The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Truth to Power Festival celebrates the power of the artist to act as a beacon in dark times of dislocation, war and tyranny. Music historian Simon Morrison discusses the political and historical background at the time Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich were at work on some of their most powerful compositions.
While the Sochi Olympics and the re-annexation of the Crimea have dominated news out of Russia, cultural conflicts likewise roil. Consider the recent case of Pussy Riot, a punk-rock collective whose music makes the Sex Pistols seem like Beethoven. Two of its members spent time in prison, including the outspoken, beautiful Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and another one lives under a travel restriction in Moscow. The collective includes several fellow travelers who help, or used to help, with the rabble-rousing of the leaders. They are nihilists, perhaps even masochists, and know that the attacks against them have nothing to do with their art and everything to do with Putin’s priorities. Several years ago, the oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed to send a message to possible pretenders to Putin’s throne; Pussy Riot was censured to signal that anti-religious, anti-patriotic art would not be tolerated by the Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications, at least not in the run-up to the Sochi Games. This is all evidence of what my friends in the archives call “the latest patriotic stagnation.”
Actually, Russians don’t find Pussy Riot that interesting. Some people hate the band because the West seems to love them. Others note that the group’s brand of dissidence, one with both xenophobic and anti-Semitic strains, would have offended the dissidents of the past, the less exhibitionist and more high-minded people like novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov.
Still, the persecution of the group has historical precedents. Tolokonnikova was kept for a time in a prison colony near Saransk, about eight hours east of Moscow. The place was built by Stalin. It looks much the same as it did then, though it now has a Web site with tips for visitors on what not to bring into the zone (cigarettes are OK, firearms and narcotics are not). Other vestiges of that past include the perverse phenomenon of the prison colony beauty contest. Because Tolokonnikova refused to participate, she was denied early parole. Commenting on the matter, she noted that the Gulag beauty contests are the legacy of the official artistic doctrine of the Stalinist era: Socialist Realism.
This doctrine mandated the creation of utopian art that celebrated not life as it was but life as it would be, once Marxist-Leninism, as supervised by the Great Leader and Teacher Stalin, had insinuated itself into every fiber of being of every Soviet citizen. According to the exquisite illogic of the doctrine, happiness could blossom even in labor camps, even for people toiling for 12 hours a day on diets of 1,000 calories. I do not know if Putin has an opinion about Socialist Realism, but there is some of his behavior that suggests Stalin redux, Stalin lite (even as his actual historical model seems to be Tsar Nicholas II, Autocrat of All Russians). There is, however, a crucial difference: under Stalin, there were no Pussy Riots. Dissidence did not exist — not in public, not in private.
Indeed, Stalin dissolved the division between the public and the private. Writers kept diaries knowing they would be read; composers penned symphonies knowing they would be vetted in search of subversive messages. No one heard such messages, except in hindsight, long after the works’ premieres. Everyone conformed because everyone had to conform. There was simply no autonomous will, and so Stalin’s Russia defied the categorical imperative of moral law. This was the world that composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky escaped. They also escaped Socialist Realism and patriotic stagnation. They left Russia long before Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power, long before the establishment of the Soviet Union, and long before the Stalinist reign of terror.
Sergei Prokofiev did return — in the midst of it all. (He and Dmitri Shostakovich, along with Benjamin Britten, are the focus of the CSO’s Truth to Power Festival.) Having lived and worked abroad for nearly two decades, in 1936 he quit Paris for Moscow, bringing along his cosmopolitan wife and their two French-speaking sons. Their lives would be sacrificed to his ambition. The Soviet regime had lured Prokofiev back on the promise of lucrative commissions, and he naively imagined that his international career would continue. Soon enough, however, his foreign passport was revoked, and he was trapped. Eventually Prokofiev’s children would serve in the Red Army, and his wife eight years in the Gulag.
In his journals and letters, Prokofiev says little about the devastation and malevolence that defined the Stalinist era; the overall tone of his writing in censured and uncensored passages alike is one of profound and sustained exasperation. Prokofiev coped creatively, if not personally, by maintaining the conviction that his music, even his most political music, occupied a domain above and apart from the concerns of the real world. Part of this conviction came from his chosen faith, Christian Science, which allowed him to believe that he, as a gifted artist, embodied the Divine Principle and that his music embodied the eternal. Time would pass, Stalinism would disappear, and the space would be cleansed for his music to be heard anew. The conviction also stems from Prokofiev’s Pushkin-derived credo that he could transform the crudest of subjects into great art. Irrespective of the constraints of censorship, he believed that he would always be able to preserve his artistic integrity.
The hidden danger of these beliefs resided in their potential to rankle Soviet officials. If Prokofiev’s music could transcend politics, it could also undermine politics. For this reason, Prokofiev had at best mixed success composing for the regime. Playing it safe did not assure success, but neither did playing with fire. As the Stalinist cultural establishment changed between 1936 and 1953, so too did the templates, the benchmark desiderata, for good Soviet composition. The arbitrariness of the system dismayed and distressed him. By nature, he flourished under constraints, not under chaos. Although Prokofiev’s most famous and beloved scores date (with one or two exceptions) from his Soviet period, a lot of his music went to waste, including an entire act of his ballet Romeo and Juliet. To improve his political standing with the regime, Prokofiev composed a craven paean to Stalin in 1939. Titled Zdravitsa (“Ode to Stalin”), it was one of numerous “salutes” and “toasts” written for the ruler’s 60th birthday. In explicit contrast to the reality of mass starvation and deportation, these musical presents offer up benign images of resplendent harvests and harmonious labor. Their composers, Prokofiev included, were sincere in their effort to substitute fantasy for reality, to represent the Soviet Union as a utopian domain.
Taking pains to ensure that its harmonic language did not stray out of bounds, Prokofiev crafted melodies to suit something of the fixed-smile cheer of the libretto. He cobbled together the libretto using faux-folk poems about Stalin, which official writers produced in bulk at the time. Prokofiev’s bureaucratic overseers took pains to ensure that his libretto did not breach protocol. The singers declare that happiness blossoms in the Slavic lands, and that Soviet life, like Soviet farmland, overflows with abundance. In the first stanza, the singers declaim:
There has never been field so green.
The village is filled with unheard-of happiness.
Our life has never been so happy.
Our rye has hitherto never been so plentiful.
The music of the opening seems to blossom like a spring flower. It’s a gorgeous piece written under monstrous circumstances.
Dmitri Shostakovich too composed a lot of lovely music for unpalatable commissions that served to bolster a brutal regime. The reputation of the string quartets, piano trios, and preludes and fugues is not on the line, since the image that they project of the composer is benignly soulful. But what about the music that Shostakovich composed for the Ansambl’ pesni i plyaski NKVD (Song and Dance Ensemble of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) — the ditties he penned for the black-booted rank and file of the secret police? “Pesenka o fonarike” (“Song About a Flashlight”), dated Aug. 3, 1946, serves as a case in point. It was part of an evening concert titled Otchizna (“Fatherland”), and was sung from the wings of a stage illuminated by criss-crossing flashlight beams. The refrain reads:
Vse nochi do zari
Moy starïy drug
Gori, gori, gori!
All night until dawn,
My old friend,
Burn, burn, burn!
Doubtless Shostakovich could not refuse the commission to write the music, and it probably took him just a couple of hours to craft it. But what about his music for the 1949 film Padeniye Berlina (“The Fall of Berlin”)? Did he truly need to fulfill the commission for this appalling contribution to the Stalinist cult of personality? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe the question is irrelevant, insofar as it might be considered an ethical lapse to pass judgment on a time of such unimaginable pressure.
Yet many Western scholars of romantic mindsets seem secure in their arguments that Shostakovich either secretly resisted the regime in his works or tamped down the impulse to do so — or both. The music theorist Patrick McCreless proposes that Shostakovich
… played a dangerous cat- and-mouse game with the Soviet state, his music sometimes apparently, even overtly, representing and supporting the state, and often satisfying state strictures on the surface, while at the same time hiding subtexts that went against the grain of that surface.
This comment, and his declaration that “Shostakovich’s life was on the line” in the late 1930s, overreach the facts and contradict certain eyewitness accounts. Composer and cultural bureaucrat Levon Atovmyan recalls Shostakovich remaining “calm” in the wake of the 1936 public denunciation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. (He also notes that on the train home, the composer lost all of his earnings playing blackjack.) Back in Moscow, Atovmyan proposed arranging a special concert of his music at the Bolshoi Theater, one that would include Act 4 of Lady Macbeth, and even boasted that he had received official approval from the Central Committee. Shostakovich responded not with terror but bemusement:
What’s the purpose in putting together such a concert? Isn’t the outcome obvious to you? The public will of course clap — it’s considered “good form” to be in the opposition, you know — and then yet another piece will appear under a heading like “Incorrigible formalist.” Really, is that what you want?
Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev would come under official fire in 1948. Just the year before, Prokofiev’s career had reached its zenith. In 1947, he received a Stalin Prize, lucrative honorifics from the Committee of Artistic Affairs, and an interest-free loan (for the purchase of a dacha) from the Union of Soviet Composers. But for unexplained, perhaps unexplainable reasons, the regime that simultaneously lauded and condemned him, branding him both a People’s Artist and an anti-People Formalist. On Feb. 10, 1948, Prokofiev attended a ceremony at the Kremlin elevating him from the rank of Honored Artist to that of People’s Artist of the Russian Soviet Republic. That same day, the finishing touches were put on a Central Committee Resolution condemning Prokofiev and Shostakovich as “formalists.”
They came in for official attack for absorbing modernist creative techniques to the detriment of the listening public, and for shunning the accessible Russian folk traditions in favor of inaccessible abstraction. Their patriotic works were reinterpreted as emblems of decadent distortion. Suddenly their music symbolized not Soviet culture, but “the present-day modernist bourgeois [culture] of Europe and America,” the “dementia” of this culture, its “complete negation of musical art,” and its ultimate “dead end.” None of this was true, of course. In fact, the scandal of 1948 seems to have had less to do with musical corruption than financial corruption. A postwar audit of the Composers’ Union revealed rampant cronyism; as part of the cleanup, Prokofiev lost his privileges and found himself, for the first time since his repatriation, in dire financial straits. Shostakovich too suffered financially.
And there were much worse events in store. Ministry of State Security thugs arrested Prokofiev’s first wife, Lina, on false charges of espionage. Prokofiev, who had since remarried, never saw her again. The composer beat a strategic retreat. In the last years of his life, he became a dutiful laborer, upholding the old Renaissance notion of music-making as a craft. Rather than subverting harmonic and structural conventions, he burnished his credentials as a retrospective composer. Playing it safe with the regime meant playing along. Yet Prokofiev recognized that playing along had just as many risks as playing with fire, so he decided not to play at all. He wrote his last works for musicians whom he could trust, friends who would champion them long into the future. He wrote his last works for posterity, for times and places that operated with different sets of rules.
Prokofiev also turned to the world of childlike caprice, conceiving, under the worst cloud of his career, an unknown vaudevillian opera entitled Distant Seas. Left unfinished at his death in 1953, the music that remains is pleasant, even as the conditions that underpin it were among the most unpleasant imaginable. Distant Seas finds Prokofiev escaping reality for a world of libidinal adolescent caprice. Vaudeville, he deduced, was the ideal genre for authoritarian culture since, within it, the high and low could be crammed together without risk of censure. Forced, in word and deed, to tame his own creative instincts, he embraced a genre defined by cheerful banality. Had the work been finished and had it survived into more rational times, the whole edifice might have been read as an exercise in high-seas escapism. Distant Seas has no hidden meanings: Its only subtext is the absence of a subtext.
Shostakovich, who unlike Prokofiev long outlived Stalin, also retreated — for a time, at least. Among the works banned by the 1948 Resolution were Shostakovich’s Sixth, Eighth and Ninth symphonies; his Piano Concerto; the cantata Poem of the Motherland; his Octet; his Second Piano Sonata; his Songs on English Verses, and his piano cycle Aphorisms. It’s quite a list, and one that, from a stylistic point of view, evinces no logic. In its randomness, it signaled that no work by Shostakovich should be performed.
But because censors generally paid more attention to music attached to words or physical gestures than to music alone, instrumental composition often proved safer than theatrical composition. Watchdog committees like Glavrepertkom vetted libretti and scenarios for political correctness, while chamber music was subject to gentler peer review in the offices of the Union of Soviet Composers. And so Shostakovich continued to write string quartets, completing 15 in all between 1938 and 1974. These are his most personal works, yet not necessarily his most inward. In the Eighth Quartet, for example, the subtext rises to the sounding surface through a dizzying network of musical references that continue to puzzle contemporary critics.
The Eighth Quartet (1960) exploits the composer’s musical monogram, D-S-C-H (D-E-flat-C-B), as semantic and syntactic ground. Musicologists have noted a connection between the creation of the quartet and the composer’s pressured decision in 1960 officially to join the Communist Party following three decades of unofficial involvement. Also as grist for the musicological mill is the fact that the quartet was composed in three days flat (or so the composer said) near the ruins of Dresden, likewise a quotation from “Zamuchen tyazholoy nevoley” (“Tormented by grievous bondage”) in the fourth movement. Lenin liked the song; so did Stalin.
Besides the musical monogram and the song quotation, the quartet takes us on a tour of sorts through Shostakovich’s career in the form of self-quotations. Act 4 of Lady Macbeth is quoted in the fourth movement, and Act 1 referenced in the fifth. The opera would not have been familiar to listeners in 1960, since it had been long prohibited from performance. Numerous other allusions, some more recherché than others, clutter a score so burdened with references that one keeps expecting to hear more. Perhaps everything is a quote. Listening to the Eight String Quartet is like reading Dostoyevsky’s relentlessly unseemly novel Crime and Punishment but finding within it the resplendent but weirdly silent scene of Natasha at the opera in Tolstoy’s War and Peace — plus, some details about Dostoyevsky’s childhood. Plus a surrealist episode in which Raskolnikov, the destitute, doomed-to-madness protagonist of Crime and Punishment, complains about the grimness of the tale of which he is a part.
In the final movement, the massive burden of external reference is suddenly lifted, replaced by D-S-C-H in polyphonic imitation. Now the motive is in dialogue just with itself, a procedure that, for all its seeming abstraction, could be interpreted as another reference harkening back to Bach. The procedure might be compared to the Sphinxes of Schumann’s piano cycle Carnaval, in which the musical letters of Schumann’s name serve as the invisible controlling mechanism for a representation of the real and imagined characters in the composer’s life. Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet could have been subtitled “My Many Selves.”
In the end, Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s were not the ethics of resistance. Theirs were the ethics of survival, of playing it safe. Stravinsky, free to pass judgment from his perch in the West, pitied Shostakovich for having to compose his socialist realist Fifth Symphony and derided Prokofiev in general for his sacrifice to the “Russian bitch goddess.” That phrase, a quote from Stravinsky, is of a coarseness Putin himself might admire.
Simon Morrison holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University, where he is professor of music. A leading authority on Sergei Prokofiev, Morrison is author of The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years (Oxford University Press, 2009), as well as Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement (University of California Press, 2002).
VIDEO: Simon Morrison discusses the life of Lina Prokofiev, the subject of his 2013 book, Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, in this recent interview from the BBC (via YouTube).