Censoring music in the age of Stalin: Shostakovich and Stravinsky

Davide Dolce analyzes the effects of a totalitarian regime on the freedom of musical expression

Producing music in 1930s Russia was tricky to say the least. The totalitarian dictatorship established by Stalin after the death of Lenin did not allow for much flexibility when it came to freedom of expression. Composers had to please crowds and the ruling elite alike, write music that would tick several boxes at once, and make sure not to diverge from the only acceptable form of art: Socialist Realism.


Socialist Realism, theorised by Maxim Gorky at the beginning of the 20th century, was the official artistic doctrine of the Soviet Union after 1932. In the words of J.B. Borev (Fundamental Esthetic Categories, 1960):


Socialist realism is a method, type or form of figurative emotional thinking which corresponds to the objective esthetic [sic] wealth of reality, to the practice of revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, and to the building of socialism. Socialist realism is a means of truthful reflection of reality from the position of socialist esthetic ideals.


In practical terms, this meant that the artist should represent reality truthfully, in all of its different aspects. It is through the unity of these aspects that truth is obtained. For this reason, complying with the ideology meant that the proletariat had to be portrayed as the heroes, and that its struggles were the basis for a plot. All works were subject to this scrutiny, whether they were written before or after the 1930s.


Aside from fitting into this description, music also had to be simple and easy to remember so that it could become a source of collective unity when sung or hummed together. This was easy enough to achieve when it came to writing a mass song – a song written for the masses, usually featured in a film, that people sang together during moments of work or rest. However, it was complicated to apply this concept to operas or symphonies, as their expressivity came from abstract emotional effects: the more complicated and innovative the composition, the fewer the chances that the piece was going to be received as a clear exemplification of Socialist Realism. This put composers not only in a difficult position, but in a dangerous one: the threat of arrest and deportation was constant in Stalin’s USSR.


Socialist ideology in the history of the Soviet Union is hardly a singular and static phenomenon. Instead, the official line of the Party changed as often as its functionaries and leaders did. Because of the tight link between socialist ideology and artistic production implicit in Socialist Realism, the defining lines of this art form were subject to the same changeability as Soviet socialist ideology itself. Therefore, a work of art that had been praised a decade before could be banned permanently as times changed. Stalin himself was known to attend artistic performances frequently, and, true to his desire for control and immense power, he could make or break artists with his judgement, often based on personal whims and caprices.


Among the countless artists who fell victim to this system, Igor Stravinsky and Dimitri Shostakovich provide two noteworthy examples. While the two composers are not contemporaries and their circumstances are deeply different, they are both prime examples to understand the changeability of criticism and how and why works were censored in 1930s Soviet Union. These two artists are linked by their common struggles in the Stalinist artistic space, by the similarity of their artistic pursuit and by the revolutionary aspect of their music. To better understand censorship in the times of Stalinism, we will take a closer look at two works that were censored at different moments in time but for similar reasons: Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. But first, some background information on these two artists.

Shostakovich with his piano; Image(s): newyorker.com


Shostakovich suffered a complex and tumultuous relationship with the government in the days of Stalinism. The ever-changing opinions of the critics meant that his work was praised and then condemned. He was simultaneously known for the two denunciations he received in 1936 and 1948, and for his film music which contributed to the development of the mass Soviet song and was known and appreciated throughout the Soviet Union. He had to withdraw his Fourth Symphony, fearing for his life, and at the same time, he received accolades from the government officials for his Fifth Symphony. Regardless of the tangible threat upon his life, Shostakovich never left the Soviet Union and decided to continue writing for Russian audiences.


Stravinsky chose the path of emigration and left the country following the outbreak of World War 1. He abandoned his hopes of returning to his homeland after the October Revolution, for fear that his work would be condemned. He was not far from the truth, as opinion on his compositions fluctuated: as Boris Schwarts points out in The Musical Quarterly of July 1962, they were approved in the 20s, cautiously considered in the 30s, and deeply rejected in the 40s and 50s. A versatile artist, Stravinsky is remembered for the eccentric compositions of his “Russian Period”, such as the ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Living abroad allowed him to express his potential without restrictions, but this didn’t necessarily mean that his music was well-appreciated. To westerners, it was too bizarre; to the Soviet Union, it was too westernised.


Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a cultural transplantation of the famous Macbeth by William Shakespeare. True to the canons of Socialist Realism, the characters of the composition are peasants and workers. The opera follows Katerina Lvovna Izmailova and her love for a worker employed by her husband, the ensuing murder of her husband and the results of this. From the very beginning of the opera, the public is immediately struck by a sense of oddity, created by the clarinet’s haunting melody and the recurring leitmotiv of Katerina Izmailova. The opera proceeds only to become more and more bizarre, as innovative musical techniques are employed by the composer. While the reception of the work is generally remembered to be disastrous, this was not true for over two years after the premiere. Initially, the opera was very well received, both in Russia and abroad, and was highly praised for its innovative spirit and musical mastery. In fact, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk paved the way for Shostakovich’s national and international fame and was performed hundreds of times until 1936. In January of this same year, the fortune of the opera took a sharp downwards turn. Shostakovich was invited to attend a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on the 26th, and by the 28th the great success turned into a source of fear for the composer when one of the most infamous pieces of musical criticism was published by Pravda, the official newspaper of the regime, entitled “Muddle instead of Music”.


The newspaper had previously praised the work following its premiere and the other journals had followed suit with clamour. However, the author of “Muddle Instead of Music” (believed by some to be Stalin himself), asserts that:


From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this "music" is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.


This is the main fault that Pravda found in the music: it was not easy to remember, and therefore was not for the proletariat: it was a “petty-bourgeois” composition. This interesting turn of events makes Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk a prime example of how quickly the tide could turn for an artist, and how success could be transformed into disgrace in a matter of days. The anxiety of the music, the sharp contrasts and the almost mechanical sections of the opera suddenly make sense in the light of this observation: all of this is derived from the struggle of the composers to strike a balance that would allow them to satisfy both the regime and the audiences. This balance resolves in a struggle between tradition and innovativeness; crude realism and operatic drama; a celebration of Socialism and condemnation of negative human qualities. The nervousness of the critics resolved in the nervousness of the composer, who had to fear for their safety regardless of how much attention they put into making the composition fit the mould of Socialist Realism.


Performance of The Rite of Spring; Image(s): first-works.org


The Rite of Spring precedes any of Shostakovich’s works by several years. It is the representation of a pagan rite related to the start of Spring that ends with the selection of a sacrificial victim and her subsequent frantic dance to death. It is interesting to note that this ballet was written and performed abroad and before the October Revolution, which technically makes it a pre-revolutionary piece. However, the way the piece was interpreted and received raised a few eyebrows in the Soviet Union of the 30s. The Rite of Spring is an incredibly innovative piece that caused composers to reconsider the way they thought about rhythm and the very essence of composition. Because of its complete detachment from contemporary standards of ballet, it shocked the audience at the premiere in Paris in 1913, to the point it almost caused a riot, with the public reportedly shouting, booing, and leaving their seats impatiently. The pagan representation of a spring rite, the bizarre costumes, and Vaslav Nijinsky’s eccentric choreography was so far removed from the stereotypical Russian ballet (The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, for example) that they proved distressing and unsettling for the audience, and presumably for the Stalinist critic as well. The result was that the piece (and most of Stravinsky’s music) was censored until 1962 when the composer finally returned on a visit to Russia on the invitation of Nikita Khrushchev, the new leader of the Communist Party.


While Stalinism is at the heart of these works’ censorship, the results lasted long after that: the two compositions were banned for over twenty years. The original uncensored version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was not performed in Russia until 2000. This makes us wonder: what happens after a piece of music has been censored for such a long period of time? The ban on Stravinsky in the Soviet Union meant that scholars of music had to study his work without ever having heard it performed, which undoubtedly made it complicated to establish to what extent the work was influential on later generations of composers. Arguably, Shostakovich is known by many as the composer of Pesnja o vstrechnom (1932) and the soundtrack to the film Alone (1931), rather than for his symphonies and operas. It is difficult to ascertain the damage that these bans inflicted to musical historiography, but we know that Stravinsky wasn’t featured in music textbooks in the USSR until the beginning of the 60s, and this surely made it difficult for scholars to understand orchestral music produced in the west, considering the everlasting impact that Stravinsky’s compositions had on his contemporaries. In light of this consideration, we come to wonder if contemporary Russian orchestral music would have been different had these bans and similar ones not been put in place, and had composers been exposed to these two artists appropriately. We can only conjecture, but this is certainly food for thought.