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International Socialist Review, Fall 1958


Trent Hutter

Sometimes They Elude the Ukases


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, pp.138-139.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


ACCORDING to M. Bernz, the music created under the Kremlin’s rule hardly attains greatness and tends to be “old-fashioned” because of the reactionary, totalitarian cultural policy of the Soviet bureaucracy. But what about Dimitri Shostakovich, Russia’s most famous contemporary composer? For Shostakovich’s achievements are a favorite argument of those who claim there is nothing wrong with music in the USSR.

M. Bernz deals with this argument by attempting to prove that Shostakovich is not a truly great composer. However, the relationship between totalitarian rulers and the artists they wish to subjugate in their anti-individualist drive is much more complex than M. Bernz imagines. It is true that without the heavy Stalinist fetters Soviet music would undoubtedly have flowered even more than it has done. Yet it is remarkable that despite the totalitarian strait jacket, despite humiliations and condemnations by party bosses, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, even Khachatourian and Kabalevsky did compose quite a few scores which the world’s most unprejudiced and most esteemed critics and conductors consider to be among the masterworks of the twentieth century.

M. Bernz ought to have examined how Prokofiev, Shostakovich and others sometimes seemed to give in to the bureaucracy’s ukases – and then explored new ways to elude them. Instead of throwing any light on this process, M. Bernz wants to convince us that, for example, everything the late Serge Prokofiev wrote after his return to Russia was bad.

Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije and Alexander Nevsky were “only movie scores,” he says. But these movie scores are masterpieces! And why is a movie score necessarily inferior to an operatic or ballet score? Lieutenant Kije is, in story and music, a brilliant satire on the bureaucratic mind, although it was written under Stalin! And the Alexander Nevsky cantata is as fine a piece of choral music as any in our century.

The G Minor Violin Concerto M. Bernz disposes of as one of “these conservative pieces.” Yet the G Minor Concerto was admired by the late Dr. Serge Koussevitzky who recorded it with Heifetz; and Dimitri Mitropoulos recorded it with Francescatti! Koussevitzky was and Mitropoulos is an outstanding authority on modern music. For instance, Mitropoulos has contributed much to a better understanding of Schönberg and Alban Berg in this country. Heifetz and Francescatti are not only top violinists; they are authorities on music for their instrument. And appreciating Prokofiev’s G Minor Concerto as I do, I thus find myself in excellent company

Peter and the Wolf was for children,” says M. Bernz contemptuously. But he fails to mention that the delightful musical story has become a modern classic and that in music, as in literature, the best that has been written for children appeals equally to grown-ups. And M. Bernz reveals remoteness from the musical education and needs of the young, the assimilation of musical values and its importance, when he makes his bad joke about Prokofiev’s alleged drift toward “music for the feeble-minded. “

He calls Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony “tame and compliant,” but it happens to express a profoundly melancholic and searching mood, far from the forced, superficial optimism dear to the bureaucracy. Nothing about it is “tame and compliant”; and it surely does not correspond to a feeling of unquestioning contentment. Nor is it, in my opinion, a work of actual despair, resignation, hopelessness. It is a powerful and compelling symphony which I highly value as one of the finest in modern music and which was received with genuine enthusiasm when, in New York, under the direction of Mitropoulos, it was performed for the first time outside the USSR.

M. Bernz does not seem to notice the contradictions in his statements. Thus, on page 58, he says of Khachatourian: “He specialized in what is professionally – and properly – known as hootchy-kootchy music ...” (Never have I heard any professional musician use this term.) On page 59, however, he informs us that Khachatourian is one of “the real artists, the ones with know-how.” How can Khachatourian specialize in ‘(hootchy-kootchy music” and still be a “real artist”? And why is it so wrong and reactionary for a composer to be rooted in the folk music of his native land, as Khachatourian is rooted in Armenia, in the Caucasus? And, I may add, as Kodaly is rooted in Hungary, as Villa-Lobos is rooted in Brazil?

The realm of music is wide; and our time has various aspects. Therefore, various kinds of modern music, that is, music providing our time with a voice of its own, are possible; not just one method, one technique, one direction. And if Stravinsky, Schönberg, Hindemith – so very different from each other – all represent valid musical idioms of the twentieth century, why not the leading Soviet composers, too? Let us be wary of opposing to the conservative intolerance of the Soviet bureaucracy a “modernistic” intolerance of our own!

We cannot always directly translate politics and social conditions into cultural phenomena. Political and social conditions are undoubtedly reflected in the arts, but not mechanically. The Soviet Union’s mediocre composers – and the mediocrities are everywhere the majority among composers – are indeed “tame and compliant,” writing for their bread and butter what the bureaucracy expects them to write. But an authentic genius like Shostakovich frequently rises above the fetid zone of typical Stalinist “culture.” (Just as in Nazi Germany a few artists of genius remained independent in their work. ) Naturally, his scores today express a mood different from that of the pioneering, revolutionary twenties or from that of the stormy days of struggle against the Nazi invaders. And naturally the story of Shostakovich reflects the pressure of the totalitarian bureaucracy (as does, for example, Prokoviev’s last and rather insignificant Seventh Symphony).

But it is also a story of ever-recurring resistance to the bureaucracy’s constant intervention in artistic matters,, a story of tension – sometimes silent, sometimes erupting in public declarations – between a Communist artist of genius and the bureaucratic caste that wants to use his fame for its propaganda and also wants him to obey. While he tries to avoid a head-on clash and may even have a misguided sense of loyalty toward the bureaucracy, he definitely is not a “representative of the caste.”

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