Growing up, my absolute favourite TV show for many years was M*A*S*H*, the comedic (and sometimes serious) adventures of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) 4077th unit during the Korean War. The series, which includes 256 episodes, ran for 11 years on CBS, starting in the fall of 1972 through to February 1983. Throughout most of its run, it was consistently one of the highest-rated TV shows, and its final episode attracted over 121 million viewers worldwide, held the record for most-watched broadcast in TV history until 2010–and still holds the record for viewership for both the finale and single episode of any TV show.
Starting around age 8 or so, I seldom missed an episode (and reruns and syndication meant that I eventually got around to seeing most of the episodes I had been too young to see when they first aired.) The various characters were all so well written–Hawkeye and Trapper John, Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan, Henry Blake, Radar, Klinger, Father Mulcahey, and the latter additions of Winchester after Frank Burns left, BJ after Trapper John left, and Sherman Potter after Henry Blake left. The first few seasons suffered from the odd sexist or racist misstep, but by the time the series was over it had moved away from this type of humour and more towards one that poked fun at people in positions of privilege.
Episode 14 of the first season is called “Love Story.” It focuses on the love life of Radar, who in just a few episodes has evolved from a rather cynical, wheeler-dealer company clerk who doesn’t mind a drink or two to a naive, teetotaling wheeler-dealer company clerk who eventually will be revealed to sleep with a teddy bear. The nickname ‘Radar’ comes from his near-uncanny ability to hear incoming choppers and to seemingly read minds regarding paperwork, but his abilities clearly fall short in the romance department. In this episode, after he receives a “Dear John” letter from his fiance, the focus is on his quest, egged on by Hawkeye and Trapper, to strike up a romance with a new nurse, whose hand he brushes as he unloads his suitcase. The episode has stuck with me for years as the “Ah….Bach!” episode. Hawkeye and Trapper, checking her tent, realize that she’s a classical music aficionado who has brought with her several albums, so they coach Radar to respond knowingly when he strikes up a conversation with the nurse “Ahhh….Bach!” (Of course, this leads to the nurse prodding him further as to what this means, and he hasn’t a clue, and hilarity ensues (although by the end, they’re apparently together, although Radar is shown to be dozing as the nurse talks.
What caught my ear yesterday, however, having not seen this episode in many years was that the nurse’s record collection included Bach, Tchaikovsky…and Shostakovich. The nurse is clearly a Russophile (she also likes reading Tolstoy) but the fact that it’s Shostakovich specifically that’s mentioned–and not some other Russian composer—was striking. The Korean War took place between 1950-and 1953. What would the average American with an interest in classical music have known about Shostakovich at that point? I though it was a rather interesting choice. A Facebook friend mentioned that the fact that Shostakovich was in official disfavour in the USSR starting in 1948 might have had something to do with it, but the story is more complicated.
Although Shostakovich was definitely on the severe outs from 1948-1949, he did get a reprieve of a sort when he was sent to New York in 1949 at Stalin’s request as a delegate to the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace, where he was more or less forced to parrot Soviet ideology, even when it was patently clear by his behaviour that he was doing it unwillingly. He was thus widely portrayed as a “tool of the Soviet government” in the West, and this didn’t really let up until after his death, even as a few of his works continued to be popular there. All but a few Western scholars read pretty much everything he did through the lens of him being a shackled genius forced to toe the line (or worse–that he was actually a “committed Communist.) There was always the sense of “well, it’s good, but you know he’s a Communist” any time his works were performed in the West. (And they weren’t wrong. He was more or less backed into a corner and coerced into joining the Party in 1960) The fact that many of his compositions continued to be controversial in the USSR was not widely known to outsiders.
And it clearly wan’t the case of selecting a random old, dead Russian composer. The episode aired in January, 1973. Shostakovich was still alive at that point. As I said above, there are scads of other Russian composers that could have been chosen for a passing mention that wouldn’t have carried the same meaning Shostakovich would have. Putting a recording of one of his works into the collection of a nurse during the Korean War was, I suspect, borderline subversive on the part of the writers–in keeping with the show’s irreverent stance on war. There’s also the fact that M*A*S*H* began its run during the Vietnam war, and in its frequently dark humour, it was clearly not just about the Korean War. And add to that the fact that both wars were fought against Communist adversaries, and the seemingly-throwaway mention of Shostakovich takes on additional layers of meaning.
Shostakovich himself would have enjoyed that, I think.