On the whole, Soviet writers knew when they were putting their heads on the block. Composers often didn't, and it's precisely the innocence and uncertainty of music - that content and meaning tend to reduce to questions of style, and that musical scores are impenetrable and their performance ephemeral - which make the history of the relationship between music and politics so troublesome. The extreme cases are well known. Stravinsky never lived in the Soviet Union, visited it only once, in old age, and so was able all his creative life to maintain a purely formalist position about the 'meaning' of music without it ever being tested by the tangible menace of a censorship which rejected the style of that music and would certainly have taken steps to enforce that rejection if the composer had ever placed himself in its power. Shostakovich, on the other hand, was a Soviet citizen from the age of 11, broadly accepted a view of music as an art of engagement, but still fell foul in the 1930s of what amounted to a politics of petit bourgeois taste. Questions of value aside, his career was rich in paradox and irony: for instance, Stalin destroyed him just when his music was moving away from the experimental Modernism of the 1920s.
LRB 25 September 2003 | PDF Download