Behind the Curtain: Submission and Resistance under the Soviet Regime

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism, performed on May 10, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The first concert of this season focuses on the dilemmas faced by artists in conditions of extreme “unfreedom” and censorship. The historical situation that we have chosen is the Soviet Union before Perestroika and after the rise of Stalin. This period was the worst era of sustained dictatorship in Soviet history. Two generations of composers are considered today: Nikolai Myaskovsky came of age before the October Revolution, Dmitri Shostakovich and Tikhon Khrennikov were still children–eleven and four years of age–when the Communists took over. Myaskovsky’s evolution and career as a mature composer, therefore, had to take into account the shifting direction of post-revolutionary politics. Audience members who are familiar with the flowering of progressive visual art, theater, film, poetry, and architecture after the revolution may be familiar with the immediate post-revolutionary history in the arts, which encouraged experimentation and modernism. But the flirtation with modernism in the Soviet Union was brief. By the mid-1930s an entirely new and terrifying official aesthetic had evolved. In the full flower of Stalinism, the choices facing artists were not easy. The list of those who died or were tortured because of their independence is tragic. It includes the poets Babel and Mandelstahm. The lives and careers of countless others were destroyed.

Of all the arts, music presented the most complicated case. Unlike painting, theater, film, or literature, music certainly could be regarded as more elusive with respect to the issue of political meaning. But that did not deter the Soviet state apparatus from imposing accepted standards. Nevertheless, the room accorded musicians for the creation of independent meanings, ironies, and ambiguities was far greater than that facing architects, painters, and writers. In the end, instrumental music in particular, which is featured on this program, could be argued to be exclusively about itself. That such a formalist view of music will not hold up under severe scrutiny and was not in favor with the regime does not diminish the inherent capacity of music to better elude strict political control.

When we think of everyday life under the two most brutal dictators of the century, Stalin and Hitler, the tendency has been to think about heroes and heroines–individuals who, in some Hollywood-like fashion, stood up to terror and risked martyrdom and, more often than not, achieved it. Those are the stories we like to tell, even though few of us possess either the character or the courage to act in the same way. Heroes and heroines are and always will be the exceptions. For most of us, the will to survive necessitates a large spectrum of adjustments to realities over which we perceive very little or no control. Most people want to be left alone to pursue their private lives. Others with ambition to achieve something in the public arena quickly encounter the need to compromise–to “play ball,” so to speak–in order to give their own hopes and dreams a chance to become real. Those of us who have lived with the privilege of freedom are often too quick to condemn those who have compromised and have eluded an open conflict with authority–those for whom the thought of terror, death, and the inability to work were far too frightening. But no one can doubt that the consequences of resistance and defiance under Stalin were severe and swift.

In today’s concert we turn to individuals who were not martyrs, dissidents, or resisters. They were artists of stature and achievement. In our simplified view from the outside it is easy to turn any society into a picture with only good and evil participants. To live in the world and to function in any capacity, including that of being an artist, requires varying degrees of grayness and ambiguity.

The two figures on this program who are the most intriguing are Myaskovsky and Shostakovich. Shostakovich is far better known. The Fifteenth Symphony, his last, was written in a time that was perhaps the most awkward for the composer since the debacle surrounding Stalin’s reaction to his Lady Macbeth in the late 1930s. With the explosion of open dissidence in a neo-Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich, a senior and revered figure, allowed his name to be used on the side of the state against individuals such as Andrei Sakharov whose names now have become legendary symbols of the struggle for freedom. But the Shostakovich case is profoundly complicated. He was one of the great examples of how a genius with a nearly unparalleled musical imagination and a profound spirituality struggled to function under totalitarianism. He continued to work, to write, and to exist as a musician. He was at one and the same time part of a “system” and a thorn in its side. The music mirrors the anguish and complexity of his circumstance and speaks on many levels, particularly to posterity. Shostakovich reveals without question the necessity of music as a form of personal expression and as an arena that ultimately can resist and elude political appropriation and domination.

The case of Myaskovsky is less well known but comparable in that a profoundly talented composer struggled to adapt to changing circumstances and survived as a professional. Unlike the other arts, an orchestral composition needs to be heard and put on stage. It cannot exist–as a book or a painting can–without being performed publicly. And the public performance is ultimately controlled by those who command political and economic power. Compromise and collaboration become unavoidable if one wants one’s work to be heard and wants a public in one’s own time.

The case of Tikhon Khrennikov may strike many listeners as the most puzzling and unfamiliar. He did more than cooperate and find a way to survive. He became a leading official of the state. By assuming power, he was responsible for the hated system. In retrospect, there are those who would defend him by saying that under his leadership things were actually better than otherwise might have been the case. From the perspective of this concert, the question in the end is–what kind of music did he write and how does it now fare with audiences when the evil with which he was associated has become historical and is no longer contemporary? If one is unable to approach the music dispassionately, it is interesting to hear what officially sanctioned music sounds like. How does it adapt to our ears? does it evoke its political context or origin?

An obvious example of how official music can end up successfully shedding the skin, so to speak, of its origins is Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. At the end of the day, how does the music of Tikhon Khrennikov strike us, even though he, like many other composers of greater and lesser distinction, can hardly be viewed as having been a saint or an admirable political personality? Music does not always live in harmony, side by side with virtue.

This concert, therefore, is designed to be provocative, in the first instance, as a precis of a very important and grim era in the Soviet Union in which musical life, particularly in a moment of extreme unfreedom, was vital to many, many people. The concert hall was one of the few public gathering spaces marginally independent of rigid control, where personal expression, however camouflaged, was still possible. Second, this concert forces us to think about the relationship among politics, personal ethics, and art. The music should force each of us to look with a differentiated sensibility on the predicament of those who sought to live and function in some plausible way and to continue their vocations as artists in a context that made unreasonable demands and inevitably distorted any natural impulse to distance oneself from radical evil.