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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
the only positive thing to come out of Stalinism? I know this sounds horrible, but how much of the popularity and accessibility of Prokofiev and (especially) Shostakovich came about as a consequence of them being afraid for their life and writing to order? Would Shostakovich have written what he did and how he did if he was not under duress? Don't forget, Shostakovich was a full 15 years younger than Prokofiev, and if his music from the 1920s is anything to go by he was NOT heading in the direction he ultimate went. Prokofiev was always a bit more conservative (due to being older), yet he lived in the West and wrote some quite modernistic and percussive pieces before returning to the U.S.S.R. I think he may actually have had more conservative inclinations to begin with, but I wonder if Peter and the Wolf or Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet would be as tuneful if he wasn't under the gun.

Imagine if the 3rd Reich had lasted as long and a German composer of similar stature had stayed (unlike Hindemith). We would be faced with the same dilemma. Should we feel guilty for this? Your thoughts.
 

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It's difficult to see how this can not be about politics and classical music, so let's move it to the appropriate forum. Please only discuss politics in the sense that they have (had) a direct influence on classical music.
 

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I think it is far more complex and probably different for each composer.
Many very good and highly popular pieces by Prokofiev are earlier; he had the more "classicist" and the more daring strains long before any restrictions. He could have stayed abroad, apparently he really wanted to write popularly in the SU, when he was back there and didn't have to be forced. It's also almost impossible to disentangle honest patriotism (especially once WW 2 had started) from following along with Stalin/Shdanow constraints.

Early Shostakovich is with the Soviet Avantgarde of the 1920s and he clearly was put under pressure in the 1930s. But here we have the phenomenon that several of the highly regarded works are post-Stalin, from the 1950s through early 1970s.

Finally, there were many other "populist" or at least not "spikey avantgarde" composers, such as Copland, Milhaud, Villa Lobos (and many others). There was a broad tendency among the composers born in the 1880s-1900s to become a bit more conservative in the 1920s-30s, either via neoclassicism or in a more individual way. It's a combination of the early 1900s avantgarde taming itself after WW 1 and probably often some biographical "settling down" that occurred almost everywhere, before and regardless of totalitarian politics.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
So, the answer to the question: "Should we feel guilty about listening and enjoying it?" is a qualified "No". Not that I would have stopped listening to them if you had said "yes" anyway. :)I was just curious what anyone else thought about it.
 

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Is the (Relative) Tuneful Conservativism of Prokofiev of Shostakovich the only positive thing to come out of Stalinism?
Possible. But I'm not sure how necessary the stalinist methods really were. Shostakovichs symphonies No. 2 and 4 for example made before Stalins terror are good works too and his tuneful 12th symphony was made after stalinism. The ideal of socialist realism in the USSR had a good influence, but I'm not sure how much the terror did in addition. On the other hand some extraordinarily tuneful works like The song of the forests would probably not exist without stalinism. But I rather want to emphasize the positive role of socialist realism or russian culture instead of stalinist terror.

christomacin said:
Imagine if the 3rd Reich had lasted as long and a German composer of similar stature had stayed (unlike Hindemith). We would be faced with the same dilemma.
As far as I know composers were not forced nearly as much to write in a specific way in Germany as in the USSR. Instead jewish and too modern composers were not performed. Composers like Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Carl Orff, Wilhelm Furtwängler stayed in Germany. But their style was romantic/conservative before and after, so I didn't see that politics changes their style.

In America there were Samuel Barber, Bernard Herrmann and others at the time who also wrote in a romantic style. It overall was not really the time of modernism.

Overall I think it is a more accurate view of history that the romantic era ended at around 1950 instead of 1900. Before 1950 avant-garde composers were a minority not as important during their lifetime as historiography want to make us think today.

christomacin said:
Should we feel guilty for this?
No. We should never feel guilty for our taste. Such who deny their taste should feel guilty instead. I maybe share much of my taste with Stalin and Hitler. It doesn't make my taste any worse. The musical taste of Stalin and Hitler really wasn't the problem.
 

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I don't know how bad Prokofiev and Shostakovich had it under the Soviet regime. Certainly they were far better off than the millions who perished from famine or state terrorism. As the USSR's two most important composers they seemed to live comfortably and despite an occasional reminder from Stalin to let them know who was in charge, Prokofiev and Shostakovich seemed to be able to compose what they wanted to compose and have it premiered and recorded as soon as the ink was dry. Perhaps few American composers who were beholden to the limitations that supply and demand capitalism places upon the artist had it as good. While Prokofiev was a practical and pragmatic man who was an expert chess player, his music exemplifies the work of a great craftsman and an optimist who brings us into a dreamlike state in Cinderella; or dazzles us with the athletic Violin Concerto #1, or seamlessly blends the joy of Haydn with the Modern approach in Classical Symphony. But Shostakovich was a more sensitive, anxious, and melancholy man who couldn't be happy as long as he knew there was suffering in the world, and most of all such suffering in his beloved Mother Russia. All-in-all I think that Prokofiev and Shostakovich left us with a body of work that demonstrates more-or-less who they were.
 

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Overall, the West will see the legacy of Stalin differently than Russians (or others in the ex-USSR). Under his rule, Russia became part of the modern world. They achieved in about 25 years what other countries had done over the course of a century (e.g. England's industrial revolution began in the mid 18th century).

I think that two years where critical for both composers. 1936 saw the height of the purges. Shostakovich was attacked in Pravda and Prokofiev returned permanently to live in Russia. In 1948, the Zhdanov decree affected them both. It was part of the government attempting to consolidate power after somewhat loosening the reigns during World War II.

One way of looking at this issue with some element of objectivity is to compare what might have happened without the impact of Stalinist cultural policy.

Once Prokofiev returned home, he was able to focus on his own music. He was in demand as a pianist in the USA, but only for playing the classics like Beethoven. He might well have ended up like Rachmaninov, being forced into the life of a touring virtuoso, and his output as a composer would have inevitably dropped.

Prokofiev's Symphony #7 has been cited as an example of the impact of the Zhdanov decree. The composer wrote an alternative ending in a bid to fit in better with the more restrictive cultural climate.

With Shostakovich, we can look at some works which he composed for the drawer - in other words, that didn't see the light of day until after Stalin - these included the Symphony #4, String Quartet #4 and Violin Concerto #1. Are these atypical works, compared to others performed at the time? I'm no expert, but the only one that really stands out is the symphony.

I think that the difference between audience's reception of both composers and that of critics (both at home and abroad) can also be examined.

According to certain critics in the West (like Olin Downes and later Pierre Boulez), Shostakovich didn't fully break with the 19th century, was too much under the shadow of Mahler and therefore couldn't be admitted to the pantheon of 20th century composers. This is similar to others of the period, like Rachmaninov and Sibelius. To an extent, they fell victim to their popularity with audiences. The same qualities which made them popular where those which some figures in the musical establishment didn't see any value in.

Globally Shostakovich reached hero status with his Leningrad Symphony. Conductors vied to give national premieres, audiences flocked to hear it.

At home, Shostakovich was widely known as a composer of film scores and his most popular work was the operetta/musical Moscow Cheryomushki.

His reasons for marketability in the West where different. If anything, despite what some critics said, his struggles under Stalin only made Western audiences even more intrigued. Symphony #5 more or less put him on the map, and after that there where no shortage of listeners eager to attend the local premiere of a symphony or other new work.

An earlier thread on related topic:
Prokofiev and Khachaturian during the Stalin years
 
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