An English dismissal of Shostakovich

An English dismissal of Shostakovich


norman lebrecht

August 30, 2019

The musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker has found a gloriously dismissive 1939 review of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony by a self-admiring London critic with a distinctly Brexit mindset. Here it is:

If this symphony had been composed by William Walton I should have said that this talented composer had gone completely to seed, and it is very depressing to find that Russia, in spite of all its munificent State aid to musicians and composers, cannot produce anything better than this after a generation of subsidised effort.


Unfortunately the symphony is disappointing. The first movement begins with a rhapsodic song-like theme which promises well and is followed by a march-like section after which there is a return to the first section, but more plaintive in character. It is curious that the opening and conclusion of this movement are more in the German than the Russian style. The second movement, a lively Allegretto, is a compete surprise. It suggests that Shostakovich is an ardent admirer of the Strauss family. It has a Viennese operatic character and is thoroughly conventional and bright. The third movement, Largo, is very weak and is rather like thin and sentimental Tchaikovsky in his worst moments. It is lyrical but has no positive beauty or invention, but merely that sort of vague sentiment characteristic of uninspired composers when writing slow movements intended to be of an emotional character. The finale Allegro non troppo is no better; it is made of rubbishy musical material and is thoroughly eclectic with echoes of both Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.

The critic was Walter J. Turner, Australian by birth and author of popular biographies of Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz and Wagner. He reviewed for the New Statesman for quarter of a century before serving as literary editor of the Spectator from 1941 to his death in 1946, aged 62. This is his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The review was of the first showing of a film of Mravinsky conducting the Fifth

Turner was a combative type who favoured Schoenberg, Hindemith and Stravinsky as the main streams of modernism. Shostakovich did not fit into his window boxes.

Or was there some political malice at work?





  • John Borstlap says:

    Maybe, but more likely is the narrowing bias in the taste-making journalism of the day which turned against remnants of ‘outdated’ romanticizing expression; Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Hindemith were seen as apt pointers towards a future where the ‘awful’ 19th century was left behind and a new, better world be built. Shostakovich however, must at the time have sounded as something expressionist from the twenties, full of bitter tragedy and Mahlerian grandiloquence.

    A beautiful specimen of music criticism worthy of Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective”.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==combative type who favoured Schoenberg, Hindemith and Stravinsky as the main streams of modernism.

    Well, Boulez would only have ticked the first and third boxes here – so already Mr Turner has broad tastes with Hindemith interests.

    It’s really time to reassess Shostakovich – all those wrong note xylophone allegros and pastiche Mahler. Writing the same string q over and over.

    • Andreas C. says:

      Well put. While still a young firebrand (he’s sadly softened ever since), Esa-Pekka Salonen said something to the effect that the mediocre and downright poor in Shostakovich’s music is often falsely justified by stating that it’s a reaction to the horrible circumstances in which it was composed, but this is really an untenable position: bad music remains bad even if it was written on Antarctica for all he could care. On a purely musical basis, Shostakovich is mainly sub-Mahler with battleship-grey orchestration and the ”popular elements” replaced by their Slavic equivalents, and the fact that his works have ended up in the list of canonized orchestral warhorses probably has much to do with his stature as the reluctant official state composer of the Soviet Union.

    • M2N2K says:

      Yes – you should start reassessing immediately!

    • 32VA says:

      [[ Writing the same string q over and over. ]]

      And the dish ran away with the spoon

  • Guest says:

    Why mention Brexit?

    His view was not even mildly xenophobic as he preferred Schoenberg, Hindemith and Stravinsky to Shostakovich – a not unreasonable stance.

    • Allen says:

      “Why mention Brexit?”

      Another silly reference. A little more “Brexit” within the USSR Empire might have been a thoroughly good thing.

  • Karl says:

    I used to have fun looking through old copies of the American Record Guide and reading reviews of the old recordings. One said he hated the new stereophonic process that sounded totally unnatural. And how unpopular is Rite of Spring now that we’re used to it? It’s like that with almost everything that is new and different.

  • Akutagawa says:

    Cold War? In 1939? Surely some mistake….

  • 32VA says:

    What a malevolent and clueless old cobber he was.

  • muslit says:

    In spite of the commentary and the time in which it was written, the 4th movement remains by far the weakest of the 4. When a composer purposely writes bad music, the reasoning might be justified, but the result is always unmusical. The 5th is a 20th century war horse, and audiences like it. It doesn’t make it a great work of art. In fact, Shostakovitch’s biography has superseded the value of his music, much of which is mediocre. Unfortunately, the 15 symphony, which IS a masterpiece, is one of the least performed.

  • Minnesota says:

    Turner’s review was done very badly and he clearly had no idea what to do with Shostakovich, so he just wings it. To be generous, perhaps he heard the concert, was bored with the symphony and then had to come up with something to say while on a very tight deadline. George Orwell, in “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” described the desperate life of the writer moonlighting as a reviewer, such as when he received a package with 5 unrelated books in the mail then realized two days later that he had to put them into a unified review by noon the next day.

  • Nicht Schleppend says:

    No one should ever be compared to Walton!

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    The opinion is still divided on Shostakovich as a symphonist. There are also those, much fewer in number, who dispute the greatness of Mahler, Bruckner (largely in the English speaking world, which I always find annoying), or Sibelius.

    • We privatize your value says:

      Yes, and don’t even get started on the appreciation of Carl Nielsen, one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century. He’s bloody ignored by many who should revere him.

  • Gregor Tasse says:

    Mravinsky made an audio 78 recording in 1938 and it must have been this used for the review. I think if Ms Frolova-Walker looks a bit deeper she will find much more hostile reviews of Shostakovich before and after the war in this country.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Most writing about Shostakovich from the 1930s to about the 1970s seems (to me) totally colored by ideology, political or musical. The political side ran the gamut from the obligatory praise by the old “Hail, Moscow!” wing of the left wing, both American and otherwise (Elie Siegmeister’s “Music Lover’s Handbook” entry on Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony will make you squirm), to the similarly knee jerk dismissal from the American First types and the Trotskyite left. The musical ideologies at work were mostly the “real” modernists (there are some very sniffy comments in one or another of the Stravinsky/Craft books about the always–embarrassing presence of Soviet symphonists at modern music festivals; they did not need to name a name, but the “why is this stuff here?” message is clear). In that sense of course Shostakovich was lumped with others who did not toe the modern music line of that era, including many American and British composers.

    To my way of thinking, one of the first American reviewers and commentators who took Shostakovich very seriously and not just a variety of circus-band music in the manner of Julius Fučík was Royal S. Brown, first with High Fidelity magazine and later with Fanfare. His reviews were valuable first because he did not start as many did with the assumption that the music was all crap, and thus his judgment of one performance versus another was actually focused on performance values and respect for the score, and second because he fully recognized that Shostakovich did have to write pieces to save his skin (and worse yet, some of those are still good pieces). It was not slavish praise or non-critical thinking. Perhaps it also helped that R.S. Brown took film music seriously. Since then writing about Shostakovich has become a dizzying (and often tiresome) array of revisionist and revisions of the revisionists prose mostly centering around how one feels about the legitimacy of Volkov’s “Testimony.”

  • We privatize your value says:

    It’s a fair review. Of course, it does seem harsh to those who like this symphony, but the fact is that the Fifth is a much more conservative work than the first four symphonies. It does look back to the tradition of the post-romantic symphonists, and glances a little towards Miaskoksky, and of course Mahler, and Nielsen. It is less radical that Nielsen’s own Fifth symphony.

    • M2N2K says:

      Quite a few of us disagree that in music and other arts conservative is always bad and radical is always good. There was a compelling reason for DS to make his Fifth more “accessible” than his previous symphonies – it is called survival instinct.

  • “…The review was of the first showing of a film of Mravinsky conducting the Fifth…”

    The audio quality of a 1939 Soviet film could be adequate… or not.

    I certainly wouldn’t be hi-fi.

    I would be curious to see such a film if it ever turns up.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Robert Holmen — I didn’t know of the film of Shostakovich’s Fifth by Mravinsky. He led its premiere, of course, and there is a contemporaneous recording of it by him and the Leningrad Philharmonic from the late 1930s that’s slower and less intense than his later versions, not as well recorded, and heavily filtered.

  • At around the same time as well as a little later, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, also operating in London and never backward in coming forward as an acerbic critic, condemned Shostakovich as, among other things, “the universal provider of the commonplace”, encouraged in that assessment as much by his experience of the fifth and seventh symphonies as by anything else (although he retained a soft spot for the first); during the 1970s, he underwent a complete volte-face as a result of listening, among other things, to the first violin concerto and the fourth, tenth and thirteenth symphonies which impressed him enough to prick his conscience about all of the damning things that he’d published about Shostakovich decades earlier to the point at which he resolved to write a letter of apology to Shostakovich for these (although I doubt that Shostakovich would ever have seen them or had them drawn to his attention). It was never sent; a few days after this, Shostakovich died…

  • Just the idea of pronouncing an acerbic judgement after hearing a serious effort by a composer (already a world figure) — after one ersatz listening from an old film — is a frighteningly arrogant proposition. And of course the 5th has reached its audience a long time ago and is part of our general musical posterity. The only Schoenberg piece that really can make that claim is the early Transfigured Night, and the only Hindemith, Mathis der Mahler, both of which sport strong Romantic elements. Great composition has something both for the connoisseur and for the sympathetic layman. Stravinsky loved the early Tchaikovsky symphonies. And why not? It’s terrific stuff.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      “the idea of pronouncing an acerbic judgement after hearing a serious effort by a composer (already a world figure) — after one ersatz listening from an old film — is a frighteningly arrogant proposition”

      But in that era, that is all any critic would ever hear. It is before the days of widespread recordings (the few there were would have been very poor quality). And you diss the important role critics play in disseminating new music.