APM: Composers Datebook

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Jul 12, 2019 Decades after their deaths, Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich still remain politically controversial. Strauss worked in Nazi Germany under Hitler, and Shostakovich in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Was their art compromised by politics —and should that influence how we hear their music today? In July of 1935, Strauss pleaded with Hitler for a personal meeting to explain his resignation as President of Germany’s office of musical affairs. He needn’t have bothered: the Gestapo had intercepted a letter Strauss had sent to the Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, the Austrian librettist of Strauss’ latest opera. In that letter, Strauss mocked the Nazi’s obsession with race and urged Zweig to continue to work with him, even if they would have to meet in secret. Strauss was asked to resign, and, anxious to avoid further trouble for himself and his family, appealed directly to Hitler, who never responded. Dmitri Shostakovich also ran afoul of his dictator when, in 1936, Stalin attended Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and hated it. The next day Shostakovich was harshly condemned in the official press, and lived in terror for the rest of Stalin’s reign, redirecting his music according to Party line and making obsequious political utterances whenever asked. Even so, many today claim to hear both terror AND heroic—if coded—resistance in Shostakovich’s best scores.

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