In 1935 Joseph Stalin was shaping Soviet Russia into a new world. Russia was still largely agrarian, uneducated, and backward. He feared the Western nations and was determined to catch up to them. He began industrializing the nation at an incredible rate. Factories were popping up everywhere. Agricultural tools and methods were being updated. The people were encouraged to keep physically fit and take part in the new forms of entertainment available to them through music, theater, and film. The quality of life was improving and national pride was increasing.
Stalin was turning Russia into a superpower, but his great success was costly. The building of factories and the working of farms required labor. The cheapest labor available to Stalin were prisoners. Thousands of people were arrested for small crimes. People were disappearing daily. Stalin was merciless as he worked to gain as much control as he could. The government was purged of anyone he saw as a threat, and people at all levels were arrested and executed. It became the norm to discuss who had recently been arrested and who had recently been shot.
It was in this atmosphere of fear that Dmitri Shostakovich began writing his fourth symphony. He had recently completed a number of works that were bringing him international attention, the most popular; his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mensk District. Shostakovich was at the height of his fame and the Soviets loved having such a young, talented composer representing Russia. That is until Stalin decided to hear the music everyone was talking about.
Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera in January of 1936 and walked out before it ended. A few days later on the 28th, Pravda, the official newspaper of the communist party, released and article entitled “Chaos Instead of Music”. The article attacked Shostakovich and decried his music. You can read a translated version of the article here.
At the time of the article Shostakovich had written the first two movements of his latest symphony. He finished the third movement and defiantly began rehearsals for the piece’s premiere scheduled for December 1936. However, after a number of rehearsals a representative from the composers union accompanied by a dignitary from Communist Party Headquarters showed up at the music hall to speak with Shostakovich. He withdrew the symphony shortly after this meeting. It is rumored that he was asked to withdraw it willingly or else “administrative measures” would be taken.
Shostakovich had to wait 25 years to hear his symphony. The score was lost during WWII, but eventually resurfaced in the Leningrad archives. It was premiered on December 30, 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kyrill Kondrashin and was well received by both Soviet and Western critics.