In music, a 19-year-old called Dmitri Shostakovich made a big impression with a new symphony. It was a graduation piece and while Shostakovich's teacher, Glazunov, approved of the nods to Rimsky Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, he was appalled by the modernism that had crept into his studious young pupil's music.What a racket!
But this was only the beginning. In his next symphony, Shostakovich completely threw off the shackles of the past and filled his score with dense, polytonal passages, factory sirens and a rousing choral finale praising the October Revolution. This was Soviet art; part of a milieu that included Eisenstein, Malevich and Mayakovsky.
But then Stalin happened and everything changed. Now the avant garde were accused of being bourgeois and anti-Soviet. What's the point of a painting if the proletariat can't understand what it means? What use is an opera if it can't be whistled by a factory worker? This decadent, degenerate nonsense had to stop.
Julian Barnes's new novel, The Noise of Time, was published on the 80th anniversary of a notorious newspaper article in Pravda called 'Muddle Instead of Music', written after Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The production was a huge success with the public, but that didn't cut any ice with the Great Leader, who was appalled by what he saw.
To Stalin and his cronies, both the music and narrative were a disgrace to Soviet art. Where were the folk-inspired melodies extolling the virtues of the latest five-year plan? Why were the authorities portrayed as figures of fun?
'Muddle Instead of Music' named and shamed Shostakovich, accusing him of writing music that was "coarse, primitive and vulgar". The composer was, it claimed, guilty of writing an anti-Soviet opera that tickled "the tastes of the bourgeois." The article reached the following conclusion:
"The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."
In a climate in which people were being routinely arrested and executed for the most spurious reasons, the final sentence sounded like a death warrant. Shostakovich, already a nervous man, was utterly terrified.
Shostakovich, looking slightly worried
The Noise of Time takes this incident as its starting point and goes on to examine Shostakovich's troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities and his attempts to appease his masters without completely compromising his integrity as an artist.
As a fan of Shostakovich, I didn't like the idea of Julian Barnes appropriating the facts of the composer's life for a work of fiction. It can seem like a vain conceit to speak on behalf of the dead. It is also an unnecessary one, when they have left behind a body of work that speaks for itself. Still, better Barnesy than Amis.
And to a large extent, Barnes has pulled it off, giving us a narrative that is not only rigorously faithful to the facts, but also to the man himself. If you want to have a sense of what it is like to be an artist in a totalitarian regime, you could do a lot worse than read The Noise of Time.
Julian Barnes makes a lot of the 5th Symphony's deliberately banal, crowd-pleasing ending, but fails to mention the tragic slow movement, which had much of the audience in floods of tears because they felt that the music articulated something that nobody dared to utter. This is important, because it shows that Shostakovich's response was more enigmatic and nuanced than the text implies.
The narrative was also punctuated with many memorable anecdotes, the most telling of which was the fact that Stalin's guards always kept a spare pair of trousers handy, as so many terrified film directors and artists soiled themselves in the presence of the Man of Steel. Shostakovich witnessed one of these incidents at a film premier, when Stalin's gruff response to a message he'd been handed was misconstrued by the director. Convinced that he was destined for the gulag or the firing squad, the poor man disgraced himself before passing out.
I finished the book full of admiration for Julian Barnes, but I still believe that the best account of the Stalinist period is probably the first movement of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No.1. Written in 1948 and kept in a drawer until two years after Stalin's death, this dark, brooding music is one of the bleakest things I have ever heard, but it is utterly brilliant: