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Perspectives

“Brother humans who live after us”

Lady Macbeth, the reasons for a scandal — By Charlotte Ginot-Slacik

The text remains famous: On January 28, 1936, the newspaper Pravda (Truth) published an editorial entitled “Chaos replaces music” which took aim at Dmitri Shostakovich’s latest opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Dissonant modernity and neurasthenic amorality were cited as proof of the young composer’s “petit-bourgeois” spirit. Behind these moralistic and aesthetic attacks, was Stalin’s rush to curg the composer based more on intrinsically political considerations?


Let us go back in time.
1932: The young composer had just completed his second opera, a tale of the violent liberation of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage and left to suffocate in her world of provincial merchants. “I saw in Katerina Ismailova a beautiful, talented and energetic woman who dies in the midst of a morbid and oppressive family environment in bourgeoise and feudal Russia1 ” (Shostakovich).
That same year, the Communist Party dissolved the artistic associations that until then had guaranteed a certain aesthetic tolerance and transformed them into a system of unions which would henceforth govern all aspects of musical life.
1934: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District premieres simultaneously in Moscow and Leningrad. That same year, the Moscow trials trigger the elimination of Stalin’s presumed and known political opponents.
1936: The publication of “Chaos replaces music”.
That same year, the Great Purges form a mass-elimination within the Soviet Union’s civilian population.

The closeness of the dates is striking. As the work was gaining momentum, the vice was tightening in the U.S.S.R. “We are like rabbits in a boa constrictor’s cage. In the blink of an eye, someone else disappears. We feel that the circle is tightening and tightening. At first, it was only people we distantly knew. Then it became friends, then my husband and Witek. Now it’s my father and Doulia. Every day, someone disappears. It doesn’t stop.” (Diary of Emma Korzeniowska, September 19372)
Undeniably, Katerina Ismailova, a triple-murdering adulteress, dominated by her carnal desires, remained alien to the new ideal of the strong, positive, altruistic Soviet woman. “No man will hold me by the waist, no man will put his lips on mine / no man will caress my white breast, no man will exhaust me with his passionate desire…” so sings the heroine in the first act. To read Shostakovich, this yearning for desire has a political dimension: “In Lady Macbeth, I sought to create a satire that could reveal, unmask and spawn contempt towards the appalling arbitrariness and oppression of the way of life of the merchant classes3.” The work was also part of a much larger project that the musician wanted to devote to the Russian woman, leading to the evocation of female emancipation in the Soviet Union. Lady Macbeth was to have been the first component, focusing on the oppression of women in the Tsarist era. Shostakovich hereby reveals himself to be a reader of Dostoevsky who, from the middle of the 19th century, was calling for the emancipation of women: “The more society evolves correctly, the more it will normalise and the closer we will get to the ideal of humanity and our attitude towards women will be determined by itself, without preliminary projects and utopian imagination4 .” By subversively ridiculing the moral and political authority (police officers, judges…), the heroine’s desires and their murderous consequences destabilise the entire domestic and social order.
Even more than the explicit portrayal of the love act at the end of Act I, it is the carnal desire that has become a factor in the destruction of moral values and social authority which for us seems extremely shocking. At a time when Soviet society was reinforcing familiar principles (family stability, patriotic nationalism), Shostakovich’s unbridled individualism in hindsight seemed like a reckless provocation.

Dmitri Chostakovitch dirigeant un orchestre (URSS), 1930. Photographie de Boris Ignatovitch
Dmitri Chostakovitch dirigeant un orchestre (URSS), 1930. Photographie de Boris Ignatovitch © Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Ville de Chalon-sur-Saône / adoc-photos

The Gulags—a second scandal
The creative process of Lady Macbeth ran counter to the policy shifts initiated by the Soviet authorities. The disappearance of individuals and arbitrary arrests became increasingly common. In that sense, the work was a tragic augur of the Great Purges. The portrait of the prison outlined by the musician is all the more unbearable. Wretched were the prisoners who were forced down that road. Almost six years after Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, Shostakovich’s portrayal of prison life again reminds us of Dostoevsky’s writings: “Every human being, whoever he may be, however base he may be, instinctively and unconsciously retains a demand: that his human dignity be respected. The prisoner knows that he is a prisoner, a pariah, and he knows his place in the hierarchy: however, no red-hot iron, no chain can make him forget that he is a human being. And since it is a fact that he is a human being we must therefore treat him as such5.”

Following the heroine’s final murder, spawned out of jealousy for her former lover’s preference for a younger inmate, the prisoners resume their journey, singing of the vastness of the Siberian steppes. Shostakovich embellishes this tragic denouement (which incidentally remains incompatible with the optimism of socialist realism!) with one of the most celebrated chorales by Bach, “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” BWV 639: “I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ”. The convicts are transformed into universal figures, namely, prisoners with pathos. The moving chant borrowed from Bach turns the “human brothers” into culprits whose crimes cannot overshadow the suffering. The prison ethic according to Shostakovich is one of compassion. Was this not the work’s inexpiable crime during the dark days of the Great Purges?


1.  SHOSTAKOVITCH, (Dimitri), in “Soviet Art”, 14 December 1933, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Paris, Avant-Scène Opéra N° 141, April 2011, p. 71   
2. KIZNY (Tomasz), The Great Terror in the USSR, 1937-1938, Paris, Éditions Noir sur Blanc, 2013, p.87 
3. SHOSTAKOVITCH (Dimitri), Ibid., p. 70.    
4. DOSTOEVSKY (Fédor), Récits, chroniques et polémiques, Paris, Gallimard, 1969, p. 1144.   
5.  DOSTOEVSKY (Fédor), Carnets de la maison des morts, Actes-Sud, Babel, 1999    . 

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