Soviet Music: Art, State, and Revolution

Instructor: Nathan Shields
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Soviet music is both one of the best-known chapters in 20th-century musical history, and one of the most opaque. Composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev enjoyed a public prominence that few of their western contemporaries could dream of, lionized at home and abroad during their lifetimes and enthusiastically canonized after their deaths. Yet their music’s meaning, and even its basic legitimacy, remain subjects of fierce contention. We have still reached no clear consensus on the debates that animated the Cold-War era, when listeners in the USSR and the west alike scrutinized Soviet composers like Rorschach tests: were they patriots, careerists, or secret dissidents? Did their work express Soviet society’s strength or its underlying weakness? Yet these concrete disputes, for all their seeming urgency, were only the surface manifestation of a deeper uncertainty. Beneath them lay questions both older and more intractable: what is music’s role in a revolutionary society? How far can it convey concrete meaning—whether political, literary, or philosophical? How can we control music’s anarchic power, and how might it, to the contrary, end up controlling us? In Soviet music, and in the arguments swirling around it, these age-old questions of musical aesthetics assumed a sudden and compelling political urgency.

In this course we will explore the music of the major Soviet composers—including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Galina Ustvolskaya, Arvo Pärt, and others—placing them in the context of the artistic culture that nurtured them and the political crucible that formed their work. We’ll examine their collaborations with artistic contemporaries like Meyerhold and Eisenstein, and follow their ambivalent dance with state authority as it played out in the changing aesthetics of their music, from the brash optimism of post-revolutionary modernism, through the midcentury heyday of Socialist Realism, to the avant-garde art of the 1970s and 80s. And finally, we’ll ask how the fundamental aesthetic and political dilemmas shaping their music contributed to its unique public stature. Why did Soviet composers matter so much to the cultural and political life of their society, and what would it mean for music—any music—to matter that much today?

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
June 16 — July 07, 2021
4 weeks


Registration Open

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