Composers working under the Soviet government needed to compose using censor-approved musical styles and texts or risk terrible consequences. The state owned all opera houses, performance spaces, and publishing houses, and composers were forced to submit all new works for government approval prior to their premieres. Composers who cooperated with the Soviet government’s old-fashioned aesthetic and Communist ideals were awarded salaries, gifts, and, in the 1940s and 50s, the Stalin Prize for Music. Those who defied the government to write music according to their conscience (if that conscience had a different aesthetic, or religious expression, or anti-government sentiment) would at the least be unable to make a living and at worst be sent away to prison camps.
In Dmitri Shostakovich’s long career, his relationship with the Soviet government shifted numerous times. Initially, he composed music that was praised, supported financially, and awarded the Stalin Prize. His second symphony (subtitled “To October”), for example, ended with a monumental choral finale with a patriotic Soviet text, and his first opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, was given official mention as something that could only have been written by a true Soviet composer “brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture.” But after the premiere of Lady Macbeth, Stalin himself attended and did not enjoy the opera, and a harsh article came out denouncing the opera. This coincided with the Great Terror of 1936, in which many of Shostakovich’s friends and relatives were sent away to prison camps or murdered. Shostakovich began to compose in a more conservative way, and his Fifth Symphony was praised again in 1937.
In 1948, Shostakovich was censured again, for “formalism” (the Soviet government’s complaint against all methods of modern composition). Shostakovich was fired from his post at the Conservatoire. He composed film music to make ends meet and sought to rehabilitate his reputation. Any adventurous or politically pointed composition was destined “for the desk drawer,” including his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. Gradually, the government began to favor him again. Against this backdrop, Shostakovich composed his 1951 choral collection, Ten Songs on Poems of 19th-Century Revolutionary Poets, Opus 88, five of which you will hear today. These poems were clearly part of the Soviet philosophical ideals, and the compositional style is fairly conservative. However, the writing is still thrilling, and the message of standing up to tyranny (even in the context of Tsarist Russia) could certainly be applied to Shostakovich’s present day circumstances in ways that could have caused Shostakovich further difficulty had he not been so clever in his “marketing” of the songs as Soviet propaganda.
Prokofiev suffered similarly, as part of the group of composers who were censured in 1948 for formalism and denied income. His wife, Lina, was caught sending money to her mother in Spain and sent away on a 20-year prison sentence beginning in 1948 (though she was released after Stalin’s death in 1953, sadly just after Prokofiev’s death). As a result, Prokofiev was forced to compose music that would help him, and his wife, regain favor. His oratorio On Guard for Peace, two excerpts of which you will hear today, was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1951. Again, the texts were officially Communist and could be seen as propaganda, hence their success; but the idea of praising peace in another world could be seen as Prokofiev’s subtle attempt to imply that peace could not be found in this one.
In the Soviet bloc, composers began to find ways to write more experimental music by choosing benign texts. One such example is the beautiful Ejszaka-Reggel composed by Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti in 1955. The first poem, about night, describes a dark forest, adding pitches in increasing tone clusters (which could be considered “formalist” writing) until everything stops on the word csönd (“still”). The second poem, about morning, also makes use of tone clusters, with the marvelous cock-a-doodle-doo sound “kikeriki!” being shouted joyfully. Because of the charm of these poems and the way that the music mirrors the text, they seem to have escaped censure. In the following year of 1956, after the Hungarian revolution was suppressed by the Soviets, Ligeti and his wife fled to Vienna, where he could finally compose in the experimental manner he desired and for which audiences know his work best.
We then return to Shostakovich with another personal tribute, the setting of “To Anna Akhmatova” from Shostakovich’s Six Songs to Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva, also written in 1973. Shostakovich had attained an uneasy détente with the Soviet government by this point in his life. While he had joined the Communist party in 1960 as a condition of being named General Secretary of the Composers’ Union, he also spoke out against Communist policies, signing a protest against the imprisonment of Joseph Brodsky (a co-signer was Anna Akhmatova herself). In this song cycle, Shostakovich chooses songs about the inner world of Marina Tsvetaeva, who was persecuted and ultimately had killed herself in 1941. In the final song of the cycle that you will hear today, the persecuted composer Shostakovich pays homage to the persecuted poet Tsvetaeva, who is paying homage to another persecuted poet of her generation, Anna Akhmatova. You will hear her praise Akhmatova’s courage and describe the bells and cupolas of Moscow, which Shostakovich paints with bells in the piano accompaniment. This song cycle represented multiple layers of defiance against the Soviet government.
Sviridov’s Concerto in Memory of Alexander Yurlov, written in 1973, has literally stripped all words away from this choral lament after the loss of Yurlov. Yurlov was the finest choral conductor in Russia and a friend and frequent collaborator with Sviridov. Yurlov championed Russian liturgical music at a dangerous time when Khrushchev was staging a major anti-religious campaign. Sviridov wished to honor his friend with a sacred burial work, and the best way to subvert Khrushchev’s policies were to avoid text altogether and simply compose in a sacred style.
Another way to write more experimental music or to embed a political message without attracting unwanted attention was to arrange settings of folk tunes. Some folk songs had texts that expressed nostalgia for the past, as in Sveshnikov’s arrangement of “Evening Bells.” Other folk songs came from states that had been absorbed into the Soviet Union but which longed for independence, so a folk song in the local language was actually a statement of national pride. The Baltic states, with their strong singing traditions and enormous choral music festivals, sang their own folk songs and therefore asserted the cultural identity of the individual state over the political Soviet Union identity. Some commentators have noted that this maintenance of individual cultural identities through choral music may be part of the reason why the Baltic states were the first to leave the Soviet Union. If you haven’t seen the documentary “The Singing Revolution,” about this phenomenon in Estonia, I recommend it highly.
The living Estonian composer Veljo Tormis composed his best-known work Raua Needmine (“Curse Upon Iron”) in 1972 to a poem from the Finnish epic Kalevala, a related epic to the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg. The poem was translated into Estonian. In a fascinating use of the language, the early parts of the poem that describe the ancient roots of iron are written in an old version of Estonian (close to Finnish in many respects). The later parts that describe its modern uses for warfare are in modern Estonian, and update the original poem by describing “cannons and airplanes, and tanks, and guns.” The final portion of the poem that returns to the curse upon iron also returns to the old Estonian. Musically, the work evokes folk melodies, ostinato, and the Shaman drum to create a primeval-sounding work. As Tiia Järg writes, “Tormis has reminded his contemporaries of everlasting moral values from the distant past. Tormis is suggesting that when people become alienated from primeval truths, it finally ends in disaster, not so much for the individual as for the nation.”
The final work on today’s program is Arvo Pärt’s Credo of 1968. During this time, the Union of Soviet Composers forbade the composition of sacred works and Western-style composition, which included references to composers like J.S. Bach and the 12-tone compositional technique. In his Credo of 1968, Pärt employed all of those forbidden techniques in a single composition, a technique of combination that he calls his “collage technique.” Thanks to a bureaucratic oversight, he did not show the composition to the Union of Soviet Composers before it was performed, and there was an enormous scandal after the performance. The Credo’s very existence as a sacred work with Western-style composition, therefore, was an act of defiance against the Soviet Union, and it was banned by the Soviet Union after it was premiered.
In closer examination of the music of the Credo, further acts of defiance reveal themselves. The work begins with a phrase from the Credo from the Catholic mass: “I believe in Jesus Christ.” This statement alone was forbidden by the officially atheist Communist government. The choir sings here in C major – the most pristine, simple key – to the harmonies of Bach’s C major piano prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier. The music of Bach represents peace and goodness, in the language of one of the masters of Western composition. The 12-tone composition that Pärt layers over the Bach music represents chaos and violence, which can conceivably be associated with the Soviet Union’s occupation of Estonia. In addition, 12-tone composition, in which every note is equal, is suspiciously evocative of the aims of communism.
In its simplest form, the piece depicts a struggle between good and evil, peace and violence, with the violence ultimately breaking down into chaos. The choir sings text from Matthew (“You have heard it said: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and later “But I say unto you: do not resist evil”). The clash between the Bach and the 12-tone composition becomes increasingly frenzied until the choir stops singing and begins yelling, first in unison and then in an aleatoric passage (in which the performers are asked to improvise). After the chaos reaches its breaking point, the choir states the tone row in unison, with the pacifistic text “Do not resist evil.” The only music left standing, so to speak, is the Bach. The choir sings over the Bach, ending with a final statement of “Credo” – “I believe” – and finally, the return of primal C in the organ.
Pärt believed this was a statement of pacifism triumphing over violence, in that only the individual pacifist’s Credo remains at the end. Even the struggle of good (tonality) versus evil (atonality) has more shades of grey than upon first glance; as Paul Hillier notes in his book on Pärt, the tone row of the atonal passages is based on the circle of fifths, the foundation of Western tonal harmony. Good and evil are more alike than they like to think, and the only valid response, in Pärt’s view, is an individual response of pacifism. Indeed, after he wrote this work, Pärt stopped composing for a number of years under a self-imposed period of study and contemplation.
— Katherine FitzGibbon