After several generations of revolution, the Soviet Union had perfected the New Man: a functionary capable of sacrificing his moral principles, groveling in hierarchical pyramids to carry out the orders of a psychopathic tyrant who continued to massacre people from his naphthalene bed. Pavel Apostolov was one of those New Men who exerted his little bit of tyranny from the offices of the association of Soviet composers, giving the go-ahead for the premieres of new musical works. His favorite word was No, as with all commissioners who tighten repressive frameworks in the name of intangible assumptions – the will of the shadows. Dmitri Shostakovich knew this, and had in the envy of Apostolov the perfect image of the absurd, the most powerful combustible for the composition of works that were increasingly harrowing and brutal, where you can feel the oppression, asphyxia, and death in sublime pages – perhaps the best music of the 20th century.
Let us hear the initial atmosphere of Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, or the orchestra’s entrance after the solo that opens his second cello concerto. I have no words to describe what I felt some years ago on discovering his Symphony No. 14 for strings and percussion, soprano and bass, with texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, and Rilke on the theme of death. From the cheapest seats on the top floor of Carnegie Hall fell a painful drizzle of tears on Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica, closing with this work a program that included an orchestration of the Violin Sonata and the celebrated Quartet No. 8. I was on the edge of my seat. I understood what Shostakovich had lived, from his first symphony in the 1920s – playful, bizarre, and full of humor – to the premiere of his fourteenth in September, 1969: the most abrasive period in humanity.
My friend Yuli Turovsky played in the orchestra for the “pre-premiere” that was in reality a performance for the Soviet censors, to obtain permission for a premiere. He says the proverbially concise Shostakovich – making the most of a hall stocked with faithfuls who came to witness perhaps the only concert, if Commissioner Apostolov decided to prohibit such a dark and pessimistic work – pronounced, “I want the audience to reflect on this new symphony so they understand that they should lead pure and fruitful lives for the glory of their mother country, their town, and the most progressive ideas that motivate our socialist society. I want my audience, on leaving the hall after hearing my symphony, to think that life is really beautiful.” Shostakovich spoke in code, like all citizens of oppressive regimes. The baton of Rudolf Barshai would reveal immediately the true meaning of the discourse, scattering through the hall the ice of the gulags, the terror of the KGB, the premature death of so many innocents sacrificed in the inexorable march towards the Happiness of a classless society. All this was expressed obliquely through the most moving texts, from Lorca’s “De Profundis” to Rilke’s “Death of the Poet” and Apollinaire’s “Suicide” – eleven poems that surely conveyed the highest sum of happiness possible behind the iron curtain and (this is the greatness of Shostakovich) on our side as well. Minutes after the intro, a clamor of slamming doors in the theater announced something terrible. Barshai interrupted the performance to ask what had happened. Someone had suffered a mortal heart attack, and it was none other than Pavel Apostolov. The severity of his censorship had sharpened the musical dagger that would kill him in his seat, one day in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland