Rebels with a cause: the friendship of Britten and Shostakovich

The two composers were separated by the Iron Curtain and language but united by their art and their deep admiration for each others’ music. A new bi-cultural orchestra inspired by their friendship pays tribute to their common cause

Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich knew of each other long before they met in 1960. Shostakovich would certainly have encountered Britten’s name in 1948 when the English composer was among western musicians attacked as “decadent and bourgeois” by the Russian composer Boris Asafiev during the debacle of the Soviet Union’s drive against formalism in music. Shostakovich was forced to repeat these words at the World Peace Congress in New York in 1949.

The 23-year-old Britten first heard of Shostakovich more than a decade earlier, two months after the Russian composer’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk had been denounced in a famous Pravda editorial penned at Stalin’s behest – Muddle Instead of Music – criticising the work for its degeneracy and undesirable bourgeois influences. The opera was immediately banned in the Soviet Union, and Shostakovich cast into disgrace until he rehabilitated himself with his Fifth Symphony in November 1937, an offering at the shrine of socialist realism.

Britten heard the opera in March 1936 at the Queen’s Hall in London: “Of course it is idle to pretend it is great music throughout – it is stage music and as such must be considered. There is some terrific music in the entr’actes. But I will defend it through thick and thin against those charges of ‘lack of style’,” he wrote. “People will not differentiate between style and manner. It is the composer’s heritage to take what he wants from where he wants – and to write music. There is a consistency in style and method throughout. The satire is biting and brilliant. It is never boring for a second … Some of the vocal writing is extravagant. But he may have special singers in mind … the ‘eminent English Renaissance’ composers sniggering in the stalls was typical – there is more music in one page of Macbeth than in the whole of their elegant output.”

Britten and Pears's decision to return to the UK from America in 1942 was a courageous act, for many denigrating comments had been made about their 'cowardice' in abandoning Europe

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