Music, not muddle: Re-examining Soviet sounds and the socialist project

Sep 8, 2020

Photo: Noah Leininger

A vivid, flourishing, and diverse musical life developed in the Soviet Union. This vibrant culture was built by professional and amateur artists from among and across its many different nationalities, and spanned styles and genres from classical forms like ballets and orchestras to popular forms like rock and jazz music. Amateur workplace ensembles were promoted to engage workers actively in performances as members of bands, orchestras, and choirs. Debates raged about the path Soviet music should take moving forward. Yet much of this culture remains either shut off or misconstrued to Western audiences–not by its Soviet creators, but by Western scholars, music directors, historians, and performers who have misinterpreted the cultural contributions of Soviet workers through the anti-communist prism of the Cold War.

American composer Aaron Copland, in his speech to the 1949 Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the New York Waldorf-Astoria hotel, expressed his concern that the Cold War that he and Soviet composers already saw emerging in the wake of World War II would lead to a lack of musical exchange between the two sides of the conflict to the detriment of artists in both countries:

“One can never tell in advance what will stimulate the imagination of an artist. If a brilliant new composing talent emerges from Tajikistan we all want to hear what his music is like. If a bright new composing star rises out of the Kentucky Mountain area we think the Russian people should know what his music is like” [1].

With the end of the war and of the celebration of music by allied Soviet composers like Dmitri Shostakovich, the anti-communist consensus of the West shifted along the fault lines of the global class war, anchored at the workers’ side by the Soviet Union and on the imperialist side by the United States. The imperialist side cast Soviet music as—to the exclusion of minority nationalities in the Soviet Union—Russian, propagandistic, and written simply to please dimwitted bureaucrats who directed art policy from the halls of government, detached from and above the heads of the artists involved in the day-to-day creation of Soviet art.

Multi-national and multi-gendered composers contribute to Soviet music

A common myth of Soviet music is that the many minority nations of the USSR were subjugated and their music was “Russified.” In fact, the opposite was the case, particularly in the early years of the Soviet Union. A survey of the national background of composers whose music was printed in sheet music collections for brass bands, a popular form of workers’ concert ensemble that proliferated faster than amateur orchestras, shows that fewer than half of the works that appeared in these collections were composed by Russians during the Stalin–Khrushchev years.

Music of the many minority nationalities of the Soviet Union flourished in the Soviet era, across all genres and styles: from classical music (especially in the highly-celebrated form of ballet) to popular music, which embraced international forms like jazz and rock. There was, of course, significant Russian participation in Soviet culture, and the Russian language was used as a country-wide lingua franca. Still, Soviet culture maintained the cultural and linguistic autonomy of minority nations through active expression; they were not erased through assimilation or “Russianization.”

In 1955, Lydia Auster’s ballet Tiina was given its premiere at the Estonia Theatre in Tallinn, the capital of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The ballet is based on the tragic play Libahunt, Estonian for “werewolf,” written in 1912 by August Kitzberg. Its premiere was part of a Soviet Estonian music festival dedicated to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party that coincided with the playwright’s birthday. The music and dances are based on Estonian folk songs and dances, and the story is of a young girl named Tiina who struggles against reactionary closed-mindedness.

As a young girl, she witnesses the execution of her mother, ordered by the local priest and baron on the accusation of witchcraft, based on the frivolous evidence of her wolfskin shawl. Tiina is adopted by a local peasant family and, as she grows up, falls in love with their son, Margus. He shares her feelings of affection and they dance together in a loving duet, but he is betrothed to the daughter of another farm-owning family. Tiina is driven out of town when she bites a local overseer as he drunkenly attacks her, but he twists the situation to accuse her of being a werewolf.

Tiina meets Margus in the woods after some months, but he refuses to leave his life behind to join her. Later, he marries, but even at the wedding is distracted by thoughts of Tiina. Hearing the sounds of wolves outside, he grabs his gun and shoots into the dark. Tiina screams, shot; Margus brings her into the house just in time for her to die in his arms.

Watch the full ballet Tiina, performed and broadcasted 
on Estonian SSR national TV
Listen to the concert suite of excerpts from Tiina, 
performed by the Estonian National Orchestra, directed 
by Neeme Jarvi

Although the overall story is tragic, the music written to represent the titular heroine is optimistic. The duet of Tiina and Margus gushes with hopeful, optimistic romance, as if to say: “A better world is possible: don’t you feel it?” This ballet duet between star-crossed lovers is like the similar “Scene and Duet” from Soviet Azerbaijani composer Qara Qarayev’s 1958 ballet The Path of Thunder. Qarayev’s ballet received the Lenin Prize, and was based on the 1948 novel by Black South African author Peter Abrahams that tells of an ill-fated interracial relationship under Apartheid. Soviet music, far from being Russianized, was both multinational, by embracing and encouraging Soviet minority nations’ cultural production, and international, by putting forward the struggles of oppressed nations in other countries in ways that highlighted the heroic and active struggle for civil rights and liberation across the world and correctly named the hero’s side.

Listen to “Scene and Duet” from The Path of Thunder, 
performed by the Moscow Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra

Music was of, by, and for the people

Musical life did not just take place on the concert stage. Soviet cultural workers did intentionally labor to bridge the gap wedged between “high” and “low” art by bourgeois aesthetes by offering free concerts and broadcasting performances on television and radio. Another way this was achieved was by involving composers in all facets of musical life—“classical” composers wrote film and popular music, and writers of popular music also wrote more typically classical forms, such as concertos and symphonies. This division of labor is more entrenched in the West, although it has its exceptions (Ben Folds’s 2015 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is an example of a concert work composed by a predominantly “popular” artist, but genuinely popular works from principally classical composers are few and far between).

Alexandra Pakhmutova is best known as a songwriter, having written more than 400 songs. Many of her songs are set to texts on subjects of and leaders in the revolutionary process in the Soviet Union, from Lenin to Yuri Gagarin, the Young Communist League to the LEP-500 electrical line—including a substantial number of lyrics authored by her spouse, Nikolai Dobronravov, who is renowned in his own right as a poet.

Her 1974 song, “And the Battle Continues” (sometimes called “And Lenin is Young Again,” from the second line of the chorus) was written for the closing ceremony of the 17th Congress of the Young Communist League (Komsomol), where it was performed before being temporarily banned by Soviet censors. For the first time in Pakhmutova’s career, the censorship was based, not just on the text, but the music itself, written in a rock style and using drum kit. The censorship was lifted after a year (with no changes made to the music), and it returned to the stage with a performance by Lev Leshchenko at the “Song of the Year” music festival in 1975, after which it became a popular Soviet song.

Listen to “And the Battle Continues,” sung by the 
Big Children’s Choir
Listen to other performances and download sheet music 
and MIDI files for “And the Battle Continues”

During the glasnost period nearing the end of the Soviet Union, Dobronravov’s lyrics depict a marked opposition to the political direction of the country. That direction ultimately resulted in the restoration of capitalism and, against the will of the Soviet people expressed in the 1991 referendum, the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1987, Pahkmutova and Dobronravov collaborated to create the song “October ’17.” The song lamented the loss of the revolutionary spirit of October 1917 but committed to renew it and spread it again: “We will think, we will live, we will overcome every adversity to revive, in every heart, October ’17.”

Debunking and contextualizing typical anti-communist anecdotes about Soviet music

Soviet life was, we’re led to believe, oppressively dreary, and its music—especially of the 1930s and 1940s during the Stalin era—was artificially happy to compensate. Soviet artists, at the threat of starvation, we’re told, were compelled to write propaganda music extolling the virtues of a brutal dictatorship of the proletariat.

One such example is supposedly found in the life of Soviet Russian composer, Alexander Mosolov. He studied under Nikolai Myaskovsky and Reinhold Glière at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1920s after he had joined the Red Guards in defense of the young Soviet socialist system in 1918. Sometimes described as a “futurist” because of his most famous composition, Iron Foundry, which is one of the only excerpts that survived from his 1928 ballet Steel, Mosolov was instead a socialist artist. Futurism was generally a capitalist aesthetic with connections to fascism. Its manifesto, which called for the destruction of the past and celebration of the machinery of industrial capitalism, was written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who also wrote the Fascist Manifesto.

Mosolov came under vicious attacks from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians in their journal Proletarian Musician, and by 1932 he was so affected by the attacks and ensuing loss of work that he wrote directly to Stalin asking for intervention in the feud, requesting that he either end the attacks or allow Mosolov to travel abroad. A commission was already being set up by the Central Committee to address similar attacks against Soviet authors coming from the RAPP, the corresponding proletarian writers’ organization, and Mosolov’s issue was added to the list. He was met by members of the commission, and a month later, the Politburo adopted a resolution that dissolved the proletarian arts associations and established new artists’ unions with Communist Party fractions in them.

Listen to Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry

In January 1936, Mosolov was involved in a drunken fight at the Moscow restaurant Press House. A report in Soviet Art of his expulsion from the Composer’s Union in response said that he had a reputation for drunken incidents and “hooligan, bohemian” behavior that was beneath Soviet artists. His expulsion from the union lasted only a few months before it was reinstated, but in December of the following year he was convicted of “counterrevolutionary activities” and sentenced to eight years’ labor on a hydroelectric project. After his teachers Myaskovsky and Glière wrote to Mikhail Kalinin, Mosolov’s sentence was commuted and he was released on August 25, 1938 with a prohibition on living in Moscow, Leningrad, or Kiev until 1942.

After his release, Mosolov spent time documenting folk music in various Soviet republics and northern Russia, and despite his period of imprisonment, he continued to compose and have his music performed. In 1954, Mosolov wrote the music to a stop-motion animated agitational film, “Villain With a Sticker,” about the dangers of alcohol abuse. The film is a series of vignettes of workers being led astray by a bottle of vodka with a mischievous grin, followed by educational slogans. In the final vignette, the bottle approaches a train conductor to tempt him, but instead of accepting, the conductor kicks it away, shattering the bottle on the rail. “Remember, city and village! Fight against drunkenness, drunkenness is wrong!”

The music, while markedly different from that of his student works, still has Mosolov’s idiomatic sound, resonating with the melodious and theatrical works of his early library, but anti-communist musicians discount his works composed after his imprisonment. When Mosolov developed his individual idiomatic voice beyond its rudimentary presentations in his first works, anti-communists say that his early artistic voice has been stifled after he was “castrated by Stalin,” as one online commentator put it. When Western composers develop their musical voice over time, however, it is because they supposedly have the freedom to produce art for art’s sake, free from political censorship.

Watch the 1954 agitfilm “Villain With a Sticker” 
with music by Alexander Mosolov

In the late 1950s, as Soviet stages produced The Path of Thunder, American progressive culture had already been attacked in the halls of Congress half a decade prior. Aaron Copland had given an impromptu stump speech for S. K. Davis, the Communist candidate for Governor of Minnesota, in 1934. The same year, he wrote “Into the Streets May First,” a rallying cry and American attempt at the Soviet genre of mass song. In response, Joseph McCarthy summoned the composer to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to be grilled over his Communist ties, and Copland recanted his heretical beliefs. Copland called “Into the Streets May First,” about which he had bragged to friends when it was republished in Soviet Music, the journal of the Composers’ Union, “the silliest thing I ever did.” Other American artists, such as Morton Gould, Marc Blitzstein, and Leonard Bernstein were similarly brought before Congress and shamed into submission.

One artist refused to submit. In his hearing, bass singer Paul Robeson repeatedly invoked his rights not to incriminate himself while turning questions back against the congressmen. He delivered a particularly acute response to Rep. Francis Walter, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, saying that he was not being persecuted simply for his Communist beliefs like Copland and the other fellow travelers, but for his work towards Black liberation. At the same time, Robeson made clear his recognition of the Communist Party’s active role in that fight, carefully constructing his comments in light of the anti-communist witch hunt.

A better world isn’t simply possible, it is necessary. Culture is one of the fronts on which the class struggle has been fought in history and must be fought today. As artists in the struggle, we should strive for art that is relevant to our time and full of revolutionary optimism for the future. What did Alexander Mosolov do in 1918? He joined the Red Guards and fought to defend the precarious victory of socialism in the young RSFSR.

The Soviet Union understood and, more importantly, enacted the centrality of music–and arts and culture more broadly–in the struggle for a socialist society. Socialism isn’t just an economic project; it’s a political, social, cultural, and artistic project as well.

Where is the place for class-conscious artists in the U.S. today? In the struggle—in a communist party!

[1] Aaron Copland, “The Effect of the Cold War on the Artist in the United States,” in Aaron Copland: A Reader, Selected Writings 1923–1972, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Routledge, 2004), 131.

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