A WWW Resource

compiled by

Ian MacDonald

This ongoing collection of documents is offered to travellers on the World Wide Web who happen to be drawn to the classical music made in the former Soviet empire, or by composers and musicians who were active within its borders between 1917 and 1991. The opinions expressed here, whether by the author/collator or those he quotes, are set out for consideration by all, whatever their beliefs or prejudices. Their simple availability is the primary reason for this site.

Some of these pieces have appeared in journals either inaccessible to general readers or now out of print. Here they are online for access at any time anywhere in the world. This might have appeared futuristic to most of us only a few years ago; to the former inhabitants of "Soviet information space" it would have seemed a bitterly laughable pipedream (indeed the Web as we know it post-dates the fall of the USSR).

Under Soviet rule, freedom of information was an alien concept. The Soviet state ordained truth through its total control of the Soviet media, a control which ran to revising this truth, often in quite contradictory ways, whenever the necessity arose. (Orwell's Oceania, with its Ministry of Truth forever adjusting an officially decreed "reality", was intended as a satirical projection of Stalin's USSR in 1948-50, and was received as such in post-war Soviet-occupied Europe.) Because of this, no official statement emanating from the former Soviet Union, whether proclaimed by a department of the state or signed by an individual citizen, can be taken as anything but an ingredient in this totally-controlled official reality. Whether as propaganda, disinformation, or apparent free comment, such material is, by its very Soviet origin, distorted - a fundamental misrepresentation.

For most of the post-war period, this much was understood by most Western political and literary commentators on the USSR; yet, for various reasons, such knowledge was rarely current among the majority of Western musical pundits. Hence a radical misunderstanding of "Soviet music" took root in the West, distorting the image and intentions of many of the USSR's leading composers. The most seriously obscured in this way was the Soviet Union's musical laureate designate Dmitri Shostakovich; in fact, it is only in the last fifteen years, beginning with the publication in the West in 1979 of Testimony, "The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov", that music critics have begun to comprehend the full significance of his major scores.

However, the progress of this reassessment is still unnecessarily mired in contradictory claims, and (at least so far as the Western musicological community is concerned) remains stalled by a basic lack of acquaintance with the living details and atmospheric nuances of the Soviet politico-cultural background - a background which fundamentally shaped (and distorted) the lives and music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, and most of their colleagues. Many Western academics, for instance, are used to pronouncing judgement on Shostakovich's music in ways that assume an understanding of his political and moral predicament which they do not begin to possess.

To take one typical example, Eric Roseberry, author of a short biography of Shostakovich (1982), has recently voiced doubt about the post-Testimony conception of the finale of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony as expressive of a forced, and therefore hollow, rejoicing. "After all," he writes (in "Some Thoughts after a re-reading of Testimony", in melos 4-5/summer 1993), "Shostakovich's original pronouncements on this symphony at the time of its Moscow première made no mention of such a hidden agenda." To anyone familiar with even the bare minimum about the situation in Russia during 1937-8, the assumption behind this sentence - that no hidden agenda Shostakovich might have had at that time could have been serious enough to hide - will seem ludicrous, while the idea that he could have openly confessed such an agenda during Stalin's Terror (or, come to that, at any time prior to the "thaws" of the Sixties) verges on the surreal. Russians to whom I have read this passage have been amazed that an "expert" on Shostakovich could have so little comprehension of the general subject-area of which the composer was a part. Yet it would be a simple matter to fill this page with similar examples from the writings of other Western "experts" on Soviet music. (For instance, the commentaries by Richard Taruskin, Laurel Fay, and Malcolm Hamrick Brown are marred by an astonishingly high incidence of crass historical inaccuracies, misinterpretations, and misrepresentations.)

To commentators of this kind, the image at the head of this introduction - in which the face of Shostakovich appears, ghosted behind a Gulag watchtower in Kolyma - will appear "vulgar" and "sensationalistic". In the end, this does not matter. Truth will out. These pages are directed not at such hopelessly redundant pundits but at the man or woman in the street who, loving the music, senses its inner resonances and wishes to come closer to understanding what these might signify.

Disagreements will persist, if only because there are no real experts on Shostakovich for the simple reason that no one writing on him currently possesses the requisite grasp of music theory, the Russian language, and the adjoining fields of Russian/Soviet music, politics, history, high and low culture, drama, and literature. All that can be done for now is to set forth as much as can be said about this very subtle complex and pursue necessarily polemical debates based on our expositions. Any pretence of Olympian objectivity is, at this stage, just that: a pretence. By paying due attention to background, however, I believe that we will at least be talking a little less "off-topic", as they say in the newsgroups - while conceivably the focus of context will gradually lead to a cessation of critical hostilities and some measure of reasonable agreement about the subject in hand based on a more realistic assessments of the various contextual factors involved.

The stakes, however, are high - not least in terms of the significance the "Soviet music" debate holds for modern Western ideas of what music is. Ideas on this and several other basic issues will be found amongst the material assembled here). Please note, though, that this is not a discussion group and that no email address is given. Anyone wishing to debate questions raised in these pages should do so on Usenet via alt.fan.shostakovich.

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