Saturday, June 09, 2018

Joe Horowitz on Shostakovich, the Cold War, and CIA sponsored take-downs of the composer's work

One of my favorite composers is the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  Actually, despite growing up American I've had a fondness for Soviet composers that goes back to my late teens when I heard the 8th string quartet.  I was also inspired at a young age by, of course, Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.  So even if I grew up a Pentecostal kid in Oregon set against communist expansion in political terms I couldn't help but admire the musicianship and craft of a number of Soviet composers. 

But I also began to discover that there were two scripts about Soviet music in college and adulthood.  One script had it that Soviet music was by definition not even really art.  That is most forcefully articulated by the likes of Adorno but there are other variants, which we'll be looking at.  But the other script I was exposed to was that all the really great musicians and artists in the history of the Soviet Union had to be anti-Soviet dissidents in some way, shape or form.  That was fostered by what increasingly seems to be a mythological presentation of Shostakovich as a dissident.  It is fostered somewhat, perhaps, by the stories of people like Solzhenitsyn, too, where writers and artists who were imprisoned gain a kind of street cred through imprisonment that elevates their work and stature.  Either that or the secret dissident script is applied.  The possibility that genuinely skilled and even visionary artists and writers and musicians could be completely invested in Soviet ideology.  There's a similar dynamic at work in the United States and elsewhere in the West, we could call it a kind of Star Trek ideology (which, the more I've thought about it ,the more the entire Star Trek franchise could be considered emblematic of what people are nowadays calling neoliberalism, which can be thought of as a totalizing cultural imperialism that prefers soft power but always has the phasers at the ready, even if they're supposed to be set on stun) ... anyway, getting to Horowitz.

“It is difficult to detect any significant difference between one piece and another. Nor is there any relief from the dominant tone of ‘uplift.’ The musical products of different parts of the Socialist Fatherland all sound as though they had been turned out by Ford or General Motors.”

This October 1953 assessment of contemporary Soviet music, by Nicolas Nabokov in the premiere issue of Encounter Magazine, is fascinating for three reasons. The first is that Encounter, which became a prestigious organ of the Anglo-American left, was covertly founded and funded by the CIA via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, itself a CIA front. The second is that Nabokov, a minor composer closely associated with Stravinsky, was the CCF music specialist.  The third is that his article “No Cantatas for Stalin?” imparts blatant misinformation. And yet Nabokov was shrewd. charming, worldly, never obtuse. He was also laden by baggage of a kind that was bound to skew his every musical observation.

Nabokov’s verdict came weeks before Evgeny Mravinsky premiered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 with his peerless Leningrad Philharmonic. Some two years before that, Shostakovich completed a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano. Neither work sustains a dominant tone of uplift. In fact, both are imperishable monuments to the complexity of the human spirit, arguably unsurpassed by any subsequent twentieth-century symphonic or keyboard composition.

A cousin of the famous novelist, Nabokov was born in 1903 near Minsk to a family of landed gentry subsequently dispossessed by the Revolution. He wound up a US citizen in 1936. In 1949, he conspicuously humiliated Shostakovich at the “Peace Conference” at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel – an adventure in Soviet cultural propaganda that provoked counter-measures; the CCF came one year later.

A decade after that, JFK joined the cultural counter-offensive with a series of speeches claiming that art could only flourish in “free societies” and casting aspersion on all political art. Here is some of what he had to say:

“We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not [as Lenin put it] ‘engineers of the soul.’ It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. . . .”

“We know that a totalitarian society can promote the arts in its own way — that it can arrange for splendid productions of opera and ballet, as it can arrange for the restoration of ancient and historic buildings. But art means more than the resuscitation of the past: it means the free and unconfined search for new ways of expressing the experience of the present and the vision of the future. When the creative impulse cannot flourish freely, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs the root of art.”

It all came to an end when in 1966 Ramparts Magazine outed the CCF as a CIA operation. A firestorm of controversy and consternation erupted. Scores of prominent publications and writers suddenly discovered that they had in effect been secretly employed as American intelligence agents. The best-known book about the CCF – Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War (1999) – impugns the CIA for compromising the intellectual freedoms it sought to promote.  But the ironies of the campaign against Shostakovich elude her and other writers on the CCF.


It took me a while to take to the Shostakovich cycle, which I like, but which I consider to be less fun in several ways than other fugal cycles from the 20th century.  I admit that I'm actually a fan of Paul Hindemith's music, which is practically enough to ward off a lot of people who are into classical music.  I also have more fun listening to Kapustin's 24 preludes and fugues, for instance, and also the only recently (for me) discovered Zaderatsky cycle of 24 preludes and fugues.  But I do admire the Shostakovich cycle. 

What's been interesting is to see how the prelude and fugue as an idiom was regarded as more or less obsolete in Western academic musicology.  It's not that it's an idiom of writing that has become obsolete, it's that after a century of so of post-19th century pedagogy the tradition became stultifying at the academic level more than at the level of people actually writing music.  There are more cycles of fugues in the 20th century literature than we could realistically talk about at a blog in one lifetime.  Not all of the work is worth talking about ... maybe even a lot of it is worth passing over without comment or even naming names, but the tacit and at times explicit notion that the fugue is antiquated doesn't really hold up.  For as long as people are writing fugues, even dry and pedantic fugues, the fugue is not a dead way of writing music. 

Now The Cultural Cold War might be best read back to back with The Mighty Wurlitzer.  That anti-communist leftists were willing to collaborate with the CIA seems like a pedestrian point to make by now, and not even necessarily a scandalous one.  The scandal might be in terms of what polemics against musicians on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain were promoted.  When someone as Marxist as Adorno could condemn all Soviet art as not-even-art it would be hard to assume that the polemics can be reduced to pro-USA or pro-Soviet since Adorno ultimately didn't stay in the United States and had his issues with the country.  It's hard to buy the idea that Eisenhower ended up being as authoritarian as Hitler ... though if someone wanted to suggest that about folks in the Dulles family  ...  maybe? 

This might be yet another time to wonder whether an American president trafficked in assumed and also unexamined ideals that had seeds planted in German idealism that won't necessarily account for other possibilities for artists and the cultures in which those artists emerge. Because while you might theoretically be able to choose freely of any and all artistic means in a Western cultural context good luck finding ways to possibly get the monetized. 

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