Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, know that I am infatuated with Russian music. A gifted high school teacher ignited my love for Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music (see my very first post), and over the past weeks, I have discovered the extraordinary richness and beauty of Dmitry Shostakovich’s works. Without any doubts, both composers are acknowledged on a global scale as two of the greatest Russian artists. Russia’s appreciation of the two men always was ambiguous and still is. We are speaking about tolerance of diversity, of freedom of expression or rather the lack of both in Russia – then and now.
In 1936, the Communist Party of the USSR reproached Shostakovich to deviate from Socialist Realism, Moscow’s official cultural policy. The composer was slandered in the state-controlled press as “formalistic” and influenced by the decadent taste of the bourgeois West. The “Pravda” condemned his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District” and his ballet “The Limpid Stream” in an editorial, rumoured to have been written by Stalin himself. Absolute music – music lacking an easily understandable subject – was not to be tolerated. Composers were supposed to write beautiful melodies, inspired by Russian folk tunes and praising the life of ordinary people in the Soviet Union and the achievements of Communism.
Shostakovich gives in
The campaign against “formalism” was fanned a second time in 1948 by the Central Committee of the party. At the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Composers, Shostakovich, under massive pressure, accepted publicly the Party’s guidance in aesthetic matters and “professed increased understanding of the need for programmatic music”, as his biographer Laurel E. Fay puts it. What he did not say was that he had in the past ten years composed quite a few pieces that did not square with the guidelines. He had looked into Jewish folk songs when at the same time the government’s campaign against Jewish communities reached a peak. He had let himself be inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach and composed 24 Preludes and Fugues – absolute music with no relationship to Soviet life. And he kept quiet about it.
Ten years later, when Shostakovich had risen to international fame and redeemed himself through the many works following the party line, the Communist Party explained in an official resolution that Shostakovich and other “formalistic” composers were rehabilitated, but not without emphasizing that the 1948 exposure of the composers’ “formalistic” errors were justified. A larger degree of artistic freedom under Khrushchev made it possible for politics to reintegrate Shostakovich into the official Soviet cultural showcase. It certainly came as a relief to Shostakovich, but he was aware of the fact that he had been a pawn of Moscow’s politics since 1936.
Sexual discrimination then and now
Today, artists do not necessarily fare better. “Tchaikovsky is the pride of Russia”, President Putin declared in July 2015 at the 15th Tchaikovsky Competition. Really? Tchaikovsky was gay, and it was Putin himself who initiated legal and practical discrimination of homo- or transsexuality in Russia. The composer is held in esteem by the power when it helps to promote Russian nationalism, but Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation is a problem. In 2013, Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky simply denied that the composer was gay. How convenient! He could then also deny that Tchaikovsky most likely committed suicide because former school mates had threatened to expose him as gay. Tolerance did not rank among the prime values of the Russia in the 19th century and it doesn’t today.
© Charles Thibo