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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society

Casella and Respighi (Fascist Italy); Orff, Hindemith, Hartmann (Nazi Germany); Prokofieff and Shostakovich (Soviet Russia)

CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.1

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Is it conceivable that certain historico-political conditions can have a profound and beneficial influence on art? Does it make any sense whatsoever to expect an artistic rebirth to come from a political rebirth? Can the work of a man of politics, however exceptional, influence that most intimate, personal and jealously guarded thing which is artistic creation?

Counter to every Romantic prejudice, our answer to this question is yes.2

Alessandro Pavolini, Critica Fascista (1 November 1926)

Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society

fig. 13-1 Russia, the February Revolution: wives of soldiers and sailors marching on the Duma (parliament).

With the destruction of the great imperial states of Europe, the great political question was what kind of state should replace them. The question was answered in Russia even before the end of the Great War, when the Bolshevik (Communist) party, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924), took power, in a coup d’état engineered on 25 October 1917, from the so-called Provisional Government that had been set up by liberal politicians, many of them noblemen, after the Russian revolution in February of that year, which had forced the abdication of the tsar. (The date of Lenin’s coup is given here according to the “Old Style” or Julian calendar, then still used in Russia, which had long since been replaced in the rest of Europe and America by the “New Style” or Gregorian calendar, according to which the date of the coup was 7 November; the new Russian government adopted the New Style in 1918, but continued to celebrate its coming to power as the “October Revolution,” even though the celebrations now took place in November.) The government that emerged from the coup called itself the government of Soviets, after the Russian word for council, the nominal seat of power under the new regime. In 1922, after the victorious conclusion of a civil war through which the Soviet government was able to reconsolidate under its rule most of the territory of the former Russian Empire, the name of the country was changed to Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union for short). The Soviet Union lasted until 1991, when the power of the Communist Party collapsed and the country fell apart into its constituent republics, which then adopted various forms of government. Its hold of seventy-plus years made the Soviet Union the twentieth century’s most durable totalitarian state.

Totalitarianism is the concentration of total political power into the hands of a ruling elite, in the most extreme case into the hands of a single person, who exercises that power in the name of a totalized, all-encompassing worldview or ideology that gives government a totalizing purpose: the achievement of a “total and perfected”3 social order (to quote Massimo Bontempelli, a theorist of Italian fascism) through the imposition of direct state control in all areas of public and even private life; the total solution of economic problems; the total “reeducation” of citizens to erase the distinction between the political and any other potentially competing source of power (such as religious authority or the “romantic” concept of inherent human rights), the total mobilization of the population in a single plan of action (enforced by coercion and, if necessary, by terror), and often the total domination of the totalitarian state’s weaker neighbors.

It is a term (coined in 1925 by Giovanni Gentile, an Italian philosopher)—and a definition—that has arisen out of the twentieth century’s historical experience. There were coercive regimes in the past, to be sure, and many of the coercive techniques employed by the modern totalitarian states, such as the use of terror tactics and professional informers (“secret police”), had precedents in revolutionary France and later in the post-Napoleonic reaction. The term totalitarian is reserved for regimes that, having the use of modern surveillance technology and mass media, were able to operate on a far grander (more “totalizing”) scale than their predecessors. The three great totalitarian powers that arose in postwar Europe, of which the Soviet Union was the first, often touted themselves as the world’s only truly modern states, a claim that was based on their power to manipulate and mobilize mass psychology through propaganda. Thus totalitarianism thrived on “mass politics,” rabble-rousing writ large.

The Soviet form of totalitarianism was, or purported to be, the realization of a social vision put forth by the political economist Karl Marx (1818–83) in a number of treatises, culminating in the massive Das Kapital (“Capital”), issued in three volumes (two of them posthumous) between 1867 and 1895. Marx’s purportedly scientific analysis of capitalism, the entrepreneurial system through which the advanced societies of Europe and America had amassed their wealth, had concluded with a prediction that its built-in contradictions must engender a revolt from below that would put political and economic power in the hands of the social classes who actually produced the wealth that capitalists exploited for the sake of their own selfish enrichment.

An earlier document, The Communist Manifesto, which Marx and Friedrich Engels, another German economic theorist, issued in the great revolutionary year 1848, had ended with a prediction that ultimate revolutionary success would be enjoyed not by the bourgeois politicians who were leading the political disturbances that year, but by the urban workers who thus far had lacked the organization that would allow them to mobilize their collective strength. “Working men of all countries, unite!” the Manifesto ended; “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” The outcome of proletarian revolution, Marx and Engels prophesied, would be a “classless” society—a perfected and homogenized democracy toward which the whole history of mankind had been striving, a utopia that would make all existing states and nations obsolete.

Marx and Engels, who had to flee to England after the revolutions in which they had participated were crushed, never dreamed that Russia would be the first country to witness a communist revolution such as they had predicted. Their doctrine assumed that the world revolution would begin in the countries where capitalist development had proceeded furthest, and where there was consequently a large urban “proletariat” or working class. Russia was economically backward and largely agrarian; indeed, not until 1861 were the laws of serfdom, the last official remains of feudalism, legally abolished in Russia. And by no stretch of the imagination (except the stretch of imagination that became mandatory in the Soviet Union) could the Leninist coup be called a mass revolution from below such as Marx and Engels had foreseen.

Instead, the Soviet Union was a country in which a communist revolution was decreed, from above, by an oligarchy that wielded total power in the name of “the masses”—the proletariat and the peasantry—and with the promise, never kept, that power would eventually pass into the hands of those whom Marx had envisioned as the actual revolutionary agents. The nominal source of Soviet political ideology in Marxism enabled the Soviet government to claim, all contradictions notwithstanding, that it was acting in accordance with Marx’s “Hegelian” philosophy of historical necessity (a notion we have already seen applied to the history of music).

In the turmoil that followed the Great War, there was a great deal of communist agitation in the countries that emerged out of the defeated empires of Austria and Germany. The Soviet Communists were briefly successful, in fact, in exporting their brand of revolution abroad. “Soviet republics” were set up in 1919 through coups d’état in the Southern German state of Bavaria and in Hungary. Both were suppressed by bloody military interventions: in Bavaria by the German army, and in Hungary by a counterrevolutionary force led by Admiral Nicholas Horthy, who had been the commander of the Austro-Hungarian naval fleet during the Great War. The Bavarian state was reincorporated into the so-called Weimar Republic, a short-lived experiment in democracy that lasted until 1933, while Horthy proclaimed the reinstatement of the old kingdom of Hungary—which, however, he continued to rule as autocratic regent rather than allowing the return of the crown to the former Austrian emperor (thus the new, and land-locked, Hungarian state became a totalitarian but anti-Communist kingdom without a king, ruled by an admiral without a navy).

Faced with totalitarian threats from the Soviet Union (which, following Marx, declared “world revolution” to be its goal), racked by internal political agitation, and beset by economic chaos, the fledgling democracies of Central Europe were insecure and unstable. There was considerable sentiment everywhere that revolution could only be resisted by counterrevolution, or by a preemptive counter-totalitarianism to resist the spread of Soviet power. The looming presence of the Soviet Union on the world scene was thus among the factors that brought the other totalitarian regimes to power.

The first country in which such a counter-totalitarian regime was established turned out to be Italy, where a semi-legal political organization called the Partito Nazionàle Fascista, led by Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), seized power in a coup d’état (preceded by a dramatic “march on Rome”) on 29 October 1922. Fascism began as a doctrine of nationalist resistance to revolutionary internationalism (“world revolution”). It took its name from the fasces (bundles), tightly wound gatherings of wooden rods from which axe heads projected, that were carried by imperial guards to symbolize unity and power in ancient Rome. Fascism upheld the role of elites in political leadership, and the ideal of social hierarchy.

Fascist society was to be ordered by syndicates, groups representing economic and social roles (skills, trades, professions), with ultimate political power residing in the managerial syndicate, which alone represented the interests of the society as a whole, or what was called the “corporate state.” As in the case of Russian Communism, Italian Fascism ultimately devolved in practice into an autocratic dictatorship propped up by an enormous bureaucracy. The difference was that Fascist authoritarian power did not challenge or deny the right of individual enterprise, but sought instead to discipline or co-opt it. Its core constituency, in sharp contrast to Soviet power, was the bourgeoisie. Where Soviet Communism (or “Bolshevism”) could be simplistically described as the use of directed force and violence to overthrow established hierarchies, Italian Fascism could be (just as simplistically) described as the use of directed force and violence to maintain them.

During the first decade of its existence, Italian Fascism was widely admired from afar. “Mussolini has made the trains run on time,” ran the familiar refrain. His admirers in the 1920s included some leading politicians in the democratic governments of western Europe and America. Even Winston Churchill, who as prime minister of the United Kingdom would eventually lead his nation in war against Mussolini, had warm words for him in the twenties. And he was downright popular among artists, particularly elite modernists who felt threatened by the empowerment of the uneducated working class.

Stravinsky, an uprooted Russian nobleman who had been personally impoverished as a consequence of the Bolshevik coup, was particularly vociferous in his praise of Mussolini, called Il Duce (“The Leader”) by his followers. In 1931, Stravinsky allowed himself to be described in print by one of his spokesmen as “the dictator of the reaction against the anarchy into which modernism has degenerated.”4 Thus the “neoclassical” Stravinsky had consciously cast himself as the Mussolini of music, who wanted to do for modern music what the Duce promised to do for modern Europe. Nor was Stravinsky the only composer to draw an explicit connection, in the twenties, between the ideals of neoclassicism and those of Fascism. Alfredo Casella (1883–1947), an Italian composer educated in France and a great admirer of both Mussolini and Stravinsky, wrote of the “close affinity between the beneficial if sometimes chimerical objectives pursued by ‘Mussolinism,’ and the goal of intellectual restoration sought by the best Italians of the present day.”5 Both Fascism and the new currents in music, Casella wrote, were “movements full of audacity and life,” which together were bringing about a national reawakening. He compared his country and its political renewal with “a young composer” of his acquaintance, “who, formerly involved, muddled and postromantic, has suddenly turned classical: that is to say, concerned with imitating Frescobaldi.”6 Invoking the name of Italy’s great seventeenth-century organist, Casella was describing the Italian equivalent of the Franco-German “back to Bach” movement, but even better because, evoking a “still more remote past,” it was more truly classical.

“Classicism is the natural form of Italian thought,” Casella declared, “inherited directly from the Greeks, through Rome”7 —the glorious Rome that Mussolini was reviving. “And this modern classicism,” he went on, “far from being an artificial thing” like that of some composers he could name, “is with us an enforced result of language, tradition and daily contemplation of nature.” That was why Italian neoclassicism, a “deep and fertile love of the past that now stirs young Italian musicians,” had nothing in common with those “famous ‘returns’ to other geniuses with which Paris (and Berlin too) have so heaped us during the last years,”8 for these were but the flabby goods of flabby and indolent democracies that lacked a glorious classical past of their own on which to draw.

What changed everything, ending the romance of Fascism forever, was Mussolini’s eventual alliance with Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), his counterpart in Germany, who came to power in 1933 with a platform of barefaced racial intolerance; who practiced repressions and betrayals that rivaled and in some ways even exceeded those of the Soviet government, on which (many think) they were covertly modeled; whose insatiable territorial aggression led to the outbreak of the Second World War, the bloodiest military conflict in history; and who eventually committed the century’s most horrendous acts of politically rationalized and legalized mass murder.

What brought Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party to power was, once again, the threat of Soviet-style subversion. As we already know from its potent propaganda impact on the arts, and especially on opera and music theater (see Chapter 9), the German Communist Party had become very strong during the latter phases of the democratic Weimar Republic, which led many to mistrust democracy as a safeguard of their interests. It was his party’s strong showing in the free parliamentary elections of 1932 that led to Hitler’s being appointed Reichskanzler (Chancellor), the equivalent of prime minister, by Paul von Hindenburg, the last president of the Weimar Republic.

By the end of the next year, Hitler had done away with the democratic institutions that had allowed his rise to power and had begun the systematic persecutions, not only of political opponents but of minority groups such as Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally retarded. Nazi fury was especially vehement toward the Jews, who unlike the other targeted minorities had been politically active, culturally prominent, and therefore disproportionately powerful in the democratic republic, and who were easy scapegoats for the adverse economic conditions that led to the political unrest for which Hitler had promised a remedy. By the end of 1933, both Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill, composers who had virtually nothing in common except their Jewish heritage, had fled Germany for their lives. (It is a measure of the then-perceived differences between totalitarian states that in retrospect seem kin that Schoenberg, who eventually went to the United States by way of France and Spain, first considered seeking refuge in the Soviet Union.) The Fascist and Nazi regimes lasted only until the end of the war Hitler had provoked and lost. The Soviet Union, though briefly Hitler’s ally, had ended up on the other side of that conflict as a result of Hitler’s betrayal. The wartime ally of the United States, Great Britain, and France, the Soviet Union emerged from the war badly scarred (since its territory had seen much of the worst fighting) but politically much strengthened. It almost immediately became the rival “superpower” to the United States. The period of international tension thus initiated, which lasted from about 1948 until the Soviet collapse some forty years later, was known as the Cold War. Its repercussions in music are a story in itself; for now we will consider music in the totalitarian countries chiefly in their “interwar” heyday.


(1) Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), p. vii.

(2) Trans. Elizabeth MacIntosh and Barbara Spackman, in Jeffrey Schnapp and Barbara Spackman, “Selections from the Great Debate on Fascism and Culture: Critica fascista 1926–27,” Fascism and Culture, Stanford Italian Review VIII (1990): 242.

(3) Critica fascista, 15 November 1926; Ibid., p. 248.

(4) Arthur Lourié, Sergei Koussevitzky and His Epoch (New York: Knopf, 1931), p. 196.

(5) Alfredo Casella, “Music and Politics in Italy,” Christian Science Monitor, 19 September 1925, p. 8.

(6) Casella, “Neoclassicism in Italy,” Christian Science Monitor, 7 January 1928, p. 12.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Casella, “About ‘Returns,’ ” Christian Science Monitor, 13 October 1928, p. 12.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 15 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 15 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-013.xml