Thursday 25 July 2013

Biography focus: 'Zhdanovshchina' - 1948

A short extract from some of my current writing, summarising the dramatic events of the year 1948, a period that had great ramifications for Soviet music.

The Sixth and Seventh Quartets: an eleven-year wait
A clear line can be drawn through Weinberg’s Quartets 3 to 6, owing to their close succession. He did not write his seventh quartet until 1957, some eleven years later. The reasons for this are complex, and require some backstory with very little information coming from Weinberg himself. To anyone with knowledge of Soviet music, this period should stand out, chiefly around the year 1948. The events of this year sparked a multiplicity of withdrawal across the arts, with the period following it often viewed as a dark time to be a Soviet artist. To understand this attitude, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the events leading up to and including 1948.

    As already mentioned, the Composer’s Union exerted tremendous power over all Soviet musicians. Despite being run by a committee of musicians, it was essentially a tool of the government, to ensure the smooth running of the music industry and to police any undesirable activity by its members. The article ‘Muddle instead of music’, published in Pravda in 1936, demonstrated how effectively the establishment could cripple the career of someone even as illustrious as Shostakovich. As a result of the damning article, Shostakovich’s music was effectively banned from performance for several months, and his reputation would only recover with his Fifth Symphony in November 1937. The incident indicated to all composers that the establishment could withdraw prestige just as easily as it was bestowed.

    The fear this incident inspired proved nothing compared to the events of 1948. Ostensibly a result of Stalin’s distaste for one specific work, the campaign quickly escalated into a round-up of all composers displaying ‘undesirable’ traits. On 5th January 1948, Stalin and a select group viewed a performance of Vano Muradeli’s opera The Great Friendship at the Bolshoy Theatre. Muradeli was a rising Georgian composer, and the overtly-propagandistic production was enjoying moderate success. Stalin’s displeasure was hinted at when Andrey Zhdanov, appointed by Stalin to implement the Soviet cultural policy, met members of the Bolshoy production team to castigate them the day afterwards. Events quickly escalated.

 Vano Muradeli

    Zhdanov chaired a session of the Central Committee of the government including prominent composers and musicologists which led to an infamous decree in Feburary, entitled ‘On V. Muradeli’s opera “The Great Friendship”’, which hinted at unsatisfactory stylistic elements with wide-reaching implications. The decree concluded that the production ‘is a faulty, unartistic production, both in its music and plot’. Even more menacingly, they concluded:

The conference of Soviet music workers convened by the Central Committee, C.P.S.U.(B), has shown that the failure of Muradeli’s opera is no isolated instance, but is intimately associated with the present unsatisfactory state of Soviet music, with the fact that the formalistic trend has gained currency among Soviet composers.
The full text of the decree can be found here.

Andrey Zhdanov, chief instigator of the 1948 decrees.

Four days later, a report was issued amongst staff of the Central Committee, the infamous ‘Prikaz 17’, which detailed works banned from performance. As well as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and Popov, the list also included several works by Weinberg, including his Sixth Quartet and the ‘Greetings’ overture. After further discussion of the Central Committee, the leaders of the Composer’s Union (headed by Khachaturian) were dismissed and replaced by a new group, headed by Boris Asafyev and Tikhon Khrennikov.

    There then followed a series of highly publicised congresses, where composers who were castigated were called upon to confess their sins and defend themselves against charges of ‘formalism’. Attacks and defences were contested bitterly, and figures such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev appeared before the organisation. In August, several high-ranking conservatoire professors were fired, including Shostakovich. The disturbances only ended with the death of Zhdanov on 31st August, thus removing the main impetus behind the campaign (the period came to be known as ‘Zhdanovshchina’ - the Zhdanov business’).

    Weinberg himself was present at the meetings of the Composer’s Union, and he witnessed his friends struggling to defend themselves to the organisation. Moreover, his music was profiled in the group’s journal Sovetskaya Muzïka:

The predominance of false, artificial ‘musical graphics’ over living music is the first impression of many works by Weinberg. It often seems that the main task that he gives himself is that of building a certain musical structure, a form for its own sake, forgetting of what and in the name of what this form is being built. The striving for originality at any price, the tendency towards dry linearism, towards harmonic harshness, towards the break-up of melody, strangle the depth of thought and feelings almost everywhere when they appear in his music.
From:  Re-Mi (i.e. Gregory Bernandt), Notograficheskiye zametki' [Notes on Music], Sovetskaya Muzïka, 1948:2, 38.

The deliberately vague language only adds to the menace implicit in the report – that the young composer had better keep such ‘formalism’ in check, in order for his career to progress.

    In addition to such pressure from the government, Weinberg was also presented with immense family tragedy, when his Father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels was murdered in January 1948.  It became evident to Weinberg and all composers that in order to succeed, they had to toe the party line on matters of musical content. As a result, there followed a number of years of highly conventional works, and Weinberg was no exception. In a period when the accessibility of music was to be greatly desired, chamber music fell out of favour, owing to its associations of elitism and intense personal expression.

    Weinberg’s attempts to ‘play it safe’ took the form of folk-music inspired works, including the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, Op. 47 Rhapsody on Slavonic Themes  and the cantata My Native Land, Op. 51 . In addition, he also wrote several chamber works, including the Sonatina for solo piano, Op. 49, and the Fifth Violin Sonata, Op. 53. It was only by the year 1957 that Weinberg could be seen to be increasing in confidence, displayed in his Seventh Quartet, Op. 59, and especially in the Fourth Symphony, Op. 58.

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