We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

Amid the kind of chronic anxiety to which Cold War tensions gave rise, triumphant rhetoric in the arts took on an air of saber-rattling, producing not euphoria but heightened apprehension. It was to the beginnings of that mood that Copland's critics, and eventually the composer himself, were surely reacting when he allowed himself to be persuaded to tone down the end of his Third Symphony. The effects of incipient Cold War anxieties were felt much more directly by artists in the Soviet Union, the surviving (and spreading) totalitarian state, where the government saw the regulation of all society as its proper responsibility.

The war itself (known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945”) had, paradoxically enough, been a period of relatively free expression in the Soviet Union. The early and easy victories of Hitler's armies in White Russia and the Ukraine, where the local populations often greeted the invaders as liberators, had frightened Stalin into a relaxation of censorship and political repressions in an effort to regain the good will of intellectuals and mobilize them for war propaganda. Dmitry Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the city of Leningrad, with a first movement that graphically portrayed the fascist invasion and its heroic repulsion, had been microfilmed and sent via Tehran and Cairo to America, where it was broadcast by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in the summer of 1942 in a frenzy of media publicity.

Shostakovich became the recipient of high state honors. His Eighth Symphony (1943), a monumental work without program, but unquestionably grim, was received with equal fervor and praise, even though its implied “dramaturgy” was far from the sort of optimistic, “life-affirming” declaration normally demanded by the doctrine of socialist realism. It was accepted on the basis of its “truthful” reflection of the horrors and losses of war, as were some ponderous works of Sergey Prokofieff, like his Seventh (1942) and Eighth (1944) Sonatas for piano, and his Sixth Symphony, in the dark key of E-flat minor, composed immediately after the war and first performed on 25 December 1947.

Full Stalinist controls were reimposed, and with a vengeance, as the Cold War gathered impetus. Responsibility for taming the arts was delegated to Andrey Zhdanov, the old theorist of socialist realism. Now the Leningrad Party leader and a full member of the ruling Politburo, Zhdanov was one of the main architects of the Soviet Union's paranoically anti-Western postwar foreign policy, and the chief organizer of the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau), the successor to the Comintern (dissolved by Stalin in 1943 in a gesture to the wartime Allies) as the central agency that managed and coordinated the activities of communist parties abroad. Next to Stalin himself, Zhdanov was the most powerful politician in the growing Communist world.

Working through the creative unions managed by the Ministry of Culture, Zhdanov convened a series of extraordinary conferences at the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. They amounted to political hearings at which charges were brought against deviant artists in the fields of literature (1946), film (1947), and finally music. The conference on music opened on 10 January 1948. The immediate pretext was discussion of the shortcomings of an opera, Velikaya druzhba (“The great friendship”), by Vano Muradeli (1908–70), a minor composer of Georgian birth, which was accused both of historical inaccuracies in its portrayal of events connected with the Russian Revolution, and of an excessively modernistic musical style that rendered it inaccessible to nonprofessional audiences.

Over the next three days, however, the designated scapegoat was forgotten as twenty-seven musical figures took the floor in a frightening ritual of denunciation and contrition. The chief targets were the so-called “Big Four” of Soviet music: Prokofieff, Shostakovich, Nikolai Myaskovsky (a prolific composer of symphonies), and Aram Ilyich Khachaturian (1903–78), a composer of Armenian heritage and Georgian birth, famous in the West for some colorful concertos and a ballet suite containing a rousing “Sabre Dance” that had become a jukebox hit. All were charged with “formalism,” a vague term with a checkered history, defined in a post-1948 Soviet music encyclopedia as “an esthetic conception proceeding from an affirmation of the self-sufficiency of form in art, and its independence from ideological or pictorial content.”9 In practice it was code for elite modernism, something that the doctrine of socialist realism expressly forbade.

Shostakovich, who had already been singled out for political attack in 1936, received the roughest treatment. Vladimir Zakharov, the director of the leading Russian professional ensemble for folk song and dance, rose on the first day to render judgment on behalf of “the people.” Never mind The Great Friendship, he told the assembled musicians and political functionaries:

That's not the point. Muradeli's opera is actually one of the more intelligible pieces. But if you look at our symphonic music, you'll see that some big names have gradually arisen among us, very famous both here and abroad. But I must say that the works of these composers are altogether alien and unintelligible to our Soviet people. Debate continues among us about whether Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony is good or bad. In my opinion, the question is meaningless. I reckon that from the people's point of view the Eighth Symphony is not a musical work at all, but a “work” that has nothing whatever to do with the art of music.10

As Zakharov's remarks continued, they led into even more sinister terrain. “We read in the papers about the heroic deeds that are being accomplished by the workers in our factories, on our collective farms, and so forth,” he reminded his listeners. “Ask these people whether they really like the Eighth or Ninth Symphonies of Shostakovich.” And after thus insinuating that Shostakovich, in his “formalism,” was an “enemy of the people,” the most dangerous of all Soviet epithets, Zakharov went on to impugn his loyalty to the Soviet state:

Several of these composers think that they enjoy success abroad, or even that they are taken there to represent the highest achievements of Soviet musical culture. But let's take a look at the question. Let's say that, for example, the Eighth, the Ninth or the Seventh Symphonies of Shostakovich are looked upon abroad as works of genius. But who, exactly, is looking upon them? There are lots of persons living abroad. Besides the reactionaries whom we struggle against, besides the bandits, the imperialists, and so on, there are also the people. It would be interesting to know with whom these compositions are having such success. With the people? I can answer that wholly categorically: no, it cannot be.

After hearing all these calumnies, after being branded alien to the people but congenial to reactionaries, bandits, and imperialists, Shostakovich was obliged to mount the podium and express his thanks for the constructive critique he had received. “In my work I have had many failures,” he admitted to the meeting,

even though, throughout my career, I have always thought of the people, of my listeners, of those who reared me; and I always strive that the people should accept my music. I have always listened to criticism, and have always tried to work harder and better. I am listening to criticism now, and shall continue to listen to it and shall accept critical instructions.11

Since his death, Shostakovich's friends have disclosed that in the aftermath of the “Zhdanov flap” (Zhdanovshchina), as it became popularly known, the composer had contemplated suicide. To many observers, however, particularly those abroad, the most dreadful humiliation was not Shostakovich's; it was Prokofieff's. For Prokofieff, unlike any other major Soviet composer, was a former émigré. He had had a brilliant cosmopolitan career and had many friends in the West who esteemed his talent and achievements, and who had assumed (as Prokofieff himself must have assumed) that his international reputation would insulate him from bureaucratic meddling. The presumption that he was promised immunity is the only way to make sense of Prokofieff's decision to return home in 1936, the very year in which Shostakovich was disgraced and threatened for the first time, thus the year that ushered in the most draconian period in Soviet arts policy.

Even at that, Prokofieff's powers of denial were impressive. In 1939, for example, the famous director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who had already collaborated indirectly with the composer on the opera The Love for Three Oranges, disappeared (that is, was arrested and condemned) just as he and Prokofieff were working intensively on the staging of Semyon Kotko, Prokofieff's first Soviet opera. Yet Prokofieff was untouched, just as he had not been mentioned in the attacks on Shostakovich, and his opera's production proceeded on schedule (albeit with big disfiguring changes in the libretto made necessary by the infamous Hitler-Stalin pact). Crazy as it seems in retrospect, Prokofieff had read good omens in all of these events. The Zhdanovshchina took him completely by surprise.

But now, less than three weeks after the brilliant premiere of his Sixth Symphony, Prokofieff heard himself denounced at the headquarters of the Communist Party's Central Committee as a composer “who has even now not yet outgrown the childish dogma of innovation for the sake of innovation, who still practices artistic snobbism, who still suffers from a mistaken fear of the commonplace or ordinary.” As for the Sixth Symphony, “it was quaint to hear the way one Prokofieff struggled with another in it: the penchant for broad melody and vivid thematic development is constantly interrupted and overthrown by the crude, unprovoked intrusion of the nasty, antisocial Prokofieff.”12 In particular, Prokofieff was faulted for spurning the resources of folklore—not only an unpatriotic move, but one bound to lessen the accessibility of his music to ordinary listeners.

Prokofieff, too, was obliged to make a public recantation and express his thanks to the Party for its “precise directives,” which “will help me in my search of a musical language accessible and natural to our people, worthy of our people and of our great country.”13 Owing to his greater age and his precarious health, he was spared the ignominy of a personal appearance before his judges. Instead, he wrote (or at least signed) a letter that was published as a response to the “Resolution on Music” that the Communist Party issued on 10 February 1948.

This Resolution decreed that Soviet composers henceforth favor vocal music over instrumental; program music over “absolute”; shun the use of modernistic techniques that shut out nonprofessional listeners; make liberal use of folklore; and actually emulate the styles of the great Russian composers of the nineteenth century. Never before, not even in Nazi Germany, were composers ever enjoined so literally to isolate themselves from the rest of the musical world and turn back the stylistic clock. But style was not the main issue. The Resolution's demands, especially for concrete musical “content” embodied in texts and programs, were at bottom an attempt to render musical compositions more easily censorable.

The Zhdanovite directives were quickly disseminated to the “fraternal republics” that were forming in Eastern Europe. The Resolution was paraphrased, if anything in even stronger terms, in a proclamation drafted in German by Hanns Eisler at the Second International Congress of Composers and Music Critics, held in Prague in May 1948, three months after the Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia. The crisis in “the music and the musical life of our times” it was there declared, can only be overcome if composers renounce “bourgeois individualism” once and for all, so that “their music becomes the expression of the great new progressive ideas and feelings of the masses.”14

Works by the Soviet Big Four, not to mention countless lesser fry in all the countries of the burgeoning Soviet empire, that were not considered to be in conformity with the Resolution (and that meant most of them) were banned from performance. Many composers suffered reprisals. Shostakovich, ever the main scapegoat, was fired from his post as professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory. All were required to make propitiatory offerings. Shostakovich's included an oratorio, Pesn’ o lesakh (“Song of the forests,” 1949), and a cantata, Nad rodinoy nashey solntse siyayet (“The sun shines over our motherland,” 1952), both to texts by the poet Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky (1915–94), a dependable Party hack who was best known for writing lyrics for “mass” (propaganda) songs.

Both works feature a children's chorus, as do two of Prokofieff's offerings, a suite called Zimniy kostyor (“Winter bonfire,” 1949–50) and an oratorio called Na strazhe mira (“On guard for peace,” 1950), both to texts by Samuil Marshak (1887–1964), a poet and translator best known for his children's verse. Prokofieff's last symphony, the posthumously performed Seventh (1952), a work in which he expressly simplified his style to a point that privately embarrassed him as “childish,” won a government prize that formally rehabilitated his name, but only after an even more “optimistic” ending (fast and jolly instead of dreamy and nostalgic) had been demanded and supplied.

The Soviet music of what might be called the post-Zhdanov half-decade, lasting from the 1948 Resolution until the death of Stalin (the same day as Prokofieff's) in 1953, is the work of gifted and extremely well trained composers. Much of it is highly palatable stuff that compares favorably with the 50- to 100-year-old Russian “classics” it forcibly imitated. But of course when one knows its actual date, and the fear and trembling that stood behind its folksy pleasantries and its smooth or stirring platitudes, it can turn quite indigestible. As always, inevitably, subtexts of a kind not intended either by the composers or by those who compelled their output have grown into the works over the course of their histories.

But their immediate and intended subtext, now grown faint perhaps, is no less historically significant. The emphasis on childhood themes—themes of reassurance, innocence, and calm bright futures—is clearly a response to the same anxieties of the early Cold War that we have so far examined mainly from the “Western” side. In Russia, too, the triumphant mood of the immediate postwar moment had modulated into one of insecurity. Where in 1945 Prokofieff could compose an “Ode to the End of the War” for wind band (including six flute and six trumpet parts), four pianos, eight harps, four saxophones, and augmented percussion (and Khachaturian could outdo him with a Simfoniya-Poàma for orchestra, organ, and twenty-three obbligato trombones), his oratorio of 1950 included a Lullaby for a solo mezzo-soprano who croons to her child (and to the country at large), “Sleep, don't be afraid, your life and quiet home are guarded by a great friend who lives above us all in the Kremlin.” Shostakovich, for his part, had shown a squeamishness about “Ninth Symphony” rhetoric even earlier than Aaron Copland did. At the end of the war he was up to his own Symphony no. 9, but found he could not bring himself, after Hiroshima, to compose the glorious choral symphony, replete with personal praise of Stalin, that many were awaiting from him.

Instead, his cold feet sent him in the opposite direction: his Ninth Symphony is for the most part a slight and whimsical opus in the spirit, the composer suggested, of Haydn. It became another point against him at the Zhdanov conference.

The mood of calm and comfort that Shostakovich and Prokofieff were now seeking, at the Party's behest, to communicate was not so far, ironically enough, from that of Shostakovich's unexpectedly good-humored and diverting Ninth. Yet not everybody was consoled. Prokofieff's former colleagues in the West were appalled. As we know from letters and memoirs, composers like Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger, who had known Prokofieff in Paris, were dismayed at his mistreatment and disillusioned with the society for the sake of which he had forsaken them, and which until then had continued despite everything to be for many idealists a beacon of hope. Stravinsky, who was under no illusions where Soviet totalitarianism was concerned, was nevertheless shocked out of his complacency about “benevolent despotisms.” The former admirer of Mussolini, now living in Hollywood, remarked to a friend about the Europeans, “As far as I am concerned, they can have their Marshals and Fuehrers; leave me Mr. Truman and I'm quite satisfied.”15


(9) “Formalizm,” in Muzïkal'naya èntsiklopediya, ed. Yuriy M. Keldïsh, Vol. V (Moscow: Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya, 1981), col. 907.

(10) Quoted in Alexander Werth, Musical Uproar in Moscow (London: Turnstile Press, 1949), pp. 53–54.

(11) Musical Uproar in Moscow, p. 86.

(12) Victor Aronovich Belïy, quoted in Musical Uproar in Moscow, p. 72.

(13) Quoted in Nicolas Slonimsky, Music since 1900 (4th ed.; New York: Scribners, 1971), p. 1374.

(14) “Declaration of the Second International Congress of Composers and Musicologists in Prague, 29 May 1948,” quoted in Slonimsky, Music since 1900, p. 1378.

(15) Quoted in Nicolas Nabokov, “1949: Christmas with Stravinsky,” in Stravinsky: A Merle Armitage Book, ed. Edwin Corle (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1949), p. 143.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 1 Aug. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 1 Aug. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001004.xml