Songs My Mother Taught Me Crossover and Double Recycling in Soviet and Post-Soviet Music Who’s afraid of Socialist Realism?

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Songs My Mother Taught Me

Crossover and Double Recycling in Soviet and Post-Soviet Music
Who’s afraid of Socialist Realism?

It has become fashionable to discuss elements of Socialist Realism in the music of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schnittke and Pärt, among others.1 But can we say now, twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, what ‘Socialist Realism’ was actually about? In his recent book on Prokofiev’s Soviet years, Simon Morrison noted that ‘Socialist Realism, like formalism, had no concrete definition. It meant whatever officialdom wanted it to mean.’2 And this is very true. This style (or whatever one calls it)—one of the most important developments in twentieth-century art and music—is a very complex combination of numerous varying components, including old Russian traditions and superstitions, allusions from classical and Romantic music, and the specifics of the general and musical Soviet education system, among others.

It would have been hard to find a definition of Socialist Realism even in the official textbooks for universities and conservatoires in the USSR. Thus, the textbook Dialektichesky i Istorichesky Materialism [Dialectic and Historic Materialism], published in 1977, says: ‘Socialist culture, like no other, inherits the values of spiritual life of diverse epochs and periods of human development.’3

I vividly remember my student years in Moscow when we were required to remember the compulsory components of a Socialist Realist work: narodnost’ (elements of folk, or ‘nationalist’, music and culture), partiinost’ (reflecting the Communist party ideology), dostupnost’ (making the work understandable to everyone and open to popular demands) and opora na klassiku (based on past classical models). Typically, these definitions were taught not in the history of music course, but as part of the Dialectical and Historical Materialism course— a core module in the Soviet equivalent of a BMus degree.

The descriptions of Socialist Realism were changing over the decades, and were always extremely vague. Interestingly, there is no single definition of Socialist Realism in the entire minutes of the notorious Meeting of Soviet Composers at the TSK [Central Committee of the Communist Party] in 1948. It seems that people were talking about something nobody was familiar with.4 Finally, in the 2009 history textbook for Russian high schools (ninth form), Socialist Realism is described simply as ‘Soviet art under the command of [Communist] party censorship.’5

The only serious article on Socialist Realism was published in ‘samizdat’ in 1957 by Andrei Siniavsky (who was sentenced to seven years in labour camps on charges of ‘anti-Soviet activities’ in 1966). He called Socialist Realism a ‘Socialist Classicism’, so much did the new Soviet style have in common with the fixed norms of classicist aesthetics.6 Siniavsky was the first who also publicly stated the teleological, ritualistic elements of the Socialist Realism. Paradoxically, Soviet society was in fact a kind of sacred society upside down. Communist leaders themselves used the powerful tools of old rituals to make their speeches and their meetings more convincing. It is well known that Lenin and Stalin constantly returned to the same issues in their public speeches. Ritualistic repetitiveness was one of the major rhetorical devices of Lenin and especially of Stalin.7 This repetitiveness, important in pop music today, was also very typical of Soviet mass-culture songs from the 1930s to the 1970s.

The traditional overuse of German musical forms in Soviet music education programmes was yet another major component of Socialist Realism. One of the most important ideas of classical philosophy, the syllogism, and its modification in Hegel’s dialectic triad (thesis, antithesis, synthesis)—a clear analogue to the sonata allegro idea—was made a significant pattern of Soviet mentality and education through various sources, including the ‘authentic’ classics of German philosophy.8 This resulted in an almost religious reliance on sonata allegro form in many Soviet compositions. A pupil of Shostakovich’s, the composer Boris Tishchenko (1939–2010), thought that ‘the sonata allegro is a universal structure which could be found in any good music.’9

Studies of German-based ‘historical materialism’ were made compulsory in all tertiary institutions, which included relatively serious studies of German classical philosophy (actually, the only serious philosophical course in the standard programmes of Soviet schools). Some books by Lenin studied in university courses (such as his Philosophical Notebooks) also had links to German philosophers.10 Lenin’s book, which Soviet people enjoyed reading at the time (since it included some fascinating and otherwise not easily accessible quotes), was in fact a collection of his marginal, often quite offensive, comments on texts by Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx.11

Russia and Germany were (and still are) rare in being two countries with exceptionally well-structured systems of music schools, music colleges and conservatories.12 In Russia this system helped to accommodate classical elements in Soviet mass art, and to make classical allusions in Soviet mass songs understandable to many. It is probably not by accident that the two major totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century have produced the best systems of vocational musical education.13 This explains many well-known similarities in the Socialist realism art and culture of Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Third Reich.14

Classical music, performance included, was as much a part of traditional general education as languages, sciences and sport. You could find a piano in almost every Moscow flat in Soviet times. Even if you couldn’t afford to buy one, there were numerous places renting them out cheaply. It was typical for Russian families to attend classical music concerts regularly. Therefore, a wide audience always supported the status of composers and professional performers.

The typical Soviet spirit of competition was supported by the Stalin-inspired ‘Stakhanovite movement’ during the second piatiletka, 1933–1937—the five-year plan for the national economy in the USSR.15 It was further developed by an awareness of the difficulties and effort necessary for high achievement in the arts or sport.16 International competition winners were seen as almost superhuman, from the 1927 Chopin Competition in Warsaw (where Shostakovich, as a pianist, was one of the prize-winners) and through to the 1960s, after the Tchaikovsky Competitions were established.17 Russia produced more such winners than any other country. Just as in sport, winning an international contest was a matter of state prestige. Therefore, music, art, the pop industry and sport education were (and still are) generously funded and well structured.18

This is why the ‘prophetic’, heroic, Romantic pathos in music and in performance was always the norm in Russia. This poetics of the great gesture contributed to the characteristic ‘empire monumentalism’ of so-called Socialist Realism. 19 The need for a person with superhuman qualities was always present in Russian history, starting with pagan witches and wizards in traditional tales, through to the idea of the Russian monarchy and Stalin’s cult of personality. It still remains a norm in post-Soviet Russian culture, with its well-established hierarchy of names—artists, dancers, pop-singers, pianists and politicians. Understanding history as hagiography has always been a part of the Russian mentality. 20

This is why you can hear the heroic overtones in many Soviet songs, symphonies, and cantatas and oratorios from the 1940s to the 1960s. These overtones have certainly become an important part of Socialist Realist aesthetics. But their roots lie elsewhere—in the exceptionally well-structured system of classical music education, in old rituals and superstitions, in the conservatism of dominating philosophical theories, and in the strong sense of competition typical of Soviet life and exclusive to it. These roots helped to establish, respectively, demands of oporu na klassiku, narodnost’, and dostupnost’ in a rather natural and organic way, which is clearly seen in the best works related to Socialist Realism.21


In the Soviet Encyclopaedic Dictionary, published in 1988 at the very sunset of the Soviet regime, we read that Socialist Realism is ‘the most important ideology, with principles of narodnost’, partiinost’, and socialist humanism’ and of the ‘important role in its development played by S.S. Prokofiev and D.D. Shostakovich.’22 In the Muzykal’naia Entsiklopedia [Music Encyclopaedia], published in 1978, Prokofiev’s rather eccentric Cantata to the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, 1937 (not performed until 1966), was paradoxically named an exemplary Socialist Realism composition, ‘a work of great realistic power.’23

Yes, Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote works influenced by demands of the Socialist Realism. But, unlike many of their colleagues, they wrote good music. Even today, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 30th Anniversary of October Revolution and his Zdravitsa (‘A toast to Stalin’) sound incredibly fresh and witty.

Prokofiev’s Cantata (the first that he wrote in the USSR) is saturated with similar humorous details. In the second movement, ‘The Philosophers’, a funny hocketing and senseless fragmentation (like in Daniil Kharms’s absurdist poems of the 1930s) has the effect of muddling the ‘sacred’ text of the Communist Manifesto, making it sound reminiscent of random whispering. In the eighth movement (‘Oath’), on Stalin’s text, Prokofiev even dares to mock Stalin’s Georgian accent: the stresses on the first beat, showing the ‘otherness’; and the rhythmic augmentation of the syllables, especially at the ends of lines, producing a most unnatural articulation. The tempo seems too slow and the rhythms are excessively repetitive: Stalin’s oratorical style of speaking was slower than average.24

Yes, Zdravitsa was written for Stalin’s birthday. Yes, Prokofiev wrote it (as well as his other Soviet works) ‘for the money, and for the privilege of touring in the West.’25 So what? Zdravitsa is a first-class piece of music. It is also full of jokes and caricatures—we need only recall the endless basic C-major scales on the words ‘Stalin will take care of everything’ just before the final apotheosis. This was quite a bold burst of intentional primitivism at the time of the neo-Baroque and neo-Gothic monumental fashions seen in Moscow. Prokofiev is clearly humorous here. Whether it’s intentional or involuntary doesn’t matter much. His writing is incredibly fresh, as in his early works of the 1910s, with a strong element of absurdist aesthetics.

Prokofiev’s cantata, or rather suite, titled Songs of our days (1937) is another striking example of his brilliant humorous style. All the movements are in either C or G major (clearly intentionally, against all the rules taught at conservatoires).26 The writing is melodic, cheerful, fresh and simple.27 For Prokofiev, writing official music was a natural, enjoyable thing to do.28 Songs of our days was not performed between the 1950s and 1990s because of the post-Khrushchev ban on any reference to Stalin’s name (which is mentioned in the text a great many times).29

The music of Prokofiev’s last ‘anniversary’ cantata, Flourish our mighty homeland (‘To the thirtieth anniversary of the October Revolution’, 1947), presents an extremely effective combination of a grotesque march (with a very ‘suspicious’, ‘mocking’ trumpet solo) and an exquisitely beautiful hymn, quite similar to liturgical music. 30 Unsuitable for Soviet propaganda (and therefore not performed until post-Soviet times), it is one of the best and most original of Prokofiev’s compositions, no matter how simple or even simplistic it is.

Shostakovich was forced to change his musical language, to make it officially acceptable and at the same time not to compromise himself. He introduced many idioms taken from classical and romantic music (the well-known allusions to Bizet’s Carmen and Bach’s St John Passion in that same Fifth).31 Numerous thematic allusions (from Brahms, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Berlioz , Bizet and Mozart) in Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony have been identified by David Fanning.32 His Mussorgsky-like writing of the 1940s and 1950s (with the direct quotes from Boris Godunov in the Tenth Symphony, in the Ninth and Tenth String Quartets, in the Burlesque of his First Violin Concerto, at the beginning of his cantata Execution of Stepan Razin, in his Unfinished String Quartet, and in the Second Cello Concerto) often sounds like Russian old church music.33 Shostakovich, while using such classical and traditional forms and idioms, was twisting them, filling them with the energetic elements of ritual, weeping, speech and prayer. As in ritual, his complexity comes out of simplicity. Energy often comes out of a single primitive basic pattern, which evolves by itself organically, like DNA.34 Exploring ritualistic repetitiveness, Shostakovich was able to find some new elements for his ‘Socialist Realism’ musical language in the ‘genetic well’ of old Russian traditions, suitable for his own use, without any compromise in musical terms. 35

So, yes, Prokofiev and Shostakovich contributed to the ‘development of Socialist Realism’, as the Soviet Encyclopaedic Dictionary stated. But they did so in their own way.

In fact, both composers created their own style under the circumstances, quite different from the thousands of mediocre works by their colleagues. Prokofiev’s Soviet style opens new horizons for postmodern aesthetics. And it is not just his ‘new simplicity’, but the new way he saw the meaning of musical composition. It is no accident that British rock musician Rick Wakeman sees Prokofiev (along with Saint-Saëns) as ‘a true inventor of the progressive rock concept album.’36 In Wakeman’s words, ‘Peter and the Wolf… changed my life…’37 And this has to do with a new type of narrativity born in the depths of Prokofiev’s Soviet period. Wakeman concludes: ‘I love the way his music can lead you down the path, and you’ll be thinking, “I’ve got no idea where this is going”; just as you’re about to give up and walk back to the house, he opens the gate into a beautiful garden.’38 Prokofiev’s rather cynical approach to Soviet requirements helped him to discover truly new horizons. His forms may seem too straightforward or static, with not much development or variety in them,39 and his intentional primitivism may seem strange from the traditional point of view, yet this was a real breakthrough to a new mentality. Yuri Lotman, the founder and leader of the Soviet semiotics school, used to say that a typical feature of popular music is not to attempt to receive information, as with serious music, but instead to evoke fascination, as in shamanistic rituals: to come under the charismatic spell of the melody or the text, which needs to be repeated many times to create a special trancelike, almost addictive state.40 Prokofiev’s ever beautiful and often simplistic and repetitive melodies certainly created this fascination effect, comparable with the effects of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby and similar pop hits. This fascination and repetition, as if with drugs, was also a key factor in the development of a new style of Soviet music, which would be understandable (dostupnost’) to anyone.41

Shostakovich trod another path while establishing his ‘own’ style under the label of ‘Socialist Realism’. This style is as specific to his so-called ‘official’ works as to his best compositions, criticised by officials, such as the Tenth Symphony. Combining elements of ritual, classical and Romantic allusions and Mahlerian fragility, Shostakovich created a new language that very quickly has become innate to generations of people, and not only in Russia. Shostakovich, the most performed composer of the twentieth century, wouldn’t have been able to achieve this almost pop-star status had he not used uniform popular elements and idioms clear to many. Gerard McBurney compares Shostakovich’s rhythmical energy and repetitiveness with rock and roll.42

As in popular music, Shostakovich’s structures are not so much ‘developed’, but rather based on archlike connections between few very important allusions, which make the real compositional profile.43

Interestingly, Prokofiev’s name-acronym (PRKFV) and Shostakovich’s signature (DSCH) serve as signs for these new developments. PRKFV denotes brave and idiosyncratic simplification, as opposed to sophistication, and also denotes the primacy of basic elements (melodic, rhythmical) over lengthy logical development. DSCH condenses classical and Romantic allusions and encryptions. Both tendencies are very much in the style of contemporary mass culture replacing traditional forms, narrative texts and conventional fashions, with short and clear visual symbols, labels, logos and abbreviations. The official request for the rejection of modernism under Soviet ideology led both composers to discover new= types of narrativity similar to the idioms of pop culture. Their Soviet cantatas and songs seemed primitive to many from the 1940s to the 1980s. However, this has changed in post-Soviet times, and ‘Socialist Realism’ compositions by Prokofiev and Shostakovich are surprisingly seen as iconic under the principles of postmodernist aesthetics in both ‘serious’ and popular music.44
Stalin’s crossovers

According to Stalin, there was to be no difference between mass and elite culture in Soviet Russia. On 10 March 1939, at the Eighteenth Congress of the VKP (b), he declared that the best result of the Soviet cultural revolution during the course of the previous five years (1934–1939 [sic!]) could be seen ‘in the birth of a new Soviet intelligentsia, from the classes of workers, peasants and Soviet social workers.’45 So Stalin’s cultural revolution was arranged in order to make Soviet Union a new, classless society. Therefore, both highbrow and lowbrow art had to coexist and even merge. Classical and popular music alike were aimed at the same audience, in order to shape a ‘classless society’, and they both had to be ‘realistic’ and easily understandable.46

The film composer Isaac Dunaevsky (1900–1955) took this dictate almost literally. Deliberately—and much earlier than Shostakovich—he brought ideas from the music of Bach, Weber and Mahler to his songs and film music. 47 Dunaevsky was, unusually, able to acquire a radio: few had one in Soviet Russia. He was able to listen to Western radio programmes and Western music, especially by German composers from Bach to Mahler and Strauss. He took some ideas from all of them. His ‘Aniuta song’ from the film Veselye Rebiata [Happy-go-lucky guys], 1934, is an exact copy of the second subject of Weber’s Oberon overture.48 Dunaevsky’s overture for the film Deti Kapitana Granta [Captain Grant’s Children], 1936, after Jules Verne’s novel Les Enfants du capitaine Grant, starts with a quote from Bach’s fugue in C-sharp minor (from the Well-tempered Clavier, Book 1), developing into a replica of the beginning of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.49 And the refrain of ‘Paganel’s song’ (from the same film) is based on a phrase from the Scherzo (trio) of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.50

Even during World War II, when radios were confiscated on Stalin’s orders, Dunaevsky was one of very few people who were allowed to keep a radio at home. Listening to German classical music stations, he wrote Soviet mass and patriotic songs that were saturated with intonations typical of Wagner and other German music approved by the Hitler regime.51

Sometimes the sources of his melodies are more difficult to identify. Another song, Legko na serdtse [I am in a light-hearted mood] from the same film Happy-go-lucky guys, was just an imitation of a popular Mexican song, La Adelita, from the turn of the century.52 Dunaevsky most certainly heard it from a colleague, the film producer Grigory Alexandrov (1903–1983). Alexandrov worked with Sergei Eisenstein from 1930 to 1932 in Hollywood, and later in Mexico, on Eisenstein’s unfinished film ¡Qué viva México! He was called back to the Soviet Union on the direct orders of Stalin to make new Soviet movies better than Hollywood’s.53 He quickly got to work. Happy-go-lucky guys (with Dunaevsky’s music) was one of the first and most successful examples of this ‘Russian Hollywood style’, established by Alexandrov. By ‘stealing’ from Bach or Weber, Dunaevsky probably wanted to make his melodies and his popular music and film scores much more attractive than the primitive Soviet clichés.

Many other and later examples can be given of both deliberate borrowing and much more straightforward plagiarism. For instance, Anatoly Novikov’s (1896–1984) official mass song Marsh kommunisticheskikh brigad [March of the Communist Brigades], 1963, uses the initial phrase from Études Symphoniques by Robert Schumann.54 The popular song Na krylechke tvoem [At Your Porch], 1953, by Boris Mokrousov (1909–1968) quotes Rakhmaninov’s First Symphony.55 Shostakovich’s Song about Stalin (from the film The Fall of Berlin, 1949) is similar to an old sacred znamenny raspev tune.56 Boris Gasparov shows and explains the stunning similarities between the Soviet national anthem (1943) and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Turandot.57

Dunaevsky was an extremely talented and gifted composer, but he also knew where exactly to get his material for films. Mahler’s music was not that much known at that time in Russia; in fact, the violinist Emmanuel Hurwitz (1919–2006) told me in 2001 that even in London, Mahler was still considered kitsch as late as the 1930s. Dunaevsky’s (and later Shostakovich’s) musical language was influenced by Mahler much before the 'canonisation of Mahler' in the West after the World War II. 58

The main genre in Soviet popular music was always the song. And the best songs always incorporated elements of nineteenth- and twentieth-century classical and Romantic music. This unique hybrid was probably the earliest example of what we now call ‘crossover’.

Shostakovich’s Rodina slyshit [The Motherland hears] was sung by millions

(including the first man in space, Iuri Gagarin, while orbiting the earth in 1961) and was understood almost as an unofficial national anthem. This was perhaps not only because of its simplicity (Aram Khachaturian called this song ‘the apotheosis of the major triad’59) but also because of its character, similar to Orthodox Church service music.60

The Russian musicologist Leo Mazel (1907–2000) has published a brilliant analysis of yet another extremely popular mass song by Shostakovich: Song of the Counterplan – Nas utro vstrechaet prokhladoi… [The morning greets us with a chill…]. He proves that the impressive symmetry of the piece is based on the golden mean, and that the unique freshness of its melody relates to children and to limerick-like songs. The extremely simple melody has only two elements—the signal-like interval of a fourth, and a scale-like melodic line. However, this ascetic vocabulary is enriched by the invisible complexity of the song’s genre. It is a subtle combination of march, barcarolle and lyrical song with wavelike motion. The combination of all these very different elements makes Shostakovich’s song unique and, therefore, widely popular.61

Dunaevsky’s Song of Moscow (1942), built on gloomy and nervous minor-key Mahlerian elements, with unusual melodic leaps, was a cult melody in the 1940s and 1950s.62 It quickly became an unofficial symbol of Moscow. Unlike the official speeches (which nobody believed or read), people wanted to hear the ‘official’ songs by Dunaevsky and Shostakovich time and again. Popular request programmes on Moscow radio confirm this. Soviet officials had no control over what people sang when drunk, excited or anxious, and they sang Dunaevsky. And, by singing Dunaevsky, they also sang Bach, Weber and Mahler.

The distant triumph of Stalin’s ‘crossovers’ is seen in the two most popular films released in the 1970s, at the nadir of Brezhnev’s stagnation: Semnadtsat’ Mgnovenii Vesny [Seventeen moments of spring], 1973, a serial about the Soviet spy Stirlitz; and Ironiia Sud’by [Irony of destiny], 1974. The scores for both were written by Mikael Tariverdiev (1931–1996). In addition, the songs in the second film were based on the poems of the great Russian poets Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam and Pasternak, and sung by Alla Pugacheva, a Soviet pop-star of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, whom Alfred Schnittke had originally chosen to sing the role of Mephisto for the Russian premiere of his Faust Cantata.63 The very attractive melodies all alluded to J.S. Bach and typically Baroque musical elements.64 The goal of merging pop and classical was fully achieved: Tariverdiev’s music was sung by millions.

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