Thursday, December 20, 2007

Government Censorship of Music in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia - Part I

Episode Number: 012
Title: Government Censorship of Music in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia - Part I
Introduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale - Recorded December 20, 2007
Exit Music - Violin Concerto I: II. Vivacissimo - Sergei Prokofiev*
Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia each controlled their own country’s media, including the music that was written by their composers. Some composers cooperated and some fought the system, but ultimately the government helped shape the collective body of music that emerged from these countries while their dictators were in power. Both countries used propaganda to shape public opinion to have continual support from the citizens living there. In Germany, the Reich recognized the importance of the arts as a means to "promote German culture on behalf of the German Volk and Reich."1 The Soviets were concerned with arranging historical events prior and directly after the revolution in order to help create a solid Soviet ideology. Composers and musical societies were heralded as either revolutionary villains or heroes, depending if the framers of communism felt the music supported or hindered their cause.2 It is interesting to note that though the Nazi and Soviet parties despised each other’s ideologies they both used similar means to achieve their own goals. Composers in Germany could be accused of Bolshevism3 while composers in the Soviet Union could be accused of fascism.

Both regimes used similar methods to control their artists, ranging from methods of positive reinforcement to methods of negative reinforcement. Awards, prizes and coveted employment positions were used to encourage artists to conform to party ideologies. Blacklisting or banning composers’ works and public humiliation were also used to control the artistic community. In the Soviet Union, shutting off the composer’s water was not unheard of either.4 Some composers happily went along with the party line while others struggled to voice their own opinions that were not part of the parties’ ideologies. Whether or not the composer went along with the party willingly or grudgingly, the body of music produced in these two countries while Hitler and Stalin were in power was ultimately affected by the government.

Soviet domination of the arts did not immediately begin after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Intellectual revolutionists like Anatoliy Lunacharskiy, who would become the first Commissar of Education and Enlightenment,5 and Leon Trotsky felt that the party need not meddle with the arts because the arts would eventually conform to whichever type of society prevailed6. Vladimir Lenin is quoted saying:

Art belongs to the people. It must spread out with its deep roots into the very thick of the vast labouring masses. It must be understood by these masses-- loved by them. It must create and develop artists from among them.4

In other words, the early leaders of the communist party felt that once they had achieved a classless society by means of social manipulation, the culture and art would automatically reflect this new society. Before the classless society could be implemented, a temporary dictatorship was needed to organize the economy. This resulted in the nationalizing of the Moscow and Petrograd conservatories, as well as all music stores, warehouses, and publishing houses in July of 1918. Lenin and Trotsky did not expect the temporary dictatorship to last so long. When Stalin took over for Lenin it was realized that the arts could be manipulated as well to create great propaganda.7

During and after Stalin’s reign composers were closely watched to make sure their music conformed to Soviet ideologies. In Soviet Composers and the Development of Soviet Music (1970), Stanley Krebs writes about the creative elements of Soviet nationalism:

-Party glorification and service, exclusive creative and critical recognition of the Russian nineteenth century, denial of Western influence and isolation from the West, methodical eclecticism, concentration on programme genres, high propaganda content, humourlessness, and simplicity of idiom geared to the widest audience of the moment. Generally, the more fame the composer had the closer he or she was watched by the government.

Dmitri Shostakovich was a Russian composer who felt the oppression of the Soviet regime no less than any other of his colleagues did. Though he never lessened his hatred for the tyranny of the state he lived in, he was forced pretend to go along with the government.8 Since the glasnost in Soviet Russia, much information has been made available about the type of society Shostakovich lived and worked in.9 It was important for the sake of propaganda and public morale to keep popular composers in the spotlight. If a composer rebelled, he or she was forced to undergo “rehabilitation” which usually involved public humiliation. Eventually the composer would see the error of his or her ways and make a public statement proclaiming their own folly. Posthumous rehabilitation also occurred when a deceased composer’s reputation is altered to reflect that of a composer who was a model communist.10 Often the famous would be asked to sign statements supporting a colleague’s rehabilitation or denouncing a fellow colleague as a traitor. It was common practice for most people to just sign what they were given without even reading what they were signing. Shostakovich did this quite often, to keep the government from interfering in his life too much. With this attitude, Shostakovich was able to get by, because he knew that most people understood that he did not believe any of public statements attributed to or made by him. 11 Galina Vishnevkaya, a well-known soprano whom Shostakovich remained loyal to all of his life12 stated:

…He made statements in the press and at meetings; he signed ‘letters of protest’ that, as he himself said, he never read. He didn’t worry about what people would say of him, because he knew the time would come when the verbiage would fade away, when only his music would remain. And his music would speak more vividly than any words. His only real life was his art, and into it he admitted no one…

Thus, the oppressive system Shostakovich worked in helped shape the music he created, because it was his only outlet to express himself truthfully. Often his music was a response to government meddling in his personal life.

Shostakovich was in a position to reach many people though his music due to an early start at a successful composing career. On May 12, 1926, his first symphony premiered and received international acclaim. The Soviet system was starting to gain momentum and Shostakovich’s success was propagandized as a positive product of the new Soviet system.13 Shostakovich’s popularity continued to grow throughout the next ten years. In 1931 he completed his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk which was enormously popular at home and abroad.14 It remained popular until Stalin visited a performance of it in December of 1935. Even though Shostakovich intended it to satirize “pre-socialist, petty-bourgeois, Russian morality” critics in the Soviet press accused the opera of excessive eroticism.15 The result of this sudden reversal of popularity was devastating to the composer. In the wake of the criticisms Shostakovich even contemplated suicide, but later changed his mind.16 He put on a show of gratitude and subtitled his newly published Fifth Symphony, “a composer’s answer to just criticism”.17 It is probable that Shostakovich did not actually alter his style of composition for this symphony, as it can be viewed as a direct step in the evolution of his style. 18 After this episode Shostakovich decided to depart from the theatre altogether and the music of the next period of his life reflects this departure. This was his own decision that he made of his own volition, but “external factors would have forced such a decision in any case”.19 In the mid-1930s with his music being seen as “ideologically and socially” wrong, Shostakovich ultimately conformed regardless of how he felt about it.

Sergei Prokofiev was another Russian composer who suffered under the thumb of the Soviet party. Prokofiev enjoyed an early success as a Russian composer but decided to leave the country in 1918. Some speculate he left to avoid the turmoil of the revolution but many agree he left to earn more money. “All Russian musicians of accomplishment went abroad”.20 In 1927, he began to consider moving back to the Soviet Union. At this point in time the Soviets were trying to regain some of their lost intellectuals that left in the wake of the revolution.21 Around 1936 Prokofiev and his family officially returned to the Soviet Union, but not without serious negotiations with the party. It can be inferred that these negotiations included protection from party criticism and interference, release from the obligation to submit works-in-progress for peer review, a certain financial security and freedom to leave the country at will.22 By 1944, his protection began to wane with the premier of his Ballad of an Unknown Boy. Prokofiev believed that “more than one style [of music] was possible for, perhaps even demanded of, the contemporary artist.” 23 In Ballad he introduces some near twelve-tone passages to represent Nazi soldiers. He tried to balance these passages with diatonic passages representing other characters. Unfortunately, this work was attacked and so was most of his subsequent works.24 After Ballad Prokofiev issued an official apology which expressed his gratitude towards Stalin and the Party. However, there was still a small hint of insincerity which earned him even more criticism.25 For the remainder of his life Prokofiev struggled to write music that adhered to Soviet ideology. He even spent time reworking some of his earlier pieces. These actions seriously undermined the integrity of his compositions and as a result many (but not all) of his later works ended in personal and political failure.26



1 Alan E. Steinweis, Art, Ideology & Economics in Nazi Germany: the Reich chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c1993.), FIND PAGE NUMBERS.
2 Stanley D. Krebs, Soviet Composers and the Development of Soviet Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1970), 22-23.
3 Michael H. Kater, Composers of the Nazi era: eight portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 34, 42.
4 Allan B. Ho and Dmitry Feofanov, Shostakovich Reconsidered (City N/A: Tocatta Press, 1998), 9.
5 Steinweis, 33.
6 Ibid., 46.
7 Steinweis, 47.
8 Ho, 115.
9 David Fanning, “Shostakovich, Dmitry (Dmitriyevich),” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed October 24, 2007), <>
10 Fanning, 47.
11 Ibid., 65.
12 Ibid., 106.
13 Krebs, 185.
14 Ibid., 52, 192.
15 Ibid., 52-3.
16 Fanning, Section 2 (online).
17 Krebs, 53.
18 J. Daniel Huband, “Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony: A Soviet Artist's Reply...?,” Tempo, New Ser., No. 173, Soviet Issue. (Jun., 1990), 11-16.
19 Ibid., 195.
20 Krebs, 141.
21 Ibid., 151.
22 Ibid., 152.
23 Ibid., 154.
24 Ibid., 158-9.
25 Ibid., 161.
26 Ibid., 163.


*Exit music from the Columbia University Orchestra, (Sarah Kishinevsky, violin)