The Circle of Shostakovich

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Circle of Shostakovich, performed on April 11, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

One of the most intriguing and confusing eras in the history of music occurred between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939. In these two decades, the life of the artist, especially of the musician in Russia, was transformed. The vibrant tradition of composition and performance that had flourished during the last decades of the Czarist regime in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and indeed throughout the Russian empire, was forced to accommodate new political conditions. These conditions were unprecedented not only in ideological terms with the advent of Communism, but in terms of the personal judgments, methods and ambitions of the political leadership concerning the development of social consciousness through art.

Unlike many of its Western national counterparts, the new Soviet utopia did not perceive art and culture as peripheral or subsidiary. Quite to the contrary, the arts served multiple social functions. First, they were potently symbolic of collective human aspiration, primary vehicles for the expression of secular hope and idealism. Second, their cultivation was a tangible reflection of the progress of Socialism. Since the establishment of the first truly socialist government was supposedly a historically progressive step, the government initially sought to encourage art expressing the triumph of Socialism, art embodying a progressive rather than nostalgic spirit. Third, art was a medium for balancing the national and the international. It could proudly exhibit Russian artistic distinction and yet reach out to people of other nations, particularly the Proletariat. Art was the voice of Russia, communicating an ideal vision of a classless solidarity to the rest of the world. It was art for the common populace.

Ironically, however, this Soviet policy for the arts was enacted precisely at a moment in history when the arts across the Western World were relishing their radicalism and their break with tradition and convention, a movement we now identify as Modernism. The task of reconciling these two seemingly disparate aesthetic and political agendas presented a daunting challenge to Soviet artists. The revolutionary idea they were trying to represent in their work was supposed to promote the end of radical inequalities in political power and wealth, but this parallel revolution in the arts seemed to move in precisely the opposite direction, favoring an elite by privileging an aesthetic that the broader population found incomprehensible. By the end of the 1930s, therefore, the political requirements of the state explicitly stipulated a form of socialist Realism for the arts. In music, that meant a predisposition toward transparency and conservative harmonic and rhythmic strategies. Soon, the demand for an “official” art compatible with the state’s ideals grew into an attack on musical Modernism and what would be decried as “Formalism,” the making of art for art’s sake, or for the narcissistic, individualistic bourgeois conceits of the artist rather than for the education of the masses.

Within this framework, the chronology of the interaction between the Soviet state and its artists makes for terrifying study. Of those initial moments in the 1920s, when despite severe economic hardships there was a remarkable flourishing of experimentation, and the notion reigned of a progressive art for a progressive politics, there is no better symbolic example than the competition for the design of Lenin’s Tomb, that famous icon in Red Square. This utterly austere building stands as a monument to an ascetic, linear Modernism, placed in stark opposition to the walls of the Kremlin and the elaborate traditional architecture of its interior, the late nineteenth century arcade on the other side (later Gum), and St. Basil’s Cathedral. It is a striking comment on the early aspirations to reconcile Modernism and Communism. But Lenin’s death in 1924 marked the beginning of the end of this fragile symbiosis. The experimentalism represented by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), the constructivist and modernist painters Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), the director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940), with whom both Popov and Shostakovich worked, had its parallel in music with composers like Alexander Mosolov (1900-1973), and Nicolai Roslavets (1881-1944). This modernist enthusiasm was in part a reaction against the academicism of an older generation of composers who continued to write in a very traditional idiom after the revolution, such as Nicolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950), Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956), and Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). This Russian experimentalism of the 1920s was also seen as an alternative to another kind of experimentalist Modernism associated with that outspoken critic of Communism, Igor Stravinsky, and the development of atonality and the twelve-tone system, not to speak of Neoclassicism in Western Europe.

But this romance with the new was short-lived. As the government subsidized theaters, schools, publishing houses, orchestras, and opera houses, and supported formal organizations of composers and artists, it became acutely aware of and preoccupied with the relationship between the making of art and potential political criticism of dissent. That fear quickly eclipsed any desires for a coherency between Modernism and new political ideals. By the time Stalin solidified his power, what would become a Soviet pattern of internal criticism and the imposition of politically proper aesthetics was already being formulated. This was followed by a purging of dissonant artists by Stalin, which took the lives of many prominent writers, musicians, and artists. Between 1917 and 1939 there was a steady emigration from the Soviet Union that included Glazunov as well as younger talents including Vladimir Horowitz and Nathan Milstein. Western Europe and America became the beneficiaries of an ever-growing group of émigrés who joined an earlier generation of exiles. Russian artist expatriates believed that the necessary freedom for artistic integrity could not exist in post-revolutionary Russia.

This concert focuses on three composers who, during the 1930s, came to grips with the rapid transformation of the Soviet artist’s condition from optimism to oppression. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Gavriil Popov (1904-1972) came of age as young artists immediately after the Revolution. They represented the first new generation of socialist Russian artists. They were profoundly enthusiastic during the 1920s about what seemed to be a utopian system of patronage and encouragement. Some of Shostakovich’s greatest music was written during this period of idealism and possibility, including his opera The Nose. But as the wind turned colder, survival and conscience became locked in an irreconcilable conflict. Shostakovich, the man and his music, would be marked all his life by the contradiction between “official” artist and private person. Debates still rage concerning the relation between his music and his ambiguous political position. In the 1930s he was severely chastised and then adjusted, but came in for considerable criticism again after World War II. When one looks back on Shostakovich’s career, he was triumphant as an official artist, the winner of numerous Stalin prizes and a holder of key positions. Indisputably the greatest of the Soviet era composers, he was not, however, the most enthusiastically official. He carried his political obligations with considerable discomfort (unlike many of his celebrated contemporaries, including Khrennikov, Khachaturian, and Kabalevsky). If he buckled under the pressure exerted by Stalin, who seemed to have had a very clear idea of appropriate music for the socialist state, it does not make the matter of figuring out what Shostakovich really believed any easier. At the end of his career he joined a long list of prominent artists and musicians condemning Andrei Sakharov.

Like Shostakovich’s controversial opera Lady MacBeth of Mtensk (which was suppressed), Gavriil Popov’s Symphony No. 1 was initially condemned and withdrawn, only to be briefly reinstated after its first performance and then once again consigned to obscurity. It was not revived until Perestroika in the late 1980s. But unlike Shostakovich, Popov never discovered a way to carry on with the promise that this remarkable symphony shows. The bold and innovative character of the First Symphony seems to find no further expression in Popov’s later work. He had a career and won prizes, but his music never regained its claim to real distinction. Perhaps the intervention of state and the atmosphere of terror and constraint permanently damaged this remarkable talent. This Symphony, considered Popov’s masterpiece, dates from the waning years of aesthetic freedom and experimentation in Soviet Russia.

If Popov can be considered a victim of the system whose one great work was an inspiration to Shostakovich, and if Shostakovich can be viewed as a genius who found a means to reconcile success in the Soviet system with the writing of great music throughout his career, then the third composer on tonight’s program, the equally famous Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953 [ironically he died on the same day as Stalin]) is still the most enigmatic of the three. Prokofiev voluntarily returned to Soviet Russia from the West during the 1930s at Stalin’s invitation, when the dictator’s policies and practices were well understood. Prokofiev had acquired a great career and reputation in the West, yet he chose to return, and his first wife would end up spending many years in prison as a result. Prokofiev apparently had no difficulty in composing official music in praise of Stalin. The last years of his career from 1930 to his death saw him write some of his greatest works. Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev seemed to thrive under Stalin. That is not to say that everything was especially easy for Prokofiev. To his credit, he was one of Popov’s staunchest defenders, pushing to have the First Symphony performed in the West and defending the work against its Soviet critics. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4, commissioned by a wealthy Westerner, Paul Wittgenstein, actually premiered in the West under the baton of Martin Rich three years after Prokofiev’s death. Unlike Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, but like Popov’s First, it never maintained a public presence the Soviet era.

Though we can never know everything that happened during those dark years of Stalin’s artistic agenda, we can certainly draw some intriguing conclusions. As Popov’s symphony reveals, there is an enormous wealth of composition by composers whose names are still unfamiliar to the West. What wonderful works are still waiting to be re-examined? We tend to think that the political context was so reprehensible that it stifled creativity, but perhaps there was more to it than that. An abundance of fine music is now being discovered, written by individuals whose opportunity to be heard outside of Russia was restricted both by Soviet authorities and Western prejudices against the Soviet Union. Because of the Cold War, there are over sixty years of music-making to which we have not been exposed and through which we must sift in order to have a truly comprehensive account of what was clearly, despite all its constraints, a great age of music-making in Russia. We certainly recall Oistrakh and Richter, among other great Soviet performers, without remembering that there was an equally vibrant subculture in composition that extends beyond the famous names.

When we, in the post-Cold War and postmodernist environment, encounter the music of Shostakovich or Prokofiev from the 1930s and 1940s, there are many ways in which we can choose to hear it. For some it is merely a form of neoclassical, twentieth-century music, and for others, simplistic nationalist expression. Some may argue that there is encoded meaning that lies underneath the officially sanctioned surface. Are we entitled to hear sarcasm, irony, parody, and despair within these lively forms? Was music in the hands of these masters a subversive art placed in an uneasy, surreptitious relationship with the state?

There is no doubt that as we continue to historicize the twentieth century, Shostakovich and Prokofiev will retain their prominence as we seek to understand and evaluate their music. The presence of the Popov reminds us how much there is to learn and to know now that the veil of secrecy has been lifted from recent Russian history. It has often been observed that instrumental music is one art that not only can survive intact but flourish under conditions of repression and censorship. The works on tonight’s program exemplify this fact, and the inclusion of Popov’s unfamiliar work starkly reminds us of the aesthetic inferences and concerns that Shostakovich and Prokofiev were forced to engage. All three works remind us that for the public in the Soviet Union, as well as for composers and performers, music throughout the Soviet era remained a vital, personal realm marked by intense engagement, commitment, and emotional power. In no other era in modern history did music so forcefully redeem its promise of a reminder of the possibilities of the human even under the most inhumane conditions.