The Performance and Reception of Western Classical Music in Soviet Russia

People involved in this project

Principal investigator:

School Arts
Department Music
Dates 2011
Funder AHRC
Contact person

More about this project

This research project will explore an area of Soviet musical and cultural life that has been ignored by historians until now: the performance and reception of Western art music pre-1900. While this repertoire seems initially to stand outside the main conflict zone of Western/Soviet modernism, no music was regarded as ideologically neutral in the Soviet Union, and composers such as J.S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven all had to bear a degree of political scrutiny. In some cases, as with Renaissance and Baroque sacred music, bans eventually came into place to block further performance, while a sacred work such as Mozart's Requiem could be performed throughout the whole Soviet period. Initially collating performance data and writings on reception, this project will focus on three major areas: the removal of most sacred music from Soviet repertoire and its gradual reinstatement in the 1960s and 70s; the targeting of proletarian groups with Western 'classical' music in the 1920s and 30s, and an overall analysis of the 'Classics for the Masses' project in the Soviet period.

The reception of major figures from Western music history such as Bach, Beethoven and Wagner is of the greatest value in assessing how Soviet culture evolved in response to the Western music traditions that still dominated the Russian concert hall. Since militant calls to reject past culture in the 1920s were ignored by policy-makers, the most pressing question was how bourgeois Western art music should be regarded: as a necessary phase in the historical advance to socialism; as anachronistic and irrelevant, or as a precious relic that should be preserved and shared with the masses? Acceptance or rejection of certain repertoire was, not surprisingly, shaped by wider political forces. An obvious example is Wagner -initially favoured as a revolutionary composer, his operas were abruptly dropped after the Second World War.

But other changes in repertoire selection occurred for less obvious reasons, and identifying what these were is an important part of this project. The Moscow and Leningrad Philharmonias issued audience questionnaires at certain concerts, which could have several implications: were they required to do this in order to justify their choice of repertoire, or were they simply canvassing opinion from specific social groups, which they identified from the selected subscription series? Nothing is currently known about why some composers and works remained in the repertoire undisturbed from 1917-1991 while some were quietly dropped or banned, and this research will address that gap in our knowledge.

The wider implications of the project are significant. It will explore the complex relationship between a self-consciously new culture and the old on which it was based, and on which it initially depended entirely. In so doing, it will investigate how the Soviet regime 'managed' something as apparently innocuous as mainstream concert repertoire as a way of asserting control over its Western heritage. It will also explore the relationship between the custodians of 'high art' and the proletarian groups: how repertoire was selected as suitable for them as a way of building up their level of culture while distracting them from the popular culture that was less 'improving', less easy to monitor and control and which was therefore more potentially subversive.

The research will also assess the conflicts of interest between those in positions of power and influence who sincerely wished to share the music that they believed was the rightful heritage of the Soviet proletariat, and those who wished to use that heritage to more direct political ends. This might include a degree of enforcement, including the Philharmonias' 'outreach' activities in factories and clubs, or the aggressive assertion of Romantic and Classical models for Soviet composers as a way of steering them from the dangers of Western modernism.