Voices of Revolution: Russia 1917 is a classical musical series from the Philharmonia Orchestra, exploring the music inspired by the formation of the Soviet Union.
In this piece, written to accompany the Orchestra’s Workers and the State concert, musicologist and Russian music expert Marina Frolova-Walker looks at the composers who shaped the musical landscape of the Soviet Union’s formative years.
By 1924, Russia’s wounds from the Revolution and the Civil War had started to heal. Trading with the West was tentatively resumed, and cultural exchanges became possible once more. In 1925, Russian music lovers were able to hear Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto for the first time, three years after it had conquered Paris. The encounter was enough to turn Russian composers and critics away from Alexander Scriabin, their previous idol, and they now embraced Sergei Prokofiev.
His concerto offered them all they wanted: it combined the bold dissonances of modernism with a reassuring classicism, and even found a place for some nostalgic Russian lyricism in the manner of Sergei Rachmaninov. Both Prokofiev and Rachmaninov were, of course, emigres at this point, but the Soviet government now put out feelers to see if they could be enticed back.
Igor Stravinsky was also invited, but neither he nor Rachmaninov were interested. Prokofiev, however, gave a positive reply, and in 1927, he returned to his homeland for the first time in almost a decade. This was only for a concert tour, but he was welcomed with great warmth and even adulation from the Russian public. This visit set in motion a chain of events that led to Prokofiev’s permanent return ten years later.
The intense musical life of 1920s Russia also produced some new stars, including Alexander Mosolov, who came to fame for his great modernist novelty, The Iron Foundry (1926-27), which had originally been intended as part of a ballet score. ‘Machine music’ was all the rage in Europe thanks to Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1923), named after the steam engine that it portrayed, but Mosolov’s Foundry was still more extreme, and also more gripping with something of a heroic ‘hymn to labour’ in the horns.
Coming just before the first Five-Year Plan - which made industrialisation the priority - and we might expect that Mosolov’s piece would be hailed as a kind of theme tune for these titanic efforts. Even so, it received a barrage of criticism for its rootedness in Western musical trends, and the critics accused the composer of being interested only in machines at the expense of the ‘liberated’ workers who operated them.
Mosolov’s harsh modernism soon made him an outcast, and in 1932, he even wrote a blunt letter to Stalin (now a rather grand figure), asking him either to silence his critics or to let him leave the country (The Iron Foundry was now making waves in Paris). For various independent reasons, the critics were indeed told to shut up, but so was Mosolov himself. He began to curry favour with the authorities by trying to write more conservative music, but in 1937, he received a sentence of eight years (reduced to eight months) in a labour camp (for reasons unconnected to his music). His highly original modernist voice never resurfaced.
In the end, it was a relatively conservative stylistic spectrum that was deemed fit for ‘music of the people’. One composer who flourished in this atmosphere was Reinhold Gliere, who was already a mature composer in his forties at the time of the Revolution.
Gliere had several ambitious works behind him, the most famous being his epic Third Symphony, Ilya Muromets, but even then, his gifted private pupil, Prokofiev, was threatening to overshadow him. Gliere was happy to comply with whatever demands the state would issue on musical matters: ‘just tell us what to do’, he said at one official meeting.
In the mid 1920s Gliere even pre-empted later trends when he wrote one of the first ballets on a Soviet theme: The Red Poppy, on a fictitious plot foretelling the spread of revolution to China. Staged at the Bolshoi in 1927, this became a classic despite its clunky plot and rather conventional ballet music. Gliere modernised his score by including a popular street song Yablochko (Little Apple), which was choreographed as a lively ‘Sailors’ Dance’.
Gliere’s conservatism and his willingness to please won him many awards and honours, although he still remained in the shadows of Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose greater artistry was duly recognised in spite of their risk-taking and individualism.
One of Gliere’s most unusual hits is his Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra (1943), which is in a genre of its own. This work won Gliere a Stalin Prize, even though it must have seemed ill-starred: he used the voice without words, passing up the chance of using a stirring Soviet text, and the vocal writing was of the sort associated with Italianate frivolity rather than Russian seriousness. Despite these disadvantages, the mournful first movement captured well the sombre wartime mood, while the joyful finale seemed to look ahead to the better days that would follow victory. In any case, the concerto had become a safe and sure Soviet genre, not least because the state was eager to showcase virtuosos, such as David Oistrakh and Emil Gilels, on the international stage.
As Soviet music entered its darkest period during Stalin’s final years, Prokofiev and Shostakovich were denounced for their formalism (that is, the vestiges of modernism that remained part of their music). Mosolov had shrunk to the margins of musical life, while Gliere continued to win awards for his innocuous ballets and quartets, which were always melodious and written with impeccable technique.
‘The people’ were offered music that was beautiful without any hint of excess or provocation – just the kind of music that had been denounced as ‘bourgeois’ in the West. And because a desire for the beautiful and heart-warming never fades, works like Gliere’s concerto seem to have stood the test of time and crossed borders much more easily than many of the abrasive modernist masterworks of the period.
Workers and the State, music influenced by Bolshevik Russia, is performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, here at Southbank Centre on 22 March.
This performance is part of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s series Voices of Revolution: Russia 1917 exploring the themes of idealism, propaganda and repression which permeated the music of the time.