Did Mozart Kill Stalin?

Still from “The Death of Stalin.”

Mozart’s music is for everybody, from diaper-clad babies  to mass-murdering dictators.

That chilling truth launches the brutal slapstick satire—or do I mean hyper-realist romp?—of Armando Iannuci’s delightful and disturbing film, Death of Stalin.

What we hear first in that movie is the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major (K. 488). What this Adagio expresses is impossible to pin down, but there is inescapable melancholy in it, and also an irrepressible striving against that melancholy. Its pathos is not a posture: the simplicity of the melody and its harmonic treatment miraculously transcend the formulae on which it is built.  This tragic central movement is surrounded by fast numbers of optimistic Mozartean sparkle.

Stalin heard the concerto with Maria Yudina as the soloist in a live broadcast in 1944 and immediately requested a recording.  But the performance hadn’t been recorded.  After the concert Yudina was awakened in the middle of the night and pulled from her apartment to perform the piece again with the quickly assembled orchestra.

By the next day comrade Stalin got his record. (Note: it is weirdly fitting that this YouTube site called Andrei Rublev’s Museum includes a link to a story claiming that “On March 5, 1953, Stalin was killed by sionists [sic] in his Moscow residence” with this recording “presented by Churchhill” spinning the turntable.)

Who knows what drew Stalin to the Mozart concerto. Was it the upbeat or the downcast? Or was it the contrast between the two—the idea that the strains of the heroic were to be heard in the slow and searching rather than in swashbuckling runs spurred on by a company of strings and winds?

Whatever the case, the General Secretary sent Yudina 20,000 rubles for her efforts, but the devout pianist wrote back a breathtaking response: “I thank you for the support. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sings before the country. The Lord is merciful and He will forgive you. I gave the money to my church.” This message of truth to power is even more astonishing in that it came in the midst of the Great Patriotic War.  Head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria was ready to have Yudina arrested, but Stalin chose not to act, and she survived.

Exploiting the hair-raising courage of Yudina’s defiance, Iannuci transposes the story to 1953, embroidering and condensing the exchange for comic and plot-driving effect. In the film, the pianist’s words, read by Stalin as Mozart plays on his turntable, cause the dictator’s cerebral hemorrhage.  The note is then found on the carpet next to the body by Beria (Simon Russell Beal), who will try to use it to force Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) to do his will in his contest with his rivals.

Ironically, it would seem, the murderous dictator falls victim in the movie to truth and beauty, Mozart the stealthy executioner.

Music is deadly in the Death of Stalin. It plays a dual role in the film: both as the catalyst for events, and as an aural backdrop as evocative of 1950s Soviet life (and death) as the stiff woolen suits, the Kalashnikov rifles, the saccharine sumptuousness of the neo-classical corridors of power, and the gleaming GAZ limos that, like the scheming men ferried around in them, jockey and jibe for pole position in the race to replace Stalin.

Aside from select nuggets by the aforementioned Mozart, as well as bits from Chopin and Tchaikovsky, the ominously witty soundtrack comes from the virtuosic pen of Christopher Willis. The music is so seemingly of and in the time of the events depicted that one is almost forced to believe that the composer put ink on paper rather than sat at a keyboard or availed himself of the latest score-writing software.

Whatever the medium, Willis masterfully channels—and sometimes challenges—Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music fell out of favor with Stalin at the time of the show trials of the mid-1930s, but had long been returned to state sanction when our film takes off in March of 1953. To what extent Shostakovich’s work made use of complex modes of irony that could be heard as critical of the regime (even if such messages were not necessarily intended by the composer) is a perennial matter of debate. Willis’s rollicking politburo pastiche plays with this very ambiguity, using it to animate the bumbling, deadly action of the on-screen “comedy.”  Somehow his score makes things brighter and bleaker at the same time—the phrase “dark comedy” embodied in musical sound.

The unashamedly brilliant composerly craft becomes an object of almost surreal pleasure, so impressive and entertaining are Willis’ musical abilities to characterize the would-be successors to Stalin. This talent for delineation extends from the opening cue that places us in Moscow in 1953—the Kremlin as metonym for the savage Soviet leadership itself become character. Willis opens with a brooding tri-tone—the jagged melodic interval that, since before the invention of motion pictures, has been the clichéd signifier of bad guys and ill afoot: this is musical tongue-in-cheek, self-mocking but also deadly serious, becoming even more earnest when a dark and byzantine fugue built on a busy and tortuous theme breaks out. This musical false-flag—this sham Shostakovich—is so deft and believable that it’s no wonder the Russians have banned the film.

The foreboding fun continues when Willis introduces furtive and foulmouthed Beria with scheming low strings and calculating off-beat horns. The variety and vigor continue right through to the symphonic pretensions of the “Comedy of Terrors,” a full-blown movement that doesn’t so much accompany the credits as tower above them, demanding that, unless you’re eager to be banished to Siberia, you stay in your seats in reverent attention as they roll on and on—from creatives to carpenters to caterers. With the massed orchestra at full heroic tilt locked in a battle between major and minor and between good and evil, the long list of names on a black background works like a memorial for war dead or victims of the Stalinist terror. The movie concludes, then, with a darkly comic take on the idea of the credit sequence itself.

Not a musician himself, director Iannuci is a huge classical music fan, a devotion he professes in his book Hear Me Out, published in September of 2017 in the United Kingdom—a release that coincided with that of the film. The carefully chosen locations; production values committed to authenticity (excepting the flagrantly plastic—not ivory—keys on the Bechstein grand piano Yudina plays), from Stalin’s dacha to the dais erected at his tomb on Red Square; and the unlikely but utterly convincing cast of Anglophone actors (Steve Buscemi as a quip-making Khrushchev!) who capture the Trumpian roughness of these bullies, hide-savers and plotters: in concert with all these elements, it is the music that eerily, irreverently evokes the terror of its time and brings the savage comedy into relief. All credit to Iannucci for giving Willis the space in which to exercise his art. The soundtrack of The Death of Stalin is so good it’s scary.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com