Culture Re-View: A review that could kill

Communists of Berlin’s Soviet sector pack the State Opera House to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Russian Revolution in Germany on Nov. 12, 1949.
Communists of Berlin’s Soviet sector pack the State Opera House to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Russian Revolution in Germany on Nov. 12, 1949. Copyright AP/AP
By Jonny Walfisz
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A Soviet composer receives a review worse than 0 stars and another show starts a historic run.


26 January 1936: A musician receives a review worse than anything Pitchfork’s ever given

Dimitry Shostakovich is one of the most renowned and respected classical composers. But his career got off to a rather shaky start. Born in Russia in 1906, he grew up in the nascently formed Soviet Union, seeing decent success from his early symphonies.

His 1934 opera ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ looked to be another chapter in the burgeoning career of one of the USSR’s most promising composers. That was until a fateful performance on this day in 1936.

It’s hard to think of any audience member as intimidating as Joseph Stalin. But there in the opera, the leader of the USSR took his seat. Shostakovich had been forewarned that this was a performance he should conduct himself. Reports say Shostakovich was “white as a sheet” when he bowed after the third act.

Dmitri Shostakovich shown Sept. 24, 1959AP/AP1959

Then, the worst happened. Stalin had previously attended another opera and went to meet the composer afterwards. This time, the leader left without a word spoken to anyone. Shostakovich knew it didn’t bode well. Two days later the political paper Pravda published the editorial “Muddle Instead of Music” calling the opera a “deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds”.

Over the next few weeks, opera critics who had praised the show wrote into Pravda to denounce their mistaken opinion. Commissions and performances dried up and Shostakovich started to struggle for money. At the same time, the USSR’s Great Purge began, executing many people in the musician’s circle.

Shostakovich would linger in Soviet creative purgatory for at least a year before he returned with his 5th Symphony, which brought him back into favour. The composer would survive another public denunciation in 1948, living to die aged 68 in 1975.

More big statements from Washington

Stalin wasn’t the only world leader categorically denying something on 26 January in history. On this day in 1998, US President Bill Clinton stood beside Hilary Clinton and gave an infamous press conference.

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never,” Clinton said to the American people and world.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton watches President Clinton pause as he thanks those Democratic members of the House of Representatives who voted against impeachmentSUSAN WALSH/AP1998

Of course, it was a complete lie and would become a central focus of his impeachment trial later that year. The allegations of the 49-year-old President’s affair with a 22-year-old intern nearly took down the whole presidency.

Start of a historic run on Broadway

In 1988 on this day, at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway, New York City had the premiere of a little play called ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Already a hit after two successful years in London at the West End, the musical had been adapted from the 1910 novel by French writer Gaston Leroux.

Joel Ryan/AP2010
Phantom, played by Ramin Karimloo, right, performs a scene with Christine, played by Sierra Boggess, from the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, "Love Never Dies"Joel Ryan/AP2010

The show has gone on to become one of the most successful musicals in theatre history. It’s the longest-running show on Broadway ever, being the first to celebrate 10,000 performances in 2012. It’s the second-longest-running West End musical after ‘Les Miserables’ and third longest-running West End show after ‘The Mousetrap. In Broadway alone, it’s estimated to have grossed over $1 billion.

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