Western studies of musical life in the USSR have typically placed great emphasis on the constraints to which composers were subject and often appear to have accepted as axiomatic the notion that the styles of Soviet composition of the Stalinist era were fundamentally conditioned by external pressures. One of the most influential formulations of this view is to be found in Boris Schwarz’s Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, which has remained a standard work of reference for over four decades. Schwarz considered the promulgation of the Communist Party’s resolution of 23 April 1932 “On the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organisations” to represent a fateful turning point in the fortunes of Soviet music, marking the inauguration of a stultifying new era of “regimentation” and the demise of freedoms that had remained after the persecution of leading modernists by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians. According to Schwarz “advanced composers turned conventional, and conventional composers turned commonplace.” In Schwarz’s view, the newly founded Composers’ Union, just as Goebbels’s Reichsmusikkammer, presided over an artistic wasteland.
In this essay I question such generalizations. I focus on Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881–1950), regarded by Schwarz as a prime example of a modernist who retreated into safe conventionality in the early 1930s after the composition of his notorious Twelfth Symphony, ostensibly written to glorify Stalin’s grandiose project of agricultural collectivization. A re-examination of the circumstances surrounding the symphony’s genesis suggests that the constructions Schwarz placed on this phase of Myaskovsky’s career are questionable. Although the composer’s harmonic language became noticeably less dissonant after 1932 than in certain works of the 1920s, I argue that this cannot be attributed solely to external pressures, as Myaskovsky’s later style evinces strong continuities with tendencies manifest in his earlier work. The essay closes by reflecting on the wider implications of these findings for our understanding of Soviet composition of the Stalinist era.