Under the influence of the fear of death

Photo by Jon's pics. Creative Commons.

“Shostakovich, noting that the fear of death is probably the deepest feeling we have, went on: ‘The irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear people create poetry, prose and music, that is, they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence on them.” (Julian Barnes quoting Shostakovich in his book, Nothing to be Frightened Of.)

Sometime in the late 1980s, my friend Jane invited me to join her for some Shostakovich string quartets at a series at New York City’s Town Hall. I did, and although I can’t remember any one of them that well, I was deeply moved by them. The music was so raw and at the same time so complex. That music, like some of the quartets of Beethoven, is music I want to spend time with, and given that time is rushing by more quickly than usual lately, I’d better do it soon.

I remember the notes at those concerts informed us that Dimitri Shostakovich was terrified of death, and that much of his music was influenced by his terror. I was fascinated by that. What I didn’t realize was what it meant in the framework of the composer’s life. He was born in a Russia that became the USSR, and being extraordinarily talented, soon rose in the ranks of its composers.

At age 29, his life became a nightmare when Josef Stalin left a performance of his opera, The Lady Macbeth of Mitsensk, before its end, and Pravda suggested that the composer was playing a game that “may end very badly.” The Moscow Trials were beginning and soon Stalin would murder thousands, and then tens of thousands. Even though the opera had been popular for two years, now it became a threat. Shostakovich packed a suitcase in preparation for his arrest, and slept in the hallway outside his apartment so that when the secret police came his children would not see him taken away.

Stalin. Photo by moacirpdep. Taken in Randamonis, Alytus County. Creative Commons.

He lived a life on the edge, in death’s shadow. In the years that followed, he was sometimes scorned and threatened and sometimes celebrated as the premiere composer of the Soviet Union. He tried to placate, even please the regime in his music and with soft words. He attacked it in his music, and sometimes the powerful understood, and sometimes they didn’t.

When Stalin died in 1953, it should have been a great relief, but it was also too late, and besides, the country was still its same repressive self, just a little less blood thirsty. There were times during those years when the composer actually signed petitions against other artists; there were other times when he worked to save them. Like most of us, he wasn’t a moral giant. But in his music he reflected his age, his country and the struggles of the twentieth century powerfully.

And then there were the last years of his life in the late sixties and early seventies, when his health began to fail, when death grew more ominous. I’ve read many descriptions of the music he wrote in that period: it poured from him. But no one suggests that he found peace, that he accepted death. There was no redemption or salvation. He looked at death somberly and angrily, and then he lost the battle.

His music of this final period expressed fear before death, a numbness, a search for a final sanctuary in the memory of future men; explosions of impotent and heartbreaking anger. Sometimes Shostakovich seemed most to fear that people would think he was repenting, asking for forgiveness. He was a dying ‘underground man.” [ Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov.]

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