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.

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