Book Reviews 58 /

Singing Soviet Stagnation: Vocal Cycles from the USSR, 1964–1985

Richard Louis Gillies
Routledge, 2022
Hardback. 238 pages. 66 b/w illustrations.
£120/$160 (hb). £33.29/$44.45 (ebook)
ISBN 9780367222505 (hardback); ISBN 9780429274077 (ebook)

Art song has long held a unique value in Russian and Soviet culture, owing to its blend of sung voice and poetry, both of which have had reverence since the 18th century (and, arguably in folk traditions, long before that). Several scholars of song and voice have written on Russian and Soviet subjects, notably Phillip Ross-Bullock, but there has still been a lingering gap in the literature for some time. Thankfully, Richard Louis Gillies’ monograph, Singing Soviet Stagnation has now provided a vital addition to our knowledge and interpretation of this repertoire. Gillies focuses primarily on the “stagnation” (zastoy) era of 1964–85, though with plenty of examples from before and after this era. The book presents full chapter case studies on three key composers: Shostakovich, Georgi Sviridov, and Valentin Silvestrov. While Shostakovich and the Blok songs are well known, Sviridov and Silvestrov deserve wider attention, particularly for their song cycles.

From the outset, Gillies frames his narrative with a hefty dose of theoretical concepts drawn from an eclectic array of texts from Slavonic studies. In particular, he theorises Soviet history as a range of “transformation, consolidation, and inclusion” (p. 5) which arguably presents the narrative arc taken over the whole book (beautifully presented in visual form on p. 6). Alexei Yurchak’s Everything was Forever, Until it Was No More (Princeton UP, 2006) proves a pivotal text for Gillies, deployed to expand beyond “the binary oppositions that belie the complexity of late-socialist society.” (p. 13) In particular, Gillies refers to Yurchak’s concepts of “svoy” (“one’s own”) and “vnye” (“suspended, fossilised ritual”) throughout the text (p. 12) to illustrate how late-Soviet society enforced new conceptions of Self-hood and the Other.

Gillies’ first case study chapter is on Shostakovich’s Seven Romances of Aleksandr Blok, opus 127; he writes “it is highly significant that Shostakovich appears to have turned [to the vocal cycle] with a renewed urgency in his final decade… [this] suggests the genre had taken on a significance of symphonic proportions for the composer at the end of his life.” (p. 17) While highlighting the significance in his repertoire, Gillies does not shy away from criticising the difficulty and the tone of much of the scholarly work on Shostakovich’s music. He highlights how the “proclivity to evaluate Shostakovich’s political and ideological identity through largely speculative readings of his music influenced by often sensationalised biographical details persisted for decades.” (p. 29) For a book that often deals with musical examples in an analytical way, Gillies reserves his greatest criticism for studies that deal with crude musical readings: “although these types of musical message undoubtedly do exist in Shostakovich’s music, they must be approached and handled with extreme care and it would certainly be reductive and misleading to assume that every melodic motif or recurring gesture contain within itself some form of literal meaning waiting to be decoded or grafted onto other works.” (p. 35) As a counter to these shortcomings, Gillies presents analyses of the pieces studied in a manner that is often motivic with a hermeneutic or narrative-based focus, similar to the work of Sarah Reichardt or David Fanning. The result is eminently readable and especially revealing for the non-specialist in music analysis. Analysis afficionados will, meanwhile, find much to enjoy, including plenty of excellently framed analytical graphs (pp. 63-64 was a highlight). The result is a revealing and thought-provoking account of the Blok cycle that will surely be of interest to Shostakovich specialists.

The following chapter focuses on Georgi Sviridov, a problematic figure in Soviet music. While prodigiously successful and a leading figure of Soviet song, Sviridov was also crudely nationalistic and chauvinistic, as revealed in his posthumously published diaries. Gillies does not shy away from confronting head on the issue of focusing on such a figure: “to listen only to voices that sound like our own detracts from a fully nuanced understanding of the cultural history of the Soviet Union, in which the impact of post-Stalinist Russian nationalism played a significant and under-acknowledged role.” (p. 89) Gillies focuses on the song cycle Russia Cast Adrift (1977), whose very title suggests a political angle, with a “neo-romantic nationalism that looks nostalgically backwards from its position in the Soviet Union of the 1970s to the era of pre-revolutionary Slavophilia.” (p. 90) In just a few short pages, Gillies deftly demonstrates how Sviridov’s nostalgia was just as much a commentary on contemporaneous politics; even further, he shows how Sviridov and other proponents of the “village prose” nationalist movement were actually mobilised by the state itself “in an attempt to avoid any reform that might have the potential to undermine its ascendancy.” (p. 96) In analysing Russia Cast Adrift, Gillies moves to a different role, in that this work is most likely new to the far majority of readers; this encourages a kind of advocacy for its historical and musical significance. Convincing analyses follow, with equal parts discussion of the text of each song as with the musical content. He concludes that “Sviridov created an artwork which, through its use of religious allegory, is a polemical critique of its contemporary political system and of the negative legacy of the revolution… but which is also simultaneously an evocation of Rus itself.” (p. 134) Readers hoping to be convinced of the musical value of Sviridov’s work may perhaps like to listen more widely beyond this song cycle, though it serves as a good starting point: Gillies more than proves the historical significance of this problematic composer often subjected to a “one-sided (and certainly misguided) characterisation of him as a conservative cultural apparatchik.” (p. 201).

For the final case study, Gillies moves to Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose music has gained international attention, especially since the 2014 Maidan protests and the 2022 Russian invasion and subsequent war against Ukraine. Of the three composers in the book, Silvestrov is not only the sole living composer, but also the most prolific writer of songs, though many of these exist only in the composers’ manuscript, rather than published score. Gillies focuses on the cycle Stupeni (“Steps”), composed 1981–82. Material on the cycle is rare, and there are only two professional recordings at present,1 with no published score. Gillies’ analysis of the cycle focuses on how “Silvestrov and other artists of his generation reacted to the increasing inertia of the social-cultural environment of late-Soviet stagnation.” (pp. 141–42) Gillies draws comparisons with the “necrorealists” group of artists and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky in particular. Their works, along with Silvestrov’s, betray a worn anxiety of life under mutually-assured-destruction, the fossilisation of Soviet socialism, and other issues: “though Silvestrov and his circle were, by his own assertion, removed from politics, it appears that a certain degree of subcutaneous Cold-War anxiety was unavoidable.” (p. 146) Silvestrov’s music is eclectic and varied, though often concerned with questions of “memory, history, and the perception (and distortion) of time and reality” (p. 144): Gillies’ chosen case study amply demonstrates these qualities. In particular, the question of memory and history is present in Silvestrov’s cycle through a complex web of perception; in contrast to Shostakovich or Schnittke’s quotations, “Silvestrov’s half-allusions are increasingly void of definition or context, operating in a kind of musical limbo.” (p. 150) By illustration, Gillies’ analysis makes a wide array of references, from Borges to Fauré, all of which help to explain Silvestrov’s elusive and evasive musical language, especially in the distinction between invention, imitation, and quotation: “the ear is frustrated by what it cannot, yet feels as though it should be able to, recognise.” (p. 166) Gillies concludes that, after Yurchak’s theories of the “last Soviet generation” and paraphrasing Borges, Silvestrov’s musical language is “only the crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection (or echo) of an irrecoverable process.” (p. 192).

Through his overall conclusion, Gillies shows how a narrative can be traced across his three case studies of musical yearning for transformation, attempts at consolidation, and an idiosyncratic search for inclusion. Singing Soviet Stagnation will prove vital reading for any reader interested in Shostakovich’s song cycles, but especially how they fit within the broader picture of Soviet art song. Further to this, though, Gillies’ cultural references are much wider, taking in large amounts of poetry, fiction, and Soviet film, too. His references to broader Soviet studies also provide a vital framework for understanding this repertoire that is all-too-often neglected or ignored. He concludes that “a significant parallel between the three composers is that, to varying degrees, they all appear to have reached out to alternate realities in the formation of their artistic identities and endeavours.” (p. 204) While the Blok cycle may not be as performed as often as we would like, the Silvestrov and even Sviridov covered here are equally worthy of attention. Gillies’ book serves as an excellent primer for their art song, and I hope it will spur other scholars and especially performers to explore their prodigious output.

1 Yana Ivanilova and Alexei Lubimov, Megadisc MDC 7832, and Svetlana Savenko and Alexei Lubimov, available from Silvestrov’s Bandcamp page.

Daniel Elphick