Classics for the Masses: The Shaping of Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin


Professor Pauline Fairclough, Department of Music, University of Bristol

19 November 2018



Professor Fairclough’s well-attended talk as based on her 2016 book of the same title, but worked backwards from the 1970s. She described how a colleague, years ago, had asked her to write a specimen chapter on the Soviet reception of Austro-German symphonies. Pauline subsequently looked (in Russia) at old Soviet music journals and concert programmes from the 1920s, and published an article on the reception of western sacred music in Russia in between 1917 and 1953, from the Russian Revolution to the death of Stalin.



She began with the early music revival in the Moscow and Leningrad of the 1960s and 1970s, long after Stalin’s death. American groups were keen to visit the USSR at that time, such as Newell Jenkins and the Clarion Concerts (September 1963), Oberlin College Choir (March 1964) and the New York Pro Musica (October 1964). Jenkins was a specialist in the Italian Baroque. The Oberlin Choir (conducted by Robert Fountain) sang Lassus, Morley, Palestrina, Bach and Lotti’s Crucifixus. Noah Greenberg (a former CP member in his student days) directed the New York Pro Musica. He conducted the choir of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in 1949. In 1958, the medieval Play of Danielwas revived in New york with an emphasis on vernacular traditions - that is, the folk tradition.


In the 1960s, the Soviet Union was thus receiving much of the western early music revival directly. Gustav Reese, author of Music in the Renaissance(published in New York by WW Norton) met the Soviet early music pioneer Andrei Volkonsky, an establishment figure, who was inspired by the New York Pro Musica.  Rudolf Barshai, who began specialising in Baroque music around 1955, directed the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.  Their repertoire included Bach and Handel concerti grossi, Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn, and even Bartok for the earlier twentieth century. Rudolf Barshai’s group and Jenkins’ Clarion Concerts Orchestra met of a UK exchange trip.


Other visitors were the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Karl Munchinger (1959) , the Capella Coloniensis (February 1961), and  the Virtuosi of Rome (May 1961), while in February 1964, the Latvian Choir and orchestra gave Bach’s St Matthew Passionand Handel’s Messiah. This was probably the first timeMessiahhad ever been performed in the USSR. Zagreb Radio and TV Ensemble gave works by Pergolesi, Telemann and Corelli (plus Hindemith) in October 1963, and the Armenian Capella gave Handel and other Baroque arias in November 1964. Stravinsky had returned to the USSR on a visit in 1962, aged 80. Shostakovich (born 1906) knew many Stravinsky works, and had made arrangements and transcriptions of them.


It needs to be stressed that early music was generally suppressed under Stalin. However, scared music was performed in Russia before 1940, but it was either hummed (wordlessly) or sung with different, secular words.  After 1953, the atonal and serial music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern began to be performed in the USSR. This was all new music to the Russians in the 1960s, even though it had been composed decades earlier. Other new foreign works were Arvo Part’s Credo(1968, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste) and Alfred Schnittke ‘s Concerto Grosso No. 1.


There was a general concert ban in the 1930s on Russian Orthodox sacred music. Yet Stalin allowed the Moscow Patriarchate to re-form in 1944, and opened the Moscow Choral School, staffed by ex-precentors. In February 1945, the Moscow Conservatoire concert had a choral first half and an orchestral second half. The 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky was played, together with the Orthodox hymn Lord, Save Your People. It ended with the hymn God Save the Tsar, changed to Glory to Russiain Soviet Times.


The Bach revival of the 1920s and 1930s, and on into the 1940s and 1950s, was shown in the many performances of the St Matthew Passionand the B Minor Mass, in particular. In 1954-5, Kurt Sanderling also directed performances of the St John Passion. But the Bach revival in Russia took religion and Lutheranism out of the performances. Anton Uglov, in 1927, said that the Bach Passions were just the same as Prokofiev’s opera The Love of Three Oranges, in their musical illustration of fantastic legends, separated by time, subject and references. Ivan Sollertinsky declared that Bach’s music ‘belonged to the proletariat’, while Aleksandr Sveshnikov pioneered the practice of alternative secular texts for the Bach motets.




The aim of the USSR cultural commissars in the 1920s and 1930s was to make ‘long -dead, bourgeois and foreign composers’ interesting and relevant to inter-war audiences in Russia. Beethoven in particular stood out, because of his sympathy for the revolutionary cause in the Europe of his time. For the Bolsheviks, the Soviet masses were ‘ the inheritors of the greatest traditions of western civilisation.’ Yet the Proletkul’t conference of 1918 wanted much of the old cultural past to be discarded. Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya embarked on a purging of Pushkin’s works from Russian libraries, and Tolstoy’s works were frowned on, too, for many years. Why? Because they represented the old Russian landed nobility, no longer relevant in the new era, indeed contrary to the new Bolshevik value-system.


In the 1930s, the cult of ‘heroism’ developed more strongly, with a stress on ‘ noble characters or actions’, with which the Russian proletariat might identify. Bach and Handel, for example, were ‘Sovietised’ The repertoire available for performance was carefully selected. Ideally, listeners were expected to read about musical works, as well as composers’ biographies, but always to view them from a Marxist/Leninist perspective. At the most extreme, for the militants, music was seen as a tool of ‘political indoctrination’, always tending towards the bourgeois state of mind.  The efforts of the modernist composers (Pauline quoted the interesting figure of Nikolay Roslavets, 1881-1944) to involve audiences in radical new works did not generally succeed.  [It should be said, in parenthesis, that the instrumental works of this little-known contemporary of Stravinsky, such as his piano trios, cello sonatas, Chamber Symphony and his shorter orchestral piece In the Hours of the New Moon, have been available  for some time in modern recordings by western musicians.]


The Minisry of ‘Enlightenment’ took over from the old Ministry of Education, headed initially by the liberal and charismatic Anatoly Lunacharsky. Whatever may have been his negative side (has very hostile attitude to the Tolstoy family, and their Yasnaya Polyana family estate, for example) Lunacharsky was a great supporter of old and new musical culture, and helped to oversee the large Institute for the Arts in Petrograd, and the new Philharmonia orchestras in both Moscow and what became Leningrad. Between 1926 and 1936, European musical modernism did make a certain amount of progress in Russia. Yet from 1936, that very encouragement vanished, and the native tradition, from Glinka through Tchaikovsky and the ‘Mighty Handful’ (The Five or kuchka, Balakirev, Borodin, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cesar Cui) was explicitly developed and encouraged. Musorgsky especially was venerated, because of his regard for the peasantry in his stage works. Some works were at the whim of particular bureaucrats, being promoted, then disappearing quite randomly, only to reappear later. Pauline quotes Rachmaninoff’s cantata after Edgar Allan Poe, TheBells, as an example. By the time of his death in the USA in 1943, Rachmaninoff was lauded everywhere in Russia. Overall, the presentation and performance of music was driven by Russian nationalism during the late 1930s, and more obviously, during the war years and the beginning of the Cold War, 1948-53.  


From the 1920s, prominent musicians called for Soviet composers to emulate the classics -  JS Bach, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. A key figure was Mikhail Klimov, who introduced Bach to the USSR in the 1920s. Russia duly celebrated the 250thanniversary of Bach’s birth (1685) in 1935, just before the onset of the great Stalinist purges. At the same time, Klimov was removing Russian sacred works from the repertoire.  In 1933-35, Gluck’sOrfeo, Handel’s Samson, Haydn’s The Seasons, and Pergolesi’s La Serva Padronawere all given in the USSR. There was a sense of claiming the European Enlightenment heritage for the Soviet Union - socialism was seen as the end point of the Enlightenment process in Marxist history. 


As everyone knows, Stalin dd not like Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District  (after Leskov) and walked out of an early performance in 1934.This opera, now so highly regarded, nearly destroyed the composer, and Shostakovich, whose Fourth Symphony was shelved and unperformed until after Stalin’s death, only retrieved his reputation by composing the Fifth Symphony. This work, duly given in 1937, has remained one of his most popular performed works. Shostakovich described it, famously  (and genuinely humbly, in the difficult circumstances) as ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’. He remained in Russia until his death in August 1975.The only Russian composer to leave his homeland and return to Russia permanently was Serge Prokofiev, born in 1891, who settled back in the USSR after his many fertile years in the USA. Prokofiev died on 5 March 1953 of a heart attack, at the age of 62, on the same day as Josef Stalin.  This bizarre coincidence meant that his death was overlooked at the time by everyone except his family, friends and associates, at least for some time. 


The picture presented in Professor Pauline Fairclough’s pioneering study Classics for the Masses shows that although concert repertoire under Stalin was indeed restricted and controlled for political reasons, especially after 1948, with the notorious Zhdanov decrees criticising and even castigating Soviet composers, the music played and sung was by no means ‘anti-western, anti-modern, provincial and dull’, to use her words. She makes the important point that the 1941-45 wartime alliance against the Axis powers had brought Russians, in one way or another, into contact with American and British music, so that musicians of the generation of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) were able to benefit from this influence. Pauline has noted with much admiration the appearance (after her own book was already being read in manuscript) of a new study by Marina Raku, entitled Musical Classicism in the Mythology of the Soviet Epoch, which deals with various composers up to the end of the Soviet era in 1989 /1990.


©2019 Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor for Literature and Humanities, BRLSI, based on notes taken at Professor Pauline Fairclough’s talk in November 2018