Composing Behind the Iron Curtain
On 25 October 1917, 99 years ago today, the Bolshevik uprising led to the formation of the Soviet Union, one of the most significant geopolitical entities of the 20th century. The cultural impact of the spread of communism throughout Eastern Europe was profound.
By 1917 corruption and political mismanagement, compounded by famine and a continuous series of disastrous military defeats on the Eastern front, had already toppled the three-century-old Romanov Dynasty. Years of upheaval, grievances and the dream of a communist state finally bore political fruit on 25 October when the Bolsheviks occupied key government buildings in Petrograd, a process that would ultimately lead to the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 after a long and bloody civil war.
The cultural impact of the spread of communism throughout Eastern Europe, which was just beginning to emerge as a dominant contributor to the classical lexicon, was profound. Numerous prominent artists came of age or were born in an environment in which they were unable to freely practice their craft. Some composers, including Koussevitzky, Rachmaninov and Ligeti chose to leave the Eastern Bloc completely rather than subject themselves to censorship. Those that stayed, such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Lutoslawski and Khachaturian, were required to walk an impossibly thin political line. Even a small deviation from the accepted Party doctrine, whether in thought, deed, or music, could lead to death or a lifetime of forced labor. Such was the reality in the frantic, terrifying times of the Great Purge of the late 1930s.
The tale of composition behind the Iron Curtain is often simplified to a struggle between two men: Dmitri Shostakovich and Joseph Stalin. This story, though compelling, fails to take into account the younger generation of composers who toiled after the 1953 death of Stalin, often in markedly different circumstances. Composers born around 1930, a generation that includes Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Pärt and Krzysztof Penderecki, were forced to confront a complicated legacy of totalitarianism while simultaneously advocating and dreaming for a more free and inclusive society.
No composer was a more appropriate heir to the symphonic Russian tradition than Alfred Schnittke, whose experience in many ways mirrors that of Shostakovich. After studying for three years in Vienna, Schnittke returned to Moscow to attend the fittingly titled October Revolution Music College, where he graduated the year of Stalin’s death. Although his early works bear the unmistakable stamp of Shostakovich’s influence, he soon developed a polystylistic approach that made use of serialist, aleatoric, and extended techniques. Not surprisingly, his approach was quickly branded as “formalist” by Soviet authorities, and subject to swift rebuke. Schnittke experienced the dubious honour of his first official condemnation by the Union of Soviet Composers in 1958 for his work Nagasaki.
Although for the most part his later works were well received, with the notable exception of his First Symphony (1974), Schnittke still suffered professionally from the oppressive policies of the Soviet Union. It was not until the relative relaxation of censorship under Nikita Khrushchev that Schnittke was even able to view any of the scores of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Stockhausen or Ligeti, all of whom would greatly contribute to his polystylistic approach. Prior to 1980, he was permitted to leave the USSR only twice, depriving him of the valuable influence from and exposure to his peers in the West. By the time the Gorbachev era finally lifted his travel restrictions for good, Schnittke’s health was too poor to take advantage of his newfound freedom.
Although Russians dominated both the music and politics of the Soviet Union, by the second half of the 20th century the other member states were beginning to have a more prominent role. Perhaps no composer exemplifies the desire to withdraw from the Russian umbrella better than Arvo Pärt, from Estonia. Pärt, along with the minimalists of the same period with whom he did not entirely belong, is usually credited with bringing back tonality as a viable and potentially progressive option for modern composers. His neo-Baroque style yielded what is now recognized as the most prominent oeuvre of sacred works of the century, and offered a third path to a generation of listeners and composers unwilling to take the plunge into complete noise and atonality but still eager to listen to contemporary music.
Like all forward-thinking Soviet composers he had a complicated relationship with the Union of Soviet Composers. Even though they awarded him the First Prize in a 1962 competition by the organization, the stark simplicity of his work and his unabashedly religious overtones did little to endear him to Soviet sensibilities. Like Schnittke, Pärt immediately seized on the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union when it was offered in 1980. He has since settled in Berlin, where he lives to this day and continues to compose.
While not an official member of the Soviet Union, Poland became a prominent member of the Eastern Bloc of allied communist countries, although not before undergoing the twin horrors of Nazi and Soviet occupation. Decades of tragedy and hardship worked its way deeply into the collective consciousness, and Witold Lutoslawski, the giant of 20th century Polish music, perfectly exemplified both the wartime experience of many Poles and style of music that ensued.
By the 1960s, Krzysztof Penderecki had established himself at the forefront of the post-war generation of Polish composers, and firmly in the lineage of the great Lutoslawski. Penderecki came of age in the midst of the full horrors of Nazi-occupied Poland, and those experiences along with Poland’s subsequent experiences under Stalinism would deeply influence his musical style. He soon became a pioneer in many of the foremost musical discoveries of the late 20th century, such as microtonality and graphic notation, and his polystylistic approach incorporated elements as disparate as twelve-tone rows and neo-baroque references within a few bars of each other. Fortunately for Penderecki and many others, Stalinism in Poland was overthrown in 1956, and he was ultimately able to exercise a degree of artistic freedom and enjoy a level of official support far above what many in other countries behind the Iron Curtain were experiencing.
The experience of life behind the Iron Curtain was hardly uniform, with some composers suffering the same frustrating, lonely fate as Shostakovich while others enjoyed considerably more freedom. However, if there was one common characteristic that emerged from this disparate group it was an aversion to dogma, a refusal to conform. By ideologically squeezing artists, the Soviet Union practically assured that they would find outlets elsewhere, whether this resistance took the form of the nostalgically simple or the defiantly complex. Ultimately, this paradigm resulted in some of the most innovative and inspired compositions of the 20th century, even though it would take decades for the rest of the world to hear them.
Header image: USSR Postage stamp 1970, Saint Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, courtesy of public domain