The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror performed on Feb 18, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The relationship between music and politics has been both ambiguous and enigmatic. Strictly speaking, music neither describes nor illustrates in the way that pictures and language seem to do. Therefore, a facile identification of political ideas with music appears problematic. However, within a particular historical context, the sound and function of music in society can assume a highly charged political meaning.

This is particularly the case in moments of history when political censorship has been severe. The Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer, whose work was subjected persistently to censorship, once commented wryly that he envied composers. With music, the censors were at a loss. If there was political meaning, it might be found, at best, in any words that were being set–as in the case of opera and vocal and choral music–but not in the music itself.

The oppressive world of the 1830s under Metternich ought not be compared to the political repression and dictatorship experienced in Europe during the twentieth century. In the Soviet Union music became politicized by the state to an astonishing degree from the mid 1920s to the late 1980s. Joseph Stalin created a world in which artists and writers were murdered, tortured, imprisoned, and humiliated. Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich both struggled to find ways to survive in the basic sense of the word and yet remain true to the notion of art as the free expression of the individual. Although musicians had an easier time under Stalinism than contemporaries who were writers (one thinks of Mandelstam and Akhmatova) the life of a composer in the Soviet Union during the twentieth century was not easy. The category of official music existed and with it a powerful central official hierarchy. Certain styles of music were suppressed.

Some quite talented composers paid direct and regular homage to the often arbitrary tastes of the ruling elite. Others sought to speak in a double voice, to escape direct censorship and reprisal and yet communicate anger, despair, and hope covertly within the textures of the music they wrote. By the 1980s, in a post-Stalinist Soviet Union, particularly under Perestroika, matters had improved. But the 1970s under Brezhnev were not so open and lenient. To the end, the fundamental structure developed under Stalin for the control of the arts by the state remained in place.

Today’s concert offers the American listener two glimpses into how two of the most important composers from the former Soviet Union (both born in the 1930s) struggled with the political context of their art. The American writer Mary McCarthy once noted with some degree of irony that it was only in conditions of “unfreedom” that art, particularly music, really mattered. Only in the darkest days of the Brezhnev era could a poet (e.g. Ratushinskaya) be imprisoned for writing about love. An underground of writing and concert life in Moscow and Leningrad mirrored an intensity of interest in artistic expression wholly foreign to ourselves. In the context of repression and censorship, music and poetry remained arenas in which free expression could more readily be realized.

Given the restricted choice of how to spend one’s time, the limitations of personal movement, and an absence of consumer economy, reading and listening were vital experiences. When a composer or writer put his or her pen to the page, the significance of what he or she was doing went well beyond issues of career, income, and fame. As Ms. McCarthy noted, in our free and open society the making of art seems too often to make no difference at all.

Alfred Schnittke’s and Sofia Gubaidulina’s music conveys, with a nearly unmatched intensity, the sense of urgency and importance that the making of and listening to music possessed for them and their publics during the 1980s. Schnittke and Gubaidulina are perhaps the most significant composers of their generation. Both occupied the tense and amorphous space in the Soviet world that can be termed “unofficial.” Both sought refuge abroad before the collapse of communism.

This concert presents contrasting works which frame the decade of the 1980s. The earlier work, the Schnittke cantata, mirrors, through the use of the Faust legend, with considerable irony, even sarcasm, the problems of the individual conscience when it is faced with the temptations of power. The cantata can be heard as a parable which warns against accepting the offer of the devil, who in Schnittke’s setting unmistakably can be associated with the blandishments and seductions offered by officialdom. It is not surprising that this work never pleased the Soviet establishment. It has the brilliance and angularity weassociate with much of Dimitri Shostakovich’s music.

If Schnittke’s work evokes the struggle between the idea that art depends on principled inner integrity (particularly when one is faced with overwhelming power) on the one hand and the corrupt traditions of the Stalinist legacy on the other, Sofia Gubaidulina’s work demonstrates the explosive energy and passion that the promise of freedom made possible at the end of the decade. Gubaidulina has long sustained artistic autonomy through her embrace of spirituality and religious faith. However, the Allelujia is not merely the culmination of a series of works by the composer with religious and spiritual content. It reflects the energy that political freedom can give to religious expression. What was once personal and private can be embraced, without restraint, in the public sphere. One can think of no more a moving and decidedly Russian expression of the possibilities presented by the long-awaited arrival of political freedom. Hope, joy, harmony, as well as the return of innocence and opportunity are communicated along with affection and a fundamental belief in the sanctity of life-sentiments wholly uncharacteristic of Stalinism and its successors.

For those concert-goers familiar with Russian history, one might suggest that in this concert we are presented with a continuation of two strains in Russian culture. The Gubaidulina work reminds one of the uniquely Russian spiritual and mystical tradition of Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900) and Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) and even the religious strain in the late work of Leo Tolstoy. The Schnittke is perhaps an extension into the twentieth century of qualities we associate with Gogol and Dostoevsky. The character and power of the two works on this concert, and indeed much of Russian music, literature, and painting from the early nineteenth century to the present, may indeed derive (albeit indirectly) from the bitter struggle between the imperatives of art and the almost unbroken history of political repression in Russia from Czarism to Communism.

As we listen to these two works, we might well reflect on what is happening today in 1994. As a result of recent political and economic events, Gubaidulina’s optimism about the post communist world might end up appearing premature and even naive. We all must work to avoid such an outcome. Even though we cherish the great works of art that were produced under political repression, we cannot glorify the past merely because we lament a certain philistinism and irrelevancy that art and music have attained in the so-called free post-Communist world. Let us hope that in the former Soviet Union and also in the West, the traditions so magnificently sustained by Schnittke and Gubaidulina remain vital without the terrifying presence of necessity in the form of oppression, censorship, and the absence of freedom.