Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thoughts on Musical Censorship in the Soviet Union

            Society, and especially the ruling class (which to a large degree tends to speak on society’s behalf) has always had something of a dictatorial prescription when it comes to what can be created in terms of art. Plato and Aristotle’s writings on which modes should be played for young boys and the risk of feminizing men have survived through millennia (though not in regular practice anymore,) the Catholic Church (the great ghost of the Roman Empire) sought on very many occasions to limit the creativity of composers writing sacred works (the one that first comes to mind being the council of Trent) and protestant churches in the Americas sought to limit the amount of “passion” present in worship tunes (especially the “fuging” hymns so popular in colonial America). Even Haydn worked for a court where the aim was to please the aristocrat for whom he worked (still managing to produce profound works of beauty). Before recent history, on the whole, it seems that the only artists who were able to break free completely from public and ruling class sentiment were the artists who in fact members of that class of society. In this case, the censorship during the years of the Soviet Union, was not really anything new. What set it apart was on one hand, the degree to which the censorship was carried out and the other, the hypocrisy that went along with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” being ruled by a few individuals with what some might consider very selfish motives.

           We should consider though, that Lenin wrote about capitalist nations rising against a socialist state (in the pamphlet “Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder” now published by International Publishers) and the need to insulate culture as one step against such attacks. Therefore; from a soviet perspective, it is not too hard to see why some prescriptions needed to be made. If in fact, they were to produce the greatest and most efficient state the world had ever seen, they should be able to display the intellectual and artistic merit to match. Morgan talks about this in somewhat remorseful terms when discussing Prokofiev and Shostakovitch saying that the repressive nature of the communist leadership was a hindrance to their compositional output, and in fact he may be correct. I would submit that reasonable and rational limits placed on art can in many ways help the medium. For instance, we could examine 20th century music for film; film music is not a symphony, or a tone poem or any other genre associated with instrumental music, it is there to support the plot, therefore shining melodies and intricate melodies must be reserved for a time in the film where they are absolutely necessary. This in fact has helped the medium of composition by allowing composers the freedom to not be the sole pillar of the audience’s attention. In some ways social prescriptions on art can act in the same way.

            I read the article on Niezvestny which was a very compelling story. I would contend that the article was written from a stridently anti-communist perspective with something of a propagandist purpose. It isn’t to say that I believe there were any outright lies written in the piece, but the artist’s clear views on Christianity are consistent with the long held belief that a socialist state seeks to ban religion. It is worth noting that Soviet Union envisioned by Lenin, and that state that came to be under Stalin and Khrushchev were very separate things. Lenin was a fan of current art and many other avenues of intellectualism (as noted in The Life and Death of Lenin by Robert Payne) and I don’t think it stretches the imagination too much to think that there would have been some liberalization of ideas had he not died so soon after the founding of the state which he had such a hand in creating. 

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