Music for the Masses: Soviet Composers in Search of a Revolutionary Style

Friday, October 6, 2017 -
6:00pm to 7:30pm

Swedenborg Chapel, 50 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA

Our concert offers a survey of the evolution of Soviet music from 1917 onward, including representative compositions by Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Part, Alfred Schnittke and Georgii Sviridov. Through these works, we will show the different ways in which various composers responded to the often changing, amorphous and contradictory rules of Soviet official culture, conducting a delicate negotiation between their personal creative impulses and the demands of a totalitarian state.

In the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, creative artists in all fields of culture, including the performing arts, experienced profound ideological pressure to create a new style that would promote the values of the Soviet socialist regime. Numerous composers and musicians who were prominent in the years before 1917 elected to leave Russia, fearful of censorship and political control. These included composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev (although he would eventually return to the USSR in the late 1930s); and the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who came to Boston to lead the Boston Symphony in 1924.

Those who stayed behind either by choice or necessity found themselves in a transformed environment with many personal and artistic challenges and possibilities. During the 1920s, Soviet musical life was open to experiment and innovation, and to modernist trends developing beyond the borders of the USSR. Various official musical organizations arose and competed for supremacy, especially after Lenin’s death in 1924 and before Stalin firmly established his control over all fields of culture in the early 1930s. The situation changed radically with the declaration of Socialist Realism as the official and rigidly enforced aesthetic in the mid-1930s. Although the musical world retained considerably more artistic freedom than did literature or film, the work of Soviet composers was carefully scrutinized for ideological orthodoxy. The Communist Party’s vitriolic attack at on Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936 marked a turning point not only for Shostakovich, but for all Soviet composers. After a brief respite during World War II, the leading Soviet composers (including Shostakovich Prokofiev) were summoned to a congress in 1948 at which their work was harshly criticized as “formalist” and inaccessible to the masses.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the situation began to improve significantly. A group of young composers (Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Edison Denisov, Arvo Part) emerged who cultivated stronger contact with the trends of western avant-garde music, including the previously banned technique of serialism. Igor Stravinsky visited the USSR for the first time since leaving in 1914. At the same time, other Soviet composers—Aram Khachaturian, Georgii Sviridov--continued to compose successfully in a more popular style that conformed to a large extent to the (admittedly often vague) requirements of musical Socialist Realism. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, the musical world in Russian and the former Soviet republics gained freedom from ideological constraints, but also lost the significant financial and organizational support it had enjoyed within the highly subsidized Soviet cultural establishment.


Commentator:Harlow Robinson, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Northeastern University

Violin: Joanna Kurkowicz

Piano: Doris Stevenson

Bass/baritone: Alexander Prokhorov

Cello: Emmanuel Feldman

Violin: Yumi Okada

Viola: Scott Woolweaver

Sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

For more information, please call 617-495-4037.