Serge Prokofiev, Dimitri Chostakovitch et Aram Khatchatourian (vers 1945)
Serge Prokofiev, Dimitri Chostakovitch et Aram Khatchatourian (vers 1945) © Getty

Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Stravinsky… Russian composers facing the Revolution

Some had to face exile, others would anchor themselves, each one experienced the Revolution in his own way. France Musique offers you a small overview showing Russian music during sovietism.

During the early stages of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russian composers have high hopes towards the new regime. But the 1930s drastically change their expectations. The arts are completely taken over by Stalin. The dictator imposes an aesthetic doctrine since April 23rd, 1932, called socialist realism. It strives to create for the people and to glorify the regime by combining “national form” and “socialist content”.

Music must be clear, tonal, melodious, it must speak to the masses. The Union of composers, a body dedicated to controlling and evaluating new compositions, sees the light of day. Any form of music considered to be “formalistic”, that is modernist, hermetic and “reserved” for a Western elite, is rejected.

Nationalism grows stronger after the war: in 1948, Stalin's right-hand man, Andrei Zhdanov, proposes a manifesto that results in a new and much tougher ideology. Shostakovitch and Prokofiev, who are in fact the official composers, are the first victims of that. Ironically, this period of constraints is accompanied by a moment of creation during which the greatest masterpieces of the Russian repertoire are born. There are those who submit, and those who transgress. And the transgressors are those who made history.

It was not until Stalin’s death, five years later, that composers found part of their freedom.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and “the hell of duality”

Dimitri Chostakovitch, vers 1954
Dimitri Chostakovitch, vers 1954 © Getty

The most important composer of the Soviet regime, of course. Stalin’s puppet, only in part… In 1917, Shostakovich is only eleven. One might as well say that is music is the child of the Revolution. And apparently, the young composer follows the rules. If on one hand he attempts a deviation in 1934 with his opera, Lady Macbeth de Mtsensk, initially acclaimed, on the other he is called to order by an article in the official newspaper of the Soviet regime, the Pravda, directly inspired by Stalin. There was a lot of criticism, and its title was “Chaos replaces music”. The subject is deemed as unpleasant, its music is considered to be complicated and absolutely horrific.

Hence, the composer seems willing to accept aesthetic constraints. In turn, his work glorifies the Soviet regime. His Symphony No. 5 (1937) regains a conventional structure and is one of his most popular symphonies. He took part in the war effort with his Symphony No. 7, called Leningrad, created in 1942.

But in reality, Shostakovich suffers from what musicologist André Lischke calls ”the hell of duality. He makes his music say the opposite of what it says. Take, for example, his 5th symphony. The ending sounds like an apotheosis, but it is actually derision of official music. Its violence gives us the feeling of hearing someone whose skull is being hit and who must shout: long live the Soviet regime!”. Likewise, he plays on this ambiguity in his Symphony No. 10, composed following the death of Stalin in 1953. ”The scherzo is a portrait of Stalin”, states André Lischke. ”Shostakovich gives the impression of force moving forward, hideous, powerful and grotesque at the same time, which cannot be stopped.” And for the first time, the composer uses his musical signature: the DSCH theme (D, E flat, C, B natural, in German musical notation). As if once the dictator was dead, he could finally affirm himself…

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): another key figure

Serge Prokofiev en compagnie du cinéaste Serge Eisenstein, 1943
Serge Prokofiev en compagnie du cinéaste Serge Eisenstein, 1943 © Getty

“One cannot work as a composer during a revolution”. By exiling himself in 1917, Prokofiev was not trying to escape, he just wanted to find a place to compose peacefully. Specifically, he travels to Japan, to the United States, where his opera The Love for Three Oranges (1921) catches the attention of Americans, and to France.

But soon competition puts him in the shade. In the West, he is stuck between cosmopolitan and avant-garde Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff, who enjoys the prestige of being the interpreter of the big repertoire. We are then in the 1930s and there’s a hole to fill in the URSS. Did Prokofiev return home driven by opportunism or by nostalgia? Debate still surrounds the topic. In 1936, he returns permanently. ”Prokofiev arrived as a fighter, creative and arrogant”, explains André Lischke. ”In the meantime, Shostakovich is being rapped on the knuckles.” The two musicians then have to share the role of number-one composer of the regime.

Prokofiev's early Soviet works are disputed, like his Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution (1936). However, his style is in line with what people with power say. His works are harmonious, clear, patriotic… ”He never completely shifted away from popular music, even if he re-elaborates it in his own way.” This is evidenced by his 5th Symphony (1945) or by the music for the films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1942-1946), for which he works with film director Sergei Eisenstein. If on one hand he becomes popular in the URSS, the pressure of the regime, his health problems and lack of money make his last years very difficult. And, by a twist of fate, Prokofiev passes away on the 5th of March 1953, a few hours before Stalin.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): total rupture

Igor Stravinsky, 1948
Igor Stravinsky, 1948 © Getty

Stravinsky does not have to wait for the fall of Tsarism to leave his homeland. In 1917, he is in France and during the 1920s, he travels to the United States, two countries of which he became a citizen afterwards. And in 1929, following the death of Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, to whom he owed his fame – their works included Petrushka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), The Firebird (1910), Pulcinella (1919), Les Noces (1923) – Stravinsky breaks with Russian music. “His emotional attachment towards Russia got musically tired from the 1920s”, points out André Lischke.

The composer is then inspired by modern music. He tries with jazz in Histoire du soldat (1918), he bases his work on Western classicism in his Apollo (1928), he takes an interest in serialism, he moves towards formalism... ”He always chooses universal themes, that are objective and non national”, according to André Lischke. ”He’s been compared to Picasso in his ability to adapt to any style.”

For Stravinsky, renewal and tradition go hand in hand. This is why he feels like a stranger among the Russians of the 19th century and among Soviets too. ”Russia only saw conservatism without renewal or revolution without tradition”, explains the composer in his Poetics of Music. And according to him, the artist should stay outside politics.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and the pain of exile

Serge Rachmaninov
Serge Rachmaninov © Getty

“When he lost his country, he lost the urge to compose”, states André Lischke. In 1917, Rachmaninoff has about forty works in his repertoire. He is only half way through his career, but he will not write more than six after that, like Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) and Symphonic Dances (1940).

On December 23, 1917, he leaves Russia permanently. He arrives in New York a year later, where he gives twenty-five recitals during a tour. Living thanks to his career as a pianist, he abandons conducting and puts composing aside. Ten years later, he’s back creating his unfinished Piano Concerto No. 4. But, despite the several revisions, the work is not understood and considered as less spectacular than the two concertos that preceded it.

Rachmaninoff is nostalgic and against modernity, he keeps away from avant-garde movements. If on one hand composers as Stravinsky distance themselves from him, on the other, however, they envy his greater melodic ease.

Khrennikov, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian: the model pupils of the Soviet regime

Tikhon Khrennikov
Tikhon Khrennikov © Getty

The music of Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007) is what Stalin expects from a composer. His opera Into the Storm (1939) combines march rhythms, popular choirs, revolutionary songs and moments of lyricism. ”We have everything when we’re expected to”, states André Lischke. Appointed head of the Union of composers in 1948, he becomes a kind of “Cerberus” and establishes “ideological terror”. His influence is such that he is even feared by Shostakovich and Prokofiev!

Dimitri Kabalevski, 1972
Dimitri Kabalevski, 1972 © Getty

preceded Khrennikov as general secretary of the Union of composers. The regime likes his melodious and academic music. In 36 years, he receives 18 official prices. Thanks to their pedagogical value, his works help him forge a reputation, especially piano works such as his 1st Concerto (1928) and his two Sonatinas (1930-1933).

Aram Khatchatourian, vers 1955
Aram Khatchatourian, vers 1955 © Getty

Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) is of of Armenian origin, and he plays on the local colour of his music to ingratiate himself with Soviets. He is also inspired by ashougs, popular Armenian singers. His fame grows with his ballet Spartacus (1954), charged with Soviet ideology by its theme, the slave revolt against the Roman Empire. But little by little, he questions the Union of composers and their way of limiting freedom.

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