Shostakovich in America

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Wednesday, March 25, 2020

It's all a matter of timing. In 1942, the Soviet Union was America's wartime ally, and the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich made the cover of Time magazine. Seven years later, the war was over, but the COLD war was on—with a vengeance.

On March 25, 1949, Shostakovich arrived in New York for his first visit to America, hand-picked by Stalin to be part of the Soviet delegation to a "Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace." (That's what they called it, anyway.)

The goals of the congress organizers were idealistic, but the anti-Communist tide of American public opinion resulted in pickets, protests, and many cancellations. Those who did speak at the congress, including the American composer Aaron Copland, felt compelled to preface their comments with unambiguously anti-Communist manifestos. Shostakovich nervously read the equally unambiguous speech prepared for him by his Soviet minders, a speech attacking American imperialism in general and the expatriate Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, in particular. It was embarrassing for everyone concerned, and the Soviet guests were asked to leave early.

While he was in New York, Shostakovich got to play a piano reduction of the Scherzo from his Fifth Symphony for a huge crowd at Madison Square Garden. That, at least, resulted in a big ovation—and maybe that was how he privately approached the whole, sad affair—as a kind of grim scherzo, or joke.