,” that bashed Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk and more importantly, Shostakovich himself.8

Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich, July 28, 1950 | Photo by Roger Gössing | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Stalin took a personal interest in Shostakovich. Not even two weeks after “Muddle in Music” appeared, a new article from Pravda, “Balletic Falsity” bashed another piece Shostakovich had worked on. The end of the article displayed a chilling message. Saying “This is a game… that may end very badly.”9 This was a formal threat from Stalin to Shostakovich and it instilled fear in everyone that publicly endorsed Shostakovich. After this, Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase in front of his door; he feared that he would be arrested or even killed by Stalin and the secret police.10 After all of this, his career tanked. His own friends started to disassociate themselves from him because of their own fear of Stalin and what would happen to them if they continued their friendship and loyalty to him. This fear stemmed from The Great Purge, which was a campaign of political repression led by Joseph Stalin that resulted in over two million arrests, and over seven-hundred thousand executions from 1935 to 1938. These deaths were inflicted on anyone that opposed Stalin and his grip on power. Simply being friends with someone who opposed Stalin was reason enough for arrest.11 Shostakovich was not unscathed by Stalin’s purges. Many of his friends disappeared. While going through such panic, he turned to composing his 4th Symphony.

Shostakovich knew that his defiance of Socialist Realism had inspired many people. As a result, he was a huge target for Stalin’s thugs, and he knew that he had to stand against them. They took his career, his friends, his safety, and his freedom away from him. Although Stalin could take all of those things, he could never take away his passion and gift of composing music. Shostakovich started composing his 4th Symphony in September of 1935, just as the purges were starting up. He put it on hold when he started to work on Lady Macbeth. In February of 1936, Shostakovich was still dealing with the repercussions of Pravda’s articles. He knew that Stalin would have a close eye on what he would compose next. Despite knowing that, he continued to write the 4th Symphony. The symphony would be the loudest piece he would ever compose. Not only was the music itself loud, but the message was astonishing. He had gone through so much during the months leading up to the completion of the 4th, and he would forever be changed by it. Shostakovich planned to meet with Otto Klemperer, a Jewish composer, on May 30, 1936, to show him the 4th Symphony. In the early morning of May 30, Shostakovich’s wife gave birth to their daughter, Galina. After celebrating the birth of his first child, Shostakovich returned to performing the 4th Symphony for Klemperer and other acquaintances. They instantly loved it and Fritz Stiedry promised to perform it in Leningrad. Shostakovich was happy that they liked it, but he deeply feared the reality of what could happen after its debut.12

From left: Mstislav Rostropovich, Dmitry Shostakovich and Svyatoslav Richter, People’s Artists of the USSR | November 1, 1968 | Photo taken by Mikhail Ozerskiy | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the months leading up to the 4th Symphony’s debut, Shostakovich would “tremble with fright.”13 The date of debut was set for December 11, 1936. Having recently become a father, Shostakovich knew that he had a lot to lose. On the morning of December 11, Shostakovich abruptly cancelled the 4th Symphony. Rumors were everywhere. Isaak Gilkman, a friend of Shostakovich, recalled seeing the secretary of the Union Composers, V.E. Iokhelson, and an official from the headquarters of the city’s Communist Party apparatus come to rehearsal the morning of its debut. The director of the Philharmonic Orchestra I.M. Renzin, Shostakovich, and the two officials all went into a room together. It was only fifteen to twenty minutes before Shostakovich came out of the room, and in an expressionless tone, announced that he was cancelling his beloved 4th Symphony.14 The rumors were a plague. There were so many theories as to why Shostakovich cancelled it so close to its debut. The public followed the story, but unfortunately, no questions would be answered for decades.

What was said that morning of December 11, in that meeting, will forever be unclear. But it is clear that Shostakovich had a tremendous amount of pressure on him. The Soviet Union was oppressive and brutal during these times, and there was no doubt that fear of Stalin was a driving force in the cancellation of the 4th Symphony. In an interview in 1973, Shostakovich admitted, “I didn’t like the situation. Fear was all around. So I withdrew it.”15 Although the 4th Symphony was cancelled, it was revived and debuted in Moscow on December 30, 1961.16 The public waited twenty-five years to hear the “missing” symphony. After its revival, Shostakovich admitted that his 4th Symphony was the best thing he had ever written and that the symphony still remained dear to him after all of these years.17

“When a man is in despair, it means he still believes in something.” – Dmitri Shostakovich

  1. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 94.
  2. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 9-10, 13-14, 32.
  3. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 68-69.
  4. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 69-70.
  5. John Merriman and Jay Winter, Socialist Realism in Europe Since 1914 (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006), 238, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3447000806/GVRL?u=txshracd2556&sid=GVRL&xid=46ab7ff9.
  6. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 76-78.
  7. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 83-84.
  8. Ivan Martynov, Shostakovich: The Man and His Work (New York: Philophical Library Inc), 49-50.
  9. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 85-86.
  10. Gale eBooks, Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series: Shostakovich, Dmitri (Dmitievich), 1906-1975 (Detroit: Gale, 2003), 356-361 Vol. 117.
  11. Hiroaki Kuromiya and Noah Berlatsky, Overview of the Great Purge (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2013),13-24, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2063900010/GVRL?u=txshracd2556&sid=GVRL&xid=fe1806fe.
  12. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 92-96.
  13. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 95.
  14. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 95-96.
  15. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 97.
  16. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 226.
  17. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life (New York: Oxford Press, 2000), 226-227.

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48 Responses

  1. I have actually heard Dmitri Shostakovich’s 4th symphony and I really love it. Even though I have heard his symphony, I did not know the background of this piece so I learned a lot from this article. Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony is most definitely loud and I could tell it is full of emotion that could represent what was going on at that time. It is admirable how he continued to compose even though he was being threatened by Stalin and practically lived in fear.

  2. Nice article. I can imagine that many Russian composers lived difficult and tense lives during Stalin’s purges. It is unfortunately that Dmitri faced such persecution from the heads of the Soviet Union. However, it is like you said, if the expression of art did not conform to Socialist Realism than it was not considered valuable. Even worse it could be perceived as dangerous! Also, it is remarkable that the 4th Symphony did not debut until 1961 . The people of the Soviet Union had to wait twenty-five years to hear what I am sure is a wonderful piece of music. I wonder if the post Stalin soviet union was more tolerant of diverse artistic expression? I am curious to know how their attitudes changed towards nonconformist art in the interview quarter century. Certainly they must have. Ultimately though, I felt that Dmitri did the right thing when he called off the performance. He had a wife and child to protect and keep safe.

  3. One of the things I find quite unique about Shostakocivh is that, with so much of his music that he wrote during the reign of Stalin, you can actually hear and feel the oppression through his music, you understand the pain he was going through during those trying times. But, that’s the beauty of music though, the composers get to convey their emotions in a raw, passionate, and emotional way. I can’t imagine what it was like for Shostakovich to live in constant fear that Stalin would order him to be arrested, but the fact that he still wrote music shows how resilient he was. Shostakovich is still today one of the greatest composers to have ever lived, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I need to go back and listen to his symphonies all over again, it’s been too long! Bernstein has some really good recordings I think. This was a fantastic article to say the least, good job!

  4. Amanda,
    I really loved reading your article, and the topic you chose is very interesting. It amazes me how one moment can change your life forever. I have no idea how hard it must have been for Shostakovich to live all those years with fear and unable to show the world what he was capable of doing. I was happy to read at the very end that his 4th Symphony had its debut, later on, it was going to be disappointing not to hear the masterpiece Shostakovich had worked on for long and with so much passion.

  5. Although Shostakovich had an immense love for music and an undoubtable talent for composing, I’m glad he didn’t debut his symphony. He had a lot to lose and his family was ultimately the most important thing. Stalin’s anger towards Shostakovich goes to show how moving his music was and how much influence it had. The 20 year late debut of the missing symphony is a great end to the story, as he was still able to share his greatest work with the world despite the obstacles he faced in his life.

  6. We never talk about music history and how significant music is in our life. I thought Shostakovich music was amazing and last year I remember my high school band was going to play his Symphony No. 5 Finale. He is a genius composer and I never knew how much he feared because of Stalin. I did not even know he cancelled his whole 4th Symphony because of his fear of being captured.

  7. In school, they never even mentioned the oppression of the arts in Stalin’s Russia so this was very interesting to read about. Considering all of the things that Stalin did during his reign, I’m impressed that Shostakovich even attempted to debut his 4th symphony. I can’t help but wonder what music and art we missed out on because of Stalin’s oppression.

  8. I have always admired the way in which Shostakovich wrote his music, especially his symphonies. I find it so interesting that Shostakovich dealt with so much censorship during this lifetime, and yet he wrote such tremendous works. It reveals how passionate Shostakovich was about music. The courage to continue to write a piece, even though there will be repercussions, signifies one talents and true love for music. He will truly be remembered as a legendary composer who wrote some of the most memorable works.

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