Shock Value of Success: Rebel to the Grain

Dmitri Shostakovitch, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and one of the first in the eastern world to incorporate American jazz elements into his operas and other written compositions.

High Maintenance Taste

You already know.

DISCLAIMER: I’m using a lot of information from the Seventeen Moments in Soviet History site under the topic “Upheaval in the Opera”. I’ll include a hyperlink here for future reference!

Now, where to begin? I guess we’ll start with Stalin’s taste in art. Let’s just say he’s a little more . . . traditional? He’s been proven time and time again to not be much of a fan of the artistic ventures created during his reign. You could probably say he was born in the wrong generation. Not too uncommon though, even nowadays. Like, hey, look at me! I pretty much exclusively listen to rock music, and even then only from the 90s and 00s. The difference between me and Stalin however, besides the obvious, is that I wouldn’t straight up walk out of a concert hall in disgust at something I chose to attend, which is EXACTLY what he did four days after the premiere of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Lady Macbeth is an opera written and composed by renowned Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, who is known especially for his Jazz Suite No. 2. To understand why Stalin would be so rude as to walk out of a legend’s concert, one must understand the politics of his reign beginning in the late 20s.

Raion Politics

Wooden Pokrovskaya church, Vsevolozhskiy Raion; not very relevant but it’s a really cool picture :^)

If you haven’t figured out any of my musical references by now then I’m doing a pretty good job! But yeah, if you don’t know what “raion” means that’s fine, even big-leaguers swing and miss sometimes. Raion in Russian (at least from Google Translate) means specifically “district”, which are abound and very diverse culturally in Russia.

Stalin refers to a lot of the things he dislikes as “Left”. Maybe this is because of the ideological divide in the Left and Right over his direction after the NEP. Stalin didn’t like the Left, to put it bluntly. Which is sort of contradictory because he actually backed the Left after admitting an overflow of young Bolsheviks into the Politburo, but initially sided with the Right to distance himself from rival ideologue Leon Trotsky.

Why is this schism important? We’ll discuss that more below . . .

Another Critic Writing Report

Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth took off in a rather popular fashion upon release and is regarded as one of his seminal works to this day. However, Stalin happened to attend one fateful night, January 26th, 1934. He didn’t like it. He stood up and walked out of one of the most celebrated and accomplished RUSSIAN composers of all time. The nerve, right? Well, it gets better. The DAY after that performance, the DAY after, a critique of the performance was written in the Pravda, Russia’s premiere propaganda machine. The critique is entitled “Chaos Instead of Music” and is hilarious even to this day. Seriously, this is worse than some Yelp reviews. Let’s discuss!

S*** Reviews

I didn’t cuss, I swear! Just another reference from modern music. Hopefully y’all are catching on by now but if not that’s cool :^)

“The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony.”

A good example of a bad critique, straight from “Chaos Instead of Music”.

The above quote is cut right out of the review that premiered in the Pravda the day after Stalin’s concert attendance. That quote gives you the gist of the entire critique, it basically just says the singers screamed a lot and the instruments were too loud. I can only begin to wonder if Stalin wrote this or had someone right it from his falsified memory. Although I will say this is much more avant-garde musically compared to his Jazz Suite, Shostakovitch is an artist. What do artists do? They push boundaries. Otherwise, every rockstar or rapper nowadays would be covering Fur Elise over and over again. I listened to a couple tracks of the opera, which can be found here, and I found really nothing out of the ordinary. I never really was an opera man myself either, but I surely didn’t think it was a harsh “cacophony” of sound. Maybe that’s my modern sensibilities talking, but believe me when I say this operatic composition is harmless. Screeches, yes, but only to express emotion and “passion”. Heavy use of dynamics above forte? Yes, and below piano. This dynamic contrast is one reason why this opera has such staying power. That and no one’s really going out and making an opera these days.

But why is this critique important? Here we return to the old “Left vs. Right” sparring match. The author of the review explicitly labels Shostakovitch a “Leftist”, and downplays the whole Leftist art movement: “‘Leftist’ Art rejects in the theater simplicity, realism, clarity of image.”

Simple. Real. Clear.

Get On With It . . .

A poster of critically acclaimed film “Doctor Zhivago”, based entirely on the book of the same name. Fun Fact: my mom was named after the female protagonist in the film!

ANYWAY. What’s my point in all this? My point is that this would not be the last attempt at censorship and lambasting by the Soviets even against their own people, their own superstars. Shostakovitch was just a starter, it would happen again with the likes of Boris Pasternak, the author of “Doctor Zhivago”, which got a critically acclaimed film adaptation of the same name and would also be downplayed by the Soviets. It wasn’t until 1987 that Gorbachev readmitted Pasternak back into the Union and let his book be printed in the country, 29 years after its release. Propaganda and censorship were THE vehicles of Soviet tyranny and is a lasting fact that we hold true to Russia and communism as a whole even today. These tenants helped build so-called “socialism” in the Soviet Union during the 30s and would remain with the nation for decades, even after its fall.

All These References

Okay, okay, I’ll just give you the list of all the references I used. Here they are . . .

Title: Shock Value of Success – FEAR. by Kendrick Lamar (‘shock value of my success’); Rebel to the Grain – Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ by Wu-Tang Clan

First Heading: High Maintenance Taste – Poetic Justice by Kendrick Lamar (‘your taste is a little bit, hmm, high maintenance’)

Second Heading: Raion Politics – Hood Politics by Kendrick Lamar

Third Heading: Another Critic Writing Report – Yonkers by Tyler, The Creator

Fourth Heading: S*** Reviews – The Ringer by Eminem

12 responses to “Shock Value of Success: Rebel to the Grain”

  1. This was hands down the funniest blog post I have read for this class. Good job summarizing the information and I like your use of quotations from the article. The pictures you used for this post were also very nice!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much De’Vonte! I’ll be sure to give your blog a read come comment time on Tuesday.


  2. Wow, Landry — I’m speechless. Well, almost….must keep typing…..I enjoyed this post SO much! Lady M scandal is one of my all time favorites, and you’ve presented the key dynamics so engagingly — I will confess that the young folks’ music is beyond me, but I’m your number one fan where citation and the integration of pop culture references is concerned. And I hope lots of people take the time to actually listen to some Shostakovich while they read this.

    Not to defend the S*** reviews, but I will note (and I made a similar comment on Alyssa’s post, which you should check out here:, that Lady M was pretty in your face where content was concerned — not that the musical language was so radical — but the fact that the protagonist is a bourgeois triple murderer…of her husband, father-in-law, and nephew, and that her affair with Sergei is “consummated” to the accompaniment of a trombone “ejaculation” made this a challenging piece for lots of audiences in the thirties — there were even pickets against the opera in Philadelphia! (Too racy for the city of brotherly love and all….)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments Professor! Yeah my take on the whole Lady Macbeth scandal was admittedly from more of a modern lens, seeing movies like Pulp Fiction and Fight Club tend to desensitize someone to a point. But yeah I can definitely see the massive controversy and Shostakovitch definitely led the way from outside the West in terms of pushing modernism in music. Also I did not know about the picketing in Philly, very interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved how you went off on Stalin as if he were a guy who cut in front of you in line at Starbucks and you were recounting what happened to your friend! It truly made me smile

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agree — Reading this must put me in a better mood all the way around.


    2. Found it fitting for a man like him!


  4. I loved reading this post, and that’s coming from someone who is not at all artistically inclined! Also I must add that I’m a HUGE classic rock guy, so I side with you on being born in the wrong generation. Anyway, your post was great. As someone who generally doesn’t care for theater or the arts, I think you did an awesome job relating it to the course and to Stalin, who I was aware was quite particular in his tastes, but not to the audacious levels you described here. Then again, he was Stalin. It just shows how one mans opinions translated into nationwide censorship and downplay of some renowned pieces of artwork, and how big of a roll politics played in settings such as the theater.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot, Rory! I just found it interesting too that if you think about it, Lenin would probably love stuff like Shostakovitch and even other artists from the 20s and 30s because they were almost like a vehicle for his platform. However, I guess Stalin wasn’t too radical in that regard now that I’ve dug a little deeper and no other renowned artists from his period were particularly fond of him!


  5. I really enjoyed reading this it was both informative and funny. This showed how censorship was utilized in the Soviet Union and if I was a composer or singer and I saw Stalin leave the the audience, I would start to panic. Do you think people would catch on to the message of either impress Stalin or be quiet? How many people would try to invent new things or new ideas for fear of offending Stalin?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Matt, thanks for the feedback! That is a great question about artists under the Stalin regime, and the answer seems to be contradictory to what most would think, maybe. As I said in the article, artists are more often than not just innately stubborn and groundbreaking, it’s in their nature to take their specific genres and methods to the absolute limits. Looking at some examples, Pasternak chose to stay in Russia for his entire life but his book was never printed there until the 80s, yet it didn’t quite matter since his novel was a smash hit in the Western world. Igor Stravinsky, another brilliant Russian composer and borderline household name, moved away from the Soviet Union in the 20s and lived in Paris and the U.S., where he eventually died. So given that trend, Shostakovitch seemed to be an early rebel in that he’s was making seemingly “controversial” material every year of his life and did so while living under Stalin.


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