Mini-festival showcases music of supressed Soviet composers
Harlow Robinson – a music critic, professor of history and modern languages at Boston’s Northeastern University, and a close observer of Russian and Soviet culture – notes that the title of the current Aspen Music Festival mini-festival, Forbidden Music: Suppressed Voices, is a slight misnomer. The composers under the mini-fest spotlight – Sofia Gubaidulina, Miaskovsky and, most notable of all, Shostakovich – were able to create their music and have it performed. Their art was not strictly forbidden.It was, however, contorted and controlled, and put to the uses of the Soviet authorities, usually at the whims of party leader Joseph Stalin.Composers living under Stalin’s rule had to abide by the dictates of social realism, the Soviet-approved school of art that applied to visual art, film and literature as well as music. In line with Soviet political thinking, social realism required upbeat endings, positive heroes and antagonists who were either foreigners or anti-Bolsheviks.”And above all, it had to be accessible,” said Robinson, who has made 25 trips to Russia and is about to conclude a two-year sabbatical that will result in the book “Russians in Hollywood: Biography of an Image,” a study of how Russians are depicted in American film. “It had to be accessible to the widest popular audience.” That meant that experimental forms, like serialism, were taboo, as were any influences deemed to be coming from outside.”Stalin had this megalomaniacal idea that everything good was Russian, and the Soviets had nothing to learn from Europe.”The results of such authoritarian tampering with artistry is up for examination in the Forbidden Music mini-festival, which runs through Saturday. Today’s free Inside Music concert (4 p.m. at Harris Hall) features work by Soviet-era composers. A concert by the Emerson String Quartet (6 p.m., Benedict Music Tent) includes Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9. (The quartet, which recorded the full Shostakovich string cycle at Harris Hall for a 2000 release, also performed an all-Shostakovich program on Tuesday.)A Chamber Music concert Saturday (4 p.m., Harris Hall) features works by Gubaidulina, Shostakovich, Krein and Miaskovsky, as well as Roslavets, the one composer whose music, Robinson said, actually was outlawed. Two Shostakovich works are included in a Saturday performance by David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson Quartet, and pianist Wu Han (8 p.m., Harris Hall). Robinson will join Aspen Music Festival president Alan Fletcher and artistic administrator Asadour Santourian at the Wednesday High Notes discussion (noon, Harris Hall) about musical life in the Soviet era.In the beginning of the Soviet reign, Robinson said, there was at least a professed ideological basis to the social realism. “They were building a society different than the decadent, capitalist society,” said Robinson, who will also speak before several of the concerts. “Music was not just for the cultural elite.”But it became completely perverted and twisted in Stalin’s interpretation. Stalin had this desire to control all aspects of life around him. And, like Hitler, he was drawn to creative people. They were independent. There was something about that that drove him crazy.”The most notorious example of Stalin placing the Soviet fist on art was the scathing review of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth.” An editorial in Pravda ripped the opera as “fidgety, screaming, neurotic music.” There was speculation that Stalin himself wrote the review; Robinson says it is more likely that Stalin stood over the reviewer’s shoulder, giving instructions. In any event, Shostakovich stopped writing operas and ballet scores, forms he loved.Shostakovich did, however, do a dance of sorts with the Soviet authorities. Listeners have heard in much of his work codes and references that convey an anti-totalitarian message, wrapped in Soviet-approved music. Such interpretations have ignited a continuing scholarly debate over whether the composer – who was an active leader of the Soviet musicians’ union – was toeing the party line, or needling it from within.”He did learn how to engage in this incredible dialogue with Soviet censorship,” Robinson said. “He became a master of subtext, where he would use irony to turn it back on the Soviet government.”When is he actually laughing at Soviet realism, and when is he participating in it? Often, it’s hard to say.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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