Lenin once told Maxim Gorky that he loved Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata so much that he could listen to it every day. But, instead, he chose to limit his exposure to great music because “such miracles” distracted him from the all-consuming struggle for socialism. “It gets on my nerves. I would like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for being able to produce such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in.”
These are not – quite – the words of a cold-eyed fanatic squashing his private passion to further the revolution. Lenin sounds genuinely conflicted. Beethoven, together with Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, were figures of vast cultural significance in pre-revolutionary Russia. Their works were performed not just in theatres and concert halls but in every bourgeois parlour.
Soviet purists toyed with the idea of suppressing the classical canon, but Stalin decided that solid citizens, deprived of religion, needed these “miracles”.
Soviet purists toyed with the idea of suppressing the classical canon, but Stalin decided that solid citizens, deprived of religion, needed these “miracles”. Wagner was culled, but the other masters were venerated – Beethoven especially, though concertgoers were instructed to regard the finale of the Ninth Symphony as a proto-Communist anthem.
This was a sensible policy. Soviet recordings revealed thrillingly taut and savage readings of famous symphonies by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, as unmistakably Russian in Beethoven as it was in Tchaikovsky. When tensions eased enough for Soviet musicians to tour the West, the violinist David Oistrakh’s combination of tonal sumptuousness and technical wizardry made jaws drop; likewise Sviatoslav Richter’s supremely reckless Appassionata, greeted with explosive applause at Carnegie Hall in 1960. These were musicians who had never been detached from their Russian roots (Russian-Jewish in the case of Oistrakh: the Soviets, unlike the Nazis, realised that the quickest way to impoverish music was to expel Jews).
But they were also, of course, cultural ambassadors for a murderous dictatorship that, among its lesser crimes, bullied its finest creative spirits. Richter, terrified that his German ancestry or his homosexuality would catch up with him, kept his nose clean by avoiding all controversy and just playing the piano. For his much older mentor Prokofiev and his friend Shostakovich there was no easy way out. They were composers and therefore had to go through the motions of writing Stalin-worshipping drivel.
The Soviet Union did itself little harm by preserving Russia’s musical traditions and then unleashing them on the West. Its motives may have been deplorable, but the music that emerged was not.
Imagine if a great German composer had addressed similar hymns to Hitler; his name would be permanently blackened. But the Nazis were unlucky in this respect: the Austro-German tradition was moribund and they were reduced to bribing the ancient Richard Strauss. The Soviet Union, in contrast, had Shostakovich, perhaps the most important composer of the Twentieth Century.
In retrospect it is easy to argue that the devastating grief of the Eighth Symphony was not only a response to Hitler’s barbarities; Stalin guessed as much and after its initial success it was suppressed. But only briefly: by September 1960, when Mravinsky conducted its British première at the Royal Festival Hall, the Eighth could once again be represented as a triumph of Soviet art.
Some Western listeners were naïve enough to swallow this line; certain British composers, in particular, were quiet apologists for the Soviet Union until their dying day. But that’s not a charge that should be levelled at most people in the audience at the Festival Hall. They were hoping for a superlative performance of a masterpiece and, as the BBC recording reveals, that is what they got. The applause at the end seems entirely justified.
The Soviet Union did itself little harm by preserving Russia’s musical traditions and then unleashing them on the West. Its motives may have been deplorable, but the music that emerged was not. And now that performing styles have become depressingly homogenised, so that a violinist trained in Beijing sounds much like one trained in Basingstoke, we can at least be sure that the trick won’t be repeated.