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Shostakovich's musical genius was protean, but it was with opera above all that he wanted to consolidate the dazzling international reputation he established when Bruno Walter conducted his First Symphony in Berlin in February 1928. He was thus following in the footsteps of his nineteenth-century forebears Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, whose gravitation towards opera was a reflection of its central importance within Russian musical and cultural life. Somewhat surprisingly, opera continued to be a high-profile musical genre after the Revolution, despite its bourgeois associations, and new Soviet operas were actively sought for the main stages of Moscow and Leningrad, earmarked to become traditional symbols of national prestige as before. Shostakovich therefore had every reason to feel confident and optimistic when beginning his first opera in 1927.
After completing The Nose before he even turned twenty-two, Shostakovich embarked on what he planned to be a tetralogy of operas about women – a kind of self-styled Soviet Ring of the Nibelung. His Rheingold equivalent, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, was a huge success when it was first performed in 1934. Two years later, however, Shostakovich was stopped in his tracks by a savage denunciation of his new work in the Soviet Union's premier newspaper Pravda, following an infamous performance attended by Stalin. Quite apart from the fact that Lady Macbeth did not exemplify the principles of Socialist Realism, which had been launched in 1932 as the monolithic and conservative new style for Soviet artists to follow, this was the period marking the start of the ‘Great Terror’ – a time of mass arrests and summary executions.
To gain a sense of the achievements of Russian culture during this period, it is instructive to compare the comments made on the subject by Petr Chaadaev in a 'Philosophical Letter'. The fate of Chaadaev's 'Philosophical Letter', meanwhile, exemplifies the cultural atmosphere under Nicholas I as a whole. During Alexander II's reign Russian culture flourished. Alexander III reacted to the violent circumstances of his father's death by introducing repressive measures which actually attempted to undo some of the 1860s reforms, and by increasing censorship. Tchaikovsky also made a serious contribution to the renewal of Russian church music. The main symphony concert series, which had been inaugurated by the Russian Musical Society in 1859, had become increasingly reliant on the classical repertoire by the 1880s and was beginning to lack freshness. Two new ventures which were to have a lasting impact on Russian cultural life were launched in 1898, one in Moscow and the other in St Petersburg.
‘A man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country – he can have only one country – and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life.’ These words were uttered by Stravinsky at a banquet held in his honour in Moscow on 1 October 1962. The eighty-year-old composer had returned to his homeland after an absence of fifty years. In the intervening period he had acquired first French and then American citizenship, and developed an increasingly hostile attitude towards his native country and its culture. This hostility had been fully reciprocated by the Soviet musical establishment. Now, as the guest of the Union of Composers, Stravinsky was seemingly performing a complete volte-face by wholeheartedly embracing his Russian identity. For Robert Craft, his assistant and amanuensis, this was nothing short of a ‘transformation’, and he was astonished, not only to witness Stravinsky and his wife suddenly taking ‘pride in everything Russian’, but to observe at close hand how ‘half a century of expatriation’ could be ‘forgotten in a night’. Craft's diary of the famous visit contains many revealing comments about a composer who was a master of mystification.
Like his younger contemporary Vladimir Nabokov, with whom there are some intriguing biographical parallels, Stravinsky did not care to be pigeon-holed or linked with any particular artistic trend after he left Russia. Above all, because of a sense of cultural inferiority which stemmed from the fact that Russia's musical tradition was so much younger than that of other European nations, he came to disavow his own musical heritage, which necessitated embroidering a complex tapestry of lies and denials.