Socialist-Realist Music: A Study in Irony

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.

18 thoughts on “Socialist-Realist Music: A Study in Irony

  1. I think it’s forgivable for an artist to produce compromised dreck under state coercion, in order to survive. It’s not forgivable to become a shill for the oppressors. Thus Richard Strauss, despite his functioning for years as the musical eminence of the Third Reich wins the highest honors in my book because of his risking his official position and personal freedom in order to perform works by Mahler and Mendelssohn, and working with Stephan Zweig despite a ban on Zweig. He went as far as giving Zweig his author’s credit in the 1935 premiere of The Silent Woman and so incurring Hitler’s personal wrath. That is, to me heroic. On the other hand, Aram Khachaturian not only failed to defy the evil of his time, but was an enthusiastic Bolshevik himself and abject apologizer after his music was condemned by Zhdanov.

    • In 1948 Zhdanov had an infamous list. Shostakovich tells Volkov that many of the composers maneuvered either not to be on the list at all or to have a position on it as far from the top as possible. The method of doing this was to promise concessions or to suggest that someone else was more deserving of condemnation. Khachaturian, as you say, behaved badly.

      Strauss risked his life when he learned that his wife’s Jewish relatives had been concentrated in Theresienstadt. He had his driver drive him to the gates of the camp, where he berated the guards in frank terms about the evil of the place.

  2. 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.

    Even a good man can lose his mind for a minute.

  3. Obviously, Bertonneau is an unrepentant formalist and a petty-bourgeois egotist; probably he is also a wrecker and a counter-revolutionary saboteur. He is no doubt conspiring this minute with Kirov and the Leningrad Left-Deviationists! Down with Meyerholdism!

    • I must, unfortunately, agree with you.

      For example, look at this quote: “Shostakovich wrote difficult and challenging scores, for which the audience will never be large, but so it is for all real art.”

      That kind of thinking destroyed the Western art. True art must be popular – not by lowering itself, but by uplifting the listeners. It must be first of all accessible, and in addition ambitious and creative. Compare Shakespeare with XX-century dramatists, or great Romantic composers with modern non-entities, or great painters of the past with modern swindlers.

      The great art of the past was and is popular and liked. When the artists started to believe that they were geniuses which are above the dirty masses, their art immediately died. Now, they are able only to swindle money from ambitious nouveau riche or from the state. Nobody care about their useless productions.

      As for Zhdanov etc – they were primitive idiots with no taste. Under such command, nothing can prosper.

      • Dear Baduin: I must disagree with you in turn. True art might become more or less popular, but it rarely gains currency immediately. Older, educated people forget how difficult a challenge it was to read Hamlet or Paradise Lost the first time. Ditto The Brothers Karamazov or even Bleak House. You and I might re-read these with comparative ease, but observe the typical undergraduate tackling a short novel, like Ethan Frome, for the first time. The agony is real because reading complex prose narrative, like literacy itself, is a profoundly unnatural activity, which the individual must learn, and which requires discipline and effort.

        It is the same with music. No one, at age twelve, except a few geniuses, listens to the slow movement of a late Beethoven Quartet or a Brahms Symphony and makes sense of it (makes sense of the slowing down of time and the complex interweaving of the different instrumental voices) without many years of experience coming to terms as good listeners with the musical art. Some people, either for lack of exposure or from limited powers of concentration, never come to terms either with The Brothers Karamazov or the Ninth Symphony. These things lie, regrettably, beyond them. (That is not a moral judgment on them.)

        A good source for dispelling the idea that Beethoven, say, was instantaneously intelligible in his most ambitious works is The Lexicon of Musical Invective by Nicolas Slonimsky. The author devotes ten finely printed pages to Beethoven, drawing from newspaper reviews and journal articles of Beethoven’s own day and later. These show abundantly how strong the reaction against Beethoven’s musical art was. People could not understand it. The scores sounded to them like caterwauling and vulgar noises. I give a couple of examples: (1) “Beethoven took a liking to uneuphonious dissonances because his hearing was limited and confused. Accumulations of notes of the most monstrous kind sounded in his head as acceptable and well-balanced combinations.” (2) “Among the new signs which bring about changes in Beethoven’s style, this sign that is like the sign of Cain, is nothing less than a violation of fundamental laws of the most elementary rules of harmony: wrong chords, and agglomerations of notes intolerable to anyone who is not completely deprived of auditory sense.” Both of these, incidentally, date from 1857, three decades after the Master’s death. Slonimsky collects similar denunciations of Berlioz and Chopin, of Schumann and Brahms.

        A principle of the traditionalist outlook is that the world is arranged in hierarchies. This is why, before the civic authorities admit a fellow to high school, he must first have acquitted himself nominally in grade school; and before the civic authorities admit a fellow to college, he must have acquitted himself, not merely nominally, but outstandingly, in high school. We give young children different, simpler reading matter than we give to adolescents and adults. However, in a traditional society, the commonalty does not permit the lowest common denominator of understanding to set the bar; such a society also lets people sort themselves out, so that those who can may rise to the level of engagement suitable to them. Adults as well as quite young children can both take pleasure in Aesop’s Fables, but only those adults who have acquired full literacy and are motivated by intellectual curiosity can make sense of Troilus and Cressida or Lord Jim.

        How many people, after all, can understand Josquin’s Missa Super L’Homme Armee? Few. But after repeated auditions during Sunday service, even the uninstructed listener would begin to grasp more and more of its treasure of aural beauty.

        What a traditional society would assume concerning those who can rise to Shostakovitch and Conrad is that they will bring back to the lower rungs of philosophy’s ladder that part of what they have discerned that will be nourishing in some way to the less educated and the less disciplined. This is the reason why language distinguishes between teachers and students. In respect of Beethoven’s Late Quartets or Shostakovitch’s Eighth Symphony, the artist is the first teacher, who challenges the student to rise on tiptoes. Great art teaches us to aspire.

        P.S. Permit me to add this: A careful re-reading of my essay and a careful re-perusal of the responses to it (which are all gratifying to me, even when I disagree) will show that (1) I am not “against” music-for-the-masses, and I think it should be the best music possible. (2) I never characterize anyone who dislikes the anti-modern modernists (Schoenberg, Stravinsky) in any way invidiously. Those who dislike The Rite of Spring or Moses und Aron should remove themselves from the audience and not engage in masochistic struggles. There is nothing amiss in such a reaction. (3) I like Beethoven, too, in addition to Schoenberg; it has never occurred to me that liking one requires disliking the other. On the other hand there is a strong connotation in one or two of the responses to my article that the one who makes room for Schoenberg and Stravinsky is somehow contaminated and must be dismissing or diminishing Beethoven. Not so. Finally, (4) I am absolutely unafraid to be called an elitist, but at the same time seek no imposition on any fellow soul of an aesthetic experience uncongenial to his nature. I should like to know what threat there is to anyone in that.

  4. Very interesting. It is interesting to hear the ideological back stories of these works but it seems to me that they should be judged on their own merit. For instance, while I may scoff at Copland’s politics, I can’t help liking his music – even “Fanfare for the Common Man”. It has a monumental quality that could equally well be used to accompany a film version of “The Fountainhead”.

    Similarly, whatever one thinks of Wagner’s personality and beliefs, his music should be judged on its value as music only.

    To me, the politics is secondary to the reactionary/revolutionary style of the music itself. Does the composer produce music that is intended to be pleasant/arresting/satisfying to listen to or are you supposed to suffer through it knowing that by doing so you will reserve a place for yourself in the avant garde? That seems to me to be the point where classical music died in the 20th century.

    • “…….are you supposed to suffer through it knowing that by doing so you will reserve a place for yourself in the avant garde?”

      Only if you value being a member of the avant garde. And why would you want to be seen, as it were, at the cutting edge of appreciation with regard to modern music? Isn’t it a way of advertising your status within the intelligentsia?

      Intellectual elites try to preserve their isolation from mass culture. Among the stunts they pull in doing this is to admire, or feign to enjoy, cultural expressions that the masses could never understand.

  5. To Henry Orient: There is a good deal of purely aesthetic judgment in the essay. See the paragraphs devoted to Golubev’s Fifth Symphony at the end of section II. The point there is that mandatory and arbitrary strictures invariably gave rise to mediocrity in art. Ditto in the case of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, the artistic achievement of which is only possible insofar as the composer ignores the mandatory and arbitrary strictures.

    Also, our fellow-traveler Paul Gottfried sends me this, which he grants me permission to post: “I agree with what you say but it seems to me that the pursuit of Socialist Realism in the US had unintended rightwing consequences. It opened the door in art and music to what ‘progressives’ fighting the phantom of McCarthyist anti-Communism denounced as reactionary tendencies in the arts. I love those tendencies and feel tingling pleasure each time I listen to [Appalachian Spring] or look at a post office mural full of Commie art.”

    Gottfried’s point is similar to Henry Orient’s.

    best to all.

  6. In state sponsored music one could cite works from the Chinese Cultural Revolution,composed under the political guidance of Jiang Qing. The most famous is the ballet, Red Detachment of Women. Below is more than you want to know about it:

    The Red Detachment of Women, a collaborative score composed by Wu Zuqiang, Du Mingxin, Wang Yanqiao, Shi Wanchun and Dai Hongcheng, came to life as one of the so-called “Eight Model Plays,” each professing a theme of Chinese Communist revolutionary action, and produced on stage by either the Central Ballet Troupe (National Ballet of China—Beijing) or, alternately, the Shanghai Ballet. Wu, the principal composer, learned his trade at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in the 1950s. At the beginning of the Great Leap Forward (circa 1958) he traveled back to Beijing and took on his next project, the Red Detachment. Wu is also known for his pipa concerto, Little Sisters of the Grasslands (aka: Sons and Daughters of the Grasslands; The Prairie Children; Heroic Little Sisters of the Grasslands etc.), a piece that was also choreographed and filmed as a revolutionary ballet during the CR. In this ballet, one particularly moving scene shows the protagonist children happily dancing on a bleak prairie, under a massive electrical power grid. Symbolism was important to a developing nation.

    The Red Detachment is set during the Chinese Civil War (the so-called Agrarian Revolution years), 1927—1937. The story concerns a peasant girl, Wu Qinghua, imprisoned by her landlord within his Hainan Island mansion. Defiant Wu escaped before, so this time she’s chained up in anticipation of being sold to another master. It is the story of her final break-out and ultimate victory over her Kuomintang (KMT Chinese Nationalist) supported feudal “Old China” oppressors.

    The plot is more or less based on, if not actual events, at least historically related circumstances. The Hainan area was nominally under control of Chaing’s KMT Nationalists, however Communist guerrillas remained active causing trouble for both KMT army and existing land owners. In 1934 (some sources say 1931) the 2nd Women’s Independent Regiment of the Red Army was commissioned, and the ballet describes their exploits. Legend has it that over 100 women ran away from Hainan Island captivity, and joining up with other peasants and workers, helped form the regiment. Although forced underground by Nationalists, these Communist guerrillas maintained fighting until Chaing’s eventual overthrow resulted in the establishment in 1949 of the PRC. During the Japanese occupation it’s estimated by some that over a third of the male Chinese population of Hainan were killed. This, coupled with the on-going Communist insurgency, necessitated that women be engaged in many non-traditional roles. At the same time, gender egalitarianism was an ostensible Communist ideal, at least as it pertained to the proletariat workers and peasants. In fact, somewhere, in Mao the Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday write that Mao believed women could work at least as hard as men, and therefore should be given every “opportunity.”

    The music is mostly quite Western in form, and with some exceptions Western folks who have not heard it might be incredulous if told it was Chinese revolutionary music. I advise everyone to buy a copy of the two CD set. You can never have enough of this sort of thing.

    Predictably, all of this is now lost on mainland Chinese (except in Chongqing, where recently deposed Communist party boss Bo Xilai attempted to bring it back), and today most Chinese are happy to listen to Hong Kong pop music, a form that often makes Lady Gag-gag look pretty sophisticated.

  7. For another example of “baptized modernism” to set alongside that of Stravinsky, consider the 2nd movement of Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto, marked “1926, Feast of Corpus Christi,” and apparently intended to represent a celebratory procession through a cathedral:

  8. Dear bbtp: I cannot tell from your written words whether your mood is conciliatory or dismissive. I am, moreover, not the type of person who asks, “Are you an ironist?” (No ironist worth his salt would give an answer.) I will say this: I have been in Madrid during holy days. (This was many years ago when Franco was still in power.) I was astonished at the profusion of pipe-and-drum ensembles, walking choruses, police and army bands, and all of these at once playing different tunes in the square – an exhilarating experience. De Falla catches some of that. I say, “It is beautiful.”

    • Dear Mr. Bertonneau,

      Someone who intended to mock modernism or demonstrate its impotence would do well to choose a work other than Falla’s Concerto for his example. I wrote “apparently” because, as far as I’m aware, the interpretation is a biographer’s informed speculation rather than the composer’s explicit statement or program.

      In my view, which I am heartened to see that you share, Falla captured something specific to the Spanish Catholicism that once was – something of its austerity, sincerity and conviction. It tells me more about the interior lives of the Spanish of his youth than any amount of Romantic-nationalistic trash ever could.

      Best wishes,

  9. Insightful essay, but paints with too broad a brush. There’s a world of difference, for instance, bwtween Khrennikov’s Stalinist garbage and Skulte’s symphonies, some of which feature luminous passages evoking Ravel…Skulte, of course, was a Latvian, and hence more “western” despite the occupying Regime’s strictures. And Copeland’s 3rd – like Khachaturian’s great 2nd, to which I listen frequently – is a War Symphony, with all that implies for genuiness and depth of expression. Quite Frankly, I’ll take Socialist Realism over the Jewish-subversive noises emitted by Schoenberg and his many shabbatz-goy, academic imitators any hour, anytime.

  10. My essay is carefully non-dogmatic. It is also limited to as many words as constitute it and it therefore leaves much unsaid. On Adolfs Skulte: Having listened dutifully through five of his nine symphonic scores, a ballet, a string quartet, and a couple of tone-poems, I have to say that the effort remains often passingly beautiful but is finally melodically unmemorable. On the other hand, I can recommend piano concertos by Khristov (a Bulgarian), Revutsky (a Ukrainian), Kos-Anatolsky (also Ukrainian), Comrade Golubov (a Russian), and an early Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1958) by Schnittke (a Volga German), all accessible on the web. There is much musical nourishment in Shostakovitch’s “Song of the Forests,” despite its Stalinist libretto. As I have previously iterated, I can’t join with those of my fellow traditionalists who find Schoenberg unlistenable. I don’t say that they must learn to bear him; only that I find him rewarding. In dismissing him, however, it is enough to note that Schoenberg had slavish imitators, who took his “formula” far more literally than he ever did. Calling them by the name “shabbatz-goy” (which is anyway inaccurate, since many were of the same conviction as Schoenberg) is not a critical comment, but a prejudicial one. Neither is the phrase “jewish-subversive noises” critical. Neither phrase adds anything to an otherwise unimpeachable expression of the writer’s position. For my part, I would even rather listen to Khrennikov than (let’s say) to Pierre Boulez.

    • I disgree on one point. Jewgenic expressions purporting to explain Why the World Has Gone Bad do explain their utterers’ position. What they fail in is in explaining truthfully — i.e. in concert with Reality — why the world has gone bad. In the case of Schoenberg, on two counts. First, there was Jewish DNA fully in some of the great exponents of canonical European music (Mendelssohn, Strauss, Offenbach, Meyerbeer [leaving others where influence arguable]) and partly in such as Chopin (mother) — and I am not touching on the far more illustrative performance side. Second, music is not created in a vacuum. It’s part of the ebb and flow of history. And the history of Schoenberg’s time roild Europe to such an extent that fragmentations of classical ideas occured in every area of art and life itself. I wonder how Majik (or is it mujik?) would address European painting and cinema of the 1905 -1930 period. Spanish subversive cacophony? French saboteur dissonance? German decompositionist clamor?

  11. In response to Takuan Seiyo: Excellent point. The deconstructionists, who deny that language has any referent, also deny that art is representation. It might well be that a tenet of traditionalist philosophy is that every utterance has a referent, including musical utterance. It would follow that music, like literature and plastic, is representational. That is partly how I take Schoenberg. It is also partly how I take Stephane Mallarme and T. S. Eliot. Mallarme, Schoenberg, and Eliot said over and over in explicit terms that their formal experimentations were necessitated by history. In this, we should take them literally.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.