Politicizing Music in Communist Romania: The Personal Memories of a Witness

By Romano, Stefan | The Beethoven Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Politicizing Music in Communist Romania: The Personal Memories of a Witness


Romano, Stefan, The Beethoven Journal


THE POLITICIZATION OF MUSIC IN FORMER COMMUNIST COUNTRIES as part of the general cultural policy of the regimes had some general features which applied all over the world.1 The most prominent of these was that the "party and state"2 took culture over as a very important tool to manipulate the nation (which is much more than censorship). Another important main feature was that control had three dimensions: the cultural thesaurus of the past, the contemporary creation itself, and - related to the latter the "bourgeois" influence coming from the free Western World.

There were some very specific features, too. For example, in Europe, Beethoven was hailed as the artist revolutionary from the very beginning of Communism, while he was banned in China for a long time during the Cultural Revolution for being an instrument of the imperialists in their attempts to reinstate capitalism! There were other differences whose purport is not easy to ascertain. Lenin was an educated man and it is likely that he listened to Beethoven's music. His Commissar for the Arts, Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky (1875-1933), was another music lover (as were many Nazi butchers). I suppose that the East German Communist Party leaders, by virtue of their national tradition, were musically educated. This must have mattered to a certain extent when music was politicized in their countries. This did not apply to Romania's Communist leaders: they were ignorant, uneducated people whose musical preferences were limited to old peasant "folk music" (songs and dance tunes) or urban "romances" (popular songs by various nineteenth- or twentieth-century authors). Their cultural policies were largely decided by their "commissars," who liked to be thought of as educated people but who were not necessarily musically literate.

In Romania, like elsewhere, the party and state took complete control over any form of artistic creation and performance; every artist had to become a member of a "union," was paid by the state, and had to fulfill the "social commission," whose artistic form was the so-called "Socialist Realism." This takeover happened around 1948, but the roles of music and musicians continued to undergo dramatic changes over the next few decades.

The first period might be described as the Sovietization Period, the artisan of which was the art commissar Iosif Chishinevsky. It consisted of the glorification of Soviet and (largely bowdlerized) Russian art, as the only full-fledged incarnation of the creative power of the "liberated peoples." To quote a famous Romanian joke: "What is the correct pronunciation of the famous German composer's name: Schubert or Schumann? The correct answer is Shostakovich." This was a form of revised Soviet proletcult: the "pre-proletarian" artistic thesaurus was no longer annihilated in its entirety for being a form of oppression, but it was expurgated from every political "deviation" and then appropriated as a forerunner of proletarian revolution. Shakespeare was such a forerunner, as was Rembrandt. Beethoven, of course, was the greatest of all.

The definition of political "deviation" conformed to the Soviet model and varied from mysticism (for example, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) was banned in Romania for a long time, as he was in Soviet Union) to "decadence" (almost all twentieth century art - another similarity with Nazi cultural policy) to "naturalism" (artists like Emile Zola (1840-1902) who believed that inherited nature rather than social conditions determine people's behavior) to "nationalism" (the "mortal sin" in a system which hailed "proletarian internationalism"). Living personalities who had fled the Soviet Union or other Communist regimes were simply annihilated into non-existence. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) were banned as well as, on the Romanian side, Georges Enesco (1881-1955), who had fled the Communists and lived in Paris and rejected the advances the Communists made to him. …

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