By Christopher Fulkerson
CF's Composition Desk


Listening to Soviet music will forever be a stigma of bad taste, like eating jam straight from the jar, and if, as I think it is, listening to a Mahler symphony is like eating a huge pot of chicken soup all by yourself, then listening to a Shostakovitch symphony is like eating a dinner of herring and corn right out of the can. There is no room for Soviet music in civilized musical discourse, and not because there is "no room at the inn."

Prokofiev managed to write both real music and Soviet music, but it is to his credit that the music he wrote which is Soviet per se is fairly easy to distinguish from his genuine composition, and the fact that he had to resort to hack work is an eternal blemish on his nation's cheek.

The battle against Soviet Socialist Realism is far from over, for the fact remains that all its pot-boiled symphonism and cliches straight out of the can are alive and well and being served up by Hollywood and engorged all over the world, to the point that there is now a confusion in the concert hall between art and entertainment.

It cannot any longer be claimed that people are starving and need the populist stuff, for from Rio to Siam, from Stockton to Bombay it is clear that newbies think there is nothing better possible at the Symphony than to repeat the same programs that were fashioned in 1950, and which reflect only Soviet populist aesthetics (when they do not reflect Nazi elitist preferences). In a world in which whole catalogues of the music of cybernetics and space flight are ready and available, arts leaders everywhere think it is just a fine thing to carry on with musical horses and buggies, and to vigilently guard against even so much as musical telegraphy (China has special laws against this, indirectly applied through publishing, which amount to a similar stricture on Modernism to its old Soviet persecution on the charge of "formalism").

If you had to judge only from the way it is persecuted, you could conclude that Modernism must be an idiom of special power. And is important to realize that its principal enemies have always been tyrants and those who benefit from not raising the public awareness.

There is no programming difference between the aggressive Soviet persecution of Modernism and the present puerile reluctance with it based on allegations about public preferences. There is no difference between a pompous commissar who claims to speak for the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and a calm conductor (such as that American commissar, Leonard Bernstein, who advised me in person to tell people that my father was Russian), or an arts administrator or Board member who claims to know what the people really want, or what is best for them. In fact of course the people are kept ignorant of any options, and have been led to believe that the preponderance of German and Russian repertoire is purely a result of "public taste." They have no clue that their own music is being kept from them, but their interests are being violated: as Plato said, if swiftness is not necessary, one way to conquer a people is to refuse them their own music.

The prevailing paradigm of aesthetic appropriateness is not based on actual public taste, but on the wrongful agendas of the arbiters of taste. The popularity of a romantic-sounding movie score with no originality is taken as proof of the popularity of a style of music that are centuries old; no thought is given to the fact that the popularity of the familiar is practiaclly a tautology and proves nothing about popularity; and the popularity of a movie score that uses chunks of actual Modernist music, or is full of thefts from Modernist composers, is ignored as equivalent evidence of the plausibility of eventual or immideiate popularity of the Modernists. In short, Modernism is not being allowed to become popular, not even when it shows signs of earning its own popularity.

The reason there is nothing new under the sun is that the arbiters of taste won't allow it. Soviet music is just about as interesting as doing your taxes, and American programming has certainly not been so stultified in forty years as now in 2012.


Posted March 11, 2012.