How to settle an old score with Stalin's legacy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2003, 12:00am

'Papa, what if they hang you for this?' is hardly a title you would expect for a festival of classical music. But this was the one given to a prestigious musical event in London this month.

Joseph Stalin, the evil moustachioed Soviet dictator, is remembered for the terror he launched in the 1930s which destroyed millions of his own people and scythed down a golden swathe of Soviet writers, artists and composers. So why did one of London's great orchestras, the Philharmonia, host a gala to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death?

The title is a quote from Dmitri Shostakovich's son who was worried his father's latest work would infuriate the communist authorities. The miracle is that two great composers, Serge Prokofiev and Shostakovich, somehow managed to survive Stalin's terror. Ironically, Prokofiev died on exactly the same day as Stalin so it was his 50th anniversary that was really being celebrated alongside the music of Shostakovich.

The great Russian pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, the conductor laureate of the Philharmonia Orchestra, was the festival's artistic director. His rationale for the project was not only to try to enlighten those whose lives were not affected by tyranny, but also to remind everyone of the dangers of intimidation and intolerance on our planet today.

The festival came at a time of division in a city that had recently seen more than a million people on the march against a war to be waged on a contemporary dictator. Ambivalence was in the air, Londoners divided as never before: war or peace.

The invasion of Iraq came while the festival was in full swing, giving the concerts an extra tension and adding a further vein of angst to the complex introspection of Shostakovich's music.

Divided on the war, Londoners were also divided on which of the two composers they preferred. Prokofiev has been called Mozart to Shostakovich's Beethoven, and there is no doubt Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf, Lieutenant Kije Suite and Romeo And Juliet have a sparkling musicality that is more accessible and mercurial than the tragic architecture of Shostakovich's works.

To survive both composers had to tread a tightrope. One of 11 concerts featured toadying works in the official style of social realism that the composers were compelled to compose. We now know Shostakovich was saved from being sent to the gulag death camps by writing music for the film, The Fall Of Berlin, a manufactured musical tribute to Stalin. Prokofiev's Hail To Stalin, written for the dictator's 60th birthday, was also included.

At 'Surviving Dictatorship', a symposium held as part of the festival, Ashkenazy justified including such works by arguing they served as a reminder of the dangers that composers and artists continue to face from repression.

The festival is now over, but the war goes on, as does the feeling of ambivalence in this uneasy city.