The premiere of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Leningrad on 22 January 1934 was a resounding success. The composer, Shostakovich, only 28 years old, was a genius and hailed as a hero.
But all this changed on 28 January 1935 with the publication in Pravda of the now notorious editorial ‘Muddle instead of music’. It declared: “From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar.” If this had been written by a music critic, the composer could have safely ignored it. But as the editorial was unsigned, it had obviously been penned by Stalin himself. And in the blink of an eye the hero became an enemy of the people.
Stalin’s lambasting of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth must have been the most influential single newspaper article in the history of opera. Had it not been for Stalin, Shostakovich would most probably have gone on to write many more operas that would undoubtedly have entered the core 20th-century opera repertoire. Both The Nose and Lady Macbeth are without question masterpieces and demonstrate that opera would have been a genre where Shostakovich would have felt eminently at home.