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Essay: Heroines in Strauss’s Salome and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

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  • Subject area(s): Media essays
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  • Published: June 11, 2021*
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  • Heroines in Strauss’s Salome and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
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‘Operatic heroines are delivered into numberless violent deaths’ . Unfortunately, both heroines in Strauss’s Salome and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk meet the same fate. However both female protagonists are completely different to their contemporaries – we feel complete empathy for these arguably terrible women. We feel they are victims of their situations, forced to do the unthinkable acts they end up doing. The same can almost be said for the composers- they were reacting to the situations they were in at the time of composing these works, responding to the society they lived in. In their cases, it didn’t result in death, although it was touch and go in Shostakovich’s case!

Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was first performed in January 1934 in St Petersburg, which was known as Leningrad. Shostakovich’s first opera ‘The Nose’ was first fully staged in 1930, was never performed again until 1974, a year before Shostakovich’s death. This was because the opera fell out of favour with the regime’s groups in the Soviet Union. To avoid or reduce criticism, Shostakovich then began to write more instrumental pieces or ballets as these were non-verbal works. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was possibly intended as ‘an attempt to answer his critics and write a Russian opera suited to the times’ . It is thought this ‘change of heart’ was suggested in an article Shostakovich wrote for Sovetskoe iskusstvo in 1933 where he said ‘the text must be a singing one, it must give the composer maximum possibility for freely flowing song’ . This statement was ‘comforting to those who were opposed to avant-garde attitudes and styles’ and possibly contributed to original intrigue and success of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which received ‘over 200 performances in its first couple of years alone and at one point Moscow had three separate productions running simultaneously’ .

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was originally written as the first of four operas portraying women across different points in Russian history. Shostakovich said himself that he ‘want(ed) to write a Soviet Ring of the Nibelungs. It will be an operatic tetralogy about women’. The libretto is written by Shostakovich and Alexander Preys and is based on a novel with the same title, written in 1865 by Nikolai Leskov. The story follows a woman called Katerina who is in a loveless marriage to a merchant, Zinovy. They live with Zinovy’s father, Boris, and whilst Zinovy is away on a business trip, Katerina embarks on an affair with Sergey who is an employee of Zinovy. Boris finds out about this affair and attacks Sergey and Katerina then plots to kill Boris by lacing his mushrooms with rat poison. Following the murder of Boris, Katerina and Sergey continue their relationship together until Zinovy returns and suspects Katerina of adultery and so begins to beat her. Sergey has been hiding up until this point and together with Katerina, they kill Zinovy and hide his body. The body is discovered later at Katerina and Sergey’s wedding and they are arrested. On a ferry crossing to a labour camp in Siberia, Katerina asks to see Sergei who blames her for everything that happened. He then proceeds to try and seduce Sonyetka, who is another convict on the ferry who demands a pair of stockings. Katerina is tricked into giving her stockings to Sergey and when they are given to Sonyetka, Katerina is teased and taunted by fellow convicts. This lead Katerina to push Sonyetka into an frozen lake, falling to their deaths. How would this fit into the theme of a ‘Soviet Ring of Nibelungs’ one may wonder however Shostakovich wrote that this was ‘a turn of events in which murder is not a crime. I feel empathy for her – she is surrounded by monsters’ .

Despite the original success of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, this series of four operas was never completed. Joseph Stalin who was the Leader of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, attended a performance of Lady Macbeth in Moscow in January 1936. Two days later, an article appeared in the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, called ‘Muddle instead of music’ describing the music as ‘deliberate dissonance, a confused stream of sounds’ . The article was presented in Pravda unsigned but it is thought by many that it was written by Stalin as ‘feminism was a threatening concept’ to the Soviet authorities. Shostakovich’s empathy with Katerina, despite being a murderess, was frightening to the men in charge as it could potentially empower women of the time.

Another reason why Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk didn’t receive a great reception following its 1936 Moscow premiere, was possibly because the music was a bit too much of a ‘muddle’ for the likes of Stalin and his peers to understand and enjoy. Pravda’s report of the performance in Moscow said that ‘Singing is replaced by shrieking. The music quacks, hoots, growls and gasps’ however I struggle to hear these sounds when listening to Shostakovich’s only opera. In Act 4, when Katerina and Sergei are on their way to the labour camp in Siberia, Katerina has several extremely lyrical and almost hypnotic phrases. She sings to Sergei, telling him how much she misses him, to which he replies saying ‘That you have ruined me’ , blaming her for ending up as a convict, heading off to a labour camp. Katerina begs for his forgiveness, reaching for a top B flat, joined by a fortissimo chord in the winds.

One of the sections that makes the audience really empathise with Katerina is from Figure 527 onwards. She has just discovered about Sergei and Sonyetka’s tryst and is jeered at by her fellow prisoners; ‘Katerina what a dreadful mess you made of life! And without Sergei her life is oh so dreary!’ . What follows is a lament, sung by Katerina where she sings about the lake in the forest in which she pushes Sonyetka. Katerina’s lyrical melody is accompanied by pianissimo, muted sustained chords in the Upper Strings, with a tremolo pedal note in the Cellos and Basses. The Harp, Timpani and Bass Drum also play a similar part to the Lower Strings with the same pedal note in the former two instruments. In between Katerina’s phrases, the woodwinds play a dotted rhythm, which is eventually taken over by the harp and viola section. Katerina’s melody from Figure 527 is quite low in the soprano register, until she sings ‘and its water is black as oil, like my guilty conscience’, with an E flat when she sings guilty. As this is the highest note she has sung until this point, its rings out, and leads the audience to believe Shostakovich’s view on Katerina, that she was a product of her environment, that she was ‘a loving woman, a woman who feels deeply’ . She feels remorse for her actions however is still pushed towards her final action. Even this isn’t a decision Katerina takes lightly and sings ‘I am frightened!’.

Women under the Soviet Union

The February 1917 Revolution is generally agreed to have begun on International Women’s Day (23rd February) ‘when thousands of women from different backgrounds took to the streets demanding bread and increased rations for soldiers’ families’. When the Bolsheviks came into power in Russia in November 1917, they ‘wanted to recreate society completely’ by creating an equal society, where each individual had equal rights. This meant that women would have a more equal standing in society. They would be expected to have jobs outside of their homes, in the workforce. In October 1918, the government issued a code called the ’Family Code’, which allowed women the right to a divorce, separated marriage from the church and gave illegitimate children the same rights as legitimate children. In 1920, abortion was legalised in the Soviet Union. Laws in the workplace were also changed to help women- women were able to take paid holiday, 8 weeks paid maternity leave and the minimum wage was standardised between genders. To oversee these changes, a department called Zhenotdel was set up in 1919 and it was a specialist women’s department. However, unfortunately, things changed during the Stalinist era (1927-1953). The Communist Party’s Purges, targeted women and they were sent to work labour camps. The number of women in the Labour Camp system rose from 30,108 in 1934 to 108,898 in 1940. In the camps, they were expected to work in sewing factories and many were unfortunately the victims of violence and sexual abuse. Stalin in fact reverted some of the changes that had been made under Lenin. For example, in 1936, he banned abortion again. He also made it harder to get a divorce, by making them quite expensive to obtain. Stalin ‘put the emphasis on the family as a basic unit of society. He thought that having strong families would produce a stronger and more productive society’. Homosexuality was made illegal again to promote this standard, strong family.

So why did Shostakovich plan to compose a tetralogy of operas about women?

Despite Russia never experiencing one, great, individual women’s movement, as we just discovered, Russia saw several smaller movements and therefore small victories were made in Russia following the Bolsheviks rise to power in 1917. Domestic abuse is still a huge problem in Russia, and despite Russia not keeping ‘statistics on deaths arising from intimate partner violence, the Interior Ministry says 40% of grave and violent crimes happen inside the family’. The neglect towards this issue during Stalin’s time in power, would have spurred Shostakovich onto to express his thoughts through his music despite the heavy censorship and severe consequences, which could quite easily happen. There is even a Russian proverb, which says ‘if he beats you, he loves you’ and it is thought that Shostakovich said that through Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he ‘wanted to unmask reality, and to arouse a feeling of hatred for the tyrannical and humiliating atmosphere in a Russian merchant’s household’.

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