Creative Union: The Professional Organization of Soviet Composers, 1939-1953

Article excerpt

Creative Union: The Professional Organization of Soviet Composers, 1939-1953. By Kiril Tomoff. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. [xiv, 321 p. ISBN 0-801444-11-X. $57.50.] Tables, bibliographic notes, index.

Kiril Tomoff's Creative Union represents a milestone in the literature on the musical life of the Stalin-era Soviet Union by addressing for the first time the need for a comprehensive study of the Soviet Composers' Union. Tomoff embarks on a detailed examination of the workings and evolution of the Union from its inception in 1939 through the death of Stalin in 1953 that aims at a more nuanced and complete view of the Soviet musical world. This examination moves beyond the activities and struggles of individual composers to consider the composition and production of music in the Soviet Union as a profession. Creative unions served a central role in Soviet musical life, and in the case of music, they provided the forum for the creation and dissemination of a distinct musical culture.

One of the key themes of Creative Union is how the Soviet Composers' Union brought together musical authorities and harnessed their expertise to control Soviet musical production. Tomoff argues that music's nonrepresentational nature made members of the Party elite more cautious when it came to issues of musical interpretation, and as such Soviet composers and musicologists often had a degree of maneuverability not shared by their colleagues in other artistic fields. Negotiating and benefiting from this degree of maneuverability -what Tomoff calls "agency"-became one of the hallmarks of the Composers' Union. This leads to one of the most provocative theses of Creative Union: "Agency and the . . . argument that the Composers' Union is best understood as a professional organization suggest the emergence in the Soviet Union of a profoundly modern social category, the professional, in a field-music-that would be unexpected in more typically studied Anglo-American and continental European contexts" (p. 3). Throughout the pages of his study, Tomoff convincingly shows how the existence of such an organization and the agency it possessed not only defined the character of Soviet music, but furthermore controlled and distributed financial resources, monitored professionalism among its members, and imposed a hierarchical system of privilege for musicians.

Creative Union is divided into three parts. The first presents a detailed history of the birth and evolution of the Composers' Union up through the end of World War II. The creation of the Union was born of the need to produce ideologically sound music that would be accessible to a wide audience, but Tomoff shows how the organization additionally served to merge the creation and interpretation of music under the auspices of one institution as well as provide a vehicle for the ideological education of musicians. What emerged in the late 1930s as the All-USSR Union of Soviet Composers represented much more than a trade union, but an institution defined by the expertise embodied in its members, providing a forum for composition and musical analysis, the central activities of its members. Part 1 furthermore considers the ways in which the Composers' Union helped guide composers in support of the war effort through the composition of highly successful songs and symphonies. By ensuring that Soviet music flourished during the devastating war years, the members of the Composers' Union earned great respect and prestige, as well as a place in the Soviet cultural elite.

Part 2 of the study considers the postwar years, including a fascinating revisionist look at the infamous 1948 attack on music. Tomoff shows that the attack, which eventually claimed Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and others as its victims, was not a logical outcome of the post-war political tightening in the cultural sphere, but rather an intervention that resulted somewhat unexpectedly from the criticism of a single, costly, and unsuccessful opera. …