Book Reviews 46
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Classics for the Masses
Shaping Soviet musical identity under Lenin and Stalin
By Pauline Fairclough
Yale University Press, 2016
Hardback, 283 pages
£35.00 / $45.00
Like travellers seeing only mountain-tops, and overlooking the less dramatic or mist-veiled valleys, students of Soviet music have sometimes concentrated on Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and a few others. But gradually, we have discovered other fascinating fauna, and opened roads to a range of scholarly approaches.
Among these have been the politics of music institutions, audience reception, and mediatisation—the study of the relationship between the media and society and how they shape each other. These topics are neatly brought together in Classics for the Masses, a study of how classical music was used to shape the cultural identity of the Soviet Union.
Given the range of “Soviet” cultures and the sometimes dizzying rate of change they experienced, they cannot be seen as monolithic. But if that makes studying the project fascinating, it also makes it extremely difficult. Tight parameters are needed to keep the issue under control, and Fairclough limits her study to the years 1917–53—a common enough demarcation. There has to be a bit of context in the run up to the Revolution, but continuing far into the Thaw would bring a whole slew of new questions.
Fairclough has studied a wide range of documents, including reviews and journal articles, correspondence about programming, and concert schedules. These paint a picture (which was reflected across all aspects of life) of the uneasy relationships between the foreign and the Russian; the Russian and the Soviet; the old and the new; revolution and continuity.
Nineteenth-century workers clearly had valuable skills, but how could they be brought to a revolutionary purpose? These “old specialists” were not always removed or even simply tolerated, but were (albeit sometimes warily) given some responsible positions. In music, that meant passing their skills and knowledge on to a new generation of composers and musicians, however unhappy this made proletarianists.
The dead also had their roles, but the new state had to decide how to present the undeniable masters of the past, e.g., Tchaikovsky—hugely popular with audiences and performers, yet a conservative monarchist, regularly accused of “westernism” in comparison to the more politically sympathetic Rimsky-Korsakov. By portraying him as the chronicler of a rotten era, his biographer Psibyshevsky “rehabilitated” him. But though he managed to include the composer’s homosexuality (a problem for some in Russia
even today), Psibyshevsky was jailed for the same offence in 1934. Musorgsky and the Mighty Handful (or at least the Stasovian vision of them) were easier to co-opt into the project by adding a veneer of narodist proto-Revolutionary-ness. Glinka, who trained and spent much of his life in Europe, and made numerous dismissive comments about his homeland, was remodelled as the “Father of Russian Music.”
The attitude toward emigre Rachmaninov changed over thirty-odd years. Without dominating the schedules, he was performed in the first couple of decades of Soviet rule. He was regularly attacked, however, and the Vespers were banned in 1928, three years before RAPM’s more concerted campaign against him began. Supporters presented him as a “Russian” composer, albeit in exile, and this was sympathetically met by those who wanted to ensure that he was not “claimed” by America. In addition, his keyboard-dominated worklist made it hard for such a pianophiliac nation to ignore him. But by 1948, he and Stravinsky were seen as something like traitors.
Among foreigners, Beethoven became an exemplar of Revolution and as such was almost unimpeachable. Wagner was trickier: his participation in the events of 1848 was a point in his favour; his “servitude” to King Ludwig and move towards mystical religiosity were black marks.
Despite large-scale religious works—including Mozart’s Requiem—being standard repertoire, sacred music in general was an inconsistently addressed “problem” and caused some tortuous logic-chopping. Bach’s and Handel’s religion, it was proposed, may have been merely a coincidence of history, and the Passions and oratorios more akin to epic dramas, not only presenting moral debates, but laying the path for (musical) revolutionaries like Berlioz and Beethoven.
Even the contributions of “friendly” foreigners needed to be managed. Henry Cowell and Alan Bush, respectively American and British, were both sympathetic, and so were allowed to send materials to fellow composers. But their effect was sometimes limited: Bush included many of his own scores in the packages, but the self-promotion generated few performances. Having said which, British music in general was not notable in Soviet concerts until the war encouraged such soft diplomacy. And of course, it largely disappeared again in 1948.
In short, everything was viewed on some level through the prism of its usefulness to the regime, but different people and different institutions had different ideas about the best way to do this at different times.
So how does all of this relate to Shostakovich, and should DSCH readers invest? It’s true, Shostakovich himself doesn’t figure too prominently in the book, so if you’re looking for lots of new biographical information, you’ll be disappointed. But the context it provides is fascinating.
One obvious route is to consider him in the light of how various other composers were received. Given his adoration of Bach and Beethoven, it’s odd that he doesn’t seem to have been a member of the societies devoted to them, though friends may have kept him abreast of the debates, and he may have attended events as a guest. We know about the visits of composers such as Berg, Krenek, and Honegger, signifying that, at least in the 1920s, they were an acceptable face of western modernism, but at the same time, Strauss was largely derided in the Soviet Union. We know from Glivenko’s letters, however, that Shostakovich at least saw Salome, even if he didn’t vouchsafe an opinion. As noted above, British music was not much considered, so Shostakovich’s friendship with Britten grew from his later works: Ballad for Heroes was one of the few works he would have had a chance to study—and that, perhaps, only on the page. And while we may not know every concert Shostakovich attended, it is fascinating to see what he might have heard and almost certainly would have read about.
The book includes, as an appendix, a series of biographies—brief sketches of the major players. This is useful, as bureaucrats, critics, and musicologists are often overlooked. While the near-ubiquitous names of Soviet music are excluded, it does include visiting western musicians as well as composers such as Popov, who are perhaps more familiar to aficionados. The tables of performance statistics are spread through the text as appropriate, though the record is sometimes incomplete. Unfortunately, the index concentrates on people, so that the development of genres, concepts, and organisations are hard to track.
Thankfully, old one-dimensional ideas about Soviet culture have long been crumbling. Only the coldest of Cold War warriors might now propose that foreign music and experimentalism was banned in favour of bland “socialist realism” composed by semi-competent apparatchiks. As difficult as it is, we are used to picking our way through the effects of international, national, organisational, and personal politics so that, even if the details are not always clear, we have some awareness of them. Fairclough’s study has added valuable detail to the map.
John Leman Riley