Rebels with a cause: the friendship of Britten and Shostakovich

The 23-year-old Britten first heard of Shostakovich more than a decade earlier, two months after the Russian composer’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk had been denounced in a famous Pravda editorial penned at Stalin’s behest – Muddle Instead of Music – criticising the work for its degeneracy and undesirable bourgeois influences. The opera was immediately banned in the Soviet Union, and Shostakovich cast into disgrace until he rehabilitated himself with his Fifth Symphony in November 1937, an offering at the shrine of socialist realism.

Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich knew of each other long before they met in 1960. Shostakovich would certainly have encountered Britten’s name in 1948 when the English composer was among western musicians attacked as “decadent and bourgeois” by the Russian composer Boris Asafiev during the debacle of the Soviet Union’s drive against formalism in music. Shostakovich was forced to repeat these words at the World Peace Congress in New York in 1949.

Britten heard the opera in March 1936 at the Queen’s Hall in London: “Of course it is idle to pretend it is great music throughout – it is stage music and as such must be considered. There is some terrific music in the entr’actes. But I will defend it through thick and thin against those charges of ‘lack of style’,” he wrote. “People will not differentiate between style and manner. It is the composer’s heritage to take what he wants from where he wants – and to write music. There is a consistency in style and method throughout. The satire is biting and brilliant. It is never boring for a second … Some of the vocal writing is extravagant. But he may have special singers in mind … the ‘eminent English Renaissance’ composers sniggering in the stalls was typical – there is more music in one page of Macbeth than in the whole of their elegant output.”

Writing his first opera, Peter Grimes, eight years later, Britten recalled how effective an entr’acte or interlude could be in adding cohesion to the dramatic structure. Neither did he forget that “stage music” was essential to the theatrical aspect of the genre.

When the second world war broke out in September 1939, Britten and Pears were in the US, and as declared pacifists and “conchies” decided to stay. Their decision to return to the UK in 1942 was courageous, for many denigrating comments had been made about their “cowardice” in abandoning Europe. Britten was horrified by the tragedy of war and two decades later dedicated his War Requiem to four of his friends who had served in the conflict, three of whom lost their lives.

Shostakovich’s compositional response to the war was more immediate, for he started on his Seventh symphony (the so called “Leningrad”) within months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The work was seen as a symbol of the victorious struggle against Nazism, and after its premiere in Kuybyshev (Samara), performances were given in Moscow, New York and London. Most impressive, it was performed in besieged Leningrad in August 1942 by a much depleted orchestra reinforced by soldiers. Shostakovich was at the zenith of his fame and appeared, wearing a firefighter’s helmet, on the cover of Time magazine.

Once contact with the west was re-established during Khrushchev’s 1950s thaw, Britten’s music began to be played in the Soviet Union, although initially the composer was known only for his The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra. When he and Shostakovich eventually met in 1960 at the London premiere of the latter’s cello concerto, they felt an instant empathy. There was much to unite them: their middle-class professional backgrounds, their standing outside conventional society – if for very different reasons – and the fact that their positions were open to misunderstanding.

Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich with Britten at his house in Aldeburgh in 1961. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Their friendship was nurtured by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who understood how both composers suffered from the contradiction of being seen as establishment figures, while in reality they flaunted the conventions of their societies. In Shostakovich’s case, this meant making insincere political statements and unwillingly joining the communist party; in Britten’s, sustaining an open homosexual relationship with his muse, Peter Pears, at a time that homosexuality was illegal in the UK.

Rostropovich cajoled both composers into writing new cello works and masterminded the dedication of Britten’s opera The Prodigal Son of 1968 to Shostakovich. The return of compliments came the following year when Shostakovich dedicated his 14th Symphony to his English friend. Through its settings of poems dealing with the theme of death, the symphony was a considered response to the War Requiem of 1962, which Shostakovich considered a masterpiece. When Britten presented him with the score, he studied it avidly, taught it to students and confessed to Rostropovich that he particularly envied Britten for having created the descending and ascending whole-tone motif in the Agnes Dei.

The composers kept their friendship alive by correspondence and visits. Britten was welcomed to Moscow six times, and invited Shostakovich to the Aldeburgh festival; he was unable to go because of ill health. Britten compensated by programming and conducting Shostakovich’s music at his festival, and playing the piano part in such works as the cello sonata, Op 40, and Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok. The Russian did eventually come to Britten’s home in Aldeburgh in 1972, when Britten showed him work in progress – his last opera, Death in Venice.

Shostakovich (far right) with (from left) Rostropovich, Oistrakh, and Britten during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963. Photograph: © 2009 Irina Antonovna Shostakovich

Interestingly, Britten and Shostakovich had no common language except for a smattering of “Aldeburgh Deutsch”, yet were said to understand each other perfectly.

It seems fitting that their friendship, built on a common perception of music as a communicating force, has been the inspiration for the formation of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra. Founded by British conductor Jan Latham-Koenig, this bilateral British-Russian orchestra brings together together young musicians from conservatoires in both countries and is launched at a time of growing diplomatic polarisation, reminiscent of the cold war period.

Shostakovich died in August 1975, Britten almost 16 months later. The pair were linked by many things, yet their moral stances in their art united them most. Shostakovich reiterated that conscience was at the base of everything and thanked the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for “restoring Conscience” to him through the poems that were set in his 13th Symphony of 1962.

In the same year, Britten made his greatest anti-war statement: The War Requiem. Like Shostakovich, he was deeply troubled when human debts to conscience were not paid. But, above all, he believed communication was better than isolation, and that it was fundamentally necessary to “keep the doors open”. He was sure the best way of doing that was through music.

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