Forgotten Patriotisms: Music as Political History

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Forgotten Patriotisms: Music as Political History, performed on Dec 13, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

After forty years of cold war, and only a decade of post-cold war, it is not surprising that a tendency remains among many Americans to recall impressions of life in the Soviet Union as reductive caricature of state oppression and control. Our collective memory judges the Soviet Union as a failed experiment in state socialism, an “evil empire” empowered by strict and enforced prescription of private life, culture, and art. But the experience was far more nuanced, and now that one no longer need fear knee-jerk accusations of closet sympathy for the patent evils of the Soviet system, it is possible to search through the remnants of Soviet culture to see the more complex effects of state cultural domination. In this sense, this concert is an exercise in memory, not rehabilitation.

We go to the heart of the matter by focusing on both the most inspiring and the darkest episodes of Soviet cultural control: the immediate post-Revolutionary period and the era of Stalin. The first question to be asked is whether the state-approved, ideologically determined aesthetic standards which defined the appropriate art for the socialist cause (sometimes called socialist realism), were ever successful, or at least more successful than any of the other many historical attempts to promote homogeny through artistic and cultural expression. Were they more effective or much different than, for example, the efforts of the medieval papacy to render the liturgy, art, and practice of Christianity uniform throughout Europe? The question points to the unchartable region which art inhabits, the region between public discourse and private, personal belief. Under conditions of censorship, the authentic translation of private thought into a public artistic form of communication is disrupted. When public expression is controlled, will private consciousness alter itself to cohere with public expression (as the state intends), or will both become polarized? Some scholars have suggested that in Czarist Russia, with its own severe censorship policies, the artistic community had already developed a very strong, private discourse that could be understood as nascently existentialist. Artists and intellectuals considered the morally tragic condition of humanity secretly while creating public works that were acceptable to the state. This tension between the public and the private in nineteenth-century Russia was observable in the art itself, and can easily be imagined to carry over in the context of post-revolutionary Russia, though the terms had changed. Of course, one complicating factor was that just after the Revolution, there was an enormous amount of idealism about the possibilities of a new order and society. When those hopes dimmed in the 1920s and 1930s, the vitality of subterranean discourse became even more pronounced.

As negative as Soviet repression was, however, other aspects of the Soviet Union’s attitude toward art should give us a moment’s pause. The great irony in the state’s effort to use art and music to promote change in consciousness was that art and music were given tremendous prominence as official state enterprises. In the United States, we encounter exactly the opposite circumstance. Our government does next to nothing to support the arts or to recognize it as integral to the character of democracy. Consequently, art is left the beneficiary and prisoner of free market commerce and private philanthropy which is only mildly encouraged by the tax code. The government’s role is indirect at best, and the great cultural institutions and patrons of our country are private entities. Despite its apparent benefits, this system exists at the cost of art’s exclusion from a central role in the construct of the public and of the nation. The role of art and artists is greatly diminished in the eyes of citizens and society–except when controversy erupts, which is usually over a moral standard that instantly ignites the threat of censorship. In Soviet Russia, subsidy of the arts allowed artists to enjoy significance as genuine cultural presences (if only they could have expressed themselves publicly without restraint). Stalin and Shostakovich had direct contact with each other; in the United States, only Hollywood’s calls are taken by the President.

The appropriation of musicians and composers by the new Soviet state began very shortly after the Revolution. Nikolai Yakolevich Miaskovsky had already made a considerable reputation as a composer before 1918. He trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and by the time of the Revolution he had written five symphonies. The Sixth Symphony (1923) is essentially conservative in its musical idiom; one hears in it very little of the kind of experimentation that took place in the 1920s. Yet, during this period, the Soviet regime was enamored with progress and technology. In its first decade it encouraged aesthetic experimentation in design and literature, best remembered perhaps by the work of the Russian constructivists and stage designers. But Miaskovsky did not follow in that path with this work. He instead chose to use older models to write a masterpiece that commented on the desperate and difficult conditions his country encountered in the years immediately following the Revolution. However, this should by no means be mistaken for an expression of nostalgia. Rather, in recalling forms suddenly fallen out of favor, Miaskovsky rebuffs the fierce, affirmative patriotism of the younger generation and instead offers a picture of the ambiguity of this new civilization’s birth. The end of the old and the beginning of the new are responded to with a sense of tragic foreboding, vividly evoking all the inconsistencies, contradictions, and disappointments that attended the devastating social upheaval. Predictably, the work was accused of being a remnant of an old intellectual elite, and Miaskovsky was considered unable to grasp the possibilities of the new political reality. Yet there is something profoundly Russian and affectionate in this work. It is, as many commentators have noted, a worthy successor to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, the Pathetique. After the Sixth Symphony, Miaskovsky continued to work in the Soviet Union and had an immensely productive career. As a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, he exerted a powerful influence over a generation of composers, and was an intimate of Prokofiev. He survived the 1930s with his career and reputation intact, remained loyal to his native Russia, and adapted to the new political realities. The Sixth Symphony is now regarded by many to be his masterpiece, perhaps because it is a work written during that narrow window of opportunity, when the private and the public could come together openly.

In the generation of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the relation between art and politics became much more awkward, difficult, and dangerous. Although Prokofiev was only ten years younger than Miaskovsky, the older composer encouraged Prokofiev’s career. Like Miaskovsky, Prokofiev had already made something of a name for himself before the Revolution, particularly with his First Piano Concerto. He had also won the Rubinstein prize in 1914. But shortly after the Revolution in 1918, Prokofiev left for America, where he stayed until 1922. He then moved to Paris and lived there for more than a decade, and except for a tour in 1927, remained outside the Soviet Union until 1936. It is not clear why Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union in 1936, which was certainly not an auspicious time. The grim realities of Stalin’s rule were quite plain, and Shostakovich had already suffered the dictator’s condemnation. Yet Prokofiev did return, settled in the Soviet Union, and made explicit attempts to come to terms with the regime. He participated in the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution, and save for some brief tours in the late 1930s, remained in Russia until his death in 1953.

The listener must rely on his or her own judgment to determine whether there is any irony in the piece offered on tonight’s program. The archives of Prokofiev’s life and work will only be opened in 2003, so we will have to wait for scholars to comb through what are now sealed materials to shed any more light on the composer’s reasoning. As Maya Pritsker properly notes, however, Zdravitsa is not merely a piece of hack music. It cannot be discarded, as much other “occasional” music has rightly been, into that category of patriotic and politically sycophantic works composed at the request of rulers (especially dictators). Even when good composers write topical works on commission, the result is often something like the Centennial Overture of Wagner, or Der glorreiche Augenblick of Beethoven, or worse. But Zdravitsa was thought good enough to merit a substitute text after Stalin’s death. This fact highlights even more dramatically the contrast between the music and the original text, which can be only shocking to listeners who know that by1939, no one had no illusions about the extent of Stalin’s cruelty and butchery, which involved the systematic purging, exile, and murder of peasants, leading artists and intellectuals. While Stalin lived, this work served as a primary example of the way in which high-quality music was used to engage public consciousness and sentiment even in the face of an inconsistent reality. After Stalin’s and Prokofiev’s deaths, we are left with the troubling question of how a great artist like Prokofiev could have reconciled public expression and private truth that way. Better, perhaps, if he had written a hack work after all.

The case of Shostakovich is perhaps the best known and most controversial. After the tremendous impact made by his First Symphony, Shostakovich entered a period of experimentation with new musical techniques and styles. Here is an example of how compatible modernism and Communism were at first. Shostakovich indulged the notion of a new modern aesthetic that would reflect the triumph of science and constructive materialism through experimentation and thus advance beyond a decadent, bourgeois tradition. Communism, progress, and modernity were supposed to combine into a transcendent experience of ideological inspiration. For these reasons, the Second Symphony as well as the Third have in retrospect been set aside by most observers as merely works of propaganda. Even at the time of its composition, conservative observers were put off by the signs of modernist experimentation, and later in his life, Shostakovich himself disavowed these works. Today, conventional views of these symphonies deem them second-tier achievements. Yet, the idealism of the young Shostakovich, his embrace of a new way of making music, and his attempt to forge a relationship between that and a new political vision were widely shared in the 1920s not only in Russia but in the rest of Europe and America. Only recently has the traditional sharp distinction between Lenin and Stalin come in for reassessment. Even if Lenin was not the heroic figure he was once thought to be, the absence of irony in this symphony should not be the object of criticism but rather of investigation.

With its choral finale, the Second Symphony offers a powerful juxtaposition of the modern and the politically affirmative. It is a fine case study–deserving of a second hearing–of the difficulty of using music in general to dramatize an interpretation of social transformation. Shostakovich suggests the extent to which issues of politics, social change, and ideology can inspire and be liberating in their own way as bases for art works that are capable of transcending the ostensible context of their origins. However truncated, the choral finale harkens back to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, as well as to Mahler. Before dismissing the symphony for its naïve celebration of Soviet hope, consider whether claims for spiritual transcendence, Christian faith, or vague Enlightenment notions of universal brotherhood seem less complicated and more innocent than the praise of Communist revolution. The failure of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mahler to inspire listeners to behave in a more Christian or humanist manner has never been held against them. Is it less idealistic or plausible that Shostakovich’s praise of the leader of the Russian Revolution and the promise he held may have warranted the same intensity as Beethoven’s attachment to Schiller’s vision of universal brotherhood, or Mendelssohn’s notion of a synthesis of Judaism and Christianity, or Mahler’s obsession with the spiritual? In all of these examples, music attempts to interpret the promise of history, however narrowly. The real irony, as Shostakovich later learned, is that history tends not to fulfill the promise of music.

Tonight’s program is designed to offer an aural evocation of the difficulty and power associated with the role of the artist in post-revolutionary Russia, and to permit us to remember the ambiguities and complexities of both the private and public opportunities and necessities. It is easy to understand the relation of politics and art when it involves those marginalized or excluded from power. We properly recognize the voice that has not been heard, the literature and music of the oppressed and excluded. But does genuine personal expression in art need exist only at the margins, or can works that have widespread and official sanction be compelling as well? In the Soviet Union, of course, artistic choices were weighted by the possibility of physical danger. Yet as we see here, composers encountered the problem of official “favor” in numerous and diverse ways. In our own time, the question has different terms but remains pertinent nevertheless. When fame and commercial success are lavished on contemporary artists, they may in a sense be as complicit as the composers on this program, who were the beneficiaries of official support, writing in the public realm on behalf of a centralized state that was neither democratic or capitalist. For the sake of our own times, it may be fruitful to recall a moment, even a failed one, when art was considered more than a separate aesthetic experience, when the only view of music was not solely for art’s sake, when mere formalism did not triumph, and when the making of art was an important part of an engagement with the well being of an entire nation. Before dismissing the music of the Soviet Union as the work of “sell-outs,” perhaps we should consider the larger potential role of politics and idealism, philosophy and social justice in the inspirational nexus of a composer. When art encounters power, and when the artist is afforded the officially sanctioned opportunity to influence social memory and interpretation, what should the artist do?