August 21, 2001

Music During the Soviet Regime

Music During the Soviet Regime

I first became fully aware of and appreciative of Shostakovich's music when I was a junior in High School, in 1972. I played clarinet in the concert band and was on my way to All-State. One of the pieces we played was the final movement to Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. It was not an easy piece, but one of the most stirring I'd played before or since. Curiosity prompted me to find out more about this, still living, Soviet composer. Like many other aspects of life, composers were not immune to Soviet restrictions and demands. While they were seen as national treasures, they were obliged to create works that endorsed or promoted current Soviet ideals. Ironically, this often resulted in some of their best work.

Dimitry Shostakovich was born September 12, 1906 {old calendar} in St. Petersburg and died August 9, 1975, in Moscow. He studied piano at the Petrograd Conservatory and achieved world-wide acclaim, at a young age, with his First Symphony {1924/25}. During these early years of the Soviet Regime, there was an atmosphere of artistic freedom. Shostakovich was influenced by many contemporary trends of the time, namely the avant-garde. In 1928, Joseph Stalin launched his first Five Year Plan. Among other things, this meant the strong hand of the Soviet was to control and mandate what Russian artists produced. Avant-garde and jazz were outlawed. Even Tchaikovsky fell from favor for a time.

L ~ R: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian {1945}

Shostakovich is best known for his symphonies. However, he did write an opera of great note, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, later renamed Katerina Izmaylova. Stalin attended a performance of this opera in 1936 and was so highly offended by it that he banned both the opera and its creator. This was devastating to the 30 year old Shostakovich. The Soviet run press attacked the young composer and his Fourth Symphony {1935}, as yet not performed, were black-listed. Shostakovich was not to be beaten. He composed his Fifth Symphony in 1937. Under the circumstances, one might expect this to be a trivial, unremarkable and safe work. That was not the case. Shostakovich's Fifth is serious, dark, forceful and very bold. It is the statement of an artist who will not be kept quiet. It was met with wide public appeal and was accepted by the Soviet authorities. The Fifth marked a turning point in Shostakovich's career; from here on, his personal style and directness are well defined.

Having redeemed himself, Shostakovich was appointed to the faculty of the Leningrad {formerly Petrograd} Conservatory in 1937. He taught and composed from here until 1943 when he moved to Moscow. His later symphonies became more grim. This led to his second fall from Soviet grace in 1948. The post WWII Soviet imposed strict rules on musical composition. It was not to reflect the times, rather, it was to be simple, light and upbeat in nature. They wanted music that presented, to the world, a country of happy and healthy citizens. Shostakovich's compositions did not comply with this and he was, once again, officially attacked and disgraced by the authorities and not allowed to teach.

As before, Shostakovich was not to be kept down. He composed some light string quartets until 1953, the year of Stalin's death. In this year, Shostakovich presented his Tenth Symphony. Like the Fifth, it is bold, direct and had to be accepted based on its excellence. The rest of his life went on unhindered. He gained international honors including an honorary doctorate from Oxford and toured Europe and the United States. His contemporary, Sergey Prokofiev, died in 1953. From this time until his death in 1975, Shostakovich was the undisputed leader of Russian music. Known to be a true Communist, he refused to have his creative activities dictated to him or have his work used as propaganda for the state. It was this tension or apparent contradiction, that produced his greatest works.

Another of my favorite Shostakovich pieces is the difficult to find Song of the Forests. It is an oratorio, Opus 81 and written in 1949. The Central Committee, which convened in 1948, elected to emphasize popular appeal and easy, accessible music. Responding to this mandate and official personal state disapproval, Shostakovich wrote Song of the Forests to stress positive and living themes. The work was inspired by the reforestation projects of the Soviet Union. He had the poet, Yevgeny Dolmatovsky write the lyrics. Stalin was overjoyed with the work and, in 1950, awarded it the Stalin Price, First Grade. Of course, it didn't hurt that the lyrics profusely praised Stalin and his agenda! With Shostakovich's approval, Dolmatovsky rewrote the lyrics in 1962. Stalin died in 1953 and, after a decade of heavy criticism regarding his policies, the lyrics of Song of the Forests had to be changed if the work was to ever be heard again. It is believed that only one recording was made of the original 1949 version. Today, if you find a recording of Song of the Forest, it contains the 1962 lyrics. The recording I have features the Moscow Radio Symphony, Russian Republican choir and Children's Choir.

Other contemporaries of Shostakovich include Sergey Prokofiev and Aram {Ilich} Khachaturian {1903-1978}. Khachaturian is possibly best known for his ballet, Gayane {1942} which includes the popular Sabre Dance.

He received the Stalin Prize twice and composed the score for the Armenian national anthem. Khachaturian was accused, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, of bourgeois purposes by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1948. Khachaturian chose to admit guilt and was immediately acquitted. However, he openly criticized the Stalin regime, after the dictator's death in 1953. Khachaturian was named People's Artist of the Soviet Union in 1954 and received the Lenin Prize in 1959.

Sergey Prokofiev {1891-1953} experienced a very different life from his two, younger peers. Coming of age during revolutionary Russia gave this composer a different outlook and attitude. He displayed a wide range of ability, writing symphonies, film scores, opera and ballets. During his early life, he traveled and worked extensively abroad. This gave him a broader scope of both experience and exposure. Prokofiev enjoyed world recognition, wealth and artistic freedom. However, he missed his native land and returned to the, then, Soviet Union in 1933. He adjusted to the Soviet life-style and developed a traditional style with his own contemporary elements continually being added. During this period, Prokofiev wrote the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the well-known score to Sergey Eisenstein's film, Alexander Nevsky. Using some of his own innovations, Prokofiev created, based on writings by Lenin, his Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution {1937}.

During WWII, Prokoviev undertook a monumental task; the opera based on Tolstoy's War and Peace. It was initially completed in 1942, but revised by the composer for the following ten years. Prokofiev's compositions and scores are numerous. He worked steadily until his sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953.

Controversy has involved all three of these great composers. Some say they, at one time or another, sold out to the Communist mandates. Yet, each did prevail. In life, as in music, timing is very important. Their contributions to twentieth century music is undeniable and their individual works, whether independently bold or complying with state mandates, are a reflection of the composer, place and time.

It would be impossible to cover all the great composers of Russia or the Soviet period. I leave you with some of my favorites:

Victor Ewald (1860-1935)
Symphony for Brass (3rd mov't)

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)
The Seasons Allegretto

Lev Knipper (1898-1974)
Cavalry of the Steppes

Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Russian Rhapsody for two Pianos

Igor Stravinsky {1882-1971}
Stravinsky's Firebird Finale
Three Movements from "Pétrouchka" for Piano

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