Was Soviet Music Middlebrow? Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Socialist Realism, and the Mass Listener in the 1930s

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Abstract

Symphonic music composed under Stalin presents us with an ethical, as well as an aesthetic, problem. 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. I argue that picking and choosing which symphony is socialist realist and which is not cannot be logically or historically justified, 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)336-367
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Musicology
Volume35
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jul 2018

Bibliographical note

Pauline Fairclough is Reader in Music at the University of Bristol and has published widely on Soviet musical culture in the Stalin era. Her last book, Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity Under Lenin and Stalin was published by Yale in 2016. She also convenes the IMS Study Group “Shostakovich and his Epoch” with Olga Digonskaya and has edited two books on Shostakovich for Cambridge University Press.

Keywords

  • Middlebrow
  • Shostakovich
  • Socialist Realism
  • Symphony no 5
  • Mayaskovsky

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