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

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
Tolstoy Bilingual

Tolstoy Bilingual

This compact, yet surprisingly broad look at the life and work of Tolstoy spans from one of his earliest stories to one of his last, looking at works that made him famous and others that made him notorious. 
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
Russian Rules

Russian Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955