Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

When we step into the supposition that music can have political impact without words being involved, we find ourselves in much murkier philosophical territory. A prevalent common-sense view indicates that music can seem political only when text is involved. The conviction that purely instrumental music has no identifiable content was strongly expressed as far back as Plato. In the Laws, admittedly, he writes that one—


would never commit the grave mistake of setting masculine language to an effeminate scale, or tune, or wedding melody, or postures worthy of free men with rhythms fit only for slaves (Laws, 669c),

—giving us to believe that melodic modes and rhythms can at least in themselves portray character and social class. However, this comes in a discussion of the appropriateness of music to text setting. Only a paragraph later, when he turns to the solo music of an aulos player or harpist, he backtracks a little:


It is the hardest of tasks to discover what such wordless rhythm and tune signify, or what model worth considering they represent. (Laws, 669e)

A prejudice against the meaningfulness of instrumental music thereafter persists throughout most of history, relaxed slightly by the 17th-century German Doctrine of Affections (Affektenlehre), which attempted to systematize signifiers of emotional affect in music via analogy with ancient Greek and Latin rhetorical figures. Even here, however—despite a general association of minor modes and slow dotted rhythms with sadness, and triplet rhythms and major modes with joy, as well as attributing a quality such as “yearning” to the rising minor sixth—the Affektenlehre was primarily concerned with the appropriateness of music to text. (Although once you admit that music can be appropriate or inappropriate to text, you’ve implicitly opened the Pandora’s box of music having connotative potential.) Instrumental music could be a pleasant entertainment, but was considered incapable of making a statement about the world—and so most people probably continue to believe today.

It was with the arrival of Beethoven‘s heavily dramatic music, and its contrast with that of Haydn and Mozart, that music lovers began to think it capable of philosophical statement. As E.T.A. Hoffman wrote:


Haydn’s music reminds us of a blissful world, eternally youthful before the Fall; Mozart takes us into a spirit world of love and melancholy, of irrepressible longing; while Beethoven’s music sets in motion the lever of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and awakens just the infinite longing which is the essence of romanticism.

From here it is a relatively short step to the doctrine of socialist realism propagated in the early Soviet Union and in communist circles. This is not to be confused with Social Realism, which was primarily a visual art movement; Social Realist painters like Ben Shahn dealt with subject matter that had to do with the poor, or with class issues in society. Obviously, an untexted symphony can’t literally be about the poor, but the kind of metaphorical reading of symphonic form that became popular following E.T.A. Hoffman was adduced to speculate on the moral character of symphonies and other major works. In Communist countries, such metaphorical readings grew to assume the level of official critical dogma.

In the mid-20th century, Fascist and Soviet Communist ideologies took very specific views of what constituted healthy and decadent trends in instrumental music. Starting in 1929, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM), and later the Union of Soviet Composers (which replaced it in 1932), pressed on composers the necessity of the dogma of “socialist realism,” a term officially defined as “the truthful and historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development.” “The masses,” wrote the Literary Gazette in 1932, “demand of an artist honesty, truthfulness, and a revolutionary, socialist realism in the representation of the proletarian revolution.” What “truthfulness” meant here was a continual glorification of the social ideals and achievements of communism. A 1936 Pravda article titled “Chaos Instead of Music” forced Shostakovich into official disfavor, and made clear that deviations from the socialist realism program would not be condoned. Prokofiev, who returned to the Soviet Union in 1936 and became trapped there when his passport was confiscated in 1938, bent over backwards writing communist-glorifying works based on Russian folk tunes like Zdravitsa (Hail to Stalin, op.85), but even his ten-movement cantata for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution (op.74, 1936–7), on texts by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, was declared insufficiently socialist realist, and denied performance until 1966.

In practice, however, the implications of socialist realism for instrumental music were rather superficial. Lyrical melodies were preferred, as more acceptable to the masses; complex rhythms, especially those associated with American jazz, were worse than suspect; and reliance on Russian folklore and folk tunes were encouraged. Symphonies were supposed to express optimism, and thus end triumphantly in major keys; Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was damned partly for ending pessimistically in minor, and he redeemed himself by ending the Fifth in major. His “Leningrad” Symphony, whose finale portrays the rout of the German army by Russian forces, was taken up as an icon of the Russian spirit during wartime, but official critics quibbled with the fact that the theme of the German army went on at greater length than that of the Russian army. The conductor Samosud tried to persuade Shostakovich to add vocal soloists and chorus to the finale in a hymn of praise to Stalin; Shostakovich declined and adjudged that “the optimism is entirely sufficient.”

It has been difficult in the West to arrive at a consistent and fair critical attitude to take towards works that were written under such oppressive governmental directives. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russian and former Soviet composers (including in New York, recently, Khatchaturian) have been undergoing indulgent reassessment.

From Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics
by Kyle Gann
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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  1. Pingback: Kyle Gann on “political music” | Phil Thomson, Composer

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