by Peter Rosen
February 24, 2003
Our story takes place in the former Soviet Union – a place of unique juxtapositions; of idealism and terror, heroism and corruption, of high culture and foolish pretension. What kind of art could flourish under these conditions, and how did artists, writers, and composers cope with the arbitrary nature of Socialist Realism?
In the same way that the music of Beethoven and Wagner was used by Hitler to rally the people to the Nazi cause, in Soviet Russia, Stalin encouraged the creation of symphonies and operas to promote national patriotism.
From the 1930's when the bitter night of Stalinism spread its gloom over Soviet Russia to the death of Stalin in 1953 socialist dogma prevailed in all aspects of Soviet life. Stalin had an iron grip over Russia's cultural and creative life. No film was made without his script review and changes, his approval of cast and director, and his "final cut." No paintings were hung on gallery walls without his stamp. No book or poem was published unless it carried the passport of his admiration. In music, socialist realism translated into the ideology of the Party Line. It had to fit the term: Heroic-Patriotic Classicism. Those who didn't fit were doomed.
This film is about the life of a composer working in the darkness of a tragic era. A life full of contradictions: Was Khachaturian playing the fool for Stalinism, or composing music that cried out against its evils? Was he a Soviet favorite musical son, or a sacrificial lamb? A loyal subject of the Kremlin, or secret dissident? As we will see, like most Soviet citizens, Khachaturian hid a complex private life behind a mask of Communist loyalty.
In the early glory days of the Bolshevik Revolution, young composers like Khachaturian were an integral part of the most important social and political upheavals of the 20th century – the decline of the old colonist empires. And his Caucasian roots, being born in 1903 in Armenian Georgia, offered a strongly alluring promise.
But such romantic ideals in music were poisoned after WWII. Contemporary music, or even music that strayed a little from the national rhythmic and melodic norms was called "formalistic," or abstract, not easily comprehended by the masses. During the War, Stalin wanted his composers to write "Battle Symphonies," like Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" from an earlier time. Music that reflected the tragic lives of the people, the sorrow and loss of 20 million Russians in the war, or even the personal plight of the average Russian citizen in the tough economic times of rebuilding the nation was discourage before it was even conceived, and for those who defied the Great Leader and Teacher – public condemnation, humiliation, denunciation. The Black List. Many of the Soviet composers so treated quietly disappeared from music circles. The "conflict less" symphony would be one of the only ways composers had of coping.
In this atmosphere or recriminations and fear, friend turned upon friend. The composer Dmitri Kabalevsky attempted to replace his name on the Black List of composers who held formalistic, anti-people tendencies with that of Gavriil Popov. The attempt was successful. The final text of the Party's "historic Resolution" does not mention Kabalevsky. The talented Popov eventually drank himself to death. Stories like this were more the norm than the exception.
Some Soviet composers were able to flee. Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But others, like Shostakovich and Khachaturian stayed put. They had comfortable lives on the surface. A dacha in the country, notoriety, lavish receptions, public appearances, subsidized travel, and in Khachaturian's case, many medals. He received Soviet Russia's two highest honors – the Order of Lenin in 1939, and the Stalin Medal in '41 '43' and '46, for several compositions, including his 2nd Symphony.
But his 3rd Symphony, written shortly after the war brought derision and scorn from the Army Generals and Party Comrades. Its modern and forceful sound contained a meaning that they didn't understand. What was he trying to say? They didn't know, and this was the problem.
Unlike Strauss and Furtwangler in Hitler's Germany who put their heads in the sand and steered clear of politics, Shostakovich and Khachaturian were in the midst of it. Shostakovich was continually denounced by Pravda and the Comrades in the Party (even though he was a member) and lived in fear. Khachaturian's story is even more intriguing, because he was part of the Party, the vice-president of the Organizing Committee of the powerful Union of Soviet Composers in Moscow, yet his fear must have been even more profound, because there was more at stake. He had the destiny of hundreds of composers and the future of Soviet music in his hands.
February 10, 1948 Stalin and his cultural lackeys Andrei Dzanov and Tikhon Khrennikov (the powerful Secretary of the Composers Union from 1948 to 1992) through the Central Committee of the Communist Party denounced most Soviet composers, including Khachaturian, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. Khachaturian was never the same again. He was accused of being a "decadent formalist," and received the severest public censure.
Khachaturian offered an insincere and coerced apology. He had become preoccupied with purely technical proficiency, he said. "Lately I estranged myself increasingly from my own Armenian element. I wanted to become a cosmopolitan."
The Soviet pressure cooker shattered Khachaturian's already frail health, and cut short the composition of what may have been more symphonies. And where Stalinism may have inflamed and inspired the reclusive rebel Shostakovich's creative gifts, Khachaturian was another story. As a Party official he was devastated, betrayed by the system, and too shocked to work. He wrote no other symphonies past his Third, and settled down to write film scores after 1948. In the last 15 years of his life, Khachaturian composed virtually nothing new, reworking his earlier works.
But were the modern sounds of his Third Symphony an encoded expression of Stalinist terror? Could it have been composed by a man known to relish delivering party-line pronouncements in public? Was the symphony post-war Soviet triumphalism at its extreme with parts for 15 trumpets and organ, or a ghastly expression of the plight of his fellow oppressed Soviet citizens?
This is one of the intriguing questions this film will deal with. Khachaturian was a loyal son of the Communist Party when he joined in 1943. He was physically present at many Party functions, a role model for legitimizing propaganda.
His eminence and status in the party protected him, for a while.
But the path of accommodation for Khachaturian and the other Soviet composers was known only to each one of them. Was it bread on the table, security for the family, or just plain fear? Whatever it may have been, it was a path of no return.
The fact that Khachaturian, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other Soviet composers were actually able to create memorable works, even masterpieces, within the Soviet system redeems music as a moral voice in the torrid times of the 20th Century.