The reception in America of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1928-1946
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To many Americans, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the first significant Soviet composer whose entire education, musical development, and artistic career were shaped, supported, and controlled by the political and cultural realities of the Soviet Union. His developmental years as a composer were the first decades of the Bolshevik regime, when the newly formed Soviet Union was experiencing radical changes in governmental and societal structures. This new nation seemed to many Americans in the 1930s and 1940s to be a land of promise, an experiment in utopia that might be the solution to the economic problems of the Depression years. Although the degree of friendliness between the Soviet Union and the United States underwent many changes during these decades, Americans remained intrigued by Russian culture. Shostakovich’s music was a vital part of the lively cultural exchange between the nations, and the peak of his popularity in America, around 1942-45, coincided with the height of American interest in Soviet culture. Americans in the 1930s and 1940s believed that Shostakovich, in acquiescence to Soviet policy, purposefully wrote his music to be accessible to a wide audience. While American audiences enthusiastically accepted his symphonies as monumental works in the late nineteenth-century symphonic tradition, some American critics remained suspicious of this submission to governmental mandate. Those works that were more obviously connected to Soviet politics—the opera Lady Macbeth, the Fifth Symphony, and the Seventh Symphony—received the most acclaim by American audiences and attention by American critics, while those less politically charged, such as the Sixth, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, fell out favor quickly. Shostakovich’s music, irrevocably connected to Soviet official policy, was a concrete representation of the growing idea promoted by Communists that art could not be separated from everyday life. Because Shostakovich’s music was used as a political tool and an expression of Soviet culture, its aesthetic qualities were often ignored or dismissed as inferior. His popularity in America during the 1930s and 1940s seems to have been a result of the political associations of his music and the controversy surrounding these associations.