Reviewed Elsewhere: Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker, Music and Soviet Power: 1917–1932.

Michael Berkowitz's picture

Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker. Music and Soviet Power: 1917–1932. Woodbridge: Boydell and

Brewer, 2012; 404 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-843-83703-9; $25.95 (paperback), ISBN 9781783271931.
 
When compared to disciplines like general or literary history, music history often displays a tendency to lag behind. The main reason for this may well lie in music’s overwhelming emotional power, which may keep critical thinking at bay longer than a content-driven art form like literature. In general terms, this statement may be somewhat unfair. For Soviet music scholarship, however, it rings true. The problem there resides not only in the fact that music in itself may easily lead to spontaneous mythologizing, but that this mythologizing has defined the content of serious scholarship until recently. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, music scholars could not avoid dealing with the rather irrational responses to that major historical upheaval. Whether or not Shostakovich sincerely believed in communism is the typical question quoted by Marina Frolova-Walker in this volume as representative of Soviet music reception. As the book demonstrates, the question becomes irrelevant as soon as historians command enough source material about the different phases in Soviet cultural history.
 
The field demands much perseverance to work through piles of scores that no one would ever want to listen to again, or through volumes of short-lived journals and other obscure publications, as this volume attests in its focus on Soviet musical discourse between 1917 and 1932. The result turns out to be more rewarding than expected. Much criticism proves to be interesting to read and sometimes even compelling.
 
The main reason, however, to collect the highlights of music criticism of the period is its capacity to reflect the main tensions and trends in the process of shaping a Soviet identity in music. The authors divide the period into three stages: 1917–1922, 1923–1928 and 1929–1932. The first comprises the revolution and the civil war, the second the period of New Economic Programme (NEP), and the third the First Five Year Plan. For every stage, relevant documents are assembled and provided with intensive commentary. All the way, the authors arrive at correctives or nuances to the standard historical view. ...
 
The history that emerges from these pages is as much defined by individual rivalries as by ideological dogma. ...
 
For those who fear that the humanizing of Soviet music history might entail a normalizing effect, the book offers plenty of reminders of the extraordinary nature of Soviet political history and its pressure on the arts. The stakes were high and the risks serious, which makes the compliance of the musical intelligentsia with state measures all the more understandable.