Music and Politics =
USSR Composer Dmitrii Shostakovich (1930s)
USA Composer Aaron Copland (1950s)

[To meet the needs of our class, SAC editor has abridged texts, standardized quotation-mark usage, corrected spellings, and made hyperlinks to SAC and helpful websites]

Table of Contents



Alan M. Pavlik review of
Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin:
The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator


Volkov chats about Stalin's condemnation of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as “the most infamous episode in Soviet music history.” What he tries to do is explain why Uncle Joe was so very upset – and then why Shostakovich actually escaped execution and exile. It’s more than the idea that some guys are just lucky.

Here’s the scene [Volkov] sets – a January evening in 1936… =

Stalin arrived at the performance [of Lady Macbeth] in what must have been a good mood - he enjoyed opera and ballet.

Shostakovich, who was supposed to go to Arkhangel'sk [a port on the White Sea] to perform his First Piano Concerto, was urgently called to the theatre by Yakov Leont'ev, the director of the Bolshoi.

A unique document has survived = a written-down humorous "oral story" by [writer Mikhail] Bulgakov about this event, which, we can safely assume, relied on information that came from Leont'ev.

Bulgakov gives an ironic description of Shostakovich, "white with fear", rushing to the theatre and Stalin and his entourage settling down in the government box. Then =
[Conductor Aleksandr Melik-Pashaev] furiously lifts his baton and the overture begins. In anticipation of a medal, and feeling the eyes of the leaders on him, Melik is in a frenzy, leaping about like an imp, chopping the air with his baton. After the overture, he sends a sidelong glance at the box, expecting applause - nothing. After the first act - the same thing, no impression at all.
After the performance, Shostakovich could not calm down, as he headed for his concert tour in Arkhangel'sk. There, on a cold wintry day, Shostakovich lined up at a newspaper kiosk. He bought the country's main newspaper, Pravda, for January 28 1936, opened it to the third page, and saw an editorial (unsigned) with the headline "Muddle Instead of Music".

The parenthetical subtitle read: "About the Opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk". He began reading instantly. Sudden horror shook him.

Even now, it is impossible to read "Muddle Instead of Music" without shuddering. We can understand why Shostakovich felt the earth open beneath his feet. His opera, his beloved creation that had won recognition throughout the world, was subjected to a crude and illiterate attack.
Volkov goes on to explain that this review has become rather a classic in the history of criticism – that is, music criticism and cultural criticism. And there are suggestions it was written by Stalin, or Stalin directed it to be written. In those days nothing got into Pravda. (“Truth” whimsically. It was the voice of the party, and thus the state).

So how did this opera come to threaten the state?

Of the review Volkov notes:

The tone of Pravda was peremptory or "directive", as it was called then. This was underlined by the absence of a signature under the article. The presumption was that it represented the opinion not of some single critic or even a group, but of the party as a whole.

This automatically turned any attempt to argue with it into criminally "anti-Soviet" behavior. Many cultural figures, upon reading "Muddle Instead of Music", must have shivered when they reached the warning, "This is playing at things beyond reason that can end very badly."

Who stood behind that vicious threat? Determining the identity of the writer of "Muddle Instead of Music" turned into a cottage industry over the years. But informed contemporaries began saying almost right away that the real author of "Muddle Instead of Music" was Stalin.
From the Pravda review =
The listener from the very first minute is stunned by the opera's intentionally unharmonious muddled flow of sounds. Snatches of melody, embryos of musical phrases drown, escape, and once again vanish in rumbling, creaking, and squealing. To follow this 'music' is difficult, to remember it impossible.
And in a way that reminds one of Janet Jackson and her bouncing bare boob on the recent Super Bowl broadcast, there was a problem with the few erotic scenes in the opera =
The music grunts, moans, pants, and gasps, the better to depict the love scenes as naturally as possible. And 'love' is smeared throughout the entire opera in the most vulgar form.
Geez, this sounds like the guests on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News – like Bill Bennett, the compulsive gambler, moralist and author of that volume of his we’ve all read, The Book of Virtues. He was appalled. So was Pravda.

Then there was the overtly political problem =

This is music intentionally made inside-out, so that there would be nothing to resemble classical music, nothing in common with symphonic sounds, with simple, accessible musical speech… This is leftist muddle instead of natural, human music.
It’s not real music, you see. It’s odd, and kind of leftist =
The danger of this tendency in Soviet music is clear. Leftist ugliness in opera is growing from the same source as leftist ugliness in painting, poetry, pedagogy, and science. Petit bourgeois 'innovation' is leading to a gap away from true art, science … literature.
You might compare this to Laura Ingram’s [sic! Ingraham's] current best selling book Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America - Regnery Publishing Inc. - October 2003 [SUMMIT]. Same sort of thing. [?USSR/USA Convergence [ID]?]

So what was this all about with Stalin and this opera?

By all reports Stalin actually liked classical music. Volkov says he listened to it “frequently and with apparent pleasure.” Stalin did prefer Russian operas and ballets - Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov.

But that was an emotional response. The issues of the time took precedence =

He took pride in his ability to subordinate his emotions to the tactical needs of the moment. And that moment demanded an active assertion of the new state "Soviet morality": the government was planning to pass laws banning abortion and a new code on family and marriage. In Stalin's opinion, the Soviet family had to be strengthened in every way. And suddenly there was an opera saluting "free love" (or, in Stalin's words in "Muddle Instead of Music", "merchant lust"), in which the problem of divorce from a hated husband was resolved simply and brutally: by murder.

All this allowed Stalin to accuse Shostakovich on social issues: the composer had "missed the demands of Soviet culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life”.
Ah, “family values” was an issue [reference to a USA use of presumed decency to suppress public expression], as was the sanctity of marriage. Hey folks, listen to the FCC these days. And all the talk in Washington, the contemporary calls to banish crudity and wildness from our American life.

Okay – Shostakovich was a twenty-nine-year-old composer and not exactly the Janet Jackson of his day. Why pick on him?

For that Volkov turns to Stalin’s personality. Stalin didn’t like uppity intellectual geniuses, especially if they showed him up.

It is quite probable that in the case of Shostakovich, Stalin was blinded by emotion. Not only did the plot and music infuriate him, and not only did the opera contradict Stalin's cultural direction for that period, but on top of that, the composer was hailed as a genius, not just in the Soviet Union, but in the West. This, I believe, was what pushed Stalin over the top.
And I am reminded of the incident a few years ago in Paris at a press conference on May 26, 2002 – noted here. George Bush and Jacques Chirac were answering questions from the press. President Bush got really testy and kind exploded when NBC reporter David Gregory decided to switch to French to ask Chirac a question. Bush stopped everything and sneered - “The guy memorizes four words and he plays like he's intercontinental!” Well, maybe it was a calculated insult on the part of the reporter. Or maybe Bush was having a Stalin moment. [...]

Well, David Gregory is still working as far as I know. That mistake didn’t end his career, as far as I know. And Shostakovich too got along quite well. But it took some time.

Volkov notes that for the rest of 1936 Shostakovich, for all his outward calm, was as tense as strung wire and, many claimed, near suicide. He and his family expected the worst. A close friend recalled how "he paced the room with a towel and said he had a cold, hiding his tears. We did not leave him and took turns keeping watch." I suspect David Gregory wasn’t this upset.

But Volkov gives us this about Shostakovich next steps -

His behavior… was unexpected, but natural. He stopped making "serious" public statements. Shostakovich donned the jester's mask. This was an unbearably difficult and humiliating position for him to adopt. In taking it, Shostakovich broke with a long tradition in which a member of the Russian intelligentsia was required to give profound statements on every important issue worrying society. But for now, Shostakovich kept his life, freedom, and opportunity to compose.

We will never learn all the considerations that led Stalin to spare Shostakovich and allow him to continue working. But we can sum up the most obvious reasons. They would include the unexpectedly solid, albeit hidden, resistance in cultural circles to the Pravda articles; Maxim Gorky's displeasure; the unforeseen interest in "the Shostakovich affair" of Western (especially French) intellectuals and the possibility of international complications; the modest but firm behavior of Shostakovich, who did not act flustered and did not repent.
Ah yes, when attacked by those who defend family values and the sanctity of marriage? Play the clown. Say nothing. Then they’ll let you be.

And best of all, find another medium. Have a back-up plan. Volkov writes at length on Shostakovich's work in the cinema.

When talking about Soviet film, we must remember Lenin's famous statement in 1922 that "of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema". It was Stalin who turned the dictum into reality. Soviet film in his regime came into being as an industry, the main goal of which was the ideological upbringing of the masses.

Stalin loved the movies, domestic and foreign. As a result, he took an incredibly active part in the Soviet film industry: he handed out commissions, read screenplays closely, and made major editorial changes. Without Stalin's screening and approval, no Soviet film could be distributed.

Shostakovich's lucky ticket seems to have been writing music for the movie Counterplan, [Vstrechnyi] released in 1932 for the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution [YouTube]. One of its highlights is a charming and perky song, “The Morning Greets Us with Coolness,” written by Shostakovich. Its catchy melody made it the first Soviet hit song to come from the movies.

The whole country, from peasants to government leaders, sang “The Morning Greets Us.” Subsequently the melody won international acclaim: it was sung during the Second World War by members of the French Resistance; and in the United States, with new words, it was performed as the song “The United Nations.” In 1936 the song may have saved Shostakovich's life.
Hey, you hated my opera? I can write perky tunes too!

Comments on
Volkov's Shostakovich and Stalin
in Publishers Weekly

Shostakovich's tortured relationship to the Soviet authorities was a main subject of Testimony, a book published after the composer's death by Volkov, who claimed that it contained Shostakovich's own remembrances. Controversy about the authenticity of Testimony swirled for years, until the publication in 1999 of Laurel E. Fay's Shostakovich: A Life, accepted by many scholars as decisively countering Testimony's claims to accuracy. The appearance of a new study [ID] by Volkov on Shostakovich (1906-1973), then, is sure to raise critical hackles. Volkov argues that Shostakovich survived the denunciation of his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk [ID], and more minor controversies thereafter, in part by relying on a Russian tradition of playing the "holy fool" when under political pressure. When Stalin asked that Shostakovich henceforth submit operas and ballets for approval, the composer solved the problem by refraining from writing these musical forms. Volkov finds that luck played a role as well in Shostakovich surviving while so many other artists were killed or banned, but the "holy fool" argument as a whole only partially convinces: at times, Shostakovich's reticence regarding the regime seemed to turn into compliance, as when he signed a letter late in his life that denounced human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, an act Volkov says Shostakovich regretted. The book assumes a lot of knowledge of Soviet history for a general readership; non-specialists interested in the composer and his work will still be better served by Fay.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


From The New Yorker

After hearing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, an envious Boris Pasternak wrote, "He went and said everything, and no one did anything to him for it." The extent of the composer's complicity or dissidence under Stalin has been much debated. Volkov, a prominent adherent of the latter view, marvels at this timid man's ability to express suffering in music that was nonetheless outwardly optimistic, and suggests that Shostakovich found an important model in Pushkin, who survived the cruelties of Tsar Nicholas I by juggling three classically Russian roles -- "pretender," "chronicler," and "holy fool." Volkov's story depends too often on hunches and assumptions, but he is illuminating when he places the composer in the context of other artists (Pasternak, Bulgakov, and Mandelstam) who attempted dialogue with Stalin and were alternately supported and persecuted by him.


2004:DSCH Journal [meaning of DSCH]
Paul Ingram review of
A Shostakovich Casebook, Brown, M. H. (ed.) Bloomington, Ind., Indiana University Press
Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich and Stalin (London, Little Brown)


Malcolm Hamrick Brown's Shostakovich Casebook is, according to its dust-jacket "The definitive statement on the Shostakovich controversy." By and large, it attempts to consign Solomon Volkov to pure oblivion, while still alive. The more-or-less merciless questioning of his honesty as a presenter of the Shostakovich memoirs began in 1980, with Laurel Fay's Russian Review essay, 'Shostakovich versus Volkov: Whose Testimony?' That piece is reprinted here, helpfully, as the opening shot in Casebook. Its oft-rehearsed but seldom read points about the source of the "signed" pages of Testimony are amplified in Fay's succeeding 'Volkov's Testimony Reconsidered' written in 2002, and in the next chapter of Casebook, which lays out the "source" materials for the Testimony chapter-openings, in parallel with their Testimony equivalents. Various Soviet and post-Soviet commentaries follow, some in welcome first translations, and the book's second half is a more wide-ranging collection of essays and reviews. There is relatively little about Shostakovich' s music here, for a book bearing the composer's name. Any music-loving virgin wandering into this territory for the first time and picking up the Casebook, would surely gain the impression that for some strands of American musicology, a man named Volkov is of far greater significance than the great composer whose work they admire. So much for oblivion.

[...] The Editor [Malcolm Brown] has chosen to reprint his negative review -- first published in Notes in 1993 -- of Ian MacDonald's The New Shostakovich. It opens the fourth and final section of the Casebook, whose contributors are all native English-speakers and writers. Brown follows this review with his contrasting, positive assessment of Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich - a Life Remembered. [...]

[...] Richard Taruskin discusses [Esti Sheinberg's] book on irony and parody in the Casebook's closing essay, and his compliments end up sounding backhanded. "It will be surpassed, and soon." he predicts, towards the end of a familiar mélange of personal reminiscence, opinion, and multiple book reviews (rather like this). The Professor is far from being at his best here. I'm sure he has a world-beating book on Shostakovich in him, but I've yet to read or hear the evidence that the bulk of Shostakovich's music engages Taruskin enough to make him write it. I hope I'm proved wrong: no-one in musicology matches his knowledge of this field, or his ability to make fresh connections.


Better news is the fact that three pieces in Casebook are its saving grace. Levon Hakobian's 1998 essay "A Perspective on Soviet Musical Culture during the Lifetime of Shostakovich" offers a nuanced, Russian view, reminding us in memorable fashion that "virtually any more or less valuable work of art created on the territory of the former USSR belongs to the pen, brush, or chisel of a potential or real victim of stukachi (informers), surrounded by hostile zhloby (louts, or 'inflated nonentities'), while resisting the humiliating status of vintnik (a cog in the machine)." [...] Caryl Emerson, author of a magnificent, definitive scholarly study of the reception of Bakhtin's work, says in her blurb for the Casebook that it is about "music old and new in the twentieth century, about the cultural legacy of one of that century's most extravagant social experiments." I beg to differ here with Professor Emerson. [...] The Shostakovich Casebook is a novel about American academic attitudes, not a study of Shostakovich. [...] Those interested in Dmitri Shostakovich or his music would do better to study, for example, the Chandos DVD-ROM on the composer and his world (reviewed in DSCH No. 15).

Meanwhile the only man who knows the whole truth about Testimony has produced a book about the composer and the Great Dictator. Volkov's conceit here is to draw a parallel between two uneasy pairings: Tsar Nicolas the First and Pushkin; and Stalin and Shostakovich. The author develops his yurodivy thesis on Shostakovich, familiar from the old Testimony Introduction, and claims his is "...a book of cultural history." Volkov goes on to explain: "Therefore, I do not engage in analysis of Shostakovich's music." [...]

There is a wealth of detail on the Stalin era in this book. Much will be familiar to dedicated students of the composer, though the range of varied diary and letter references which Volkov presents is impressive, even if the academic attributions could be tighter. Volkov is equally unashamed of presenting this whole period of historical disinformation as quintessentially anecdotal. If you know little of Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Bukharin, Shklovskii, Zoshchenko and the gang, then you will definitely learn something here, on most pages of Shostakovich and Stalin. The Dictator comes out of it as a more "cultured" man than we might have thought, for example. And Shostakovich emerges as a rounded, credible human being for a change. [...] Like the very different Hakobian, Volkov knows something of the depths and quiet horrors of Soviet life, from first-hand experience; something Western musicologists, mercifully, need only imagine in an oblivion of comfort.



2005my03:Minnesoeta Public Radio
Bill Morelock, "Conscience vs. McCarthy: the political Aaron Copland",
presentation based on Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man

Aaron Copland has been synonymous with American music for more than 60 years. But during the McCarthy era, not even the composer of Lincoln Portrait [YouTube] and Fanfare for the Common Man [YouTube] —two WWII morale boosters—was immune from Sen. Joseph McCarthy's questions about political affiliations in the thirties and forties [EG].


A Copland composition was scheduled to be performed in conjunction with Dwight Eisenhower's first inaugural in 1953 until Illinois Representative Fred Busbey said, "Wait one minute. Isn't the composer of that piece a Communist?" The piece was Lincoln Portrait, and the performance (with actor Walter Pidgeon narrating) was cancelled. In May of the same year Copland was summoned before McCarthy's committee.

*1950:USA CA| Richard Nixon campaign vs. Helen Gahagan-Douglas [ID] accused her of being a Communist. One bit of evidence useful to Nixon was the fact that her husband, Melvyn Douglas, was involved in performances of Copland’s "Lincoln Portrait", featuring recitation of the great but for some seditious Lincoln speech about "government of the people, by the people, and for the people"


The second hearing involved, inter alia, Copland's recollections of the World Peace Conference held in New York in March 1949. Life magazine's coverage of the event was astonishing at the time for those who participated, but turned out to be a taste of greater troubles later. The headline read "Red Visitors Cause Rumpus." It featured photographs of 50 well-known participants, including "Aaron Copeland" (sic), Leonard Bernstein, Charles Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and F.O. Matthiessen, a Harvard professor who killed himself after the story's publication. The magazine conceded that they were not the most dangerous figures, but ranged from "hard-working fellow-travelers to soft-headed do-gooders who have persistently lent their names to organizations labeled by the U.S. Attorney General as subversive." [TXT = select page 39]


[Copland had been] active up in Northern Minnesota in the summer of 1934, speaking in solidarity with the Communist farmers near Bemidji, and sharing a podium with the Minnesota Communist candidate for governor, S.K. Davis. In 1936, he supported Communist presidential candidate Earl Browder. Copland wrote of the farmers in Lavinia, Minnesota,

It's one thing to think revolution, or talk about it to one's friends, but to preach it in the streets—OUT LOUD—I'll probably never be the same. Now . . . there are friendly nods from sympathizers, and farmers come up and talk as one red to another. . . . What struck me particularly was that there was no "type-communist" among them, such as we see on 14th St. [in NYC]. They look like any other of the farmers around here, all of them individuals, clearly etched in my mind. And desperately poor.

[Copland] never joined any political party. His sympathies lay with the socialist ideals dramatized in the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair and Frank Norris. Copland's more militant involvement corresponded, as was common, with the rise of Nazism. In 1934 he entered a song-writing contest to set the words of a poem called "Into the Streets May First." (The poet was Alfred Hayes, lyricist of the song "Joe Hill.") Copland's setting won. He referred to it in a letter as "my communist song," then abandoned it, never including it in his official catalogue of works. In the early 50s he called it "the silliest thing I ever did." It was a point of pride, he said, to show that he "could write a better mass song than the next fellow."

[…] The Piano Concerto from 1926 is relevant because in those days, in some minds, the use of jazz (and later folk traditions) in concert music automatically identified an artist as leftist or worse. The orchestral suite Statements (1935) is one of Copland's most overtly political compositions. During the Second World War Copland scored a movie called North Star [EG on YouTube], a very bad bit of propaganda in support of the Soviet Union struggling against the Nazis. It was deplored on both the right and the left, and in the late 50s it was re-edited and, bizarrely, turned into an equally bad anti-Soviet Cold War screed. […]

Copland's … music graced the second inaugural of McCarthy colleague and cold warrior Richard Nixon; Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan gave him presidential awards and citations; and the House of Representatives, which called him "un-American" in 1953, gave him the Congressional Gold Medal, its highest civilian honor, in 1986.




Red Scare Hysteria
A review of
Ingrid W Scobie,
Center Stage: Helen Gahagan Douglas, a Life

See also Greg Mitchell, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas-- sexual politics and the Red Scare, 1950

Best remembered today as the victim of Richard Nixon's smear campaign in their 1950 senatorial race in California, Helen Gahagan Douglas had a truly remarkable double career, in entertainment and in politics. A tall, stunning woman, dignified and fashionable, Douglas dropped out of Barnard College in her sophomore year to star in Dreams for Sale, a Broadway play written by Owen Davis, who would win a Pulitzer Prize that year. With nothing more than sheer talent and little training, she was soon the peer of Helen Hayes and Katherine Cornell--Heywood Broun called her "ten of the twelve most beautiful women in the world"--and she played the lead in a string of hits. Then she changed course, and after two years of intensive training in a tiny Manhattan apartment, she debuted in Europe as an opera singer, and sang there for several seasons. And in the late '30s and early '40s, as she and her husband (actor Melvyn Douglas) became deeply involved in FDR's Democratic Party, she once again rose rapidly to the top, serving as a Democratic National Committeewoman after only five months in politics, and winning a seat in Congress in 1944, 1946, and 1948.

In Center Stage, Ingrid Winther Scobie presents a sweeping biography of an unusual and talented woman, set against the background of the Great White Way in the 1920s, Hollywood in the 1930s, and California and national politics in the 1940s. We see young Helen Gahagan growing up in posh, turn-of-the-century Park Slope ("really the Park Avenue area of Brooklyn," as she described it), developing an intense passion for acting. We witness her first meeting with Melvyn Douglas, in famed producer David Belasco's office (Belasco asked Helen for her opinion of Melvyn as a possible leading man and she answered simply, "he will do"). And we follow their life together, moving from coast to coast, trying to raise a family and maintain two careers, and gradually becoming more involved in politics--Helen especially with the plight of California's migrant workers. Scobie describes Douglas's long, close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, traces her political rise as one of the most outspoken liberals in Washington, examines in detail her three terms in Congress, and sheds considerable light on the most notorious event in Douglas's political career: her defeat in the 1950 senatorial race at the hands of Richard Nixon, long considered the quintessential red-smear campaign. Indeed, this is the first book to examine the 1950 campaign from Douglas's side, and its conclusions are revelatory.

Based on extensive archival research, on exclusive access to Douglas's private papers including letters to and from Melvyn spanning fifty years, and on interviews with Douglas's colleagues, friends, and family, this absorbing biography skillfully interweaves the private and public life of a woman who was both a glamorous celebrity and a charismatic political figure.