Revolution 1905

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This concert engages the question of how music can inform our understanding of history. Today’s program is divided into two distinct parts. Three of the works, Glazunov’s Song of Destiny, Miaskovsky’s Silentium, and Stravinsky’s Fireworks come from a short period in the history of Russia in which the most significant event was the so-called Revolution of 1905. In the second half of the program, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, subtitled “1905” but completed in 1957, forces us to reflect on how we conceive of, interpret, and remember history. In looking back, we can be influenced not only by the elapse of time but by the momentous changes that can seem to exceed the particular temporal distance. Consider for example, America in 1950 and the America of 2000, or more poignantly, the America before the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, and the America on the eve of the 2004 election. In what ways will our children and grandchildren commemorate and understand September 11, 2001?

The world in which the 1905 Revolution took place was one of radical economic progress for Russia. In terms of industrialization, Russia could be counted in 1900 among the most backward of European nations. It was the last European nation to abandon the feudal practice of serfdom. It was plagued by massive illiteracy, an enormously powerful state-supported church, a corrupt, landed aristocracy, and an obsolete form of monarchy. Nevertheless, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century through the first fifteen years or so of the twentieth century, Russia became the object of enormous capital investment, comparable in some ways to China of today or Korea and Japan in the second half of the twentieth century.

With Russia’s rapid economic development came a fast-growing middle class and rise in the cosmopolitanism of the nation’s urban centers. This all took place alongside dramatic increases in personal wealth, in the standard of living, and in expectations for the future, particularly in St. Petersburg and Moscow. At that time, the western part of Russia included part of modern-day Poland. The cities of Russian Poland also experienced the boom, such as Warsaw and Lodz, which became a burgeoning center of textile manufacture. Among the expectations that emerged was one of political reform, the demand for which was driven by a need to expand the possibilities for economic development.

This economic and social transformation should be further understood in the context of a long nineteenth-century history of tension between the Russian intelligentsia (both in Russia and expatriated) and the Russian monarchy. Ever since the execution of the Decembrists during Pushkin’s generation in the early nineteenth century, the Russian monarchy and its policies were the object of intense criticism. Restrictions on liberty forced not only the creation of exiles but underground movements within Russia, as well as generational strife. The novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy reflect this. In addition, Russia’s ambivalence in terms of its national identity in regard to the West in the nineteenth century became a rallying cry for vying camps of intellectuals and artists. There were those who believed in the unique Russian tradition, and those who wanted modern social progress on a Western model. Gogol and Dostoevsky expressed the known conservative view of Russia’s character. The older Tolstoy enigmatically engaged both; toward the end of his life he was an outspoken utopian social radical, but also a Christian believer whose faith led him to challenge the virtues of modernity and the traditions of high culture. In music, the division between the Westernizers and Russophiles who saw Russia more natively Eastern is well documented. In this conflict only Tchaikovsky emerged as holding a middle ground successfully.

Peter the Great’s ideals of Westernized modernization continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before the October Revolution of 1917, but they were persistently contested. The period from the 1890s to the outbreak of World War I came to a dramatic and notorious end with the Russian Revolution and, shortly thereafter, ultimate victory of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky. This dénouement followed decades of internal unrest, assassination (most notably of Czar Alexander II), the popularity of anarchism, and the operation of prison systems so eloquently described by Dostoevsky in From the House of the Dead (1860). This prison system laid the groundwork for the gulag of the Soviet era. The tensions between Westernization and an anti-Western Russian nationalism, between a vision of an industrial and a rural Russia, between a cosmopolitan embrace of notions of democracy and freedom and a more communitarian Russian Orthodox vision of a unified people, did not disappear after 1917. Stalin’s success was one of both strategic brilliance and of terror and cruelty. He understood that if there was a way to combine the idea of communism with that of nationalism and patriotism, a more successful and stable Soviet state could be developed. He was less committed to the idea that the Russian Revolution would be a first step in a global communist revolution in which nations and politics would disappear.

Many Americans do not even realize there was a revolution in 1905 which was brutally suppressed. That revolution coincided with Russia’s humiliating defeat at the battle of Tsushima in its war against Japan. The defeat of the Russian fleet was especially symbolic given the heritage of Peter the Great’s longstanding dream of Russian naval power. The unrest resulting from these events inflamed the movements among the urban population for better work conditions and representation in the government. The monarchy was forced to institute some reforms including a parliament, or Duma, but a genuine constitutional monarchy never came into being. However, during this brief period of liberalization, there was enormous optimism. It is in this period that the greatest Russian art collections, particularly of French impressionists, were amassed. Russian theatre and painting flowered. Some of the masterpieces by Russian painters may be seen in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Russia developed not only a middle class but its robber barons and super-rich as well. Education and culture blossomed. The earlier works on today’s program are examples of the energy, sophistication, and originality in this period. Glazunov and Miaskovsky were master craftsmen whose achievements easily match the technical attainments of their contemporaries in Europe and North America. Young Stravinsky, who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, would later draw upon his Russian training and roots to set one of the major directions for twentieth-century music.

But World War I and the 1917 Revolution brought this hopeful time to an end. In the mid-1920s, after the Civil War and the war with the new independent Poland, there was a huge emigration. Paris was the favorite destination, as it had been for the emigrating intelligentsia since the early nineteenth century. It was there that Serge Diaghilev and Stravinsky found themselves among a fabulous group of colleagues in all fields of art and culture. The “White” Russian emigration included such famous names as Nabokov, Milstein, Heifetz, Rachmaninoff, Chagall, and the young Prokofiev. During the first decade of the Soviet Union, there was also still some limited travel to Russia. Communication was maintained between the musical and visual avant-garde from the West and composers and artists in the young Soviet Union. Art and architecture were also beneficiaries of this early modernist enthusiasm. Shostakovich came of age with the October Revolution. (The 1905 Revolution occurred before his birth and was central to his parents’ generation.) While in his twenties as a student, Shostakovich heard Berg and Hindemith. He encountered innumerable performers concertizing in the new Russia. His own early music, including the opera The Nose, expressed an optimism about modernity and the possibility of new art for a socialist utopia. This lasted until the composition of his Fourth Symphony.

With Stalin’s gradual accretion of power, artistic freedom was restricted and debate ended. The modernists and the left-wing proletarian simplifiers were both taken to task. In 1936, Shostakovich’s second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, was publicly censured. A new relationship between the state and the artist became entrenched. Painters and architects were now understood as serving Stalin’s new vision in which a sense of Russian history and nationality were to be combined with conservative traditions of art-making, all accessible to the masses. What was deemed wrong was condemned as “formalism.”

In this context, Glazunov’s oeuvre was quickly judged to be old-fashioned and bourgeois. Glazunov had been one of Shostakovich’s teachers (as well as a legendary consumer of vodka); ultimately he emigrated. The somewhat younger Miaskovsky, however, took a different path. Based in Moscow and one of Prokofiev’s champions and mentors, Miaskovsky continued to teach and write. His initial optimism turned into a quiet pessimism, but he remained in his homeland and never flagged in his output of music of extraordinary quality, including twenty-nine symphonies, today all underperformed. Miaskovsky played the game with restraint, and in 1940 received the Stalin Prize for his Symphony No. 21. He became a grand old man who salvaged the opportunity to continue composition in the Soviet state.

Shostakovich’s situation was more complicated. He was the most talented of the new generation and became the greatest Soviet artist in any field of endeavor. His First Symphony made him world famous. His second opera resulted in brutal attacks. He adjusted to the criticism, and redeemed himself with the famous Fifth Symphony. The Seventh Symphony once again attracted worldwide attention for its expression of the suffering and heroism of the Russian people during the great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. But in 1948, he again earned Stalin’s censure, only to rehabilitate himself a second time by writing the music for the film The Fall of Berlin and traveling to New York to attend an international congress of culture. This was presented in defense of the aesthetics of the Soviet state under Stalin and of socialist realism against the modernism of the West.

Shostakovich’s relation to Stalin has been the object of scrutiny and controversy. But it cannot be doubted that he was at one and the same time a patriot and loyal son of the country, and a tortured and conflicted artist who had no illusions about the tyranny of Stalin and the price people, including artists, paid. He witnessed Stalin’s crimes, including his final campaign of terror against the Jews that culminated in the notorious Doctors Plot.

With the death of Stalin and the process of de-Stalinization begun by Khrushchev, another era of optimism, reminiscent perhaps of 1905 and 1914, came into being. This was cut short in the early 1960s, even while Khrushchev was in power. By the mid-1950s, however, Shostakovich’s position was secure because of his international fame. For the last twenty years of his life he was not only honored by his nation but served in a wide variety of official capacities on behalf of the state.

This sketchy description of this complex and multi-faceted period of history only suggests the challenges facing great artists writing music. Symphony No. 11 has been interpreted variously in terms of its meaning. What is beyond doubt is that from the perspective of the post-Stalin era, the 1905 Revolution took on new significance. It was not only understood as a precursor of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; it was also remembered as the event that began a period of political reform, greater openness, and prosperity. It symbolized a period in which the arts, especially music, flourished in an atmosphere of greater freedom and material well-being.

Perhaps the ambiguity of Shostakovich’s intentions in the Symphony concerning the way 1905 could be recollected half a century later is an indication of both the Symphony’s power and its so-called purely musical qualities. Like other works of instrumental music, Symphony No. 11 has the merit of being able to break free from its origins and the intentions of its composer. Contemporary listeners do not need to be aware of the 1905 Revolution or the composer’s troubled life and politics to fashion a rewarding sense of the music. This is part of the allure that instrumental music holds for listeners. When faced with tyranny, music becomes a refuge, a protected oasis for the freedom of the imagination. When personal liberty and freedom is under attack, it can be understood as a steady means of escape and detachment. In this sense, music always possesses the plausible capacity to be read in reference to the self. At the same time, however, Shostakovich was committed to writing music that communicated with a large public. It is clear that he was after something more than mere entertainment. That challenge continues to be relevant. What values, ideals, and aspirations can the making of art take up and protect in periods dominated by political disappointment and fear, and in the presence of danger and restrictions of freedom and intolerance of dissent? Although one does not need to know the historical context or references of Shostakovich’s Symphony in order to be affected by it, it is illuminating to reflect on the connection between the Symphony’s genesis and the internal and external political developments and aspirations with which Shostakovich and his listeners struggled. The 1905 Revolution and its memory suggest that there is an inevitable connection between music and history, particularly the political reality which the artist and his or her public share. The complex dynamic between music and citizenship is itself a challenge that no artist can afford to ignore. This admonition holds for all generations, including our own.