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 Academy of Sciences (ACM) and the anti-western Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). The ACM favoured music synonymous with western rooted modernism and the RAPM stipulated music be void of western influences which expressed itself in a language readily understandable to the people at large. Thus, there was much antagonism between the two schools - which rallied for diametrically opposing musical composition.
In the mid-1930s, the time was ripe for Stalin to make his grip on power absolute. In the cultural field, artists' organizations and unions were merged, reformed and reconstituted, in what was then called perestroika – ironically a term now associated with the fall of Communism rather than the start of its darkest years. Stalin's famous dictum - "life has become more joyous, comrades, life has become happier" - first used in 1935, led to the proliferation of Socialist Realism. Irony, angst and personal feeling had to be eliminated from art in favour of populist works, which rejoiced in the glorious potential of life under Communism. Indirectly, the Soviet avant-garde had foreshadowed their own nemesis and having pioneered music, which celebrated the machine age in the 1920s, they were now forced into writing dreary cantatas and symphonies on the Soviet Union's industrial achievements. Free-spirited artists who failed to comply were publicly denounced, threatened and had their privileges removed. The pressure to cave in and conform to the dictums of Socialist Realism was too great for many of the composers. Thus the Soviet avant-garde started to crumble, and since its initial international success could not be followed up, the names of its composers slipped from the memory of European audiences. Composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev were able to perform clever balancing acts, pushing the authorities to the limits and then mollifying them with a gentle piece of populism. Not all composers were so skilled at this game, however. Vladimir Deshevov and Alexei Zhivotov (1904-1964) abandoned experimentalism altogether for the new official style, the latter leaving only a single modernist piece in his entire oeuvre - his highly respected Fragments for Nonet (1928). Several composers withdrew to quiet provinces, where they would not attract so much attention. Rosalvets, for example, lived in Uzbekistan for part of the early 1930s - composing innocuous folk pieces. A few composers, such as Galina Ustvolskaya (b. 1919), continued to compose in their own style, with the knowledge that these works could not be made public and were strictly for the drawer. Film music was a popular choice for many composers in these difficult times. As well as having the advantage of seeming practical and populist, it received less attention from the Party and moments of dissonance could be sneaked in to accompany the on-screen appearance of a villain.
With this description aside, it is thus pertinent to shed light on the extent to which Shostakovich complied with the strictures of state control and examine some of the notions that emanate from his work. The bulk of this discussion will focus on the early symphonies whilst passing comment on a number of other works. The motif behind analysing these symphonies lies in the notable transitions in personal style, which manifest themselves clearly and also because the symphony was perhaps the only genre in which composers could ascertain a level of originality and experimentation through use of ambiguity, irony and satire. As this is a genre void of the spoken word – although attempts were made to incorporate vocal components unsuccessfully – it was thus easier for a composer to invoke ambiguities, as music does not convey a fixed message.
On listening to Shostakovich’s First Symphony, it is apparent that its style is far from that of his latter works and is conservative in nature. The structure follows a traditional four movement framework with sonata principles governing the first and last movements and ternary principles underpinning the second and third. Tonality appears to be central to this work with little employment of harsh the dissonances which characterise many of his other symphonies. This work was composed in 1924, a time where state policy on music was in its infancy and thus Shostakovich would have experienced little criticism at this time and it thus contains an element of originality whilst maintaining a conservative edge. This composition placed him firmly on the map as a credible composer and thus his confidence increased, stimulating an imminent epoch of stylistic experimentation. The Second Symphony, composed in the year of 1927, instigated a shift in his compositional style evoking a sense of rebellion and anger towards the state. In juxtaposition to his first, this symphony appears to be in diametric opposition in its formal structure and content. In terms of structure – although divisions can be noted – this work is a single movement composition, thus in opposition to the former four movement symphony. The sonata form principles present in the first, are absent throughout and there appears to be little thematic material coupled with an underlying lack of tonality (apparent in the opening bars). Heavy exploration of dissonance is also another feature prevalent throughout, thus this piece lends itself more to the school of modernism. Despite the presence of a chorus in its final movement – a favoured compositional tool of socialist realism – the work asserts the sentiment of a composer wishing to express himself through experimentation, and who resents the process of compositional conformity. Therefore, this symphony displays an element of individuality despite state control. However, this line of rebellion was refined in the following symphony, when he reverts to traditional symphonic practices thus underlining his obligation to comply with state musical policy.
Whilst composing his fourth symphony Shostakovich was severely criticised in the national newspaper Pravda for the content of an Opera he had composed, Macbeth of the Mtsensk District:
“The music quacks, grunts and growls, and suffocates itself, in order to express the amatory scene all over the opera in the most vulgar manner. The merchant’s double bed occupies the central position on the stage. On it all ‘problems’ are solved…” (Huband 1990: 13)
Possibly in response to this vehement review, Shostakovich subsequently withdrew his fourth concerto from being performed claiming that he was not happy with it and he said he would revise it. Interestingly not a note was changed when the symphony was finally performed. This was the very method in which officials in the government went about ‘weeding out’ undesirable music, which acknowledged the presence of western influences and was modernist in content. Thus, Shostakovich approached the most troublesome chapter in his career. Since this cruel review of his Opera he subsequently concentrated his works to the genre of the Symphony.
Shostakovich clearly viewed his Fourth symphony as a work which demanded praise, as he refused to change any part of it. This work brings back the multi-movement structure of the first symphony but projects his experiments on top of this conventional style. This is a work which appeals to tonality but is underpinned by some satirical textures. The vastness of the outer-movements are countered by the central one by an ABAB structure thus asserting again a conservative approach. Thematic transformations and motive manipulations are prevalent throughout which marks a break from the thematic treatment of the second and third symphonies. The thematic handling is more disciplined than earlier symphonies but is still affected by cinematic contrasts. The employment of a celeste donates a sentiment of negative despair. The second movement is clearly influenced by Mahler and thus donates a modernist edge to this composition. Some of the rhythmic structures and melodic contours are similar to those found in the second and third movements of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Also, the use of E flat clarinet solos is characteristic of Mahler’s work. Thus, there is a distinct degree of artistic individuality in this work, although this composition didn’t strictly adhere to the notion of socialist realism but nonetheless portrays a defiant Shostakovich sticking to his guns. This work was not the success for which he had wished.
However, Shostakovich managed to respond to his critics by composing his next symphony, a work which to be his most successful. This projected by the state as a model for the soviet symphony and reinstated Shostakovich as the leading composer of this epoch. This declaration and consequent swing in opinion seems a little bizarre given the nature of this piece. True, it is a work, which is slightly more approachable and easier on the ear, but it certainly doesn’t embody the ideals of socialist realism – folk music and nationalistic ideals are clearly absent. It is thus Shostakovich’s employment of double edged symbols and undertones of sarcasm which eluded the state. It is not known to what degree this symphony’s change in style was a result of past criticism, but it seems more probable that this was just a shift in style, which inter-fused the conservative nature of his First Symphony with principles underpinning the works in between. Thus, despite state strictures, Shostakovich clearly maintains an individual character. The 5th Symphony is more approachable in character, with a softer edge and tighter in construction. However, it is laden with satire, and it is possible to speculate that the composer had found a way to appease the authorities but at the same time express some of his feelings and frustrations. Shostakovich returns to the musical framework of his First Symphony employing a four-movement design also sharing the first movements governing sonata principles. Tonally speaking, key relationships are freer, indicating a fusion of his earlier tonal and atonal works - this principle dominates the first movement. The themes are tonally based which are accompanied by modified levels of dissonance and a more restrained orchestration. The modernist Mahlerian influence, which pervaded the Fourth Symphony is clearly apparent in the second movement in the forms of a Scherzo and Trio. Thus, this clearly does not represent the ideals of socialist realism and acknowledges western principles. The absence of the brass section in the third movement is a tool which Shostakovich employs to add resonance to their entry in the last movement - a device which Mahler also used. Tonality underpins the harmonic process with extreme use dissonance at times perhaps referring grotesque nature of his Second Symphony. The concluding passage of this symphony appears triumphant in nature, and thus portrays what was expected of a Soviet symphony, but the painfully slow pace of the conclusion (which wasn't always understood by early interpreters) is still a defiant gesture on the part of the composer, clouding the triumph with a bitter irony. It is this use of sarcasm that Shostakovich utilised to maintain his creative individuality and at the same time appearing to adhere to the ideals of socialist realism.
Therefore in conclusion, the early work of Shostakovich constructs a narrative in which the strictures of the state can be discerned but this didn’t stop many aspects of his work to achieving distinct individuality. The referring back to the conservatism of his first symphony and at the same time embracing the rebellion of the intermediate Symphonies enabled Shostakovich to strike a balance between conforming to state policy and maintaining his individuality. Thus, the ambiguous nature of music enabled this composer the means to challenge state musical policy without the regime taking noticing.
Maurina Frolova-Walker ‘National in form, socialist in content: music and nation-building in the Soviet Republics
James Bakst: A history of Russia-Soviet music (Greenwood,1977)
David Fanning (ed) : Shostakovich Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Rosamund Barlett (ed) Shostakovich in context (Oxford University Press, 2000)
Daniel Huband, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: A Soviet Artist’s Reply? Tempo June 1990 pp. 11-16