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International Socialist Review, Fall 1958


M. Bernz

The Big Stick Is Decisive


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, p.139.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THERE are several ways of creating music: one can drop a quarter in a juke box and perform five popular songs in whatever succession one’s tastes and creativity dictate; or one can select out several phrases from these songs, reassemble them, and imagine that a new and more popular song has been created; or, given some thousands of quarters in dollar or ruble notes, one can commission a competent composer to assemble a symphony which, in style and in quality, is indistinguishable from one by Shostakovich. It is this latter fact, verifiable by anyone with the requisite dollar or ruble notes, which makes me question the “greatness” of Shostakovich and his music.

Music policy?

We are not here concerned with what these might have been if there had been no bureaucracy with rubles in one hand, a big stick in the other, and some millions of workers and peasants breathing hard in its direction. All this and all these went into the creation of Shostakovich’s music. But he, standing where its blurred mass should have been brought into unique and individual focus, either missed or preferred to miss what was real and hard for what was pretense and what was easy. His function, then, was more of the craftsman than of the artist; he copied and exhibited and put a glistening edge upon what was visible, but he did not probe, and reveal, and transmute what was there.

In music, while the deeper processes of the artist occur beyond the conscious reach of even the artist himself, and have to, it is entirely otherwise with the craftsman. The craftsman-composer always knows, consciously, what he is doing; and, through the same open window, so can we. If Shostakovich wants to be “profound,” or “melancholic,” or “searching,” we can anticipate how he will “become” so. In the old days of the silent movie, the theater organists proceeded quite similarly: they had books of pieces, themes, motifs, and by properly thumbing these books, and by pressing the appropriate organ knobs and keys, they produced romantic, spooky, and even “melancholic” music. The theater customers, dewy-eyed over the misadventures of Greta Garbo, were convinced, for at least fifteen minutes after leaving the theater, that they had been hearing the greatest music in the world. So, too, a Performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, flanked by an anti-Hitlerite rally in one place, and a speech for the republican government of pre-Franco Spain in another, seemed like the most inspired musical message of its time.

But years have passed, and times have changed, and the war and the warriors have both grown cold – and so has the enthusiasm for the Fifth Symphony and its immediate successors, so admired and fought over by the conductors of the war years. So too with Shostakovich himself: for he “played it cool” by periodically re-issuing this Fifth Symphony, in revised if unabridged editions; and if the Sixth and Seventh, thanks to the Soviet-Allied friendship, were adjudged of the same lofty inspirations, the recent Tenth and Eleventh have as surely marked its reduction to dust and ashes.

The musical stream, as it pours from the consciousness of a great composer, always seems to bear, in the rearing and in the succession of its elements, a certain inevitability. If this were wholly so, mechanically rather than organically, we could not bear many repetitions of it; we would have to consign it to a summer band concert, an accompaniment to street noises, to conversation, or to a dinner table – music meant to be heard but not listened to.

Shostakovich’s music, like most Soviet music, because its composition did not entail searching and difficult decisions, but ever proceeded from the lightly grasped to whatever was closest at hand, has no real interest for the cultivated music lover, no durable interest for the moderately sensitive one, and a lasting interest for only the wholly unsophisticated one. For some otherwise well-developed persons, a Cole Porter song, in the interminable succession of arrangements with which it is marketed, is sufficient; for others, more ambitious and more gullible, a hoax of a symphony, correspondingly treated, is also evidently sufficient.

In conclusion, I must concede the following: It is possible that the Soviet, composers have inaugurated a musical current which may become the main stream of the future. This will be most true of that music which, according to the most developed bourgeois tastes and criteria, is the most vulgar, the corniest, the most widely popular; and this, will be so because and not in spite of the bureaucracy, which has generally tended to defend the tastes of the masses against the predilections of the composers themselves. This sort of thing has happened before, historically; but it was the progressive hand of the bourgeois market place – around 1600 and again 1750, which wrested a few simple essentials from what was then current and supreme, and set these upon courses which culminated in Bach in one case, in Beethoven in the other.

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