The Russian composer Shostakovich did not sympathize with Stalin, as is often thought. The Netherlands Wind Ensemble gives him the honor he deserves

The Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich was a tragic man, caught between Stalin’s dictatorship and the Western ‘art mafia’ that accused him of collaboration. The Netherlands Wind Ensemble plays an arrangement of his Eighth String Quartet, in Groningen and Drachten.

“I try to clarify why the judgment about Shostakovich was completely wrong until recently,” says Bart Schneemann, oboist and artistic director of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. “He was shot down by the art mafia, without much knowledge. Wrongly.”

Shostakovich’s music “is said to be too superficial, characterized by the pursuit of effect, and he is said to be in agreement with the regime. I am making a plea for him, I am going to try to explain to the public why he did what he did.”

The Netherlands Wind Ensemble does this more often, giving concerts and explaining why they chose this or that piece. With Schneemann as an extremely enthusiastic narrator. “I can talk about it for half an hour,” he says towards the end of our conversation. “How long have we been talking?”

In the program Shostakovich + that + sign stands for Schneemann’s story, with a poignant subject Eighth string quartet , from 1960. “He told his wife that he had finally talked about himself in that piece, and that he could now commit suicide. Before that, he was constantly forced by the regime to make something about themes such as the glorious victory over the Germans in Berlin, or, in the Eleventh Symphony about the revolution of 1905.”

DSCH, that moving motif

This string quartet also received such a stamp from the Russian government, about the victims in the fight against fascism. But actually it was about himself. Shostakovich incorporated the first letters of his name (German: DSCH) into the famous motif, which continues to appear in very different forms; “a monogram.” And he included references to his earlier work in each of the five parts.

But there’s also a march in there somewhere, which was known as the March to Siberia. “Do you feel it?” And a fragment from a Jewish wedding song. “A drinking song!” says Schneemann. “A reference to his own drinking, at least that is my interpretation. To cope with all his suffering, he was a chain smoker and a chain drinker. About 30 bottles went through each symphony, yes, no really.”

And it started so promisingly for Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975, that suicide did not happen after all), an internationally celebrated composer in his younger years. Also his opera Lady Macbeth from 1934 was initially a great success.

“Until Big Brother, Joseph Stalin, came to take a look and walked away angrily halfway through. Of course, that opera did not fit in with social realism, and Stalin had that opera completely destroyed by the Pravda . That was the first big blow for Shostakovich, when he really feared for his life.”

No Western Accords

After all, many people were sent to the gulag or even executed for less, Stalin’s regime claimed millions of victims in these and other ways. To avoid that fate, Shostakovich saw no other option than to conform to the aesthetic and substantive demands of the regime: proletarian heroism, triumphantism, no Western agreements.

“Prokofiev and Stravinsky went abroad. It was easy for them to say, they had no family! Shostakovich did, he lived there with his wife and two children in a third-floor apartment in the back of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad, ed .).”

Schneemann is convinced that Shostakovich had his heart in the right place. “But the circumstances were not right to do anything about it.” He was there himself, in the old, communist Soviet Union, dismantled in the early 1990s. As oboist in the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

“That was a snitch company, oh, terrible. Everyone was afraid of being snitched on. If you said something wrong, your daughter couldn’t study, or you lost your job, or worse. Everyone was afraid. He lived in such a world.”

Then Shostakovich his Eighth wrote, in 1960, the reins had been loosened a bit. Stalin had already been dead for 7 years. The troubled Shostakovich was somewhat rehabilitated under party leader Nikita Khrushchev, who cynically used him again to oppose his predecessor Stalin. Shostakovich was even invited to join the Communist Party, which was followed by his critics in the West.

All in all, Shostakovich’s sad fate is not immediately a plea for substantive government intervention in the arts. “After the last elections you never know which way things will go in the Netherlands.”

Young talent, composition talent especially

This Eighth string quartet has been arranged for eight wind instruments plus double bass by Dmitri Smirnov, “third-generation student of Shostakovich!” Before then, a few parts of Shostakovich’ Eleventh Symphony , arranged for twelve wind instruments by the young composer Primo Ish-Hurwitz, from Oranjewoud. “A brilliant composer!”

The Netherlands Wind Ensemble attaches great importance to young talent in general, and composition talent in particular. The concert in Drachten is preceded by a performance by Jong NBE Regional.

The composition competition that accompanies the traditional New Year’s concert of the NBE has already helped many composers, such as Karmit Fadael from Sneek, Jan-Peter de Graaff from Terschelling, and current Composer Laureate Anne-Maartje Lemereis. “Almost everyone who composes now,” Schneemann swears, “as many as 300!” And his own son Julian is now the artistic director of the rapidly developing ensemble Pynarello. Proud: “He does that better than me!”

And that name, Shostakovich, how exactly do you pronounce it? Schneemann has saved the voicemail message on which a Russian lady from the marketing department explained this. “Shos-ta-ko-vich, toneless actually, lifeless. As befits a people that has suffered under, and is disappointed in, three centuries of tsars, then the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, dictators. That poor country! Those poor people! I really feel for them.”


7/2, Oosterpoort Groningen, 8/2, De Lawei Drachten