Svein Sellanraa’s entries at The Orthosphere under the rubric of “Reactionary Composer of the Week” have provoked lively discussion while at the same time dividing the commentary. This commentator or that one wants nothing to do with concert music beyond Johannes Brahms or perhaps – stretching the limit slightly – Anton Bruckner. Another commentator, presumably of the same disposition, employs a slightly different rhetoric, making it clear that in his opinion no traditionalist worthy of the name would have any truck with Arnold Schoenberg or Igor Stravinsky. Bertonneau, who regards himself as creditably reactionary, not only defends, but positively recommends that traditionalists with a taste for high art should come to terms with Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Participants in the debate allow that subjectivity plays a role in issues of taste, but neither side concedes much. The dialogue has nevertheless stimulated me to make one of my irregular and rather spasmodic attempts to tie together hitherto uncorrelated strands of interest. What, for example, is the place of music, confining the matter there, in a polity, particularly in a traditionalist polity? Is formal experimentation in music necessarily inimical to the moral cohesion of a society? Is there a formula for healthy music? Is dissonance the same as dissolution – and is dissonant music therefore also dissolute? Does history give an example of a polity that, taking music with extreme seriousness, legislated concerning it, with the aim of fostering robust popular morale?
I. The last of those questions occasions a transition to the empirical. Such polities existed. The Third Reich was one and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was another. In the case of Nazi Germany, the music policy never departed from the crudity of pseudo-racial categories. Whatever music Jews had composed must be entartete – decadent or corrupt – and for that reason toxic to the body politic and demanding of sanitary suppression. Never mind that Richard Strauss’ chromatic harmonies and many-layered counterpoint operated at the same level of challenging complexity as those of “the Jew,” Gustav Mahler. Never mind that politically compliant “Aryan” composers like Winfried Zillig (1905 – 1963) and the Danish-born Paul von Klenau (1883 – 1946), both Schoenberg students, not only composed using the strictures of dodecaphony, but also had their music performed, and it can only have been with official sanction, in Germany during the Reich. Never mind, finally, that the nationalistic German composer Hans Pfitzner (1869 – 1949) had difficulties in positioning his Brahms-like symphonies and Marschner-like operas on concert schedules because Hitler suspected him, erroneously, of being half-Jewish. Given the right explanation, anything might be convincingly völkisch, while anything else might not.
If Nazi music policy remained inconsistent and even contradictory, Soviet music policy by contrast would exert its aesthetic despotism implacably for as long as sixty years beginning with Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of absolute power over all aspects of national life in the early 1930s. At the heart of Communist aesthetics the inquiry will find the doctrine of “Socialist Realism,” formulated officially by Stalin himself, with help from Maxim Gorky and Nikolai Bukharin. Socialist Realism at first concerned literature, but it soon extended itself to the plastic arts and music.
Comrade Zhdanov (Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov, 1896 – 1948) told the Congress of Soviet Writers (Moscow 1934) that literature should be “impregnated with enthusiasm and the spirit of heroic deeds” and that its heroes should be “working men and women[,] collective farmers, Party members, business managers, engineers, members of the Young Communist League, [and] Pioneers.” In Zhdanov’s view, Socialist Realism, “optimistic in essence,” would constitute “the literature of the rising class of the proletariat, the only progressive and advanced class.” Regarding music, Socialist Realism promulgated that the composer should find his inspiration in the people, should address the people, and should support the revolutionary project of marshaling human energy for the construction of a purely classless society – in which the state, as Karl Marx predicted, would one day wither away. In practical terms for the composer, song should condition the musical score. Proletarian audiences should leave the concert hall whistling the tunes. They should exude enthusiasm for the luminous prospect. Vast contrapuntal structures and crowded, unresolved, minor key excursions would only confuse and demoralize the workers, with whom the artist must express solidarity.
The anonymous Pravda editorialist, probably “the Big Mustache” himself, in responding to the popular success at the Bolshoi Theater of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1936) by the young composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1905 – 1974), wrote irately of “deliberate dissonance… a confused stream of sound” and a “grinding and squealing roar.” Shostakovich, the editorialist wrote, had created a score in which “music [is] deliberately turned inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera.” Lady Macbeth “sacrificed” what the critic called “the power of good music to infect the masses.” In a phrase that would afterwards haunt and threaten Soviet composers, the article declared that Shostakovich had perpetrated his “sacrifice” in a “petty-bourgeois ‘formalist’ attempt to create originality through cheap clowning.” To underline the point, the writer repeated it: “Petty-bourgeois ‘innovations’ lead to a break with real art, real science and real literature.” By “classical opera” Pravda meant Peter Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879) or Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night (1879), both noticeably Russian, both replete with songlike melodies, and with the latter actually drawing on Slavic folk-tunes. Scared out of his wits, Shostakovich withdrew from rehearsal his Symphony No. 4 in C-Minor, composed in the same idiom as the opera, a musical language owing something to German Expressionism à la Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and the early Paul Hindemith. Both opera and symphony feature thick scoring, clashing harmonies, many-layered fugues, percussive toccatas, and extended passacaglia-like passages.
What kind of music pleased the authorities? Shostakovich himself had written stage-tunes, film-scores, and songs in a popular character. For concert music, the commissars favored the continuation of the St. Petersburg and Moscow traditions, epitomized by Rimsky-Korsakov and his students and Tchaikovsky and his students. Shostakovich’s teacher at the Petrograd Conservatory, Alexander Glazunov (1865 – 1936), had written symphonies, tone poems, ballets, and concertos in the traditional Russian manner; and being tuneful and direct, these might be taken as models, despite Glazunov having fled the USSR for Paris in 1928. Reinhold Glière (1875 – 1956), another pre-Bolshevik composer, adapted to the Revolution by seeming to write propaganda, as in the ballet The Red Poppy (1927); but Glière’s Czarist symphonies, especially his Third or Ilya Muromets Symphony (1911), sufficiently embodied what the Party demanded that they too might be taken as models – and they were. A tune from Glière’s Bronze Horseman (1948), played through loudspeakers, greeted every arriving train in Leningrad.
Lev Knipper (1898 – 1974), a much-lauded young composer who had forged his pact with the Party, had pleased the ideological regime greatly with his Symphony No. 4 (1934), subtitled “The Tale of the Komsomol Fighter.” Knipper’s Fourth belongs to that typically Soviet genre, the song symphony. Scored for full symphony orchestra with added military brass, soloists, and chorus, Knipper’s Fourth develops its entire material from a simple song-melody heard at the outset. The tune has currency in the West to this day, traveling under the name Polyushka Polye (“Field, My Field”). When the Red Army Chorus sings it, people take it for a genuine folksong. Audiences of Knipper’s Fourth quite literally left the concert hall whistling the tune. The four movements and forty-five minutes of “The Tale of the Komsomol Fighter” resemble a film score sans the film. Like so much cinematographic music, Knipper’s Fourth tends to obviousness and repetition. When the full forces belt out Polyushka Polye at the climax, musical banality achieves a kind of vulgar apotheosis. Soviet musical life produced innumerable similar items, some by first-rate composers such as Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) or Shostakovich himself. There is Prokofiev’s October Cantata (1937) and Shostakovich’s The Sun Shines over the Motherland Oratorio (1952).
Those works and their lesser counterparts – the soldier choruses and school hymns in praise of Stalin – operate within a narrow emotional and musical horizon. They employ their effects grossly rather than subtly. (Lots of blazing trumpets, rattling drums, and open triadic chords.) They avoid complexity. None of which is to say that they are not enjoyable on some level, but only that they offer no real aesthetic or intellectual nourishment. They are unchallenging, loud, and bland.
II. Just as there were Five-Year-Plans for the steel industry, the coal industry, electrification, and collective farming, so too there was always the equivalent of a Five-Year-Plan for literature, art, and music. Russian socialism took culture seriously. Indeed the apparatchiks must have feared art or they would not have harnessed it so diligently or policed it so assiduously so as to prevent its contamination by the slightest trend of dissidence. Harnessing music entailed the reorganization of the Czarist musical establishment and the creation of new conservatories, orchestras, and opera theaters throughout the Union. By 1940 even the Central Asian Republics had their own conservatories. Older composers – like Glière, Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881 – 1950), or Maximilian Steinberg (1883 – 1946) – once vetted by the regime became professors on faculty. Whether it was Azerbaijan or Russia itself, each conservatory relentlessly graduated its yearly cohort of performers and composers. The music that this legion of conservatory graduates wrote and which found its way into performance tended to sound like the music of the teachers, one step down qualitatively. A characteristic “Soviet Idiom” crystallized, the imitative ease of and official preference for which further de-individualized and stereotyped new composition.
The Soviet musical establishment was paradoxically reactionary, in a formal sense, rather than revolutionary, as it claimed. It ensconced as mandatory a synthetic version of what, in 1890 or 1910 had been the spontaneous style of the second generation of national romantics. Flouting the synthesis might draw actual punishment – as Shostakovich discovered in the case of Lady Macbeth.
The quantity of ostensibly serious music in classical forms written by Soviet composers between 1930 and 1970 staggers the imagination. Most of these scores fell away into oblivion immediately, for being both too topical and too undistinguished. A “Hymn to the Leader” for chorus and orchestra might garner rave reviews in Pravda and even receive a coveted Stalin Prize and yet be musically a nullity, lauded only in the spirit of sycophancy that pervaded the regime. Only a tiny handful of Soviet-era compositions proved themselves sufficiently memorable to enter the repertory outside the formerly Communist nations, and they distinguished themselves by trespassing beyond strictures; but not many more retain currency even within the borders of the late and unlamented empire. A fairly wide selection from this colossal output did, however, achieve documentation on shellac and vinyl – stamping out records having been another relentless project of the command economy. Indeed a specialized Internet hobby has emerged that consists in digitizing old Melodiya LPs and uploading them for “web” access. It has recently become possible for idle curiosity to investigate the vast territory of the Soviet Symphony, the Soviet Concerto, or the Soviet Oratorio.
Thus as unlikely as it seems, both symphonies (No. 1 and No. 2) by the Mongolian composer Sembyn Gonchiksumla (1915 – 1991) stand available for audition, as do symphonic and concertante works by, among others, Julius Juzeliunas (1916 – 2001, Lithuanian SSR), German Galynin (1922 – 1966, Russian SSR), Otar Taktakishvili (1924 – 1989, Georgian SSR), Mykola Kolessa (1903 – 2006, Ukrainian SSR), and dozens more. The Wikipedia judgment on Kolessa tells much in few words: “His [compositional] style was tonal and conservative and has been likened to that of Alexander Glazunov.” Although referring specifically to the nine symphonies by Soviet-era Latvian composer Adolfs Skulte (1909 – 2000), David Fanning’s apt judgment in his essay on “The Symphony in the USSR” (in Robert Layton’s Guide to the Symphony), that the scores qualify as “more competent than inspired,” finds equal usefulness in hundreds of cases. A typical instance might be that of Moscow-born Yevgeny Golubev (1910 – 1988), a student of Myaskovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, where the student eventually also joined the faculty, and the teacher of dissident composer Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998). Golubev, who incidentally goes unmentioned in Fanning’s essay, wrote seven symphonies, a dozen concertos, twenty-four string quartets, as well as oratorios, ballets, and instrumental sonatas; and while none of the sparse documentation mentions a Stalin Prize of any degree, some of the best performers (Nikolayeva, Rostropovich) associated themselves with his work.
Imagining an American listener who knows the big names of Russian nineteenth-century concert music, how would that listener react to Golubev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-Minor, Op. 59 (1960), in the standard four movements, hearing it for the first time? He would recognize a musical ethos immediately. The first movement’s slow introduction recalls similar preludes in symphonies by Alexander Borodin (1833 – 1887), Glazunov, and Glière, not to mention those of Myaskovsky. The hypothetical listener would apprehend at once Golubev’s earnestness, his participation in what Soviet musicology referred to as the dramatic-lyric program, or the “conflict symphony,” in which major-key affirmation triumphs over minor-key ambiguity, in a heroic-apotheotic finale, after a bit of calculated harmonic hesitation in the slow movement. If in the words of Pravda’s diatribe against Lady Macbeth Shostakovich had “ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life”; then, quoting again from Pravda on the infamous occasion, Golubev would have known “what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music.”
Or rather: What ideological authorities looked for and expected. The music must describe a standard “story,” which Golubev’s first movement proper does by introducing two groups of themes, the first group moderately assertive and heroic, the second group meditative and songlike. The two thematic groups never really conflict, as they would in a Beethoven or Brahms symphony; they express two sides, the martial and the philosophical, of the story’s protagonist. Conflicts impinge from outside in challenging drum rolls or passing dissonant chords that try to swamp the themes, but which the themes invariably subdue. Following his teacher-model Myaskovsky, Golubev shapes the movement as a symphonic “arch” rising to loud climax about two-thirds the way through, after which comes an extended, quiet denouement. Golubev orchestrates colorfully. The low woodwinds sometimes give shadowy suggestions, but these belong to the externally imposed scandal whose defeat is preordained. The scherzo is in the nature of an intermezzo – bright throughout, swift, and dance-like. The slow third movement recalls the quiet episodes of the first movement; it is purely songlike, rather sweetly exploring various minor keys, while shunning any truly dark or dubious moods. The fourth movement finale resurrects the heroic character of the first movement, rehearsing that movement’s thematic material, and climaxing in a chorale-like, triumphal iteration of the main motif.
The hypothetical auditor of Golubev’s symphony, on rising from his hypothetical concert hall seat, would likely reflect that, while the experience had never entailed any annoyance, and while indeed throughout he had received the impression of many refined touches, yet he could not, in fact, recall any of the melodies – as one can even with Glière or Myaskovsky and most certainly with Prokofiev or Shostakovich. The hypothetical listener might also find himself wondering whether Golubev’s score belonged in any meaningful way to the date of its composition, 1960. Had the score indicated a completion date of 1906, would that have seemed implausible? Not at all. The hypothetical listener might coin for himself something like Fanning’s phrase, “more competent than inspired.”
III. Shostakovich, who in addition to being the supreme Russian composer of the Soviet era was also a keen observer of ideological aesthetics, was not as generous in his judgment of “Soviet Music” as the imaginary and gentlemanly music-lover in the just-completed thought-experiment. In Solomon Volkov’s Testimony (1979), Shostakovich tells his interlocutor that Soviet musical creativity answered only “the crying need for triumphant songs and dances for festivities in Moscow, and for musical accusations of the past and musical praise for the new.” Building the radiant future required music about “mastering the virgin lands and fallow ground – or a ballet on the struggle for peace, or a symphony about cosmonauts.” Until 1953 satisfying the requirement meant praising – and pleasing – Stalin. Lady Macbeth displeased Stalin and came under the stereotypical condemnation of “formalism.” That label, formalism, signified anything that departed from the recipe of “pallid music, uninteresting, with primitive harmonies and weak orchestration,” as Dmitri Dimitrievich says in describing three-time Stalin-Prize winner Tikhon Khrennikov’s opera Into the Storm (1939). Contemporary people must never forget that during the 1930s, even the most trivial flouting of authoritative norms invited personal destruction. In the sequel to the Pravda editorial, Shostakovich himself spent weeks sleeping on the stairwell landing outside his Moscow apartment so that when the NKVD came to drag him off his family would not have to witness the event. The pretext would have been formalism, which was presumptively “counter-revolutionary” hence also “conspiratorial.” Shostakovich needed to answer Stalin’s displeasure, which he did, brilliantly, with courageous double-entendre, in his Symphony No. 5 in D-Minor, Op. 47 Symphony No. 5 (1937) subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.”
During the “Great Patriotic War,” the regime, in existential need of the full cooperation of the people, relaxed strictures. A good deal of the most notable “Soviet” music comes from the war – Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 and Symphony No. 8, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 6, as well as the first sketches of his Tolstoy opera War and Peace, and several early scores by the Polish-born Mieczysław Weinberg (1919 – 1996), a Shostakovich protégé. With victory, the absolute dictatorship reasserted itself. In 1948, Zhdanov summoned the top composers to the Central Committee where he threatened reprisals in a retroactive “struggle against formalism.” This purge targeted the most individual and talented composers, Shostakovich and Prokofiev being paramount, but with lesser lights like Myaskovsky and Aram Khachaturian (1903 – 1978) also falling under Zhdanov’s aim. The commissar singled out as embodying the “sin of formalism” a singularly bad opera, The Great Friendship, by Vano Muradeli (1908 – 1970) and the outstanding symphonic works mentioned above. Of those, Symphony No. 8 in C-Minor (1943) by Shostakovich most egregiously offended Zhdanov’s demand for “gracefulness and beauty” in Soviet concert music.
Speaking of the Eighth, Shostakovich told Volkov: “They demanded something like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture… They wanted a fanfare from me, an ode.” Shostakovich threw down the gauntlet with an hour-long minor-key symphony in five movements using compositional devices, such as the variation-procedure called passacaglia, which he had employed previously in Lady Macbeth. In his wartime scores, Shostakovich sought the musical representation of two inhuman campaigns, the Nazi invasion of Russia and Ukraine and Stalin’s implacable suppression of civilized existence everywhere within the borders of the USSR. In Shostakovich and Stalin (2004), Volkov characterizes the Eighth as apocalyptic. He finds a literary “parallel” to the symphony in Osip Mandelstam’s “Poem about the Unknown Soldier”: “’Poem about the Unknown Soldier’ is a visionary, apocalyptic work, in which Mandelstam foresees the annihilation of the world in a coming universal war. The poet regards the terrible battles as if from above, from space.” The Eighth is for Volkov, as it must be for any sensitive listener, the mournful, almost unbearable expression of “universal despair.” The first movement, adagio, is longer than many classical symphonies, requiring twenty-five minutes in performance. Hugh Ottaway writes in his BBC Guide, Shostakovich Symphonies (1978), how “in the development all the [thematic] material is savagely brutalized.” Opines Ottaway, “This is a tragic work.”
Two scherzos follow. In Ottaway’s description, “each of these uses imagery drawn from the military march, and yet the two musical characters are quite distinct, the one being human, even in its ferocity, the other suggestive of relentless automata.” Next comes the passacaglia, the baroque device that structures the final scene of Lady Macbeth, when the police guards lead the protagonist Katerina Ismailova into Siberian exile for the murder of her tyrant of a husband. Passacaglia is indeed a formal technique, a rigorous one perfected by Baroque composers of the likes of G. F. Handel and J. S. Bach. The slow movement of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1955) is a passacaglia, as are movements in at least two of the fifteen string quartets, and so is the final movement of the fifteenth and last symphony (1972). The fourth movement, largo, of the Eighth transforms the passacaglia into an agonized funeral march – for the victims, as one imagines, of the entire apocalyptic century – in twelve “grief-laden” repetitions (Ottaway). The finale is a pastoral rondo, offering muted consolation, in which Shostakovich flouts the Socialist-Realist expectation of a brassy orchestral exclamation. An epigraph from Eliot fits: “After this knowledge what forgiveness.”
Shostakovich told Volkov that in the censuring of 1948 he had the powerful intuition that the second- and third-rate Party-hack composers eagerly schemed for his liquidation. He mentions particularly Khrennikov, who at the time held the chairmanship of the composer’s union. Pure resentment motivated Shostakovich’s ill wishers and would-be assassins. They wrote Socialist-Realist music in the approved style. Shostakovich wrote music, never for the ideologues, but rather for moral humanity, which he rightly regarded as his real audience. Prokofiev also wrote music, and so on a slightly less exalted level did the venerable Myaskovsky. Poor Myaskovsky! Zhdanovschina, as historians call the episode, broke his spirit and he died in 1950. The purge also broke Prokofiev, who died on the same day as Stalin in 1953. Prokofiev had made many more compromises with the regime than Shostakovich, whose moral stubbornness contributed to his physical survival.
Shostakovich wrote difficult and challenging scores, for which the audience will never be large, but so it is for all real art. Shostakovich’s art excludes no available means of expression in principle. In the mid-1930s, this eclecticism meant adopting the chromatic lyricism of Berg and the Expressionists; in the 1960s, it meant incorporating elements of serialism, as in String Quartet No. 12 (1968) although characteristically Shostakovich refuses to treat Schoenbergian dodecaphony as a system. One might suggest a variant of the thought-experiment in which the hypothetical listener attends carefully to Golubev’s Fifth Symphony. In the variant, the hypothetical listener would attend carefully in succession to Golubev’s String Quartet No. 10 (1970) and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 12, recording his reactions and making a comparison. But no! Such an endeavor would be immoral. It would be a sacrilege against the good, the true, and the beautiful.
IV. In the United States during the 1930s and 40s many prominent composers embraced the Socialist-Realist formula. Some, like Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) and Elie Siegmeister (1909 – 1991), both members of the Communist Party USA, embraced the formula knowingly with the explicit intention of “Sovietizing” American concert music. Others, like Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) and Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965), were not Party Members, but leaned leftwards politically and saw themselves as creating a new national music under the aegis of FDR’s New Deal. Copland’s famous ballets, Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942), correspond with remarkable fidelity to the Socialist-Realist prescription, offering actual folk-tunes and original folksong-like tunes without contrapuntal complexity and without any excursions into emotional darkness or dissonance. The same could be said for Siegmeister’s Western Suite (1945), which strives to out-Copland Copland. Critics usually nominate Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (1946) as one of the great American symphonies of the twentieth century, which perhaps it is. It too conforms to the Socialist-Realist model of the symphony. Indeed, the Third’s opening movement, with its spacious harmonies and stepwise main theme in equal note values, strongly resembles the first movement of the most famous “Soviet” symphony, Shostakovich’s Fifth, but (as it were) misread.
Shostakovich’s score conveys anxiety and dread, emotions indicative of life under a police state, whereas in Copland’s score the mood adheres to the sunny-edifying ethos that listeners will encounter in the multitude of lesser Soviet symphonies. After an energetic scherzo, also quite reminiscent of Dmitri Dimitrievich, and a brief slow intermezzo, Copland comes to his fourth-movement finale.
Here again the comparison with Shostakovich’s Fifth is enlightening and, as it concerns Copland, damning. The Lady Macbeth imbroglio provided the background of Shostakovich’s Fifth. The Fifth supposedly constituted Shostakovich’s affirmative answer to “Just Criticism.” But the Fifth is subtly subversive. In writing the finale Shostakovich took care to concoct a parody of the mandatory Socialist-Realist symphonic finale. Volkov quotes Shostakovich: “I discovered to my astonishment that the man [Yevgeny Mravinsky] who considers himself [the Fifth Symphony’s] greatest interpreter does not understand my music. He says that I wanted to write exultant finales for my Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, but I couldn’t manage it.” Shostakovich nevertheless expresses confidence that his audiences understood his intention: “The rejoicing is forced, created under threat… It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’”
Copland, like Soviet officialdom, fell for the parodic misdirection. He thought all those trumpets and drums, with no modulation at all, were actually rejoicing and he wanted to reproduce the rejouissance of it in his own finale. He incorporated his own short work, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” in the new score, making it the basis of the finale. As in Shostakovich’s finale, the music never modulates; the orchestra merely repeats the fanfare with slight variations until the unaltered tune returns with plenty of brassy effulgence for the tympani-punctuated peroration. Listeners will continue to enjoy Copland’s Third, which deserves to remain in the repertory, but informed listeners will recognize it for a farrago – imitating Shostakovich and Prokofiev while misinterpreting them – and adhering unembarrassed to Zhdanovschina in its boring, musically inflationary fourth movement.
The American musical establishment enforced its own weird mirror-like version of Zhdanovschina beginning in the early 1960s. Whereas Soviet conformism forbade all modern innovations in musical expression, academic conformism in the USA made them mandatory and forbade beauty and intelligibility. Without a Stalin or a Central Committee to enforce the mandate, the stricture was nevertheless totalitarian in spirit. It took real courage for George Rochberg (1918 – 2005), for example, to face down the regime of serialism when he did so with his String Quartet No. 3 (1968). But Rochberg’s models for a new, accessible type of concert music should be carefully noted: Gustav Mahler, Schoenberg of the Expressionist period, and Berg, all of whom the Soviets had execrated as “petty-bourgeois formalists” and “egotists” and all of whom most listeners today still find baffling and difficult.
The official music of the American polity in its contemporary “soft-totalitarian” phase is nothing quite so ambitious or lofty as the Soviet Style in symphonism or opera. (Oh, for Golubev and Muradeli!) It is rock-and-roll or increasingly the even more infantile and vulgar sub-genre of rock-and-roll called rap, in which music as such disappears, to be replaced by crude rhythms in rhyming sex-related profanities. Rock-and-roll pervades entertainment culture to the point of being more or less identical with it; it pervades society. The goal of this ubiquitous musical background to all public life is basically the same as the goal of Soviet music at all levels, from “Young Pioneer” mass songs to Golubev’s symphonies: To create and fix in place a conformist attitude, agreeable to the ruling elite’s agendas. The entertainment industry, which can hardly distinguish itself from the left-wing political establishment, has mandated rock-and-roll into every public space and event, including once every four years the GOP nominating convention. NBC once sustained a symphony orchestra; CBS fifty years ago used regularly to put Leonard Bernstein on television Sunday afternoons. All that has disappeared. Shostakovich complained to Volkov that he could not arrive by train in Leningrad without hearing Glière’s Bronze Horseman. American adults cannot go anywhere in public without the unsolicited accompaniment of commercial three-minute songs designed for replay at maximum decibel level and perfected to appeal to an ideal audience of twelve-year-old self-abusers.
Of the two prophetic literary dystopias, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Huxley’s is belatedly the most vindicated. Slavsoc, like Ingsoc, had its chance and eventually perished. We seem actually to be living in Huxley’s Pavlovian World State. Rock-and-roll performs an essential role in the polity, fostering an emotional Gestalt of false rebellion and false individuality, extolling sexual pleasure, and implanting a strong aversion to anything that might actually require attention and then repay it by stimulating maturation of the character. The listener-addict is left sublimely satisfied by his infantile condition and resists any call to alter himself in the direction of moral adulthood. Rock-and-roll insidiously promotes a stultifying conformism. Roger Scruton writes in his Guide to Modern Culture (2000) how in commercial music “the fusion between the singer and the song promotes another more serious fusion – that between the singer and the fan.” Thus “to the fan in the audience the gyrating figure on the stage is himself, enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame.” The fan “is transfigured, relieved at last of his isolation.” Now that is something that a symphony by Skulte or Taktakishvili could never have achieved.