After the Thaw

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert After the Thaw, performed on Feb 24, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

One overtly benign but distinguishing feature of the Soviet Union was its commitment to and investment in aspects of high culture, notably music. From the early 1920s, first under Lenin and then throughout the era of Stalin’s rule, state support for musical culture created opportunities and dilemmas for composers that may be difficult for artists and audiences today to fully comprehend. At first, the success of the 1918 Bolshevik revolution inspired optimism about the possibilities of art and its role in shaping a utopian future. That optimism was rooted in the idea that a new era had begun, one unencumbered by the traditions and failures of history. During the 1920s, a confident, experimental modernism took hold. The roots of that modernism were in part borrowings from paths charted by fin- de-siècle modernists in Russia and Western Europe. One of the touchstones of early modernism was its explicit rejection of history and a determination to redefine musical logic and thereby engender a decisive break with the past.

Since in the 1920s, Communism even in Russia was viewed as an international movement. The commonplace markers of national identity historically inscribed in Russian music in many various incarnations from Glinka to Stravinsky needed to assume at best a subordinate role. The modernism that flourished not only in music but in literature and the visual arts in the early 1920s laid claim to a universalist objective vision, one that was divorced from inherited links not only to nationalism but conventional expressive rhetoric that triggered associations between music and representation and emotion. The conceit of objectivity was allied and consistent with the nearly ascetic ideas crucial to the Communist revolution: faith in the logic of science and the inexorable destiny inscribed in history. Modern art needed to serve political movements that advanced these ideas.

The era of avant-garde modernist exploration was short-lived. Modernist experiments particularly in music, whether in Russia or in the West, for all their compelling conceptual justifications, were hard for audiences to love. The rejection of comprehensible forms and melodies, as well as the framework of tonality, led to music that seemed to go over the heads of the public, even of the much maligned bourgeois educated classes. The paradox was obvious. If Communism was a political movement by and for the masses, how could its modern and ideologically consistent art be justified if the masses neither liked nor understood it? By the end of the 1920s a competing aesthetic ideology gained in ascendancy. A new orthodoxy took over that derided elitism, art for art’s sake and celebrated a utilitarian populism grounded in melody and accessible simplicity. The state sided with this idealized proletarian vision of art and called for a shift from futurist modernism to an ideal of new art capable of engendering loyalty and enthusiasm among the masses for the new order of things. Music in particular was singled out as a medium that could help disseminate values key to a Communist society such as egalitarianism and solidarity with the proletariat.

During the first decade of Stalin’s regime, an additional but predictable twist was added. Stalin recognized that the masses of Russian people were attached to nationalism and to quite conventional markers of beauty and sentiment. He rejected the idea of internationalism. The proletarian and populist art of the 1930s and 1940s celebrated a reductive simplicity and forged anew a link to the musical rhetoric, structures and nationalist markers bequeathed by the great masters of Russian music of the nineteenth century.

This shift from experimentalism to a nationalist populism in the 1930s on the part of the regime was articulated in an ominous and stark manner. In contrast to the West, the Soviet state enforced a monopoly on cultural life, controlling all the practical aspects of artistic production such as education, employment, publishing, and performance. The artistic life of the Soviet Union was designed from the top down in an effort to control artists, public spaces and public experiences. The goal of the state was control over individuals with access to the public sphere and to create an effective alternative to what was presumed to be the decadent bourgeois cultural habits of the urban capitalist marketplaces of Western Europe and North America. By the early 1940s, a musical equivalent to Socialist Realism came to dominate Soviet music. For the concert and opera stage, there was a clear mandate. Composers were expected to write music that was easy to listen to, as well as select texts and librettos with proper ideological content. The conceit was that the audience could be inspired to embrace the collectivist spirit of state socialism. In order to win the approval of official state arbiters and censors, composers turned to tradition and recognizable forms. They employed repetition, a transparent logic and explored melody and the easily memorable. The Romantic construct of the composer as a free artist exercising his or her imagination in an effort to realize individuality and originality was challenged with striking severity by the authorities as anti-Soviet and anti-Communist; thus conformity with sanctioned and quite conservative conventions vis-à-vis modernism became the necessary starting point for any young aspiring artist.

All this was no laughing matter. As the most famous of all Soviet composers, Dmitri Shostakovich, recognized in 1936 when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk received a scathing editorial in Pravda, crackdowns on deviations were backed by the power of the state apparatus, including the security forces and professional organizations such as the Union of Composers with its various oversight committees. Not even Sergei Prokofiev after his triumphant return in the 1930s was immune from censure and ostracism. Although he came back willingly to the Soviet Union in 1935 and embraced (like Shostakovich) much of the populist idealism put forward by Stalin’s regime as a challenge—how to write simple, popular but sophisticated modern music—he quickly discovered that being an official artist had consequences unimaginable to composers living in the West. There were benefits, of course, including financial security, privileged housing and goods, but these exacted significant sacrifices, spiritual and practical. Abject flattery was often not enough to mollify or distract the authorities.

The low point in Soviet history with respect to the arts occurred in 1948, when composers, including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and one composer on tonight’s program, Alexander Lokshin, were condemned. Lokshin and Shostakovich suffered loss of employment and banishment from public life. In Shostakovich’s case the punishment was brief and relatively easy compared to Lokshin’s ten years as a virtual non-person. Until the death of Stalin, modernist developments in the West were dismissed in the Soviet Union as narcissistic elitism. They enjoyed at best an underground following. Indeed in the purges of 1948, the language of condemnation against composers out of favor centered around accusations of “formalism,” a euphemism for music that lacked a reductive communicative surface and proper ideological content. Formalist music was said to be based on the self-indulgence of self-referential aestheticism and mere egoism.

Stalin died in 1953. Although there was some relaxation in the climate of fear, 1956 was the watershed year. It was defined by Khrushchev’s famous condemnation of Stalin’s rule. Between 1956 and Khrushchev’s fall in 1964, a brief moment of loosening of state control existed, known historically as “the Thaw.” This optimistic period saw the beginnings of a rapprochement with the West and a softening of the state’s prescriptions for the arts. But just as the wave of experimentalism before Stalin took power had been short-lived and brutally disrupted, this moment of opportunity after Stalin’s death proved to be transient as well. Khrushchev himself was no stranger to the Stalinist habit of delivering aesthetic judgments that determined the fate of artists. Yet Lokshin’s work on this program comes directly out of context of the Thaw.

After Khrushchev, Brezhnev ushered in a drab, dispiriting and oppressive era of neo-Stalinism. Tischenko’s symphony dates from that era. Only with Gorbachev came Perestroika, and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet system. Tchaikovsky’s 1987 work on this program was written in that context. Russian artists were cut loose into the chaotic and uncertain 1990s.

It is within this framework that one needs to consider the music on this program. The historical context has receded into memory, so much so that one can sense a misguided nostalgia among certain elites for the Soviet past evident in the revival of the autocratic habits of state control and intimidation that mark today’s Russia. But outside of Russia, the Soviet era has vanished from consciousness. Only two composers from this more than seventy-year history of Russia are widely performed today: Shostakovich and Prokofiev. This is in spite of the fact that the investment by the state in music nurtured several generations of highly talented composers, each of whom was forced, like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, to come to terms with the regime as their master.

Of all the arts music is the least susceptible to censorship (perhaps because it is less descriptive and capable of transmitting ordinary meaning, as opposed to literature or painting). Composers, if they desired, found clever ways to elude becoming mere hacks. They developed strong and powerful individual voices and ways to circumvent control by encoding complex and contradictory meanings in music where surface and interior were intentionally inconsistent with one another. Shostakovich is understood by many to have mastered this strategy, using irony and sarcasm in music to powerful effect.

The politics of the Cold War, the passage of time and the erasure of memory have determined that most of the music written by Soviet composers born after the Revolution remains largely unknown to the West. The only exceptions are a few figures from the late 1970s and 1980s, émigrés such as Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt.

But there is a good deal of irony here. Those composers who remained in Soviet Russia and managed to balance official favor with independence and originality and created work of artistic merit may have succeeded at home, but they skillfully skirted domestic danger only to be derided in the West. And those who were censured at home were effectively silenced and are now forgotten. When Rostropovich brought Boris Tchaikovsky’s cello concert to New York in 1964 it was dismissed as banal official music. Lokshin’s case is more extreme: he was totally out of sight for ten years, but then struggled to gain recognition in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the Thaw. Even though his music was influenced by the work of Schoenberg and Berg, he never attracted attention in the West. Boris Tishchenko (who admired Lokshin greatly), the one composer on this program still alive today, has the understandable need to explain his career to younger contemporaries for whom the Soviet Union is not a living memory.

But today, absent the Cold War, surely these works need no longer suffer from the political notoriety of their Soviet composers. Ironically for these composers, the advantages of state support and the association with that support have resulted in an even more recalcitrant posthumous dismissal than is routinely encountered by composers elsewhere with the passage of generations.

But how should we approach music written during the Soviet era, now that the political landscape has been so radically altered? Is it ultimately merely propaganda without value? Is the legacy of official support and success during the Soviet era sufficient justification for rejection? For all the Soviet Union’s immense evils, represented brutally by Stalin’s murder of millions, there is a fundamental difference between the Soviet Union and the other powerful dictatorship for which art was useful: Nazi Germany. Although in the 1950s these two regimes were compared under the rubric of totalitarianism, there was in the Soviet system a tension between the ideal and the real that had no parallel in Nazism. Communism may be a failed system, but one cannot deny that its utopian vision of an egalitarian world without class distinctions, politics or the state is attractive, albeit implausible. Soviet composers believed in the ideal of Communism, even though they had to contend with a reality that did not embody that ideal. To survive as a composer and even a performing artist required some dimension of collaboration.

In the Soviet case, that accommodation or collaboration does not merit blanket ethical and moral condemnation. What occurred under Hitler—the paths taken by men like Martin Heidegger and Carl Orff—should not define how we judge artists in the Soviet era . The favored artist under Hitler had choices. There was less ambiguity between right and wrong. At the same time many artists and composers saved their careers by simply continuing to work while trying to keep their noses clean of political conviction, something that was not as possible in the Soviet Union. Some indeed advanced their careers by becoming active Nazis; others sought to help victims in secret, and some went into voluntary seclusion such as K.A. Hartmann. In the Soviet Union, where one could be sent to the mines of Kolyma upon the slightest suspicion of anti-Soviet behavior, one did one’s best to conform. One had the possibility of hope, however delusive. One could believe that someday the Soviet system could become just and admirable.

The Soviet Union inspired numerous unattractive characters–sycophants who advanced their careers (e.g. Kabalevsky and Khrennikov) shamelessly and at the expense of others– but is their behavior really any more reprehensible that other artists in earlier times who were forced to flatter tsars, kings, and popes, or who, as in the case of Wagner, advocated despicable notions of racial superiority? Even Arnold Schoenberg, whose career suffered on account of Nazism, was not immune from the fascination with autocracy and intolerance that thrived in the 1930s. He developed, harbored and expressed the most unattractive chauvinist and dictatorial sentiments.

None of the composers on today’s program therefore deserve to be dismissed solely because they worked within the system of the Soviet Union. Now that the mid-twentieth-century romance with modernism is over (itself a Cold War phenomenon supported ironically in the West as underscoring the contrast between Soviet Russia and the free West), we are able to take a new look at the enormous output of new music that took place particularly after the death of Stalin. Since our political context as listeners is so different, we can discover finely crafted music that has the welcome benefit of accessibility. We can do so without bias. Boris Tchaikovsky, dismissed by critics in New York in 1964, was held in the highest regard by Mstislav Rostropovich to the end of the latter’s career. It was he who brought the cello concerto on today’s program to my attention just a few months before his death. Shostakovich’s exceptional and enormous regard for Tishchenko (and for that matter Lokshin) is itself a powerful recommendation that suggests an evaluation of his music is long overdue. Finally, Lokshin deserves what amounts to a first look. He pursued a kind of middle road between rebellious deviation and conformity. Yet, of all these three composers he suffered the most, first from the state and later from an accusation of collaboration with the state. Lokshin, the most obscure figure on tonight’s program, has a remarkable body of work ripe for rediscovery.

As time passes, we will be able to assess the place of the Soviet era, particularly its second half, in Russian history. Music since the early nineteenth century has been a central feature of Russian culture. In few nations have the traditions of concert and classical music remained so vital for so long. To restrict our appreciation of the achievements of Russian composers who lived and worked in the Soviet Union to Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and to a few signature works by Khachaturian and Kabalevsky, is to allow an inadequate construct of political history to obscure our recognition of great and memorable achievements. Without doubt a lot of propagandistic and ephemeral work was produced. But that is also the case in non-authoritarian societies where freedom and the marketplace thrive. One suspects that there may have been more music written in the Soviet Union of lasting value for performers and audiences today than was produced during the same period elsewhere. To appropriate, with some irony, a word associated with the ideological debates within Communism, enough time has passed to legitimate some active “revisionism” in our own time.