Music, always a source of confusion

JCB quotes from a Le Figaro review of Le Destin russe et la Musique by Frans L. Lemaire. The review seems informative but also confusing in some important ways. The author (or the reviewer) shouldn’t have ignored the evolution of Bolshevism. On the timeline of Soviet cultural history, one can discern, first, a period of early Bolshevism, with members of the “old,” Leninist guard either dominating or heavily influencing the party’s cultural policies. Many old Bolsheviks belonged, culturally speaking, to the pre-revolutionary era, had developed a decent appreciation of art and literature, or a non-prejudiced indifference to them, and had no interest in suppressing free expression unless openly counter-revolutionary.

This old guard was gradually removed from levers of power and displaced by Stalin’s guard, and eventually purged in the late 1930s. I think it would be fair to say those new people were strikingly second-rate — a bunch of unpleasant mediocrities. Stalin, who fit this description as well, took cultural matters seriously, which probably explains the predominance of boring neo-classicism and socialist realism in Soviet art from the late 1930s to the late 1980s.

Stalin’s death brought a liberalization of cultural constraints. For instance, Shostakovich was no longer scolded but elevated to Composer Laureate.

The first people’s commissar for education nominated in 1918 by Lenin, Anatoli Lunacharsky, surrounded himself with talented young artists – Chagall, Malevich, Kandinsky, Roslavets, Lourié – ready to bring their intelligence to bear in helping proletarian mass culture. Alas, Frans C. Lemaire quickly puts them right, “this was to forget a little too soon that the Bolsheviks had no love for intellectuals. By giving free rein to the currents which had marked the artistic renaissance during the decades preceding the revolution (symbolism, cubism, futurism), Lunarcharsky could only irritate those who saw them as above all products of bourgeois intellectual modernism.”

I would say the Bolshevik had no love for the intelligentsia; they had no problems with intellectuals as long as they could find some to serve them. As for Lunacharsky, his problem was not so much the Bolsheviks of the 1920s, who didn’t care much, as their successors.

Operas were reworked to bring them into line with the principles of the Revolution: Puccini’s Tosca became The Struggle for the Commune, Wagner’s Rienzi was rebaptised Babeuf. A Life for the Tsar by the Romantic Glinka became The Hammer and Sickle! A load of works in praise of the Revolution rained down on the masses to be educated: Red Storm, Rails, Steel Foundry, the cantata Lenin is with Us, Poem to Stalin.

Again, Poem to Stalin clearly belongs in a period different from Steel Foundry; also, A Life for the Tsar became Ivan Susanin in the 1930s — its reincarnation as The Hammer and Sickle had only been a transitional phase.

Little by little, a leaden cloak smothered musical creation in the Soviet Union. Jazz was banned, described by Gorky in 1928 as “degenerate music, moanings and howlings like the cries of a metal pig”.

Actually, jazz of a pop variety was OK under Stalin. The problem with jazz was that, on the one hand, it was music of the exploited and downtrodden but on the other, something that did not fit the neo-classical standard of acceptable music… Plus, Stalin liked Hollywood musical comedies, which led to a compromise on this front.

From then on, every new work of every Soviet composer had to undergo the terrible test of a review by Tikhon Khrennikov and his henchmen and conform to socialist realism which rejected the slightest intrusion of “modernism”. The definition of this word given in the contemporary Great Soviet Encyclopaedia is worth quoting: “General concept of different decadent tendencies in bourgeois art of the imperialist period, characterised by the distortion of reality, the refusal to represent what is typical, the confirmation of orientations which are reactionary, anti-popular and cosmopolitan [code for Jewish]”.

Another leap in time: Khrennikov was a post-WWII figure, head of the Composers’ Union from 1948 to 1991. Slight intrusions of modernism were actually tolerated under his rule — think Schnittke for one. Cosmopolitan as codeword for Jewish is also a post-war thing, dating back to the late 1940s.

We need to reconsider this Gracchus Babeuf thing — it sure sounds good. And don’t forget, Lenin is Always With Us was a popular Soviet Triple Bed design.


  1. Yes, I thought it sounded a bit telescoped. I was interested in the names of the “rewrites”. Still, Soviet music policy doesn’t seem to have plumbed the depths of China’s Cultural Revolution. At least the Russian public didn’t have to suffer Madame Mao’s “revolutionary operas”, like “Red Brigade of Women” (“Strong Lust in the Royal Family” sounds like fun though). Or maybe there were Soviet commissars with Neronian tendencies?

  2. My guess is Stalin got rid of most creatively-minded commissars by the late 1930s. It’s a pity Trotsky had no musical education — what if his music had turned out as good as his prose, which Christopher Hitchens continues to admire?

    To some degree, Stalin’s preference for classical music saved Soviet orchestras and opera houses from total destruction.

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