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March 21, 2004 Follow Up - Howard Stern is our Shostakovich?

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More on Shostakovich and Stalin


As I see from my "hit counter" not many people read the piece in thes pages last Sunday on Shostakovich and Stalin.  That’s here: March 14, 2004 - Shostakovich and Stalin - Bill Bennett and Janet Jackson et. al. 

Well, my friend Kevin, who has written a few film scores himself, traded some email with me about Shostakovich and politics.  The question really is this - what was the net effect of Stalin hammering Shostakovich so hard, for political reasons that had little to do music?

From Brian Micklethwait (London) writing in Samizdata.net we get this.

Oh yes, Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Here’s the core of why Uncle Joe actually did some good, according to Micklethwait.


Shostakovich was almost certainly a better composer after Stalin had given him his philistine going-over following the first performances of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, than he would have been if Stalin had left him alone.  Although both are very fine, I prefer Symphony Number 5 ("A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism") to Symphony Number 4.

Had Shostakovich continued unmolested along the musical path he was traveling before Stalin's denunciation of him, I don't think he would merely have become just another boring sub-Schoenbergian modernist.  He was too interesting a composer for that already.  But I do not think his subsequent music would have stirred the heart in the way his actual subsequent music actually does stir mine, and I do not think I am the only one who feels this way.

Thanks to Stalin, if that is an excusable phrase, Shostakovich was forced to write what is now called 'crossover' music, that is, music which is just about entitled to remain in the classical racks in the shops, but which also gives the bourgeoisie, such as me, something to sing along to and get excited about.   Shostakovich had always written film music as well as the serious stuff.  What Stalin and his attack dogs did was force him to combine the two styles.  He might well have ended up doing this anyway, but who can be sure?

What Stalin also did for Shostakovich was to make his music matter more.  Thanks to Stalin (that phrase again!) every note composed by Shostakovich became a matter of life and death – while it was being composed, and whenever you listen to it.

Stalin turned Shostakovich into a kind of musical gladiator, a man who knew that every day might be his last.  Not many composers get that kind of intense attention….


Everyone needs to be challenged now and then, it seems.  Being attacked makes one respond, or might make one respond.  And that response can be transforming.

Thus Michael Powell and the FCC might make Howard Stern into an important and insightful political voice in America.

Well, maybe not.


But for a defense of Howard Stern you might read this…


To is a Preposition, Vote is a Verb


"Howard Stern is beginning to remind me of Lenny - not Homer Simpson's buddy or the dimwitted character from Of Mice and Men, but Lenny Bruce, the brilliant Jewish comic who became an early icon of the '60s counterculture."


It’s an interesting commentary on the guy.


You’ll find this:


Howard Stern will never, ever match Lenny Bruce in the comic brilliance department, but what's strikingly similar is the way he's reacting to the threat of censorship.


When the blue noses went after Lenny (it's hard to believe a San Francisco comic could be censored for anything, but those were different times) he responded by working his court case into his routine.  At first it was savage and funny.  But as his legal troubles dragged on, Lenny became obsessed with them, to the point where he would simply sit on the stage and recite long passages verbatim from the court transcripts.  His hardcore fans dug it - they would have dug anything Lenny did.  But most of his audiences didn't.  As his career faded, he sank deeper into the heroin, and eventually overdosed and died.


The moral of the story, I guess, is that righteous anger and humor don't always mix….  Howard may be making himself a royal pain in the ass for Bush, but he if keeps this up until November, he could also put a pretty big dent in his popularity.


Which is fine by me - I don't particularly like him or his show anyway.  But I guess the real question is what kind of impact Howard's rants might actually have on the election.  If Stern is going to set himself up as the radio version of Captain Ahab, will he get the white whale?


MTV quotes one political analyst who thinks he just might - or at least, that he could have an even bigger impact on the race than St. Ralph [Ralph Nader] …


That’s an interesting idea.  By becoming so anti-Bush Howard Stern peals away enough votes that Bush loses the next election?  And I agree with this fellow, I think it's what Lenny would have wanted.


But I’m not sure that will happen.  After all, no matter what Shostakovich did, Joe Stalin was always around.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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