Shostakovich: Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok

Program Note

Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok (1967)

“I was a musician, never a politician. I lived according to the dictates of my conscience and my heart,” wrote Mstislav Rostropovich in response to a nationalist journalist’s attack on his and other artists’ decisions to leave the USSR. In 1974 Rostropovich and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, had given up their home in Moscow and their status among the artistic elite in the Soviet Union and moved abroad. Rostropovich was stripped of his citizenship in 1978 and did not return to his home until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He wrote, “My wife and I have not left our people, but the officials who have been given the opportunity to make a mockery of those who have devoted their life to art.” 

Rostropovich’s friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, never left those officials who made his life miserable. He remained in the Soviet Union until his death in 1975, the same year that Rostropovich penned this open letter. 

There are many conflicting stories about the political life of Shostakovich. Some say he was Dmitri Shostakovich: Secret Revolutionary, and some say Dmitri Shostakovich: Puppet of the Party. His political motivations were difficult to pin down, probably because even when forced by the Party to write with an agenda, he was not composing for them, but, as Rostropovich wrote, to be true to his conscience and his heart. His early music was generally met with wide acclaim, but there was debate as to whether it upheld true Soviet values. It was for this reason that his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was a hot subject for discussion when it premiered in 1934. The reviews pouring in after the Moscow and Leningrad premieres seemed positive. Party members declared it as a “path for the founding of a new, genuine Soviet realist opera.” These very same party members rushed to recant their statements a few weeks later when Stalin himself published an article in the official party magazine titled “Chaos Instead of Music,” denouncing Shostakovich’s opera for its overt sexuality, “leftist deformity”, and a lack of melody. The government had nonsensically condemned Shostakovich, the most brilliant young composer of his day, on a work which seemed to be a legitimate Party piece. This was a power move; Shostakovich was used as a warning to other artists who might try and push back against the government. Whether he realized it or not, Shostakovich was a plaything of his government.

This constant game of cat and mouse between artist and government wore on Shostakovich over time. In 1967, when Shostakovich composed the Seven Romances on Alexander Blok Poems, he was recovering from illness and was questioning whether he had anything left to write. Rostropovich had requested a song cycle from his friend for himself and his wife to perform. Shostakovich composed the first Romance for cello and soprano set to the Russian Symbolist poet Alexander Blok’s “Ophelia’s Song,” and then in an outpouring of three days wrote six more which added violin and piano, to be performed by David Oistrakh and Moisey Vainberg. 

Premiered during the fiftieth anniversary year of the October Revolution by artists who had complex relationships with their government, this piece holds special significance. Alexander Blok’s most famous poem was titled “The Twelve,” and was one of the first written responses to the October Revolution of 1917. It tells the story of a stormy wintry night in Petrograd during the Revolution. During the night, Bolshevik revolutionaries kill a prostitute and wreak havoc among the common people that they are purportedly trying to help and protect in their quest to overthrow the government. Even with its pro-Party plot, the poem offers a multifaceted view of the chaos that came upon the citizens the Soviet Union because of the Bolshevik rise to power. With that mindset, the compilation of poems that Shostakovich selected for this piece might also offer a complex narrative on his feelings toward his homeland. Ophelia sings of her lost love, Gamelon the Bird of Prophecy sings a horrible tale of fate, a violin plays softly an old love song, a sleeping city glimmers anxiously at dawn, a storm rages, a man hides from the horrors of violence, and lastly, the thought that Shostakovich ends with is:

Accept, then, Queen of the world,
Through blood, suffering, and the grave—
This last brimming bowl of passion from an unworthy slave!

A certain devastation in Shostakovich’s music is always immediately apparent to the listener. In rehearsals, musicians will often say, “this section needs to sound bleaker, more desolate.” An element of fate, something mechanical, immovable, and unchangeable pervades his music.  This piece is no different, but it very much appeals as an offering, as an intimate plea that was first performed among some of Shostakovich’s closest friends.

—Annie Jacobs-Perkins