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Fourth International, March-April 1948


George Sanders

Josef Stalin, Music Critic


From Fourth International, Vol.9 No.2, March-April 1948, pp.56-57.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


“Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited.” – Plato, The Republic


Bureaucracy’s iron fist has long since squeezed the last breath of life out of contemporary Soviet art, until even the professional enthusiasts for Stalinist culture are embarrassed by the hopelessly dull academism of Soviet painting and sculpture, the continual reiteration of the same themes and motives in the same drab conventional style. The literary purge which began in August 1946 will undoubtedly succeed in rendering Soviet literature equally worthless, if it has not already done so. In face of the general debasement of their wares, the vendors of Stalinist culture abroad have restricted themselves more and more to extolling the virtues of Soviet music, especially the music of Shostakovich, Prokofieff and Khachaturian. This has not been hard to do, since the first two at least have long been recognized everywhere as the leading representatives of an important international tendency in contemporary music. However, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, showing no more respect for the feelings of its lackeys than it has on more momentous occasions, recently disclosed that the Stalinist culture-vultures were enjoying themselves by mistake, for not only Shostakovich, Prokofieff and Khachaturian but the whole Russian music world was found guilty of “formalistic distortions,” “anti-democratic tendencies,” “atonality, dissonance and disharmony“, “renunciation of melody,” etc., etc.

Why the Purge?

The thousands of musicians and music lovers whose sympathy for contemporary Russian music is not politically motivated were, if less discomposed, equally surprised. Why this wholesale denunciation by the Authorities of a cultural export so profitable and of considerable propagandistic value? A careful study of the document (printed in full in the Daily Worker of March 12) establishes that insofar as it is motivated by musical facts the criticism is not really directed against the composers indicated. The text names Shostakovich, Prokofieff, Myaskovski, Shebalin, Popov “and others” as composers in whose works “the formalist anti-public trend has found its fullest manifestations.” Of these the first four are among the most frequently performed of contemporary composers. But the entire document fails to criticize a single specific work by any of these figures, the only identified composition being an opera whose only performance was a private affair attended by Stalin and other officials, the work of an obscure Georgian composer, V. Muradeli. The Soviet composer wishing to improve his music by availing himself of the specific criticisms leveled against his unnamed compositions will not be helped much by such formulations as “anti-public,” “anti-democratic,” “alien to the Soviet people and to its artistic taste;” “alien to the principles of socialist realism,” “reeking strongly of the spirit of the contemporary modernist bourgeois music of Europe and America.” However, the Central Committee goes further and includes in its resolution a lesson in musical composition, which we shall try to summarize.

Soviet composers are making extreme use of dissonances and have adopted an atonal, formalistic style; they have renounced melody and negated “the basic principles of classical music;” their work displays a “passion for confused, neuropathic combinations which transform music into cacophony.” It is at this point that Stalin’s musical GPU detects the strong stench “of the spirit of the contemporary modernist bourgeois music.” This last epithet is the only one which the student of contemporary western music will find unfamiliar, the others having long been stock expressions of the opponents of the revolutionary trend whose foremost representative is Arnold Schoenberg. The very term “atonal” was coined for the express purpose of describing his style. These critics, detecting in this new music only a morbid desire to reduce the musical order to a state of anarchy, recognize the contemporary Russian composers as the leading exponents of “healthy” music and the strongest opposition to the “nihilistic” tendencies of Schoenberg. Olin Downes, whose musical ideas are as reactionary as the political and social concepts of the paper for which he writes, heartily endorsed the musical princiciples expressed in the Central Committee’s resolution but emphatically rejected its denunciation of composers who “put strikingly into practice the very principles which the Central Committee recommends.” (New York Times, Feb. 22)

In addition to their “passion for confused, neuropathlc combinations,” Soviet composers are accused of “a one-sided passion for complex forms of instrumental, symphonic, textless music” as well as a “passion for monotonal and unisonal music and singing.” At this point the musical criticism, apart from the question of its applicability to the composers under discussion, becomes quite incoherent. How “unisonal music” (“playing of the same notes or the same melody by various instruments or by the whole orchestra, either at exactly the same pitch or in a different octave,” – Harvard Dictionary of Music) can give rise to dissonances is not explained, nor is it possible to understand how composers with a “passion for complex forms” can prefer “unisonal” to polyphonic music. “Anti-democratic tendencies” are further exemplified in the ostensible neglect of native folk-melody, as preposterous an accusation as one can level against a composer like Khachaturian, “whose whole art,” as Olin Downes points out, “is based upon Armenian melody:”

Another Frame-up

The evidence proves that Stalin has perpetrated another frame-up in the customary pattern. The composers involved and several not even mentioned in the decree confessed their crimes and thanked the Central Committee for its “stern but fatherly care.”

It is doubtful whether the history of music knows a more reactionary document than the present one since the notorious edict of Pope John XXII in the year 1322, banishing the progressive contributions of two centuries of musical development from the church. Violators of the Stalinist bull, however, will certainly be punished more severely than “by a suspension from office for eight days,” which was all that the pope threatened. Moreover, the papal decree applied only to liturgical musit and had no adverse effect whatsoever on the production of secular music, which the fourteenth century advanced enormously. But Stalin’s shameful document leaves not a single musical genre within which the progressive composer may express his ideas without being tracked down by the GPU’s musical bloodhounds. Every paragraph of this infamous document sneers at “originality,” “innovation,” “revolution,” “modernism.,” accompanying every appearance of these words with disdainful adjectives. According to Stalin the “normal human ear” finds certain “sudden, dissonant noises completely alien,” but according to the best psychologists and music historians, the ear is historically conditioned in its tastes.

Folk-music is extolled, its neglect denotes an “anti-public” trend, it must serve as the basis of “democratic musical forms.” The utterly reactionary character of this demand becomes clear at once if we transfer it to the American musical scene. The outstanding product of American folk-song is certainly the Negro spiritual, which will remain a monument to the creative imagination of the Negro people and a source of rich esthetic experience. But is there any “progressive” content in the present-day utilization in symphonic music of melodies the social origin of which is the misery of an enslaved people whose only solace was religion, who hoped to find equality only in heaven, “where all God’s chillun got shoes!” A composer may have his own private musical reasons for wishing to utilize these melodies, but their use is no more a guarantee of “democratic musical form” than the use of Gregorian chant or of any other traditional material.

Plato, Pope John, the Central Committee and all others who think that bureaucratic proclamations can halt the evolution of musical ideas suffer from a common delusion. Just as “agitators” and “trouble-makers” are blamed for social discontent, so the “morbid” and “perverse” inclinations of certain composers are blamed for disturbances in the field of tone-relations. But new scales and new harmonic concepts are not arbitrary inventions. They result from the organic evolution of the tone material itself. “Dissonances” and “atonality” will continue to crop up unless the whole musical heritage of late 19th century romanticism, which includes “the best traditions of Russian music,” is wiped out, definitively erased from the minds and memories of men, for it is here that these present-day musical disturbances have their origin. Not even the all-powerful Stalin’s Central Committee can accomplish this.

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