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Vol 3, No 16
7 May 2001
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Engineering the Soul Engineering the Soul
"Socialist Realism in Central European Music: 1945-1955," Cardiff University, 10 March 2001
Nicholas Reyland

What was—or is—Socialist Realism? Anyone with an interest in the arts of Central Europe during the 1940s and 1950s might feel reasonably confident in providing an answer to that deceptively simple question; and although the more cautious may prefer to hesitate before formulating a response, the term's emotional charge is likely to provoke a subconscious reaction from even the most scholarly respondent.

The concept of Socialist Realism originated in the former USSR, and with the Communist Party's demands on the creative artist to produce works in which, to quote Brian Moynahan, "clean-limbed workers performed heroic deeds to a back-drop of Red flags." The vaguely defined "laws" of Socialist Realism were laid down by Maxim Gorky at the Soviet Writer's Congress of 1934, where he explained the new goals of art to be the depiction of the "positive hero" and the "positive conclusion." Formalism, cynicism and anything that smacked of telling it like it is were out: mendacious mass-deception was in.

Morally tarnished?

Soviet Socialist Realist works were, therefore, among the many varieties of propaganda used to divert attention away from the harsh realities of life under Stalin, by refocusing attention on the Party's near-fantasy goals. The strain of producing such art led many to despair, and some to suicide. The Futurist painter-poet Vladimir Mayakovsky—forced to churn out propaganda posters to mask empty shop windows—shot himself through the heart, after writing "Love's boat has smashed against the daily grind."

My own limited "experience" of Socialist Realism stems from research into the life and music of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski and an accompanying fascination with Polish and Central European music, culture and history during the twentieth century.

Lutosławski was the first Polish composer to have a "formalist" work—his First Symphony (1941-47)—banned, after Włodzimierz Sokorski, Poland's then vice-minister for culture, fulminated that composers such as Lutosławski should be thrown beneath the wheels of street cars. Like all Polish composers active in the post-war decade, Lutosławski was forced to write music according to the principles of socrealizm, following 1948's Second International Congress of [Soviet] Composers in Prague, at which the infamous Polish musicologist Zofia Lissa signed a declaration committing the ZKP (Polish Composers Union) to that path.

Commenting on "this absurd, tragi-comic drama of Orwellian totalitarianism," Lutosławski authority Charles Bodman Rae has summarised the tenets of musical socrealizm as follows: "avoidance of subjectivism; cultivation of national character in music; adoption of well-known forms; and increased involvement by composers and musicologists in music education."

Yet these principles were never strictly formalised by Lissa and her Stalinist colleagues, and when composers submitted works to the committees which judged whether or not their music tallied with the regime's intentions, they could never be sure if the music would be condemned or rewarded—however hard they were trying. Indeed, it was not unknown for works to win prizes one year, and be banned the next. A "positive conclusion" was rarely guaranteed.

Thus,my personal reactions to the term Socialist Realism, therefore, range from sadness and horror at the indignities, compromises and very real threats Lutosławski and other artists suffered under socrealizm to bemusement and an undeniable fascination with the ways in which he, and others working within the putative Communist regimes of Central Europe at that time, responded to the demands of creating art whose symbolic-ideological content could participate in attempts to engineer the thoughts and souls of the region's people.

A wider perspective

But it is important, not least for academics, to beware of emotional reactions like sadness and horror. They colour one's consideration and threaten to impinge upon attempts to place concepts within wider, more varied, and ultimately, perhaps, more revealing contexts. During "Socialist Realism in Central European Music: 1945-1955," a conference held in the Music Department of Cardiff University on 10 March 2001 under the auspices of its Central European Music Research Centre, emotional reactions had their rightful place. This was hardly surprising, given the personal ties binding some of the delegates—including Lady Camilla Panufnik, widow of the late Polish composer Sir Andrzej—to composers and musicians who suffered during this darkly intriguing decade.

Yet it was the "milder" responses, including bemusement and fascination, which dominated proceedings, and seemed to promise most during this deeply commendable attempt to approach an understanding of Socialist Realism, which drew experts—and an immensely encouraging number of young scholars—from as far afield as Budapest, Brno, London, New York, Trondheim and Warsaw.

For those hoping to have their preconceptions challenged, Professor Christopher Norris's opening survey of Socialist Realism's chequered ideological career provided a welcome jolt to the system. Placing the concept within a wide historical perspective—tracing its roots, for example, to the Promethean humanism embodied by music from Beethoven's middle period, and broadening it to encompass music like Tippett's A Child of Our Time (1939-41)—Norris, a member of Cardiff's Department of Philosophy, posed questions problematized by Socialist Realism's later reception.

Has the "forced rejoicing" evident in many of the musical products of Socialist Realism post-1930 tarnished our responsiveness to certain aesthetic approaches to this repertoire? Setting up a Blochian counterpole to the more Adornian notion that the "truth" of twentieth-century art must be located in cracks and distortions mirroring the fragmentary nature of modern existence, Norris argued for a reappraisal of musical interpretations which "paper over the cracks," thereby presenting a more positive spin on Socialist Realist works.

Identifying the continuing vogue for anguished performances of Shostakovich—the grimmer the better, or more "authentic," it seems, at least for most CD reviewers—Norris asked whether interpretations such as André Previn's early recording of the Fifth Symphony might not have something equally valuable to say. Rather than searching for cracks in the musical surface, let alone the Fifth's (still hotly debated) subversive or satirical content, Previn actually tries to make the exuberant D major jubilation of the Finale work, as opposed to treating it merely as vacuous or compromised rhetoric. To my ears, this makes a good deal of symphonic sense—although bleaker and more bitingly satirical versions offer compelling alternatives.

Quartertones for the people!

After this stimulating introduction—which provoked intriguing debate in the conference's own cracks and fissures, the open discussions at the end of each session—the following papers divided into two groups: surveys of Socialist Realism's effects on one or more countries and composer-specific examinations of the concept. Dr Mikulas Bek of Masaryk University, Brno, deepened the semantic debate, however, by departing on his survey of Socialist Realism and Czech National Music with the thought that the only way to approach a definition of such a term is to trace the history of its usage.

The changing fortunes of modernist and more traditional musical styles in Czechoslovakia during the 1930s, '40s and '50s certainly contribute to a more fluid conception of Socialist Realism. The notion of university departments teaching quartertone music to the masses, for example, has a certain surrealistic appeal, but it really did happen, and during just one of the periods when the goals of Czech Socialist Realists and the musical avant garde were more closely aligned.

Budapest's Loránt Péteri's pithy paper examining the relationship between Hungarian cultural commissars and composers in the 1940s and '50s added to the emergent sense of terminological plasticity. Hungarian composers including Zoltán Kodály benefited from their near unassailable position at the heart of the nation's cultural consciousness during some difficult times. As such, they were courted by Stalinists searching for "fellow travellers"—artists with whom the Party shared enough common ideological ground for mutually beneficial relationships to develop. So the question of just who was streamlining whom in Hungary during these years, as Péteri implied, has no straightforward answer.

Permeable iron in the Curtain

In the former GDR—and an entire session of the conference was devoted to music under National Socialism—composers and state worked even more closely together. The post-war partitioning of Germany had enabled like-minded groups to settle in different regions, setting up intellectual strongholds defended by their various ideological stances. Hence Cologne's emergence as a centre for electronic experimentation in the 1950s, and the formation of an East Berlin collective of Socialist Realist "true believers."

As Cardiff's Toby Thacker explained, in an absolutely riveting paper, there are relatively few recorded instances of Republikflucht from the GDR to the West involving composers or, for that matter, classical performers. On the contrary, many musical West Berliners actively sought entry into the GDR, where their skills were often more abundantly rewarded. An "intensely committed elite"—including Ernst Hermann Meyer, Hans Eisler and Hans Pischner—led the way, attempting to outdo one another in acts of fanaticism and their dedication to spreading the word.

That this often involved sending GDR musicians to the West to perform concerts more or less debunks the received notion of an impermeable Iron Curtain through which musical innovations were unable to pass. Clearly, avant garde scores and ideas could have passed through with travelling performers, a fact supporting Thacker's proposition that classical composers and musicians working in the GDR at this time must have been "relatively content"—otherwise such provocative items would surely have been stopped at the border as a matter of recorded policy.

Socialist smear

Or perhaps the GDR's Socialist Realist elite simply had their eye on more prevalent musical menaces. Thacker contrasted the fortunes of the GDR's classical musicians to those of its jazz performers. Caught in a trap between a public clamouring for the latest American dance tunes and prescriptive cultural commissars who saw such music as dangerously immoral and decadent, bands were silenced, not through violence, but through highly sophisticated smear campaigns aimed at calling their moral stature into question.

The Karl Walter Orchestra, for example, had the misfortune of being slandered by claims it had encouraged audiences to "drink beer out of buckets," and that bandleader Walter had committed the cardinal sartorial sin of "performing in his shirtsleeves"—spin and lies decried by fans of the band whose letters to Radio Free Berlin Thacker has unearthed at the BBC's Caversham archives.

David Tompkins's comparative study of the GDR composers union and Poland's ZKP reinforced the impression that, outside of the USSR, Polish composers probably suffered more than most. His eloquent consideration of the reasoning behind the Party's fostering of certain Socialist Realist genres ahead of others—the "sing along" mass songs, for example, were deemed sharper as psychologically manipulative tools than cantatas or oratorios—provided a useful backdrop to Cardiff's Professor Adrian Thomas's study of the tensions at the heart of one of Lutosławski's most compromised compositions.

Many readers of CER will be familiar with the tale of the cantata by Lutosławski which came to light in Poland during the early 1980s, allegedly setting a text in praise of Stalin, and seemingly unearthed at this juncture to embarrass and discredit an artist whose non-political stance had infuriated many in the Party—and subsequently inspired many others outside its sphere of influence.

Lutosławski's version of events painted this ploy as a naïve attempt to discredit him. The text was superimposed on a Socialist Realist composition with a far less inflammatory lyric, he claimed—a composition akin to the many relatively uncontroversial mass songs he had composed to make ends meet in the 1950s.

Looking through Lutosławski's recorded conversations on the topic of Socialist Realism, however, one notes how, as the years went by, the composer's rhetoric became more and more caustic with regards to his "functional" music. Works whose value he once at least partially accepted, in spite of the less than salubrious nature of their origins, gradually became anathema to him. Moreover, claims he was forced to compose Socialist Realist music were denounced as "a barefaced lie," and accusations of actual collaboration with the Stalinist regime as "slander of the first order."

Thomas's paper unveiled new evidence that may help to explain the increasing astringency of Lutosławski's stance. Like most Polish composers, Lutosławski had to make his daily sacrifices, balancing the need to earn money against a desire to believe that his personal morals were not being incontrovertibly compromised. But the screws were being put onto Lutosławski by 1950—why, asked the regime, was he unwilling to put pen to paper for the new cause in a manner as unequivocally supportive as his Songs of the Underground Struggle (1942-44)? One Party official warned him—write us a nice cantata, we'll give you a State Prize: otherwise, troubles are in store for you.

At this time, Lutosławski was discussing potential projects (including a tragically abandoned opera about a volcano featuring a proposed onstage eruption!) with writer and poet Konstanty Gałczyński. As it turns out, the text to the Stalinist cantata was by Gałczyński, and Thomas has unearthed a letter by Lutosławski announcing the composition of a strikingly similar work. Most intriguingly, Thomas has discovered what appears to be the music of the cantata, in the form of individual parts for orchestra. No extant vocal part has been found, but —as Thomas's computer realisation of the music proved—the score as it stands cries out for the focus of a strong melodic line.

The music is a paltry affair. Dully formulaic, it has none of the flair or innovation that mark Lutosławski's best Socialist Realist works, such as the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) or Silesian Triptych (1951). Perhaps this suggests some form of self-critique? If this music is indeed the accompaniment to the Stalinist cantata, does its meagre content tell us all we need to know about the composer's lack of sympathy for its subject?

Growing out of Socialist Realism

Not every composer looks back on her or his Socialist Realist music with Lutosławskian disdain. György Kurtág, for example, is apparently vaguely amused by the memory of the works he composed in 1950s Hungary. But, as Bristol's Rachel Beckles Willson neatly demonstrated, the influence of the techniques Kurtág developed for his early settings of Socialist Realist texts can still be felt in his later, modernist works for voice. He may have suffered less evidently than Lutosławski during the 1950s, but Kurtág's music demonstrates how, when discussions reach the level of the individual composer, every Socialist Realism is different from the next.

In a virtuosic response to the day's proceedings—which employed the elegant conceit of a tripartite division a la semiotician Jean-Jacques Nattiez to gauge "levels of mediation" represented at the
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conference—Bristol's Professor Jim Samson highlighted the immense musicological value of a day blurring the distinction between works and practices. Tellingly, Samson quoted Foucault's maxim that traditions are contained within, rather than created prior to, discussions about them. The reception history of Socialist Realism has yet to be written, but as the repertoire's emotive charge "evaporates into historicism," Samson suggested, an understanding of our own roles in its emergent definition will become increasingly germane.

With the progressiveness and vitality of current thinking demonstrated by the Cardiff conference, there is every reason to believe that, rather than crystallising into any single simplistic definition, Socialist Realism's meanings—be they geographically or historically mediated—will continue to fracture, diversify, and therefore intrigue. I can think of no more fitting tribute to the artists who gave so much, and in such difficult circumstances, to the creation of this problematic but precious musical repertoire.

Nicholas Reyland, 7 May 2001

About the author:

Nicholas Reyland divides his career between work for the London Sinfonietta and doctoral research at the University of Cardiff, where he is analysing the creative tensions between modernism and symphonic akcja ("action") in the music of Witold Lutosławski. He is Editor of the online journal British Postgraduate Musicology (www.bpmonline.org.uk). He composes and writes satire in his (limited) spare time.

Other articles by Nicholas Reyland in CER:

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