In this extract from his much acclaimed book, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, now in paperback, BBC music broadcaster Stephen Johnson explores the power of Shostakovich's music during Stalin's reign of terror.

Many composers have experienced key premieres as ‘a matter of life and death’, but in

the case of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that was nothing less than the truth. Life in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Communist Utopia could be very cheap indeed. The Fifth Symphony’s premiere in 1937 followed a decade of repression and extermination as Stalin, self-­styled “Secretary” of the Communist Party, fought to consolidate his power base.

This was the period Russians often referred to as ‘The Terror’, in direct analogy with Robespierre’s campaign of state mass­ murder following the French Revolution. There were ludicrous and horrifying Show Trials, in which people publicly confessed to crimes they may not even have contemplated. There was a frenzy of denunciations: people desperately trying to save their own skin by pointing the finger at someone else, a friend perhaps, or even a member of their own family.

Some just “disappeared”. One old man I met in the 1990s remembered going to dinner with friends in their apartment in 1936, at the height of Stalin’s Terror. It was a classic Russian party: vodka flowing, toasts to friendship, carefully coded expressions of hope for the future. Some time later the man happened to walk past his friends’ flat. The door was boarded up. There was no sign of life. He asked one of the neighbours, “Where are the Ivanovs?” The reply was a blunt, terrified “Who? Don’t know who you’re talking about.”

It’s said that Shostakovich himself – the Soviet Union’s international star composer, recently dubbed the Red Beethoven – kept a suitcase packed under his bed, ready for the knock at the door in the small hours. His close friend and supporter, the musicologist Nikolai Zhilyaev, was arrested and executed while Shostakovich was working on his Fifth Symphony. The authorities would have been aware of the effect this would have on the composer: next time, would it be him?

Visiting Shostakovich’s Moscow apartment of his later years, I was astonished to find it full of clocks – there was barely an inch on any flat surface for more. Apparently, Shostakovich used to listen to them ticking during his watchful sleepless nights and found them comforting. Their steady pulse can be heard in several of his major works, strikingly in the case of Symphony No. 4, composed in 1935-6.

Perhaps the most terrible thing about this expertly engineered Hell was that, whatever people did to survive, whatever price they paid, in the end practically everybody lost. Nadezhda Mandelstam, a chronicler of her times, put it trenchantly in her book Hope Against Hope:

“Whoever breathed that air perished, even if he accidentally saved his life. The dead are dead, but everyone else – the executioners, ideologues, facilitators, praisers, the ones who shut their eyes and washed their hands, and even those who gritted their teeth all night – they were all also victims of the terror.”

Despite his stature, his value as a propaganda tool, Shostakovich’s position was acutely perilous at this time. The composition of the Fifth Symphony followed one of the most dizzying reversals of fortune in any artist’s career. Up to 1936, Shostakovich’s half-­satirical, half-­tragic opera Lady Macbeth had been one of the USSR’s proudest cultural exhibits. It had taken opera houses by storm worldwide, while at home it had run continuously for two years.

Then Stalin went to see it. Why it took him so long to inspect an artistic product which had become emblematic of Soviet creativity remains a mystery, but what followed was decisive. An editorial appeared in the state newspaper Pravda. It was unsigned, but most readers would have known who had written it, or at least for whom it spoke. The title was bad enough: “Chaos Instead of Music”. But the content was worse: Shostakovich was guilty of an actual crime in writing this music. He had flung filth in the face of the Russian people and their Socialist aspirations. The article’s last sentence was chilling: “Things could end very badly.”

All sorts of reasons have been given for Stalin’s displeasure. Perhaps it hadn’t been wise to seat him too close to the massed offstage brass band; then there was the opera’s racy content, including a robustly graphic bedroom scene. Stalin may have been a mass­ murdering dictator, but he seems to have drawn the line at smut.

Or perhaps it was just another turn in the horrible cat­ and­ mouse game that Stalin appears to have played with Shostakovich. It has even been said that Stalin indulged in such games with people he liked – if a man as psychotically ruthless as Stalin can be said to have “liked” anyone. Or perhaps Stalin’s attitude was influenced by the return from exile in 1936 of a great Russian musical “prodigal son”, Sergei Prokofiev. Now that the Soviet Union had two internationally acknowledged musical geniuses, there was less need to mollycoddle the first of them.

Whatever the thinking in the Kremlin, Shostakovich faced a terrible choice: rehabilitate himself artistically and politically with the regime, or fall silent, perhaps disappear, along with so many friends and colleagues. But rehabilitating himself with the Soviet regime meant somehow producing something that satisfied the requirements of “Socialist Realism”.

Stalin’s literary right­hand man Maxim Gorky had attempted to define this amorphous concept in a private meeting in 1932. In the words of Orlando Figes (in Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia), Gorky saw Socialist Realism as a combination “of the depiction of the humble everyday reality of life in the Soviet Union with a vision of the Revolution’s heroic promise.” But when the concept was introduced at the First Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1934, it had hardened into something much more doctrinaire. The artist’s job was “to affirm the rightness” of the Soviet Socialist vision. There was to be no dissent from the Party line. Any writer found guilty of “deviation” faced censure – or worse.

As the writer Nadezhda Mandelstam put it, in art, as in everyday life, “It was essential to smile. If you didn’t, it meant you were afraid or discontented.” To be afraid or discontented was treason. There are official photographs that present Shostakovich as, in W. B. Yeats’s words, the “smiling public man”: it is said that when photographers were present he would repeat the English words “sixty­six” to give the impression he was talking happily.

He could, if he wished, write music which mimicked the fixed smile; but would there then be any space left for artistic integrity? Must he now, like so many other artists in Stalin’s Russia, bow to authority and toe the party line, or could he find a way of remaining true to himself, perhaps even of bearing witness to the horror engulfing him and his people? There must have been quite an array of anxious feelings in the packed Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic on November 21, 1937, the date on which Shostakovich’s new symphony was to be heard for the first time.

Not everyone would have wished him well. Certainly, there were enemies present, jealous rivals keenly anticipating the Red Beethoven’s downfall and subsequent elimination. For friends there was another dreadful possibility: would the new Symphony turn out to be some hideous “Hymn to Stalin”, or to “Heroic Soviet Socialism”, brother to those gigantic statues arrogantly disfiguring the skylines of so many Russian cities?

The signs were not encouraging. A few days before the premiere an article appeared in which, it was claimed, Shostakovich announced his new Symphony to the world as “A Soviet Artist’s response to just criticism”. But a few did know what was coming. The rising young conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, charged with bringing the new Symphony to life, was one of them. For Mravinsky there was a higher judge even than the Secretary of the Communist Party.

Remarkably, Mravinsky was still an openly practising Orthodox believer – a risky position in Stalin’s atheist Heaven, and especially for anyone in a public post. Mravinsky’s widow, Alexandra Valvilina­ Mravinskaya, confided to me that her husband had believed steadfastly that God Himself would send Russia a great tragic composer – a 20th ­century Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky, whose voice of rage, grief, compassion, and defiance would speak for the true suffering spirit of the Russian people. As soon as he saw the score of the Fifth Symphony, Mravinsky knew he’d found his man.

Astonishingly, Mravinsky’s faith was vindicated. After the Symphony’s final, effortful turn to the bright major key, the trumpet fanfares and thudding drum beats that bring Shostakovich’s Fifth to such an emphatic end, came an ovation that lasted half an hour.

A few days later came the reaction on which everything depended: the review of the Fifth Symphony by Stalin’s trusted cultural spokesman, Aleksey Tolstoy. It is arguable that Tolstoy’s review saved Shostakovich’s career, and perhaps also his life.

Taken from How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson (Notting Hill Editions, £9.99)