Tuesday, we covered a selection of readings from Music and Soviet Power. The selections demonstrated two opposed Soviet musical organizations that, during the years immediately after the revolution, sought to theorize and create distinctly Soviet music. For examples of two such efforts we are given the ASM (The Association for Contemporary Music) and the RAPM (the Russian Association of Proletariat Musicians). The ASM was formed, mainly, from pre-revolutionary composers and scholars. These were those who had European connections and previously concretized ideas about composition. On the other hand, the RAMP represented a relatively young group, many students were involved, who believed they could start afresh and make something completely new and completely revolutionary. The RAPM became regarded as distinctly more avant-garde. The group shunned serialist developments from Europe and instead focused more on the development of a new Socialist/Soviet music in the form of mass choruses and rousing choral music; participatory music was endorsed by the group. The ASM quickly faded out and was officially defunct by 1929. Despite much objection, the RAPM maintained power despite complaints from musicians and composers who felt their worked was being suppressed by RAPM’s narrow ideology. Critics said the RAPM displayed a “poverty of musical thought” and did not display the necessary mastery and skill to back up their zealousness. On April of 1932 RAPM was disbanded.

Stalin came to power in the mid 1920’s and redefined what the new Soviet music should take as its goal. It should be “nationalist in form and socialist in content”. Stalin eventually wanted to fuse all the Soviet cultures into one communist culture but until then, he redefined nationhood, and proposed that strengthening national culture would further these territories development towards true socialism. Following the fall of the RAPM’s strict Soviet avant-gardism, a return to perhaps older and more traditional musical proclivities can be witnessed. For example, Beethoven was lauded as being a composer who tapped into a revolutionary brilliance that was similar to the desired Soviet compositions. In an effort to “speed up” the development of underdeveloped eastern territories, composers from Moscow and Leningrad were sent out to write national operas and music for these states. Frolova-Walker writes that Soviet elite traditions were normalized in central Asia through the instituting of Western style orchestras and opera houses. Levin writes about a similar issue when he discusses the rise of the folk orchestra. Traditional folk instruments were taken over and restructured in order to be able to reproduce western scales and music. Folklore was re-written and folk instruments reimagined as chromatic in order to cater to Western sensibilities. This was seen as advancing underdeveloped cultures so as to get them closer to the socialism. However, mapping the Russian urban elite musical sensibilities onto generally more improvisational, micro-tonal indigenous music did not always work seamlessly. The very act of imposing notation on music that had never been notated and relied more on a master-apprentice culture began to undermine its authenticity.

The real issue is how a musical composition, an opera, or an orchestra could ever be “nationalist in form and socialist in content”. The attempt to create national forms lead to tokenizing of folk music and traditions while simultaneously wiping out these traditions. How can musical form be socialist when its form is ambiguous in the first place? It is also highly debatable how music can communicate content.

Were the composers that saw an opportunity to compose under Soviet rule and went to neighboring territories to compose operas misguided? Was the work they produced valuable? Is it still listened to today? In particular, I am thinking of Gliere’s “Shahsenen”.

Although viewed as uneducated and illiterate when it came to notational music, were folk musicians allowed to compose or help with new nationalist operas? What role did folk musicians play in the development on the initial operas and orchestral compositions?



Today we began with the notion that the ethnomusicological perspective is that music is not a universal language but a language contingent on culture. How would one study culture through music in the field of ethnomusicology if music did not reflect culture?

There were three primary periods of Soviet musical culture. The first was the Civil War period (1917-1922) when the Bolsheviks and other groups were in conflict, then the Soviet Union was formed. Lunacharsky was the first Soviet People’s Commissioner for the Enlightenment, which was meant to control art and culture in the USSR.  The second period was characterized by the New Economic Plan was established by Lenin to incorporate some capitalism in an attempt to revive the Soviet Economy. During this second period, 1923-1928, the state created bodies codified through acronyms to mandate aspects of art and culture, and the Association for Contemporary Music (ASM) and Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) musical groups were formed. The ASM and RAPM were perpetually in conflict. The RAPM was more traditional, while the ASM was comprised of younger musicians, often students, who rejected old forms of music and were interested in the Western avant-garde. An example of avant garde Russian music would be the “Iron Foundry” by Alexander Mosolov, which incorporates machine sounds in a futurist gesture to technology. The RAPM take over in the final years of this conflict and put pressure on ASM musicians. During the third period, 1929-1932, these groups dissolved and the Union of Composers formed. Walker’s “Music and Soviet Power” contains passages on how the RAPM fell, and Socialist Realism took its place. Socialist Realist art and music are proletariat, representative of daily life, realistic, and ideologically socialist. Essentially, composers had to be members of the Union of Composers in order to produce music, and could not exist as outliers as some musicians had prior to its establishment. Lenin died in 1924, and there was national mourning. Stalin, “man of steel” took his place. Stalin was a member of the Politburo and later, General Secretary of the Central Committee. Ten to twenty million people perished under his regime, which resembled totalitarianism rather than socialism. The Walker article, “National in Form, Socialist in Content” and the Levin article “Making Marxist-Leninist Music in Uzbekistan” explore Stalin’s project to unite the Soviet republics through common culture, primarily by imposing a Russian framework in a forced integration of various folk cultures. The borders of the Soviet states were drawn “with a ruler” in the 1920s by the USSR which resulted in massive displacements of peoples who then migrated in an attempt to reside in the territories that their ethnic groups were most affiliated with. One aspect of Stalin’s plan to unify these disparate cultures was through the so-called Friendship of the People, an attempt to establish a pan-Soviet folklore by erasing cultural differences. The best illustration of this was the folk orchestra discussed in class. The Soviet folk orchestra was formed to incorporate the disparate folk music traditions into a formal orchestra, the structure of which was Westernized as dictated by the Soviet imperialists. Conservatories and operas were exported to the Central Asian steppe in an effort to involve folk musicians of the various ethnic groups in the creation of pan-Soviet music. Folk instruments were transformed to become standardized such that they were chromatic, and they lost much of the authenticity of their original sounds and methods of playing. By the 1930s, the Soviets had thoroughly adopted the notion that their culture was superior to the other states of the USSR (which some refer to as colonized states) so this orchestra became even more similar to a Western orchestra as it was further Russified. After Stalin’s rule, Khrushchev took over, and there was a period of de-Stalinization. Strangely, the tradition of the Soviet folk orchestra became so entrenched in the USSR states that many persist to this day, some as nationalistic symbols that have become tourist attractions, and others that perpetuate in obscurity.

The term intonazia was defined by Russian music scholar Malcolm H. Brown in the Levin reading as a word for how music carries meaning. We concluded with the comment that the ambiguity of music haunted the USSR throughout as so-called Soviet musical structure- “national in form, socialist in content” could never be concretely evidenced in the music produced during that period. Meanwhile, others suggest that composers’ total immersion in Soviet ideology means that attempting to evaluate the sincerity of their conformity becomes impossible and is therefore unimportant. But of course impossible questions are the ones that people often enjoy exploring. Can conformity or nonconformity to the aforementioned Soviet ideologies be evidenced through this music? If so, is the culture reflected clearly or more implicitly, and what is the importance of discerning culture through music?

17 comments on “TWO: MAKING MARXIST-LENINIST MUSICAdd yours →

  1. There are great tensions to be read in these discussions of the politics of music making in socialist countries. These last two readings both highlight new tensions to be read as well as expand on some fundamental questions we were only beginning to see last week. There are two governing tensions within these discussion, namely the tension of the role of music and the ability/capacity of music as a unifying force, reflection of character, with of course the question of music as a “universal language,” or “ineffable,” as the Frovola-Walker piece highlights. This is what ultimately lies against the pervasive notion of this moment in history and in the socialist agenda that music has the ability to unify a vastly diverse part of the world into a unified “folk,” the creation of a proletariat music, and ultimately a music that is “nationalist in form, socialist in content,” the other governing tension for this body of material. It is interesting that in these sort of discussions on political music making, the very essence of the question of what music is, is being asked and called upon, not to say that in observing these fundamental questions these tensions are resolved. Beyond these larger struggles, there is continued tension within these discussions of music, for example a butting of heads with the ASM/RAPM, that is largely rooted in a battle of generations, the young zealous students versus the skeptical and methodical older voices. Furthermore is the struggle of the creation of “folk” and the resulting creation of “fakelore.” What I hope to be illuminating is that this is an extremely layered study, with many tensions and different capacities, which perhaps speaks to the nature of the socialist music project, and maybe even socialism in general…. how is progress to made into this idealized socialist society, which Lunacharsky so desperately wanted to propel into, when the very essence of the thing is so riddled in tension and conflict?

  2. The Platonic perspective with which music has been viewed in the Soviet tradition is particularly interesting to me: what are the abilities of certain musics in unifying citizens? What types of musics lend themselves to such a task? Is music a universal language?

    Interestingly, although most unsurprisingly, the claim that Western art musics should be the standard by which all other musics are held was echoed in our analyses of the Soviet musical culture of this period. We saw, for instance, the tokenization of traditional musics and instruments in the larger, Westernized folk orchestras. Such a matter becomes complicated by the legitimization of the fakelore that subsequently arose from such an enterprise.

    Given the long, contested, and problematic relationship that anthropology has had with cultural evolutionist thought (a la E. Tylor), we must constantly seek to maintain a mindset of cultural relativism in our examinations of other musical cultures.

  3. The idea of “nationalist in form and socialist in content” is, in my opinion, an idea that can never be implemented. It is an impossible task, and a controversial one, as nationalism and Socialism do not necessarily go hand in hand. Also, in order to be “national in form” socialist regimes simply incorporated aspects of folk music. However, they still required them to fit the socialist model, thus creating huge problems with the authenticity of these folk orchestras. And, while I understand that the folk orchestras were not creating “folk music” whatsoever, I still think that it was, at the time, noble that they attempted to preserve some of the original instruments whilst simultaneously incorporating aspects of western music. Even though much of the real folk music was lost, it still had a slight influence on the operas that were introduced into the socialist countries – even if it was a menial influence. In addition, the overshadowing of the old is constantly happening and the new folk orchestras are still prevalent in countries that were formerly part of the USSR. The folk orchestras now serve as tourist attractions, and they are imbedded into the culture. The soviet regime was trying to stray from bourgeois influence and create music for the proletariat, however they did not necessarily succeed at doing this, and instead limited music to a very structured form.

  4. The notion that the populist style of the RAPM could be categorized as a kind of parallel avant-garde,in terms of aesthetic philosophy if not musical content, to the European Serialist school is totally fascinating. It makes clear the radical shift in terms of world view that has to be grappled with in order to understand the mindset of these young socialist musicians. The idea that popular musics could be revolutionary is, I think, difficult for modern people to understand. There is perhaps nothing less artistically radical, from an traditional European standpoint, then the folk songs of the people; We often think of art as a way of pushing us beyond the realm of folk craft. Yet in the view of the RAPM it seems like the idea of going beyond the realm of the people is something to be specifically avoided. Thus the role of the forward thinking (and eventually government sanctioned) artist becomes to create something for the people using their materials but not actually made by them. Furthermore, since so many folk musics are products of systems of oppression, they have to be manipulated in order to become socialist music.
    How can educated composers hope to not only understand but also create an authentic transformation of folk-culture which reflects the socialist message?

  5. In high school I wrote a persuasive essay on the development of children and the effect that music has on their cognitive growth in which I explained that music can be seen as a universal language. My argument in the paper was more so that music has the potential to connect everyone around the world. Now that I am thinking about it again, it does not seem that simple. It does not seem that music can be a universal language with the interpretation that everyone will react to the music in the same way. Although, even if two people both speak Spanish, does than mean they will perfectly understand each other just because they are speaking the same language?

    Perhaps labeling music as a universal language depends on one’s definition of language. One argument seems to be that two people from different parts of the world would not recognize or appreciate the music of the other’s as they would. Although this is a valid point, it is also possible that two people from the same place could hear the music of their area/region/culture and have completely different reactions.

    I don’t think there is one answer, or at least one answer that will be accepted by everyone.

    Another part of our classes this week that interested me was the discussion of “Western-izing” folk music and also the idea of returning to the folk music. Although it is not unexpected, it is still unsettling to think of the West imposing its musical practices on Eastern cultures – or any cultures for that matter. Seeing these Soviet orchestras play Western music in their traditional costumes made the musicians look as if they were part of a circus or part of a show. They were not performing for themselves; their purpose was to entertain tourists.

    At first, the idea that, today, people are trying to return to the original folk music sounds exciting and promising. However, at the same time, is there actually a way to do that? If the objective is to recall the music and then notate it so that the original music isn’t forgotten, then the folk music and the whole essence of folk music are still lost. Even though one of the ways to remember music is to write it down, traditional music was not shared through written music. This renders the entire process of returning to the original music and notating that music completely counterintuitive.

  6. In response to Sophie’s comment on music’s ability to be “nationalist in form, and socialist in content,” the clips we watched in the last class lead me to consider the various implications of the Soviet musical model. Initially after reading Frolova-Walker’s article, I perceived “nationalist in form, and socialist in content” to refer solely to the composition of music, the score itself. However, after watching videos of musical performances, I realized the significance of costume design and the utilization of different musical instruments. The transition to chromatic scale in “traditional” instruments for the Uzbek folk orchestra altered the integrity of the instrument, breaking from tradition. Is the mere use of these instruments considered to be nationalist in form, despite the fact that they have been altered? If folk dress and “traditional” musical instruments were believed to be enough to serve as socialist content, then would live performance be the only way to execute this model of musical composition? Or would the score itself need to be both “nationalist in form, and socialist in content?”

  7. I am interested in how the definition of Soviet music changed rapidly from the people making music as a response to the revolution and music as a vessel for Stalin’s re-defining of nationalism. The assertion that artistic productions must be “nationalist in form and socialist in content,” is an absurd proposal that is incredibly difficult if not impossible to measure. The disbanding of the ASM and the RAPM showcased how even organizations that were not particularly detrimental to the regime were eradicated on the contradictory assumption that they were too “insular,” when in the same moment, “visiting composers” were writing operas in underdeveloped territories, appropriating folk music while also erasing those traditions.

  8. The use of folk instruments to play western classical music is fascinating to me. It seems that from the Soviet perspective, the music that is played is far more important than the instruments that play it, which is ironic because the music was originally imagined with very specific instrument sounds in mind. I imagine that any of the western classical composers would have written differently if they were writing for folk instruments. One could argue that the Soviet union justified folk orchestra with the ‘Nationalist in form, Socialist in content’ mantra, but that assumes a parallel between western classical composers and socialism: Beethoven=Socialism, Uzbekistan=nationalism. But I think what we would all agree with is that it would be much more ‘nationalistic’ if Uzbekistan was to develop it’s own advanced music. But maybe in the scenario where Uzbekistan could develop its own advanced music, it would also develop its own ideologies and philosophies. It would be still be nationalist in form, but it would no longer be socialist in content. What if Uzbekistan’s more advanced music could compete with European classical, and what if their ideology was more successful than socialism? Maybe this is the subconscious fear hiding behind the ‘nationalist in form, socialist in content’ mantra.

  9. I was interested in the idea of music as a memoir, that was briefly brought up in response to Shostakovich’s works. The point was made that since he had no writings or memoirs there was no way to tell what his true opinions on the communist agenda were. To me this speaks both to the idea of the question from our first class about what the true essence of music is, and to the idea of music as a limited language. To me, Schostokovich’s late string quartets, written after he was denounced by the government in 1936, cry out the pain he was feeling and the frustration of being made to compose works in a style not his own. The almost fake happiness of the major keys is forced and the return to conservative tonality is so clearly not his own. While I fully agree with the point presented in class about eastern and western ears being used to different sounds, when people talk about a universal language this is what I imagine. No, maybe not every single person on this planet will have the same reaction. For me, the fact that music written 85 years ago on the opposite side of the globe can give me an insight into what was happening in Soviet Russia, in perhaps an even more personal way then a memoir could, is a testament to some kind of universality.

  10. I thought the dynamics between the RAPM and ASM was most interesting. It reminded me of the new vs. old argument in the sense that the RAPM was basically undermining what the ASM people were doing. It also was probably a sign of the times with the sexist tones with the RAPM mentioning that looking back at the classics of music means a return to a “stern, masculine” time. I found this ironic with the fact that the people that wrote the letter by ASM to be women and find that this statement was an attempt to scrutinize them. It was interesting how the RAPM was basically denouncing the people that ASM brought up because simply “they were young…” and, “still had much to learn.” Finally, as a classmate said, it is interesting that they (RAPM) simply contradicted themselves by talking about how music cannot be related to paintings and literature because of how it isn’t “realist” but turns around and says how changing its tradition will lead it to barbarity.

  11. The notion of “Nationalist in form, Socialist in Content” seems too abstract for it to have been successfully reinforced throughout the Soviet Union. Instrumental music carries meaning in monumentally different ways from that of vocal music in that its meaning is extracted from its foundational components, such as chordal structures. Since the meaning of music is conveyed implicitly, it is impossible for a consistent definition of “socialist in content” to be established. If a composer decided to not conform to these standards that fostered the “poverty of music[al] thought,” what would this music look or sound like? How would the Soviet authorities determine if Soviet composers’ works were acts of dissidence? And would this difference even be noticeable to the ear of the average citizen? While deliberate cultural planning accelerates the process of cultural development, it inevitably extracts a sense of authenticity from whatever is being created.

  12. I’m interested in the “intonazia” concept that’s been coming up (I think we saw it first in the Levin reading – he quotes Malcolm H. Brown). In a way though, it’s not a concept so much as it’s just a word for a single sonic/musical gesture. Either way, its usage seems to embody the way that music was treated in Soviet culture and politics as an incredibly utilitarian thing – something to be tailored and defined to serve a specific purpose. Later, Brown writes:

    “Various ‘intonazias’ may enter into the thematic substance of a musical work. The configuration of the component “intonazias” in the work as a whole and their ordering in accordance with musical
    logic determine the work’s “musical image.” “Musical imagery” as a concept, therefore, may be defined as the generalized re-creation through a system of musical logic of affective phenomena associated both with the external objective world and with man’s inner, psychic world.”

    I can only speak for myself here, but this feels like a pretty strange way of thinking about sounds (to someone steeped in various 21st century american musical cultures). In my own experience, speaking about the “purpose” of music is almost taboo, or an undermining of the “artistry” (which we often value on abstract, inarticulable terms). No one is right or wrong necessarily, but it’s interesting to see how music was dealt with as such a utilitarian commodity. In some sense, one could argue that all music is utilitarian, but I’ve never seen its purpose and function talked about in the logical, literal, and political terms that we’ve seen it discussed in the readings.

  13. Like Sophie, I am curious as to the ability of music to be “nationalist in form and socialist in content” especially in the context of these opera houses and folk orchestras that were created in countries where musical traditions were vastly different from those implemented. The preference for western ensembles and operatic performances put pressure on local instruments ,that could provide some form of nationalist flavor to the orchestras, to be able to suit a predetermined idea of composition that they could not fulfill without an overhaul of some of their most basic structures and key characteristics.

    The Levin article also brought forth the point that many of the composers who made this “nationalist” music were Russians who were asked to help struggling republics to form their new sound. It is mystifying to me that these composers would be assumed to be capable of composing something unique to these freshly minted republics when the republics themselves were just getting used to the idea of their own existence. Beyond this, the new republics were often sewing together a variety of small cultures into a single area. A truly nationalist form would incorporate all of the cultures (probably to the delight of none) or attempt to pick out a dominate culture from within them (equally unsatisfying). The goal of allowing each nation to compose music with their own nationalistic flavor is admirable but imposing forms previously unknown to a republic barely getting on its feet seems poorly timed at best and a fools errand at worst.

  14. I am interested in the artistic lives of composers. I found a story from NPR, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed Shostakovich: Notes for Stalin is a new Symphonic Play™ by writer and director Didi Balle based on the background instances that lead Dmitri Shostakovich to write his Fifth Symphony. The piece was performed on November 15, 2014 in Baltimore, MD. Shostakovich was a celebrated composer before Stalin came to see his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and called him as a bourgeois composer which destroyed his artistic career. I thought that this program could be related to the readings that we did this week.

    Here is a link to the program:

  15. Elena ended her section by asking the question of importance in discerning culture through music. This is can be understood through her question of whether or not conformity to a political structure (in our case, the socialist Soviet state) can be heard in music. Whether or not we can ‘hear’ socialism in music, it is not true that history has decided which music is socialist and which is not, since it would be an oversimplification to say that the music which passed the artistic screening, which was in place for all Soviet composers, is inherently socialist music. Endorsement by the screening committee is largely subjective. Even though Shostakovich’s music was widely performed in Russia (amid political controversy), it would be hard to describe it as socialist in content. In fact, Shostakovich and Prokofiev had a curious habit of encrypting certain folk songs and musical caricatures (of people and objects) into their works (see Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante or the 2nd movement to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2).
    This difficulty in discerning the content of music was also brought up in Sophie’s response. In some ways, it may be that the content of a work has to do with the timbral aspects of it. We mentioned in class that, for a time, the Soviet period had banned the cliché of the use of augmented 2nd’s. I wonder how the Soviet public perceived the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, since he wrote similarly to Shostakovich but with many more Jewish tonalities. How would the content of this music – written in Russia under the guidance of Russian composers – be classified?

  16. I was most fascinated with the beginning of “The Rules Change” in which we learn about Mikhail Gnesin. To see how far the reach of the RAPM was and how it affected the life of composers it did not agree with. The RAPM calls out Gnesin for this quote “I have always felt that next to him I am a complex man, that my thoughts and feelings were more complex, and his were simpler.” The man who Gnesin was comparing himself with was Aleksey Chapygin “a well-know writer” but when Gnesin was making the comparison Chapygin was in the much humbler position of peasant. The RAPM took that one quote out of context and they portrayed Gnesin as “profoundly alien and reactionary representative of bourgeois intelligentsia.” What I find most striking is the lesson of Gnesin’s story was to prove himself wrong to show it was improper for thinking the way he was. Gnesin shed light on the fact that it was a mistake for thinking that he would have grander thoughts than a peasant. The whole point of Gnesin’s story is that the peasant has full rich thoughts waiting in his head ready to be expressed. Then the RAPM vilifies him by portraying as a man who hadn’t learned the very lesson Gnesin was in the process of pointing out. This shows that even with Gnesin actually promoting a good Marxian lesson, of the rich inner life of the peasant, he was lambasted by the RAPM. Even though he agreed with the party lines the RAPM made a decision against him so there was no way for him to win or retrieve the favor of the RAPM.

  17. I am continually struck by how successful Stalin was in splitting the former Russian Turkestan into five separate republics, and beyond that, into separate nations. It is easy, certainly, to draw a border. But it is much more difficult to have the border conform to the ethnic and linguistic demographics within its bounds, or to artificially impose a national identity so successfully that the identity becomes more real. This is primarily is in reference to Theodore Levin’s “Making Marxist-Leninist Music in Uzbekistan,” in which the discussion of maqam piqued my interest. That Stalin’s Nationalities Policy (of dividing the Central Asian regions into new ethnolinguistic groups in order to prevent the seeds of any sort of Pan-Turkism) worked is evident in the rival Uzbek and Tajik claims to the maqam form and the continued maintenance of both the artificial nationalities that Stalin created and their asserted national traditions. That the maqam originally was a form of court music sung in both Uzbek and Tajik languages, reflective of multiple linguistic system within the former Bukharan Emirate, was unimportant to Soviet officials. To me what is most important is that these constructed nationalities (and more, like Azerbaijan, to an even greater extent) have become widely accepted, that numerous heterogenuous, primarily nomadic groups became complicit in a system of national identification, that, while perhaps not always completely fabricated, all the same was purposed in order to weaken each constituent nationality.

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