To what extent did the composers of symphonies in the Soviet Unionmanage to comply with the strictures of state control of music whilst retaining a degree of creative individuality?

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Tim Adam-Smith                27/03/03

To what extent did the composers of symphonies in the Soviet Union manage to comply with the strictures of state control of music whilst retaining a degree of creative individuality?

“Soviet composers must reject as useless and harmful garbage all the relics of bourgeois 'form for form's sake' musical art. They must understand that creation of high-quality works in the domain of opera, symphonic music, song-writing, choral and dance music is only made possible by following the principles of socialist realism.
Our duty is to mobilize all our creative strength and to give a worthy response, in shortest possible time, to this appeal of our Party, and to appeal of our great leader Comrade Stalin! (

Here, Comrade Khrennikov, Chairman of USSR Composers' Union delivers a message to his audience, embodying the ideals and functions to which he demands the music of the Soviet Union must adhere. The state clearly relished the notion that music could be utilised to consolidate and enforce a national solidarity that would that would embrace the national doctrine of social realism. Composers living under this regime struggled against the strictures of state control, as music for many artists represented an outlet for self-expression and escapism in a climate drenched with fear and brutality. Therefore, to do adopt a musical language of falsity, which forced composers to assert the national identity of Russia and her sister states, stripped most composers of their freedom of expression and stifled their creative individuality.

The amorphous nature of music renders the notion of enforcement a difficult task. Can a language, which asserts it’s-self subjectively and speaks no narrative be used to represent the cultural identity of ones country? Music accrues its meaning and definition through the interpretation of the individual listener and this translation will thus vary from person to person. Therefore, it can never be employed to represent the ideals of everybody.

Composers such as Shostakovich and Prokoviev were all too familiar with this musical dilemma and the bulk of their work is littered with frequent contradictions in style, form and content as a response to state intervention. The function of this essay is to give an insight into the extent of how composers – Shostakovich – complied with state musical policy and assess the extent to which they maintained a sense of artistic individuality. The early Symphonies of Shostakovich will be the focus of this discussion as these portray frequent indications of a composer rebelling against the state and harbouring an individual sense of creativity. Also there are obvious transitions in style embodied in these works.        

Before commenting on the extent to which Shostakovich achieved this, it seems beneficial to provide a brief historical and social context, highlighting crucial events and a general background to the process of enforcing socialist realism in music.        

The battles fought by Shostakovich and Prokofiev for the right to compose freely are well documented. Whilst their integrity was repeatedly compromised by Stalin and the dogma of Socialist Realism, and their personal lives were crushed by fear, they at least managed to emerge with international reputations and an admiring public. Not all Soviet composers fared so well and many other inventive musical minds had to endure the same terror, only to be forgotten by history.

Turn-of-the-century Russia was a hotbed of new ideas. Collectors such as Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin were bringing Impressionist paintings back from Paris, art nouveau (or style moderne as it is known to Russians) was becoming an influential architectural style in St Petersburg, and a new class of urban workers was shaping the political consciousness. In all fields, the old order was starting to be challenged. The early 1900s were the prelude to revolutions in art, architecture and music, as well as politics. The rise in avant-garde composers and artists was notable in this epoch. However, not everyone was so keen on the new avant-garde. The standard Communist line on the arts was evident even in the early years of the Soviet Union. In a 1920 interview, Lenin proudly confessed himself to be a "barbarian" and denounced Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and "other 'isms'," proclaiming that it did not matter "what art gives to hundreds, or even thousands, out of a total population numbering millions. Art belongs to the people."

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While the music of the 1920s clearly went against these principles, the Party was too busy consolidating their unstable political power base to be concerned with these experimentalists, and it was not until the 1930s that Stalin started to put serious effort into controlling what Soviet artists were producing. Even so, Lourie was an early victim of the new order, emigrating to Paris in disgust of Lenin's cultural policies in 1921.

The foundation of two musical bodies emerged in 1923, which were instrumental in establishing two opposing schools of compositional practice. The Association of Contemporary Music attached to the State ...

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