Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Soviet Imperialism in Classical Music

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Cultural imperialism is the imposition of a dominant community’s lifestyle onto another community. It involves transforming the religion, customs, language, norms, and ideology of others to reflect that of the dominant society. A prominent example of this is the Soviet Union, demonstrated by the Sovietization of other cultures. One of the tools they employed to bolster their cause was the regulation of arts. Here we argue that the Soviet government actively tried to push music to reflect their imperialist ideology, creating music which was "socialist in content and national in form" Stalin[1](p.6).


Previous scholars[1] of Soviet music have separated its progression into three phases. The first (1917-1921) was a reaction to the revolution with musicians attempting to build a new style of music reflecting the change in their society. It consisted of experimentation designed to contrast what had come before. During the second phase (1921-1932) Soviet music adopted a proletarian attitude, music became ‘of and for the masses'[2](p.1). The final phase (1932 onwards) saw the rise of socialist realism, which incorporated the perceived positives of both the former stages. A definitive definition of socialist realism is contested upon but it resulted in music as ‘ a function of new socialist society, realistically interpreted, and related to the historic evolution of the nation as a whole’[1](p.6).

Research into the relationship between the Soviet government and music has produced mixed results. Some researchers argue that the government was disinterested in shaping Soviet music[3] and that the system was actually a meritocracy[4]. Additionally, the continuance of western classics in the repertoire of musical institutes has been explained as instances of the Soviet ideology being manipulated to accommodate for personal taste[5]. If the application of Soviet ideology is so pliable, can the government truly be said to have played a major role in developing Soviet music?

On the other hand, due to its strong emotional resonance, music has the capacity to be a ‘mobilizing device'[4](p.104). This capability was not lost on politicians, with Lenin himself arguing that "Art functions in conjunction with the formation of social consciousness and influences the social-economic relations of society"[2](p.1). Hence, arises the need to consider the evolution of Soviet music in conjunction with the regime.

What evolution did classical music undergo under Stalin's political dominance?[edit]

Complexity in music of the ruling class. (Beethoven's Sonata No. 9, Op. 47, "Kreutzer Sonata": I, performed by Paul Rosenthal and Edward Auer)
Folk song for the masses. (Volga Boatmen's Song performed by Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) with orchestra accompaniment)

Firstly, communists promoted a new music style, social realism, which was more accessible to the masses. In fact, it was reported that workers were bored during Beethoven concerts[1]. According to the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians' manifesto, the bourgeoisie's musical culture was too developed for the workers[1], who didn’t understand anything. They needed to feel emotions to be interested. Thus Soviet music never used counterpoint and the harmony was mostly homophonic[1]. Composers were asked to use folk themes, and Stalin later promoted very melodic and solemn music, as it was easier to follow. Shostakovich’s 2nd opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was indeed forbidden in 1936 after Stalin saw it: the style was too dislocated[6].

Rage in Shostakovich's 5th Symphony (Scene from the documentary Nelsons No. 5)

Thus, the party needed to control and motivate performances and composers, even if controlling musical codes is impossible. In 1932, the Union of Composers was created, which could ideologically control composers[7]. Communists forbade performances which weren’t socially realist, and the main communist newspaper, Pravda, often published violent articles against composers considered as anti-socialist. For example, two days after Stalin saw Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a ruthless article was published in Pravda against Shostakovich[6]. Furthermore, the party used terror to force composers to compose rightly. Shostakovich feared being deported so much that he stood for hours in front of his door to hide it from his family[8]. Moreover, a political instructor was assigned to him[8]. He called his 5th symphony “answer of a composer to right critics”. While this symphony was seen as an ode to the party, musical cyphers allowed Shostakovich to encode a parody of what was asked of him: the final movement is a parody of apotheosis, full of rage and hatred[8][7]. Soviet composers enjoyed, however, the highest social status under the Soviet regime. They had economic facilities like houses and they were paid at least 10,000 rubles for symphonic works[1]. Composers were given incentives to carry on with their compositions, through a system of government rewards. In 1941 Shostakovich received the "Stalin prize" of 100,000 rubles for his piano quintet[1]. Those rewards were excellent incentives, as composers were starving and would compose for food during the revolution.

Furthermore, certain compositions were not included in the repertoire for display, since they were not synchronous with the Soviet ideology (i.e. Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812, or Stravinsky’s late compositions in the religious or neo-classical style). Likewise, older composers were required to undergo an ideological change in order to be relevant to the emerging style of Soviet music. One good example would be Sergei Vasilenko, with his Red Army Rhapsody, or Maximilian Steinberg, who dedicated an entire symphony (Turkish) to the development of the railroad linking Siberia and Turkestan[1]. Newer works incorporated political connotations, hinting at the supremacy of the USSR. Prokofiev never lost contact with Russia though he spent 15 of his most productive years abroad. One of his most successful works is Peter and the Wolf, the “symphonic fairy tale”, which can be interpreted in a political key (the wolf is Adolf Hitler). The outbreak of the Second World War influenced composers to write works which were linked to the events: Shaporin wrote the cantata Tale of the Battle for the Russian Land, which is split into 12 sections illustrating the war (i.e. (5) Song of a Red Army Man); Prokofiev wrote the cantata Ballad of the Unknown Boy, glorifying the guerrilla activity on Russian territory, and completed the opera after Tolstoy's War and Peace, hinting at the war against Germans[1][9]. Because of the new melodic style of Soviet music, operas and ballets naturally became more sought after than symphonies. The transition was tedious, being represented by lots of failures: iconic examples include Deshevov's Ice and Steel, which deals with the Kronstadt revolution of 1921, and Gladkovski’s For Red Petrograd, in which the libretto was centred on the White Army campaign in 1919. The first real success was Dzerzhinsky’s Quiet Flows the Don, which attracted full houses, and received an important endorsement[9]. Dzerzhinsky said “Comrade Stalin said that the time was ripe for the creation of a classical Soviet opera […] Such an opera should make use of all the latest acquisitions of musical technique, but it should above all strive to maintain closeness to the masses, clarity, and accessibility”[1](p.10), signifying the adherence to the Soviet ideology. Several classical operas were redone, in the light of being presented with a new libretto (i.e. Glinka's A Life for the Tsar was reworked as Ivan Susanin[9]).


In conclusion, the imperialist regime manifested itself in all disciplines, including arts. Even though music is boundless, the communists clearly showed that it can be steered in a certain direction. While it cannot be said that the regime's actions were righteous, one thing is certain: Soviet music was thriving - Soviet musicians dominated competitions, and composers had their works displayed worldwide[10]. The new music showcased a modern, melodic style, and was socialist in its themes.


  1. a b c d e f g h i j k Slonimsky, N. Soviet Music and Musicians. The Slavonic Review, American series. 1944; 3(4): 1-18.
  2. a b Kozlenko, W. Soviet Music and Musicians. The Musical Quarterly. 1937; 23(3): 295-304.
  3. Mikkonen, S. Music and Power in the Soviet 1930s: A History of Composers' Bureaucracy. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press; 2009.
  4. a b Nelson, A. Music for the Revolution: Musicians and Power in Early Soviet Russia. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press; 2004.
  5. Fairclough, P. Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin. New Haven: Yale University Press; 2016.
  6. a b Ashley, T. The Guardian. Too Scary for Stalin; 26/03/2004. Available from
  7. a b Il y a 100 ans la Révolution, France Culture (radio), 1917, ce que la Révolution a fait à la musique russe, 21/10/2017, available from
  8. a b c Une vie une oeuvre, France Culture (radio), Chostakovich – Celui qui a des oreilles entendra, 21/10/2017, available from
  9. a b c Frolova-Walker, M. The Soviet Opera Project: Ivan Dzerzhinsky vs. Ivan Susanin. Cambridge Opera Journal. 2006; 18(2): 181-216.
  10. Tomoff, K. Virtuosi Abroad: Soviet Music and Imperial Competition during the Early Cold War, 1945–1958. Cornell University Press; 2015.