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Knocked Back in the USSR: How Shostakovich fell foul of the Soviet musical establishment

Shostakovich was the golden boy of Soviet art in the 1920s, but by The Nose's stage premiere in 1930, the tide was beginning to turn.

By Rosamund Bartlett (Scholar of Russian cultural history)

11 October 2016 at 4.43pm | Comment on this article

Shostakovich was excited about beginning work on The Nose in 1927. He was only 20 years old, but he had been itching for some time to throw himself into the composition of his first opera. Following the triumphant first performance of his precocious First Symphony in May 1926, Shostakovich was well placed to lead the charge in the ‘Sovietization’ of an art form that was considered outdated, a miraculous survivor of the ravages of revolution and civil war.

It was the perfect time to be embarking on a career as an opera composer, or so Shostakovich thought. As an artistic revolutionary who also supported the regime, he had every right to feel confident in its promise of a bright new future. Utopian dreams, coupled with the relative liberalism which accompanied the temporary return to capitalism, fuelled a period of extraordinary creative ferment across all the arts, of which Shostakovich’s debut opera The Nose was one of its most remarkable products.

Shostakovich came of age just at the time when extensive cultural contacts were renewed with the West. His sudden exposure to the latest developments in contemporary Western music in the new permissive climate of the 1920s had an explosive effect. As he was the first to acknowledge, it was his study of the music of Schoenberg, Bartók, Hindemith and Krenek in 1926 that enabled him to break free of the academic bonds of his conservatory education. Of equal importance were the Soviet stagings of daring contemporary operas which European theatres were reluctant to tackle, including Berg’s Wozzeck.

Although the music for the three acts of The Nose was composed rapidly, the score had to be completed in a series of intermittent bursts while Shostakovich juggled other commitments. These included a spell working as a pianist at the Meyerhold Theatre in Moscow. As one of Russia’s first artistic revolutionaries to embrace the Bolshevik cause, Vsevolod Meyerhold had been given his own theatre in Moscow, where he proceeded to deconstruct both the works he staged, and the very edifice of theatrical art. Shostakovich, who had always loved the theatre, and considered Meyerhold to be a stage director of genius, was mesmerized.

The shadow of Meyerhold can be seen behind Shostakovich’s sophisticated libretto for The Nose (produced partially in tandem with Georgy Ionin, Alexander Preis, and, to a lesser extent, Evgeny Zamyatin). Language was important to Shostakovich. Like Musorgsky before him, he sought to defy operatic convention by graphically reproducing the particular rhythms and intonations of Gogol’s language, musicalizing its pronunciation, and matching its baroque extravagance in his score with declamatory and often nasal recitative and extreme changes in register.

Like other progressive members of the creative intelligentsia, Shostakovich did not stop to question his artistic path; but as he was completing The Nose, just months before Stalin inaugurated the first Five Year Plan, the debates about contemporary opera in the Soviet Union became more charged. According to one article in May 1928, staging modernist operas was like bringing cake to a minority and ignoring the masses, whose need was for black bread.

With its 78 sung roles and nine spoken roles, for which at least thirty soloists were needed, it is not surprising that The Nose required 150 piano rehearsals and 50 orchestra rehearsals before it finally reached its stage premiere in January 1930. By this time, art had been included in the Five Year Plan, and shock brigades of theatre employees were being dragooned into going to the collective farm ‘front’. An opposition had been marshalled which was set to condemn The Nose as insufficiently politically engaged, and too subservient to Western avant-garde forms, but critic Sollertinsky argued valiantly that Shostakovich had revolutionized the staid genre of opera and created a new musical language.

The Nose runs 20 October–9 November 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and Opera Australia and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Hamish and Sophie Forsyth, The Tsukanov Family Foundation and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

This is an edited excerpt from Rosamund Bartlett’s article ‘The Creation of The Nose’ for The Royal Opera’s programme book for The Nose, available during performances.

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