“The young Soviet state was faced with the problem of acquainting the working people with true art, of teaching them to understand and appreciate the masterpieces of world culture, and of disseminating this culture among all the different peoples inhabiting the vast country.”[1]  So begins Soviet Music, by Lyudmila Polyakova, written about 1957 and published by the State publishing house of the USSR.  The task of Soviet music sounds innocent enough.  Polyakova begins the book by citing all the wonderful composers and traditions from pre-revolutionary Russia, admitting that “by 1917 the level of Russia’s musical culture was very high indeed.”  But then, of course, she must explain how music changed under communism, and why. 

In fact, to live without music is inconceivable.  What do you do when the State becomes the provider of everything, and that state is trying to pull together not only Russia, but the surrounding nations and satellites—indeed, trying to pull the world together—under the aegis of a particular and exclusive political system?  Soviet music became a tremendous challenge to the State—and a tremendous vehicle for the “re-education of the masses.” 

Soviet music was created within the nearly forty nationalities represented by the words “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”  The communist government started cultural clubs everywhere throughout the empire, recognizing the fact that once they virtually destroyed the churches, synagogues, and mosques, they had destroyed with them the opportunity the common people had to sing (Christian people spoke of going “to sing”, not just going “to church”).  In the Orthodox churches, the people sang a cappella music, and the great composers, such as Tchaikovsky, Gretchaninoff, and Glinka, wrote beautiful worship music.  To go to church meant to see magnificent artwork, to hear beautiful music (of course, limited by the choirs available), and to receive what is properly called “culture”—the art, music, and social life which is part of religion, and, to some extent, defines a people.  When culture became unavailable to the people because of the mass destruction of the churches, the martyrdom of many of the faithful Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant believers, something had to be created to take its place. 

Art and music became servants of the State.  Lenin said, “Art belongs to the people.  It must have its roots in the very thickness of the broad working masses.  It must be comprehensible to the masses and beloved by them.  It must unite the feelings, thoughts, and will of the masses, elevate them.  It must awaken the artist in them and educate them.”[2]  To carry out his plan, Lenin immediately replaced anyone with “dangerous, reactionary” tendencies so that the “new, revolutionary music” was created by a large group of young musicians educated in the new Soviet conservatories—carefully selected as “ardent advocates of revolutionary ideas, filled with enthusiasm and determination to create a new, progressive, and absolutely original music.”[3] 

Needless to say, the Soviet composers had absolutely no idea how to create such music, and rudimentary experiments were considered, by the Soviets, to be utter failures.  The Party tried organizing the composers so that they could spy upon and criticize each other.  Finally, the two main groups which had been formed by ardent partisans (the Association of Modern Music and the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) both fell by the wayside, and a new group was created, called the “Union of Soviet Composers.”  The stated aim of the organization was that “all Soviet art armed with progressive socialist ideology must turn all its variety of forms and genres to the service of the people.”  Adds Polykova, “The beneficial results of successfully coping with the important tasks set before the composers of the USSR by the Communist Party are manifest in the steady rise observed in Soviet music since the second half of the thirties.”  (p. 11). 

The result of this organization, controlled totally by the Communist Party under the leadership of Stalin, was that composers willing to abide by its rules could go to the “Composers’ Homes for Creative Work,” quiet places in the country where they could concentrate on composition.  These houses boasted as many as two or three rooms, which was better than sharing an apartment with perhaps ten other people in the cities.  Under the Union of Composers were the Musical Fund and the Department for the Popularization of Soviet Music, which wholly took charge of the composer’s career, “arranging performances, concert tours, composers’ appearances, and so on.”(p. 11).   

Rather than being ashamed of such bribery, the scheme is explained with perfect candor by the Soviets.  “The State is in a position to do this because the October Revolution has made it owner of all concert halls, orchestras, concert-giving organizations, conservatoires, opera theaters, and publishing houses.” (p. 12)  The wonder is not that anyone was able to compose at all, but that there were some truly great composers who managed to work in spite of the circumstances.   

What is not said, of course, by the State Publishing House is what happened to the composers, artists, and writers in the Soviet Union who refused to benefit by these State-sponsored inducements—that is, that they either were unable to work at all, created samizdat (anonymous, “self-published”) material, or were imprisoned or killed for defying the State. 

In spite of our natural disinclination toward the idea of music so circumscribed that one could hardly call it anything but propaganda, it is enlightening to look at Soviet composers from the point of view of the Soviet critic.  Denied a great deal in the spiritual realm, the Soviet composers attempted to fill a void by writing “intellectual” music, based upon “communist realities” and the “will of the proletariat.”  At the same time, they took up folk themes which were of no particular threat to the State, and often made them into successful expressions of youthful ebullience, good humor, and even cautious examples of spiritual awareness.


The composer and professor A. Glazunov, who left Russia after the first symphony of his protégé had made its appearance, said in 1929 that Dmitri Shostakovitch was the most promising of the new Soviet composers.  Dmitri Shostakovich (1907-1975) was only twelve, and taking his examination at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (later Leningrad) when Glazunov recognized his special talent as a composer and urged him to study composition with Maximillian Steinberg.   

In 1922, Dmitri’s father died, and Glazunov was careful to supervise the young man’s career until he launched his First Symphony successfully, in 1926.  After seeing Shostakovich’s first triumph, Glazunov left Russia, and turned up, strangely enough, in America.   

Let us listen to the words of the Soviet critic, Lyudmila Polyakova, about the music of Shostakovich:           

“The First Symphony of Shostakovich was more than just the new word of a talented composer; it was a sign of the times, being the first work of a great artist of the new generation.  Perhaps that was the reason why Shostakovitch later succeeded in giving the most convincing expression to the spirit of our times, for from the outset he perceived it with a Soviet man’s awareness of the people as a great and rightful social force. 

“One will not find profound dramatism or acute conflicts in this appealing music—that would be out of place in a work of a composer who had not yet turned twenty.  But the youthful zeal with which optimism is asserted here is sufficient to make Shostakovich’s First Symphony an important achievement of Soviet symphonic music… 

“After his First Symphony there began for Shostakovich a difficult period of growth, filled with contradictions.  The composer himself admitted in later years that his Second and Third symphonies were failures, works reflecting creative searchings but no attainments.  And indeed, in his works of the late twenties and early thirties the young composer, afraid of ecelcticism and influenced by the AMM ideas, engaged in a series of risky experiments with modernist and constructivist techniques then in vogue, sometimes resorting to grotesquery.  He did attempt to write music about Soviet reality (the Second Symphony was a dedication to the October Revolution and the Third, a May First Symphony), but these attempts were not successful owing to the constructivist, abstract nature of the scores, divorced from art’s natural expressive media.  The two symphonies as well as the First Piano Sonata, the Aphorisms for piano and the opera The Nose gave rise to heated discussions. 

“In spite of the contradictoriness of Shostakovich’s early compositions (the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, the first Piano Concerto, the Cello Concerto, 24 Preludes for Piano, the Cello Sonata), the live human emotions and the striving for a more truthful portrayal of reality made themselves felt more and more persistently.  The clear outlook of a Soviet artist who had broken with false, alien concepts of aesthetics, became increasingly more pronounced.  The composer was going through a tormenting period of search for ways and means to express the new, Soviet theme.” (p. 20) 

One rather wonders what this “new, Soviet theme” might be.  Shostakovich was permitted to express the moods of “contemplation and meditation, to intense and fierce struggle, through suffering to a wise and tranquil acceptance of the world… (p. 20)  Polyakova explains the moods of the Symphony as being of paramount importance; she refers to the “Hamlet question” (presumably, “to be, or not to be”) which gives rise to a pessimistic first theme.  Then, after the “brooding unhappiness,” comes a change of orchestration to flutes and other light instruments, “embodying the active and virile force which stands between the evil monsters and the bright secondary theme.”  (The Soviet “light” begins to dawn.)  In the Second Movement, behold a Scherzo, the “gayest and most animated” movement, full of “colorful, down-to-earth humor.”  Then there is a Third Movement, Largo, which “ranks among the finest creations of Shostakovich’s genius.  Sorrow, its dominant mood, is expressed through eloquent unhurriedly developing melodies, dramatic recitatives, pathetic exclamations, and austere choral chords…The emotional content of this movement is reconciliation with life in spite of the bereaved heart’s gnawing pain and bitterness.”  (What!  Gnawing pain and bitterness in a Soviet state?!)  [4]And last, “the merry finale (Allegro non troppo), the least profound movement of the symphony as regards content, can nevertheless be considered the optimistic climax of the drama.“

Polyakova goes on to claim, “By the early forties Dmitri Shostakovich was a mature master of Soviet symphonic music.  He had travelled a hard road of searchings—from the brilliantly talented and youthfully vigorous First Symphony—through the laborious and sometimes unconvincing attempts at expressing the modern theme by means of outwardly new methods (the Second and Third Symphonies) to the real artistic heights in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, giving a true picture of Soviet Man’s personality in the making” (p. 22)  She adds, however, that Shostakovich was most truly himself when he portrayed the plight of the people during the Second World War.  The composer himself spoke of his thoughts upon writing the Seventh Symphony while his beloved city, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) was being bombarded by the Germans:  “Almost the whole of the symphony was composed in my native Leningrad.  The city was bombed from the air, the enemy’s artillery was shelling it.  And in those days I was working on my symphony.  I worked much, at a high tension and quickly…I was thinking of the greatness of our people, its heroism, the best ideals of humanity, man’s fine qualities, the beautiful Russian scenery, humanism and beauty…I finished the symphony on December 27, 1941.” (ibid, p. 23)

In spite of the acceptance of the later works of Shostakovich, there were serious problems when Stalin saw Lady MacBeth of Mdensk.  The work was based upon a novel by Nicholas Leskov, written in 1865.  Soviet critics had gushed about the opera—until Stalin saw it.  After he was disgusted by what he felt was repulsive, raucous, and obscene, an unsigned article appeared in Pravda, or “Truth,” the official party newspaper, in 1936, entitled “Confusion Instead of Music.”  The piece was denounced as “formalistic” and a “vulgar repudiation of operatic form.”[5]  Suddenly, young Shostakovich had many critics, and was forced to “repent” of his “errors.”  Listen to the Norton Anothology recording of Lady MacBeth and see if you agree with these criticisms:

“The listener is flabbergasted from the first moment of the opera by an intentionally ungainly, muddled flood of sounds.  Snatches of melody, embryos of musical phrases, drown, escape, and drown once more in crashing, gnashing, and screeching.  Following this ‘music’ is difficult, remembering it is impossible.’ “ (Ibid., p. 240)

Our Soviet critic (writing in the ‘50s, during Nikita Kruschev’s regime as Premier of Russia) offers this commentary on Lady MacBeth of Mtensk District:

“Unlike the author of the story, the composer set out to write an apology of the heroine.  He treated the murders she committed as a protest against the established order of life, against the stifling atmosphere of the 19th-century merchant-class existence…the composer regarded her as ‘a ray of light in the kingdom of darkness.’  The production gave rise to heated disputes and discussions, especially after it was condemned in a Pravda editorial entitled “Confusion in Place of Music, January 28, 1936.” (Polyakova, p. 106) 

Note the cautious way Polyakova attempted to both praise and condemn the music of Lady MacBeth.  Although in Kruschev’s day, it was fashionable to criticize Stalin, who knew how the next Soviet dictator might feel?

And so it was with Dmitri Shostakovich, adored or chastened by turns by a critical public which was as fickle in its tastes as Stalin was in his.  Critics began to be much more careful about what they said about their “great” composers and their compositions.  In fact, it took a rather gutsy person to be a music critic at all!


            Although during Stalin’s era and following, the composers of music fared much better than Soviet writers, who were constantly in danger of deportation to the prison camps, it was very difficult for them to compose with anything like peace of mind.  In the year 1948, the Central Committee of the Communist Party came out with an attack upon some of Russia’s best composers, viciously attacking them for the usual non-reasons:

“The state of affairs is particularly bad in the case of symphonic and operatic music.  the Central Committee has here in mind those composers who persistently adhere to the formalist and anti-people school—a school which has found its fullest expression in the works of composers like Comrades Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Popov, Miaskovskii, and others.  Their works are marked by formalist perversions, anti-democratic tendencies which are alien to the Soviet people and their artistic tastes.” (MacKenzie, p. 241, quoting N. Slominsky, Music Since 1900).

The problem was, it seems, that the music was insufficiently propagandistic, and furthermore, it was difficult to hum.  In MacKenzie’s words, “Khachaturian and Prokofiev adapted themselves as best they could to the new party demands.  Shostakovich publicly repented for past ‘errors,’ then went right on composing as he always had, making an occasional obeisance to the party authorities.” (p. 241)  Miaskovskii, disillusioned and embittered by this betrayal of his life’s work, which stretched from before the Revolution, died in 1951.  Polyakova is careful to tell us that he died of stomach cancer, however, and that “his creative road, abounding in hard, often painful, searchings and vacillations, was the road of an honest Russian intellectual (with) an allegiance, sincere and disinterested, to Soviet society, to his people.” (Lubyakova, p. 45)  Prokofiev’s orchestral work in his last years was, for the most part, less convincing after the condemnation of his artistry.


I hope you sense, in the foregoing review, the extreme difficulty of being either a Soviet composer or a music critic.  Either individual literally had his or her head on the block, especially during the lifetime of Stalin, who was absolutely whimsical about his likes and dislikes, and stated that his favorite activity was knifing a friend in the back.  Please consider, from the following Soviet “art” songs, the material good and respectable composers, such as Dmitri Kabalevsky, had to work with, what had to be the text of their songs.  The following apologia for the Five-Year Plan was set by Kabalevsky with reasonable success:



In this new era, time moves with speed,

Speed!  Speed!

More and yet more pressure is the need,      



Five years of labor crowded into one,

Speed! Speed!

Rails of the Turkbash new paths have won.

Speed! Speed!

Years of the future will bring new signs!

Speed! Speed!

Autos are run off production lines,


Old ways and customs now must go!

Speed! Speed!

Hammer for hammer and blow for blow!

Speed! Speed!

We’re set for Socialist ways and means!

Speed! Speed!

And live new lives with our new machines!

Speed! Speed! Speed!”


For Christians, however, the most alarming situation was that the Soviets substituted Stalin for God.  In fact, this was very obvious in State-sponsored art songs.  The words of one song, “We Thank Our Great Leader,” by L. A. Polovinkin, with words by I. Dobrovolsky, are self-evident:


            “All the land is happy and rejoices,

            Everyone is full of gaiety;

            For the land resounds with children’s voices,

            Bringing joyous laughter that is free.

            (Chorus): With throats full of joy, let us sing our sung,

            We’re lucky as children can be!

            We thank our great Stalin for all he’s done;

            There’s no one as wondrous as he!


            “Can there be another land like ours,

            Where no sorrow an no gloom abide?

            Where the children play in fields of flowers,  

            Where they have a leader and a guide?

            With throats, etc.


            “Days were never happy as the present,

            For to learning there can be no end,

            Hours are spent in studies that are pleasant:

            Stalin is the children’s greatest friend.

            With throats, etc.[6]


There are other songs which are equally absurd in my collection of Soviet art songs.  The American editor, then a professor at City University of New York, Queens, gravely informs us he desires to “acquaint the American public with the composers represented…Furthermore” (he adds) “enterprising concert singers, always on the alert for new and interesting songs, will find here not only important additions to their recital programs, but also will become more fully aware of what has taken place in creative song writing in Soviet Russia.  It is fervently hoped that a knowledge of the background and performance of these songs will help cement a deeper understanding and lasting friendship between the people of the United States and the U.S.S.R.”[7]

No comment. 

I would like to quote perhaps one of the last Christian martyrs of the Soviet era, Fr. Alexander Men’, as I conclude these remarks.   

“Storytellers and folk poets competed to compose hymns embellished with eastern fantasies in honor of ‘The Father’. (Stalin, of course—not God!)  By his power the sun rose.  His power held winged eagles in the sky and it was not just Asian rhapsodies that were adapted for these kinds of panegyrics.  Our generation still has embedded on its mind the words of superstitious prayers written all over the country.  If you were wounded in battle, do not despair, ‘press your wound, dry your tears, and repeat the sacred name aloud’ and then, ‘with the blue air, with the running of the river, that Person (Stalin) will send you strength.’  He ruled everywhere:  ‘He is with us in battle and at work,/ he has been the Thunder in the sky/ He carries airmen in their flight/ and he has guided the hands of pianists.//’  ‘We know the country nurtured us/ We trust in our destiny/ Whoever is with Stalin has happiness and power/ Wherever there is Stalin—there is glory in battle.’ “ (D. Althauzen, ‘Song about the Leader’)[8] 

Fr. Men’ recalls one young soldier who died with a “vision” of Stalin appearing to him to receive him in heaven—but Stalin was not yet dead!  Hopefully, you find nothing to admire in the way the communists manipulated the minds of their citizens.  We in America have our own problems, but we must be alert for mass manipulations, which are often very subtle.  Here, music is being increasingly used for intense manipulations of our minds and the minds of our youth.  Can you think of examples?  

The Russian composers were certainly not stupid, and they were not as easily manipulated as the “leader” might have thought, but the prospect of spending one’s remaining years in a gulag as punishment for nonconformity, together with the possibility of having nicer quarters than were available to the average Russian, and all the other incentives given to talented composers, profoundly affected the course of Soviet music.  When composers such as Shostakovich dared to say something which was deemed contrary to Soviet doctrine, or just to be a bit too original or too much influenced by Western ideas, they had the “opportunity” to publicly apologize for their “errors,” which, of course, all decent composers did, at least once or twice!  But I suspect that not even their accusers really believed their apologies.  Public confessions of infidelity to the State were all too common.   

I had the privilege of attending the most recent Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, in which pianists, singers, and instrumentalists from all over the world compete in many demanding rounds.  Although certain Soviet-style contingencies still are notable (the first-place winner happened to be a student of a main judge in the competition), the people dared to complain loudly about the outcome.  The result was that the third-place winner, who should have been first, had to give several encores (he ended his encores with a rousing rendition of The Stars and Stripes Forever!)  And the Cello Concerto of Shostakovich, so “controversial” when it was first composed, was featured on the final program.  Times, thankfully, have begun to change. 

[1] Lyudmila Polyakova, Soviet Music.  Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow.  No date given.

[2] Ibid, page 9

[3] Ibid, page 9


[5] David MacKenzie, Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition.  UNC, Greensboro, 1997, p. 240.

[6] Art Songs of Soviet Russia, A Panorama of Soviet Life in Song.  Compiled and edited by Charles Haywood, Assistant Professor of Music, Queens College.  With the original text.  Literal text translation by Charles Haywood.  English adaptations by Olga Paul.  Copyright, 1957, by Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, NYC.

[7] Ibid, from the Foreword.

[8] Fr. Alexander Men, Christianity for the 21st Century.  Edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman.  Pre-publication edition from The Continuum Publishing Company, 370 Lexington Ave., NY., 1996.