Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Soviet Symphony

One of the great paradoxes of Soviet history is that this most unmusical of regimes could have produced so many great musicians. Russians dominate 20th century music like Germans did the 19th. Many of them drew sustenance, as Orlando Figes showed in Natasha's Dance, from peasant traditions and much of the beauty of the music stems from the tension between rural tradition and the lure of the modern.

Modernism in all the arts was an attack against the decadence and complacency of the West and its deep-rooted hypocricies. The Soviet composers were primed to exploit these opportunities because they could hook their cultural-aesthetic critique to the regime's socio-political critique. Or in many cases it was hooked on for them. Shostakovich's bitter, gray-hued memoir, Testimony mostly communicates the long-suppressed fury of an artist who survived terror, but was permanently crippled by it. He never misses a chance, though, to emphasize his Russianess and to ridicule artists as great as Stravinsky and Prokofiev for betraying their patrimony. American productions of his work were deemed superficial, and his visits abroad were invariably uncomfortable. Yet in 1942 there was Shostakovich on the cover of Time magazine, wearing an absurd fireman's helmet, leading, in American eyes, the united socialist-capitalist charge against fascism. Throngs of admirers greeted him in New York and elsewhere and he grudgingly put up with their adulation.

I think it did us a lot of good, during the Cold War, to listen to Shostakovich, to read Solzhenitsyn, and to sense the double negation of our own culture. First as Russians, then as modernists, they had little use for what they saw as a depthless, self-regarding, atrophied civilization. Today such a negation does not exist. Sure there are radical Muslims who renounce everything western. But they don't embody that renunciation in shared artistic, musical, or literary forms; their scorn, unlike that of the Soviets, descends to those forms themselves. As a result there can be no dialogue and no self-criticism. Maybe that is why we feel so adrift in the war on terror.

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