The Misunderstood

There is a group of artists that are hard to understand and easily misunderstood, not for their art but their decisions to be loyal to their country. Don’t misunderstand me, though. I am completely loyal to the United States of America, but I don’t quite get the group of Soviet composers who stayed in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Of course it is natural that a majority of composers and artists think themselves intellectuals and eggheads. There a few that don’t–there’s a handful off the top of my head. But a trio of Soviet composers from the twentieth century are misunderstood by the intellectuals today, believing that they are and were fellow travelers. This is wrong to assume. All three of these men were artists, but forced to fly their Communist-Party affiliation ahead of their artistic needs. When a totalitarian regime has a stranglehold on what is deemed acceptable to the State, you are not an artist. You are a subject like everyone else and subject to the whims of the happiness of your patrons who also happen to have to ability to kill you at a moment’s notice. These men carefully tread on the line, pleasing their own creativity while pleasing the State. It didn’t go very well most of the time obviously.

Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is the most well-known of the group and has a significant output of classical music in the twentieth century with many glorious symphonies and other great works.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) had left Russia following the 1917 revolution, but found that many of his best and most lucrative commissions were coming from the Soviet government and therefore returned and thrived creatively, mainly during the Second World War.

Aram Khatchaturian (1903-1978) is the lesser known of the group but is probably the most talented of the three. Many of his melodious works are hummed in our minds because of them being featured in movies and television.

The common thread is control and the Soviets had their control on each of them, even after the brutal Joseph Stalin died in the mid 1950’s. Each composer has dedicated works to some particular part of Soviet existence or a Soviet leader (Stalin being the “favorite”). For example, Prokofiev’s final symphony, the 7th in C Sharp Minor (one of my absolute favorites), is dedicated ambiguously to “Soviet Youth”. Many of Shostakovich’s symphonies have a dedication to Stalin or to moments of Soviet History (his one movement 2nd Symphony).

Imagine living in a society where whatever your art is, it must glorify those in the Kremlin before it glorifies anyone else, much less your own accomplishments. Tooting one’s own horn was against the establishment.

The Soviet Union of the Cold War era is much more of a mystery than we as Americans realize. It was an insulated culture then and perhaps still is in it’s current form (the Soviets haven’t really gone away just so you know) and westerners like to believe they know what was in the heads of these three composers. We don’t. Not really. We don’t know if their art made them happy or if their lives were fulfilling as composers in an era full of uncertainty and a waning popularity in classical music. American classical music lovers have an appreciation for Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khatchaturian to which I’m sure would surprise the hell out of three of them if they were around today.

Obviously, they all lived long lives and survived the harshest years of the Soviet Union. To assume that it was easy for them is going to be hard to prove. Like the whole history of Cold War Russia, the true stories of each of these composers are probably going to be shrouded in what we as westerners want to beleive: they did it for the sake of music

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