Composed under Stalin, Shostakovich’s opera is a cry of carnal passion. But perhaps more than the idea of sensuality, exacerbated by the orchestra, it is that of liberty that the composer seemed to have wished to express.
In the edition of Pravda that, on 28th January 1936, condemned Shostakovich’s opera to public obloquy, stupidity really wore the visage of a bull ready to charge. The article denounced and threatened the composer as an enemy of the people. Enough to make anyone tremble, all the more so in that it had been directly inspired if not written by Stalin in person, who had been present at the performance. The tirade reproached the composer for two reasons: he had written a cacophonie (the word was in French in the original text), and he had represented love “in its most vulgar form”. But these two criticism were one and the same: “The music clucks, rumbles, gasps and puffs to represent the love scenes with realism”. Or again: “This is musical noise called upon to express passion”. On this point, the article was right: the transgression was, in effect, two-fold. Words and music.
In the libretto, Shostakovich dared to speak of love and depict love in the crudest manner. And to that end, he did not hesitate to modify the text of the novella from which he drew his inspiration. Witness this sequence in which, in Leskov, Katerina’s servant has herself weighed in a barrel, a scene that, under Shostakovich’s pen becomes a collective rape. Witness also the character of the father-in-law, even more libidinous than he is pitiless; he whips the lover before his daughter-in-law’s eyes, experiencing through this action genuine sexual pleasure. Witness yet again the manner in which the husband’s impotence is announced, not to mention the scenes in which the desire that inhabits the heroine is expressed in its raw state, without the slightest circumlocution: “The stallion hastens to join the mare, the tom howls for the she-cat, the pigeon seeks the dove. But no one rushes towards me [...] No one presses his lips against mine, nobody caresses my white bosom, no one arouses me with a passionate caress.”
So much for the text. As for the music, it never fails to express desire in all its fullness, sexual passion in all its fury. It conveys such violence to the impulses that inhabit the characters that the murders they commit seem natural to us: the paroxysms of a savage, almost raging love. This is not to suggest that Shostakovich does not offer us passages of tenderness and lyricism. Thus, at the very beginning, Katerina’s song which recounts her boredom at having nothing to do, an almost romantic ennui; one is reminded, for a moment, of Emma Bovary. Here the music seems innocent, evoking a Russian folk song. However, an insistent pounding in the bass provides a dark counter-rhythm to the melody: the nagging throb of desire.
At the end of the first act, Katerina, in her tortured solitude, groans her need for a lover. A moment before, when her father-in-law orders her to go to bed, a recurring motif can be heard in the strings, soft but obsessive. Then follow drum rolls and a creeping figure in the bass clarinet. Then in the vocal line the sexually explicit “The stallion hastens to join the mare” emerges, accompanied by sumptuous strings, whilst the latent threat in the bass clarinet persists. Little by little, the vocal line becomes a desperate cry, which is not without evoking the fury of Salome. This is the music of imbalance and frustration.
Soon the harp can be heard, followed by the celesta, shreds of innocence. Sergei approaches, accompanied ironically by the piccolo, drum rolls in the timpani and derisory notes in the celesta. The melody has an ironic, skipping lilt. Its false gaiety teeters above the abyss; hypocritical flirting, before desire is unleashed in all its stark reality. The least one can say is that the music is worthy of the text. It soon supplants it, gasping with the characters’ bodies, in an amorous struggle that is a struggle for life itself. A terrifying, suffocating progression, which could be that of an act of carnage, or which is precisely that, for does not the very word carnage signify the consummation of the flesh, the ravaging of the flesh? Explosions in the brass, spiralling motifs in the strings, maniacal glissandi in the trombones and bombarding percussion. Literally, with rare ferocity, shots are fired. Then everything breaks down and collapses, in an abrupt post-orgasmic detumescence.
At the very end of the opera, the same percussion instruments that expressed desire beat out the march towards death, that of the convicts in the steppe. Only Wozzeck had previously explored these remote regions – and we know that Shostakovich had been strongly impressed by Alban Berg’s opera. The music then is as transgressive as the libretto. Not only because it accompanies with its precise hurricanes the violence of the text, but also because Shostakovich combined in it all kinds of musical languages (tonal, modal, plurimodal, chromatic and atonal), whilst making use of unusual combinations of instruments and timbres and of constant changes of atmosphere in a sort of vertiginous iridescence: enough to provoke cries of “left-wing chaos” from Pravda.
But perhaps there was still more, something that is the real mark of Shostakovich, of whom we are never sure if his music represents a mask or a face: an inextricable mixture of tragedy and satire, of lyricism and sarcasm, of emotion and irony, of gravity and laughter. A work of extreme pliability and emotional complexity. And, in addition, a fundamentally ambiguous vision of the human soul. This ambiguity could well have been both the cause and the consequence of the oppression the composer endured during his life. The cause, because even despite his most desperate endeavours, the composer remained incapable of writing music that was simple, realist and socialist. The consequence because his inherent richness and subtlety, under the influence of fear, were perhaps constrained to become dissimulation, a salutary ambivalence, as in the famous Symphony no. 5, acknowledged by the establishment the year after his condemnation in Pravda (in 1937) as a song of triumph and a sign of the composer’s repentance, but one can also find it cruelly and deliberately hollow. At the beginning of the thirties, when Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was written, the complexity, the indefinability of Shostakovich was certainly not the result of dissimulation. Except perhaps in the scene in which the police sergeant expresses a wish to search Katerina’s house simply because he has not been invited to her wedding. “We need a reason” he ruminates cynically, “but a reason, that can always be found”. A denunciation of Czarist arbitrariness, it would seem. Shostakovich was thus irreproachable. But it doubtless fooled nobody, least of all Stalin, a past master in the art of “finding reasons”.
This allusion, however, despite its mortal insolence, cannot have irritated the father of the people as much as the opera’s music, which was guilty of the ultimate crime, that of saying: no, the world is not as simple as a despot’s dream. Taken all in all, the erotic transgression of the work, and the impression it gave of saying and showing everything immodestly, masked an even graver transgression, that of complexity, of ambiguity. A true artist, the eternal enemy of those terrible agents of simplification, never ceases to suggest that, although the human body can be stripped bare, the soul never will be entirely.