Shostakovich's Cello sonata: its genesis related to socialist realism
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Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Cello Sonata in 1934, a crucial date regarding developments in Soviet cultural history, Shostakovich’s compositional style, and his personal life. Stalin’s government had begun to promote the artistic doctrine of Socialist Realism, which, in typically vague bureaucratic language, called for accessible musical styles that resonated with everyday experiences of Soviet citizens. In response to official demands, Shostakovich had started to experiment with a new simplicity which would not, however, regress into unoriginal, old-fashioned styles. At the same time, Shostakovich was attracting international fame with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which enjoyed a certain succès de scandale in Russia and the West because of its shocking subject matter and explicit musical depiction of adultery. This success was abruptly curtailed, however, after the publication in 1936 of a notorious article in the national journal Pravda, whose anonymous author, rumored to be Stalin or a close associate, denounced Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “chaos instead of music.” This article had a devastating effect on Shostakovich’s livelihood. His compositions were quietly removed from concert programs, most of his friends were too afraid to defend him, and his promising career as an opera composer was over. While Stalin’s officials harshly criticized almost all Shostakovich’s compositions from the mid-1930s, the Cello Sonata was, interestingly, never suppressed. This treatise will investigate why. Was it because chamber music, having no plot or text, is less scandalous than opera? Or did the Cello Sonata contain some evidence of the elusive principles of Socialist Realism? This treatise has four chapters. The first two will introduce the historical and cultural situation in Russia in the 1930s, detailing the problematic challenges Soviet composers faced in trying to incorporate Socialist Realist requirements into their music. The third chapter presents an analytical overview of the four movements of the Cello Sonata, discussing their form and stylistic features in relation to Socialist Realism. The final chapter addresses whether the Cello Sonata is truly representative of Socialist Realist philosophy, and why, during the cultural purges of Stalin’s Terror, the Cello Sonata never attracted negative official comment.