In the Red

By Thomson, Andrew | Musical Times, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

In the Red


Thomson, Andrew, Musical Times


In the red Creative union: the professional organisation of Soviet composers, 1939-1953 Kiril Tomoff Cornell University Press (Ithaca & London, 2006); xiv, $21pp; $57.50. ISBN 0 8014 4411 x.

A TRIUMPH of the human spirit over the crushing forces of totalitarianism during one of the most appalling periods in history according to this individualistic narrative are the achievements (if the leading Soviet composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich generally regarded in the liberal West. Against this, a very different perspective is presented by Kiril Tomoff, a specialist in Russian history. Without denying such terrible events as the 1937 Yezhovshchina's extermination of intellectuals (among them the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet Osip Mandelstatn), and the shocking criticism directed at Shostakovich over the Lady Macbeth affair, Creative union explains how composers and performers nevertheless came to enjoy a comparatively protected status under Stalin. In 1932, along with the Writers' and Artists' Unions, a strong professional organisation, the Composers' Union, had come into existence, absorbing the pre-existing Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians and the Association of Contemporary Music; if not strictly autonomous in relation to the state, it nevertheless had the power of agency to act within a complicated system of restraints. In its turn, Stalinist ideology, essentially fluid and unstable, was actually dependent on respected professional institutions for its practical definition, particularly in the case of music, which by its very abstract nature evaded control by politicians and bureaucrats to a large extent. In his entirely empirical, objective and intensely researchbased study, mercifully devoid of Marxist-Leninist jargon. Professor Tomoff provides a concentrated study of power structures and elite hierarchies, Party Congresses, ideological controversies and, not least, finance, supported by a mountain of historical detail, statistics and diagrams. Inevitably, this results in some levelling down, with Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Miaskovskii working in political subjugation to such creative inferiors as Aram Khachaturian and Tikhon Krennikov - successive General secretaries of the Composers' Union - who dominated through their sheer ability to manipulate the system. Within the Union, moreover, other subordinate institutions played valuable roles; among its various functions, Orgkom ran the Central House of Composers to provide printing and copying services, while the vital funding institution Muzfond was granted the power to build housing complexes, dachas and vacation resorts, and make grants and loans to composers during work in progress.

Such unparalleled material support found its true justification with the German invasion (1941-45) and the ensuing gigantic conflict, when composers in both popular and 'highbrow' forms responded magnificently to the Central Committee on Artistic Affaire's call for the celebration of Soviet heroism, an essential part of the war effort. If popular moraleboosting War Songs successfully bridged the gap between front and rear, on the more intellectual level the assertion of Soviet culture against the Nazi effort to destroy what it regarded as subhuman and worthy of complete eradication found its most potent symbol in the international success of Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony (1941). Meanwhile the musicologist BV Asaf'ev was engaged in debunking the great Austro-German tradition itself, supposedly derived from Italian, French and Slavonic sources. Hailing Glinka and Tchaikovsky as the true successors to Mozart and Beethoven, he deemed later 'German' music to be mere 'inhuman modernism'. Shostakovich's two subsequent symphonies, however, provoked much adverse criticism and breastbeating as the outpouring of suffering and grief which characterised the pessimistic Eighth (1943) failed to find resolution in the overwhelmingly sardonic tone of the Ninth (1945). …

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