In the soup of details in which we have found ourselves- concerning the Composers Union and about the reactions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party to the fruits of the former- what speak loudly are (evidently from the content of our recent readings and discussions) controversies over assignments of blame, and over the notes and composers responsible themselves, who continue to confound the anti-formalist, social-realist directives of Zhdanov and Stalin until at least the end of the Second World War. Let us lay down a few things for record-keeping that will dually serve to galvanize what Keillor’s feeble memory has on its own retained, with a particular focus on the Hearing:
The inroad to the week was the Pravda review of Shostakovich’s Opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, published in 1936 near the onset of the Great Purge (1936-1938), the critical, incisive, and at times foreboding language of whose review Zhdanov, at the Composers Hearing, cites to have been the direct language of the C.C. (Central Committee). Striking a fearful tone in his introductory speech placed the reality of “The Big Four” upon their shoulders even as he shoved them back into the narrow, socialist musical universe to upkeep that ponderous reality. Likewise he condemned the “avatism” of the problem effacing Russian music of the times, for it seemed to Zhdanov in the late 40’s as it apparently had seemed in the 30’s as well, that Russian music was suffering distasteful adornation and thematic corruption, most of these blights: designs of otherwise “capable and talented” composers whose arrogance (as Serebriakov points out) has edged them to ignore public appeal, and seek originality “at any price.” In advancement of that notion we have witnessed how members of the C.C. and perhaps some of these “boot-licking” music critics have reacted to works such as Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and Lady Macbeth, many minor works from contemporary Russian composers vying for attention or its better: a safe, feasible situation for their life and work. What we found in the composer’s hearing (I linger longest on this reading because it seemed to catch the ideas let loose in the first class and the materials presented there; suddenly our historical characters are speaking for or against themselves and each other and the bulk of their work…this is a rare bit of access as the publisher has pointed out) are tributaries to the contention Zhdanov puts forth (aforementioned)-how music and moreover the unclarity of the Union’s approach to the production of its music fails to speak to the people in a moving and realist way. Composers on the organizational board of the Composer’s Union like Khachaturian and Shostakovich point out that the league of composers seldom collaborates on the notion of what is good and what is bad in composition- there is no fervor seemingly outside the personal which lends itself to producing what the Party wants, so instigating the argument of their being a gap between the missions of certain composers and those of their regulators and reviewers (and consequently, so it is felt, the People); in other words, the way to efface the unfavorableness of musical works would be to foster a healthier arena of criticism by/for/between composers, and to equally credit the churning out of all works as progress, rather than simply as via the polarity of passable or negatively-consequential (or certainly that of being good, or bad and reversive- as Zhdanov Doctrine utilizes).
There is of course much more depth to this discussion of musical works as being good or bad, and what either the composers or committee members expect from the other in order to arrive at the most appropriate and approved form of the art- however this does not seem to present itself in anything reconcilable to a compromise; one gets the feeling from these readings that music to a Maker and to a Censor are different commodities. I use that word in particular because in the course of any argument, particular ammunition to a stance is useful only per its value to the wielder; and so there is scarcely a reachable “verdict” in any argument where two different systems of value convene upon amends that merely bring the pillars of value to higher, more obvious relief. When odds are at odds, such as when the over-bearing severity of the controlling Party precludes all means to a productive resolution- when the state of music is merely brought into further jeopardy by a coarse and domineering review of the process by which it is produced- the results seldom land on anyones “behalf,” including the behalf of music itself (this is of course a very western viewpoint, but seems at times detectable in the acuity of some composers’ remarks, and in the fears they project in their comportment of speech). This is not to stray too far from the usefulness of this post, but with a mind to approach things from different historical perspectives, one must consider that with little doubt, such a view of this hearing would have spurred antagonism from the West. Other things we have concerned ourselves with this week involve the coexistence of other Western Musical Schools, both in performance and composition, which have come to define for many a mind of that persuasion the ‘ethics’ to the creativity debacle up at bat in the world of Soviet Music. Where is the Parisian Avant-Garde, and what is atonality to the quarter-tone society also meddling in the Stravinsky-impacted land of the irregular. Consistently, the works of the Big Four are tried for ‘cacophony’ and ‘musical noise:’ what are these to the independent, non-western mission of the Socialist-Realist, anti-formalist composer in Russia. From what, if any musical heritage do Russian composers draw their sense of authenticity and originality? What is original and also acceptable?
I’ve clearly escaped a concise summary of the last two classes and our readings, but I think that the films and musical and textual excerpts we saw this week underscore the difficulty of mediating so much potential in artists to a conspirational result that moves everybody in the same direction, not too fast. No one wants Russian music to sound primitive; but at what expense to quality are composers instructed to be themselves or otherwise some uniform creative spirit that embodies the common spread of all socialist ideals at once, and is able to expound them in great forward-thinking musical works?
This week we discussed the way that the socialist realist doctrine, defined by Zhdanov in 1932, came to affect the production of music in the Soviet Union. Through our readings and discussions it became clear that far from being a well defined aesthetic ideal, theories of Socialist Realist music making were constantly in flux. The central tenants of Socialist Realism, namely that work had to be for the proletariat, descriptive of everyday life and realistic, were vague, meaning that interpretation could vary greatly from one year to the next. Thus, Soviet musicians had to navigate an ideological minefield in order to produce works which were satisfactory to the fluctuating standards of the Communist Party.
In the 1920’s, as Socialist Realism was developing, there was more freedom for experimentation in Soviet Music. For example, Shostakovich earned accolades for his second symphony “To October,” a dissonant work which would have surely been denounced as formalism in 30’s or 40’s. As the 20’s wore on, however, it became clear that Soviet music was moving in the direction of what would become known as Socialist Realism, towards simplistic harmonies, memorable melodies and obvious propagandistic programs. As Socialist Realism became the official aesthetic of the Communist Party in the 1930’s it became very dangerous for musicians to create work which did not seem to conform with the aesthetics of Socialist realism. With the foreboding denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” it became clear to Soviet Composers that to write in any style that did not seem to explicitly conform to Socialist Realism could result in the loss of ones career or even much worse.
The problem was that there was no clear consensus of what Socialist Realism was. In his Ballet “Romeo and Juliet” Sergei Prokofiev attempted to conform to the optimism required of Soviet artists by adding a happy ending to the story. This decision, however was condemned by Socialist authorities. Similarly, the composer Vano Muradeli wrote an opera called “The Great Friendship” about friendship between different Soviet Republics and was severely denounced. One can hardly think of anything seemingly more in line with Soviet rhetoric then an opera about unity within the vast Soviet Union, and yet Muradeli (a previous recipient of the Stalin Prize) was fully censured.
The censure of Muradeli led to a huge meeting of Soviet Composers where Zdhanov, Stalin’s right hand man, and others denounced the work of Soviet composers working in the classical style. The “Big Four” composers (Shostakovich, Myakovsky, Prokofiev and Khachaturian) were all publicly condemned for their work. Composers of popular and folk songs seized this oppurtunity to claim that they were on the right path in terms of creating a music for the people.
The main thing that becomes clear through examining the transcripts of this conference is that the conference does little to clarify the meaning of socialist realism. The terms remain vague (it is difficult to say what “realism” means in the field of music) and the composers are left in the terrifying position of risking everything by composing a wrong note, but not being sure what the right notes are.
I can’t imagine that even the composers themselves really knew whether they created music to subvert the Soviet regime. There was such a culture of fear and fiction. This is evidenced in the imposed culture of “fakelore” as realized through the “friendship of the peoples” policy, a vulgar campaign that Russified and transposed Western structures over more traditional music-making. Not to mention the ever-changing game of propaganda and the culture of fear instilled through, in particular, Stalin’s manipulations of composers and Zhdanov’s denouncement of anything not deemed socialist realist, including the formerly idolized “Big Four”. That is, the official stance appeared ever more fickle, subject to the ideological whims of a totalitarian. I imagine that living within such a culture would provoke a more complex psychological response than outside scholars or journalists imagine. This was suggested in the reading from some time ago by Zemtsovsky. I think that how composers responded to Soviet culture is not so binary as to be understood as either wholehearted support of the communist system, nor complete rejection of it. Rather, composers’ feelings towards the regime, which, naturally, would have been at least somewhat reflected in their music, probably were deeper in content than one might discern. To return to the idea of intonazia, I feel that, as an art form, music definitely reflects some of the inner working of the human psyche. However, these psychological responses to the cultural climate of the USSR may not be consciously or clearly translated into the music. At the very least, I imagine that the sentiments as they are re-imagined within the music are complex and profound, considering the personal experiences of the composers raised and living within the USSR during that time.
I find it increasingly fascinating that among discussions of some of the most powerful, violent, and tragic regimes in history and scanning political systems like communism that so firmly shape the history of the modern world, that an analysis of music at this time comes up quite naturally. There is no doubt that this is in part a nod to the socialist regime’s reliance on mass culture, and music being the easiest way to provoke and alert the proletariat, thus, music’s creators became figures that were likened to the leaders of this revolution, and were susceptible to the same attention that any enemy of the cause would, but in the end, these men were merely composers, a phenomenon that was mentioned in class to be completely alien in a modern western society. This leads me to consider what it must have been like to have the pressure to create in a culture so ruled by fear and tyranny. Was this perhaps somewhat constructive to creativity? It is true that some studies claim effective creativity when placed under a controlled environment, with constraints that challenge and ultimately produce more meaningful work. Or on the other hand, would different music have been created by Shostakovitch if he did not have the threatening breath of Stalin down his back? Would different music have been paid attention to? Would different composers have risen to fame over others? Or were these composers simply creating music while also living in a socialist regime, the backlash that occurred with rival groups, or the tension with realism, was just the natural course of music, not in a socialist world, but in fact in a time when the political climate of the world was charged with burgeoning modernity, war and revolution, and in some of its largest and most defining moments of change? Of course it is not correct to say that either of these theories is true, that music was not truly divorced from its socialist climate, but perhaps not entirely reliant on it either.
Composers during this time were greatly limited, they lived in constant fear because of the restrictions put on their work. Shostakovich’s life for example, was riddled with terror that the regime imposed upon him. Artists who showed too much creativity were censored, or imprisoned, with the constant threat of death held over their heads. Stalin had a negative reaction to Lady Macbeth, causing much strife to Shostakovich. There was also a negative reaction to his 4th symphony, and so Shostakovich’s 5th symphony was composed in a very structured and formulated fashion, which was widely accepted. Another question that was brought up in the Ross reading was whether or not Shostakovich actually supported the regime, as it is not apparent as to whether Shostakovich showed such support towards the Soviet regime simply for his survival, or whether he actually supported it. Also, while fear played a large role, other incentives were also offered. By writing music for the Proletariat, composers were given material things, Shostakovich was gifted a country retreat and a five room apartment in Moscow, a rather ironic outcome for producing music for the working class.
Not only did composers have to produce music that was fitting of the regime and for the proletariat, but they did not know what exactly this entailed, as the criteria was ever changing and constantly debated. Zhdanov critiqued some of the new works as being “inside out” and an attempt to deviate as far from a classical opera as possible. Shaporin coined the phrase, “enslaved by modernism” while talking about Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, and many expressed their longing for a return to the more traditional music like Tchaikovsky.
Others have discussed the extent to which musics under Stalinist rule were so heavily police; the reasons underscoring this totalitarian, panoptic dominance over the production and consumption of such goods, however, have been especially fascinating to study. Namely, and perhaps the most obvious, that the control over the production and consumption of mass culture was one means by which established cultural ethics and hegemonies could be supplanted by socialist ideologies (The establishment and propagation of “fakelore” an especially interesting facet of the regime).
As with any study of power and culture, notions of collective and individual resistance to the imposition of foreign ideologies are to be abound (As Foucault once asserted, “Where there is power, there is resistance.”) We examined, among other perspectives, a sort of collective resistance in the transcripts of the conference of musicians in Moscow (“Even so, the musical atmosphere in which we live is not healthy.” [Werth, 56]) and discussed the possibility of Shostakovich resisting socialist realist doctrine through his various musical compositions.
The most interesting part of this week’s readings, for me, is when Zhdanov comes out guns a’blazing on the third day of the conference of the musicians, denouncing the big four and all of their artistic achievement to date. “Let us,” he says, “consider these comrades as the principal figures of the formalist school. This school is radically wrong” (Werth, 80). Any semblance of a democratic plenary of the past two days is dashed in this simple, totalizing statement. What I find particularly interesting in this speech is Zhdanov’s justification of the Stalin Prizes conferred on the so-called ‘formalist’ composers. He says, “We did not consider, when we gave you these prizes, that your works were free of faults, but we were patient, and waited for you to choose the right road.” The presumption that a broad institution like the Russian government is not only able to comprehend the leading edge of musical art in full, but also to predict where that art is headed, is astounding to me. I imagine that this statement shocked many people at the conference as well, but nobody was in a position to contest Zdhanov’s claim, not on the third day. What’s interesting is that whether socialist realism, is defined by the composers union, or by the government, it is not defined by the proletariat, the body which it is supposed to represent.
Dan mentioned at the end of his post that the conference between Zhdanov and the musicians did little to delineate the musical boundaries of socialist realism. Interestingly, that lack of clarity was something I came away with as well – this politically and structurally “specific” ideal for soviet music is still hard to articulate in concrete terms.
On page 61, Serebriakov (director of Leningrad Conservatory) said something that stood out: “Musical language must be intelligible to the people, but it must not become primitive…”
This is a concise example of the mixed ideals that make socialist realism hard to pin down. My question would be: where does “intelligibility” end and “primitivism” begin? It seems like the words mean little in themselves, but they have connotations that composers and musicians are supposed to make note of – in other words, the meaning is hidden inside this language – a language that requires constant decoding.
Later, composer L.K. Knipper speaks to this hierarchy of language: “Democratic musical language is not such a simple matter. In these last thirty years our literary language also has greatly changed. Our People has changed, so has its mentality. New conceptions require new words.”
Maybe I’m drawing relations where there are none, but it seems to me like this indirect code of language is very intertwined with the murkiness of “socialist realism.”
In “Zhdanov Meets the Musicians,” Werth creates a clear distinction between the act of “composing music” and enforcing “musical politics” (Werth, 40). From the Western and Democratic worldview, it is difficult to conceptualize the immense power that the Soviet Union held over the Arts. The political landscape of the Soviet Union unnecessarily forced expectations onto composers and altered the natural process by which composers wrote music. In relation to this, I am still puzzled by the lack of clarity surrounding Zhdanov’s notion of “Socialist Realism.” Would it even have been possible for more objective standards to be created and enforced? Considering the government’s incessantly changing standards and expectations, it is easy to imagine why composers, such as the Big Four, floundered in attempt to find scapegoats for their perceived errors.
Werth mentions the disintegration of the Soviet Union’s “laissez-faire regime” that eventually led to the government’s hostile relationship with the Arts. I am very interested in learning about the reasons for the Soviet Union abandoning this short lived “laissez-faire” policy. What specific developments resulted in the government’s accusatory relationship with the leading figures of the arts? If the Soviet Union had continued to follow this “laissez-faire” policy of the 1920s, would the compositions of the “Big Four” followed a similar trajectory?
After the public criticism “Muddle Instead of Music” a public discussion took place in which the writer A. Lezhnev remarked, “The horrible thing about any dictatorship is that the dictator does whatever his left leg tells him to do. We are like Don Quixote, always dreaming, until reality tells us otherwise”. While the writer fears for Shostakovich and fears that this control is the same as Nazi book burning, he brings up another interesting point. The pressure of the Soviet’s undefined relationship to music keeps artitsts on their toes. Shostakovich was constantly changing his style to accommodate new pronouncements. Could this fluctuating relationship to acceptable styles perhaps have spurred Shostakovich into a more dynamic relationship with composition? Fear is, undeniably, a motivating force. I am reminded of Gemima’s comment, “It is true that some studies claim effective creativity when placed under a controlled environment, with constraints that challenge and ultimately produce more meaningful work. Or on the other hand, would different music have been created by Shostakovitch if he did not have the threatening breath of Stalin down his back?” Perhaps the Soviet’s, so opposed to “formalism”, were the most formal of all. When the actual threat of death rests behind the composition of a symphony, it is hard not to imagine that emergency being inextricably tied to the final product. The new Soviet Regime also placed a suprising amount of importance on cultural productions. It was not as if musicians could produce half-hearted efforts at music that was “nationalist in form and socialist in content”. Instead, Stalin could very well attend your opera and anonymously voice his opinion about its worth and the worth of your life. The pressure for the composition to conform to ever-changing Soviet conceptions of appropriate art and to represent a skilled and meaningful attempt was intense. Shostakovich could not write something to pacify the desire for Soviet music. He had to step up to the task and make a serious effort to deliver something suitable and innovative. I am reminded of the quote from Prokofiev concerning Stravinsky saying that he, “frightfully desires his creativity to adhere to modernity. If I want anything, it’s that modernity should adhere to my creativity”. My question is how much pressure the composer themselves exerted back on those men tasked with defining appropriate Soviet music. Was Shostakovich merely waking from his dream like Don Quixote, and tasked with conforming to an ever changing reality? Or were his musical contributions successful enough in rising to the occasion that they too defined what the “dictators left leg” wanted to listen to? Did the pressure of socialism create a kind of dynamism of form in composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev that wouldn’t necessarily have been inspired in more placid times?
Something that I think is particularly interesting about the transcripts from the Conference of Composers that we read this week, and the short piece following titled “The Party’s Victory” was the discrepancy between the consensus of the artists and the decision of the state. Largely it seemed to be agreed upon that the Big Four should not have their works panned in their entirety, and that the good should be separated from the bad within their catalogue. However the declarations made by the state in the wake of the conference seems to have almost totally disregarded this. While the Soviet state does not seem to have a problem in changing their own opinions on art and music, they do seem to take issue with composers who try tirelessly to keep up with their changing demands. Denouncing symphonies and operas that were made under an outdated set of regulations because they do not meet present regulations seems foolhardy. It is one thing to change the ideas for current music, but to try and impose these new rules upon every piece of music ever created would put immense pressure on composers to be able to create the least offensive or creative compositions possible. I suppose this is what Muradeli was trying to accomplish with his opera “the Great Friendship” , something that was ham-handed in its socialist message, however even this was not immune from criticism by Zhdanov and the cultural committee. While early on the Soviets seemed to be interested in balancing artistic ability with socialist content, over time they seem to have reneged on their claims in a desire for a control over the musical output that some would call tyrannical. I am very interested to see next week how the secretive importation of popular Western music shapes “counter-culture” in such a strict society and how Zhdanov accounts for the changing ideas of music abroad in the Soviet Union.
While reading through the transcript of the conference of musicians, I was struck by Zhdanov’s dismissal of the claims of the Conservatory. Claiming that “it is not a question of occasional lapses, not a question of the leaking roof of the Conservatory. This can be easily repaired. But there is a great big hole in the very foundations of Soviet music.” (79) Suggestions for the better development of musical instruments and an emphasis on the need for an improved educational system for young Soviet composers were also ignored. Even the proposition that younger composers should become more involved in the theoretical discussions surrounding the nature of Soviet musical composition went unaddressed. The lack of progress made throughout the three days of this conference, along with the masked Soviet jargon that can be found in the speeches of all involved, draw attention to this conference as an instrument of discipline, a tactic of fear.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to have an art form become so restricted. The ideas about music didn’t give the composer space to be creative instead they were forced to create peices of music that the general audience may not have even had a chance to hear on the radio. Stalin was a bully, he forced composers to adhere to his vision of what music should be and destroyed the lives if the peices didn’t meet his “standards.” Reading the dialogue from the conference really made the musicans seem like mortal people. They were all trying to save themselves and unfortunately they tended to relay on scapegoating. Pushing their own failures onto each other so that they could escape blame or punishment. I want to learn more about the daily lives of the composers, the ones whose carriers ended badly and the ones who were successful. What where they’re daily lives like?
Zhdanov shows us, a clue at understanding why there is such murkiness within the Party’s understanding and opinion of music. As we have established that trying to decode political meaning, from music is easier said than done. This has not stop people from trying to squeeze out whatever meaning they can find. This task is made even more difficult when the people doing the decoding are also the people who are putting limits on what can be expressed while also dictating what should be expressed. First, composers are urged to fit within the confines of Zhdanov’s Social Realism with its own ambiguous characteristic, and definitions, especially within relation to music. But constantly new limitations are imposed such as Zhdanov’s own new doctrine. Painting the Americans as the domineering imperialist and themselves as the proletariat democracy. This constant defining and redefining of what one’s ideology must consist of, added with Zhdanov’s own limited knowledge of music, created a confusion of what music ought to be. This confusion is apparent throughout the conference. You see such a wide breadth of composers being accused of formalism, or composing in a way that didn’t align with party lines. Composers who most likely were really just composing to be composing. The fact that people were being persecuted whether they admit to have included some “formalist elements” such as Prokofiev. People who play right into the party’s ideology such Muradeli. Yet we didn’t really read about any composers who were intending to be formalist or dissenters in their own way, none who owned up to it and would actually take such a solid stance. I wonder if there are any? I do doubt that there would be it seems like the confusion and force of power is so strong that the Party actually succeeded in stopping formalism from, smearing love all over the opera and playing into the “perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.” The Party seemed to being inflicting persecution on the poor composer over an imagined enemy.
While reading the Art of Fear, it was interesting just to see how much power Stalin held over the composers. You could see this in how important it was whenever he went out to see a symphony. It also showed in what happened to anyone who he felt would rebel or rival his own influence. A good example of this is what happened to Tukhachevsky, “Stalin saw him as a dangerous rival- too independent, too charismatic. He was arrested…in the torture chamber he confessed his part in a nonexistent conspiracy to overthrow Stalin.” (231) It’s quite astounding the consequences that those suffered at the hands of Stalin’s reign. I also thought it was interesting how Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was analyzed and seen as a sense of rebellion against the authorities.
Another thing that caught my attention was the Soviet doublespeak. It kind of reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984, especially with passages like Shostakovich using the phrase “I’m feelin’ fine.” (245) When Glikman said this was used repeatedly then that meant that he was meaning the opposite of what he was saying. With this information, one could only imagine the many ways in which one could describe how great and extravagant that these turbulent times of Stalinism was in letters during those years.
I was intrigued by Lady Macbeth’s reception as well as the rejection of the compositions of the big four. So much of the criticism was predicated on the composer’s prestige and less the musical production itself- for example the article “muddle instead of music” which denounced Shostakovitch’s opera to “spread awareness” to other composers that all were susceptible to criticism, knowing he would survive. It amazes me that there was still incentive to create, despite the limits and ambiguities of socialist realism and the paranoia that existed among composers, even when they were not being actively criticized for their work. For example Dzerjinsky, at the conference of musicians, said: “Nobody writes anything about me, even though, since Quiet Flows the Don, I have written six more operas, all of which were produced—some successfully, others less so. The question of criticism must be carefully revised” (Werth 58).
The class discussion on Wednesday made me think a lot about the impact of nationalism on music during this time in Russia. Both from the film and the readings, one could see just how much the idea of creating a “brand” for the country was important. The Soviet agenda really wanted the composers of that era to project their ideas through music. One can see how throughout different times in history, this same idea of a “brand” was prevalent. It had different goals, but there seemed to be an agenda for better or worse. When you compare the “big five” with the “big four”, you see how they were a type of precursor, solidifying the idea of what Russian music and culture was throughout Europe. Although the Soviet agenda was clearly much worse, this idea of using music to project the ideas to the rest of the world is the same. You can see this in the case of Schostakovich and his Leningrad symphony, where they literally projected his music from the battlefield to across the ocean in the US.
I thought it was interesting that Zhdanov required composers to continue writing music in the desired style — nationalist in form, socialist in context — but would reward them with lavish gifts. It seems incredibly contradictory that there was an emphasis on rejecting the bourgeois life style and yet the Big Four were given expensive apartments and political safety/immunity for composing what the government wanted.
I was intrigued by the question: for whom is this music written? The Radio Committee would only play modern works on the second and third programs or during “slack” periods. People asked, “Why do I listen with such joy to Tchaikovsky, Grief, Chopin, Borodin, Rachmaninov, and why do I feel no joy, and don’t understand what it’s all about, when I listen to some modern Soviet music?” People enjoyed these composers because they regularly listened to their music. If they listened to these new pieces, if the radio would play modern works at the popular times then the people would learn the music and eventually admire the composers in the same way as Tchaik and Co.
It is continually fascinating to me that the Soviet Party apparatus attempted to win the appreciation of the masses through opera and symphony, as these are music forms traditionally aimed toward and appreciated by elite classes throughout European societies. Of course, any art form has the potential to be used as propaganda or at least include content that drives the viewer or listener toward some desired ideological goal. This is not so strange. However, what I am interested in is the attempt to match high art with mass tastes. The masses already had their popular and folk music, all of which could be altered to fit Marxist-Leninist ideology (a la the folk songs about Lenin mentioned by Zemtsovsky). This is not to say that the masses necessarily were inclined to hate or dislike symphonic and operatic music; but to assert that I find it could have been feasible, easier, and more efficient for the Party to condone ideologically sound, pro-Revolution art music without worrying about its attractiveness to the workers masses. Yes, in Marxist ideology the Revolution is supposed to bring about one unified workers’ class, and in the Soviet variation, everything should be accessible to the common man, the stereotypical worker. Obviously in the Soviet Union this single class society never came–there still existed divides between workers, peasants, intelligentsia, party elite, and more (which naturally the party played down and denied)–but in a better Communist state, I feel that this stringent separation between types of music that Zhdanov asserted (beautiful, natural and human Soviet music vs. false, vulgar, pathological Formalist music) would not have come about. The condemnations of combinations of notes and the theoretical details of certain movements and pieces of symphonies on the basis of being Formalist ignores all ideological content. For a piece could be strictly ideological AND at the same time be widely panned for “Formalist tendencies.” Of course, for instrumental music, measuring by ideology is extremely difficult and gives too much room for odd interpretations. But what I suppose to assert in all of this is that I think the Party did not have to attempt to cater to the tastes of the masses in regards to musical forms that they did not favor, and that this sort of gesture was not any more necessary or ideologically sound than keeping such musical forms without attempting to pander to mass tastes.
While reading the Ross, I was immediately reminded of two Shostakovich string quartets and the 2nd movement of his Op. 102 piano concerto that seem to demonstrate Shostakovich’s sense of dread, extreme anxiety, and also the “great contradictions” that plagued Shostakovich’s personality (his dual migration toward horror and beauty). The first is the well known and much discussed String Quartet no. 8, whose fourth movement (listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsVcoceqJMo) is traditionally said to represent the “dreaded knock at the door” as mentioned by Ross on page 199. (Note the abrupt but serene change of character with the cello solo at beginning at 3:20 of the embedded recording and ending, just as abruptly, with a return to terrifying door knocks 30 seconds later.) My two other examples are the chaotic last movement of the 7th quartet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVsfTYm-yUk) and the extremely beautiful 2nd piano concerto (second movement https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlMHjo7Jwhk). Of course, all three of these works had been composed after Stalin’s death (both quartets in 1960 and the piano concerto in 1957) and so they could be seen as examples of Shostakovich reflecting on his past rather than his response, in the moment, to living in fear.
I also wonder if the ‘Soviet doublespeak’ (which Ross mentions on page 190 in reference to Shostakovich speaking of his “feelings of unalloyed joy” under the “sun of Stalin’s constitution”) can be reliably heard in some of his compositions? Listening to his music in the way that Ross suggests – to “agree on what the music appears to be saying, and then […] to agree on what the music is really saying” – is an interesting task, both for its difficulty (as Ross notes) and its subjectivity. Even more tricky is the fact that we are analyzing music outside of its timely cultural context – its zeitgeist – which complicates our view since trying to ‘decode’ the music requires positioning it in the hierarchy of Shostakovich’s artistic output a priori.
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