Iain Cameron's Diary
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2006-10-01 - 9:25 p.m.
A Russian weekend – Saturday night we went to see Lady Macbeth of Msensk at the Opera House – Antonnio Pappano was conducting. We were in the front row of the amphitheatre at the side of the central block with a good view of the stage and down into the orchestra pit.
It was one of the works that irritated Stalin a lot – and you can see why. There s a police chief in Act 3 who even at the time was seen as send-up of the great leader. And the ending is resolutely downbeat – contrary to the socialist realistic aesthetic - as the heroine drowns her rival on the way to Siberia. The question isnt why Stalin disliked the work and reacted – it’s why Shostakovich put the thing on in the first place.
My guess would be that Shostakovich used his success with The Nose as a misleading guide to what would be tolerated. The Nose was on the stage in 1930 and a great success while Lady Macbeth was finished at the end of 1932. The Nose has a lot of satirical elements – for example there’s a pop at censorship and at the authorities as they try to get the escaped nose under control.But it has a happy ending when the nose rejoins its face - and is based on an earlier piece of literature than the next opera. Shostakovich is an order of magnitude more provocative in Lady Macbeth. Meanwhile the level of cultural tolerance was declining as the 30s unfolded – and so when Stalin saw the work in 1936 things didn’t go well.
The production was astonishing but there is an obvious irony about a work from the height of the soviet experiment being presented so lavishly to such a wealthy audience. I couldn’t help thinking of Berg’s Lulu – another heroine-led opera who sees her suitors fall like flies which was written at almost exactly the same time.
Sunday we took James to St Anthony’s Oxford for the start of his Mphil in Russian Studies – the author of a recent biography of Stalin is a fellow here. The college is in the northern part of the town next door to St Ann’s where I went for a seminar in the new block earlier in the year. As we unloaded his stuff, a book in James’ collection caught my eye – James explained that the author is supervising his girlfriend’s dissertation on the current state of russian memory of world war 2 and that some people think this author is insufficiently lenient in his assessment of Stalin.
His friend Traff who he went round Europe with in their gap year has just started a masters in classics at the university . James’ room is in a house on the main road on the edge of the College and it has just been decorated – as student rooms go its not at all bad. As we drove in from the Pear Tree exit on the A34 going through north Oxford, we agreed that it looked very like west Cambridge..
I glanced at the start of the chapter in the Philosophy of the New Music on Stravisnky – and began to make a few notes on what it is that has upset Adorno so much. He links Stravinsky with Satie as a late emanation of impressionism – a kind of intentionlessness which is linked to the contemporary philosophy of phenomenology. This is a powerless subjectivity that clings its own primacy and decays in a self-styled weariness of knowing too much, an evasion of culture – this is the charge . Adorno thinks that Pierrot Lunaire gets close to this point but draws back .