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Article: Shostakovich and Socilaist Realism

Written by Sorana Santos on Tuesday the 20th of April 2010
Few events in political history have produced such fundamental cultural consequences as the October 1917 revolution. At that time, Russian music had become impoverished. Stravinsky went abroad, Rachmaninov had gone into a self-imposed exile (followed by Prokofieff a year later) and with the deaths of Lyadov, Skryabin and Taneyev an invisible line seemed to be drawn under the end of an epoch; also a movement known as the 'Proletkult' had an authority on the way in which the development of new directions in music were to be controlled. These 'leftist' directions were tampered with by some of the leaders at that time until in 1921 when the fighting ceased, new policies were formulated and with this came Lenin's statement:
"Art belongs to the people. It must penetrate with its deepest roots into the very thick of the broad working masses. It must be understandable by these masses and loved by them. It must unite the feeling, thought and will of those masses and inspire them. It must awaken in them artists and develop them."
As far as music was concerned, it was clear what was to be done. However, questions arose such as: "what music is to be understood and loved by the masses?" . It was through this that the newly formed Union of Composers was established in order to 'safeguard' 'socialist realism' in Soviet Music. 'Soviet Realism' meant that although the music should be comprehensible to the masses, it must be worthy of its ancestry in classic Russian and world art and by its strength and optimism it must help to build socialism.
Whilst some works conformed to the strictest demands of Socialist Realism, there were some which did not. In August 1946 the Central Committee had begun to worry about literature and journalism and from then on there was to be no preaching of works with no idea-content, or simply: 'art for art's sake', or in other words, nothing that would be harmful to the people. Often the quality of a piece of music was assessed by the quantity of dissonances and its deviation from the standard norms of folk and classical music.
Questions of political import can never be far from the surface in any of Shostakovich's music. He was faced with the problem of reconciling the demand of socialist commitment with the search for an authentic and self-fulfilling language. Shostakovick was thrust into public prominence from the very onset of his career, achieving the kind of representative status as a Soviet citizen-composer, making his every work a topic for intense debate. His actual 'style' is difficult to pinpoint, although there is a deepening philosophical traditionalism in all his workd, the shadow ofpolitical expediency tore him away from his chosen path of development, hence showing only an unevenness and unpredictability that defeats categorisation. That said, Shostakovich has been classes as a Neo-Classicist. Any premiere pf a new work by Shostakovich was eagerly awaited by audiences all over Russia and he became a legend in his own lifetime. However, this left him open to the wounds of wider critical acclaim, never more so than after the performances of his 4h symphony.
The Pravada articles "Muddle instead of Music" and :Ballet Falsehood" suggested in these articles that Shostakovich had killed his own fourth symphony. The work iteslf was deprived of unity and hope and was in itself very difficult to listen to. No sooner had an angelic melody been set up, the listener's expectations were shattered with loud unexpected melody lines, leaving the listener speechless.
In te spring of 1937, Shostakovich worked feverishly on his fifth symphony. It had much cleaner, uncluttered lines, a firmly traditional shape, formal plan and above all an immsnesly healthy assurance of optimism. It is possible to see how he composed this to please the authorities, but yet found the balance between that and his own style. There is no sign of any atonality, hinting always at the keys in which he wishes the listener to be led to. Unsurprisingly, the fifth symphony was a phenomenal success, owing largely to its extended melody lines and its all-important ending in a resounding, victorious fanfare. It was furthermore acclaimed by the authorities and virtually went the whole way in re-establishing him as a leading Soviet composer. His outspoken nature could not be called into doubt as this symphony was as accessible to professional listeners as it was to the general public; he called this fifth symphony "an artist's response to just criticism".