Symphonic music composed under Stalin presents both ethical and aesthetic problems. Often assumed to have been composed in a compromised style by composers who were either coerced into abandoning their “real” modernist inclinations or who were in any case second-rate, these works have been labelled variously socialist realist, conformist, conservative, or even dissident, depending on the taste and opinion of those passing judgement. This article argues that picking and choosing which symphony is socialist realist and which is not cannot be justified either logically or historically, and that we should no longer attempt to define any non-texted or non-programmatic music in this way. The Anglophone term “middlebrow” holds out the possibility of describing this repertoire without implying ethical or artistic compromise on the composers’ part, acknowledging that, in the absence of any elite or “highbrow” musical culture, composers shared the aim of reaching a mass audience.
Was Soviet Music Middlebrow? Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Socialist Realism, and the Mass Listener in the 1930s
Pauline Fairclough is reader in Music at the University of Bristol and has published widely on Soviet musical culture in the Stalin era. Her most recent book, Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity Under Lenin and Stalin, was published by Yale University Press in 2016. She has edited two books on Shostakovich for Cambridge University Press, and is author of the forthcoming critical biography of Shostakovich for Reaktion Press.
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Pauline Fairclough; Was Soviet Music Middlebrow? Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Socialist Realism, and the Mass Listener in the 1930s. Journal of Musicology 1 July 2018; 35 (3): 336–367. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2018.35.3.336
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