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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter Z

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Andrey Zhdanov

Andrey Zhdanov (1896-1948) was the principal ideologist of late Stalinism. It was Zhdanov who mounted the notorious "anti-formalist" campaign against Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and other composers in 1948. During the campaign, Stravinsky also received a mention as "the apostle of reactionary forces in bourgeois music", and both his "Russian" and "neoclassical" works were dutifully ridiculed by the Chairman of the Union of Composers, Tikhon Khrennikov. Unlike Prokofiev and Shostakovich, of course, Stravinsky was thousands of miles away, and his career was unaffected.

The condemnation of Stravinsky's music was not motivated by arbitrary dislike or mere ignorance. The Stalinist aesthetic of Socialist Realism, which Zhdanov was defending, stood in express opposition to modernism. Former modernists of the pre-Stalinist 20s had to support the contention that modernism destroyed the "human content" of art: in the visual arts there were no recognizable objects, in literature there were no stories, and in music the familiar harmonies and tonal system were gone. This, said Socialist Realism, meant that modernist art had cut itself off from human emotions, and devoted itself selfishly to "art for art's sake" instead. Nor was this just a Stalinist myth: one of the first theorists of modernism, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, spoke warmly of the "dehumanization of art" and celebrated the fact - as he saw it - that modernism was for an elite, and spurned the masses. It was hardly surprising, then, that Stalinism should turn its back on modernism and appeal instead for artists to create "realist" works that could be understood by the masses (and which also looked hopefully towards a "socialist" future). Stravinsky, of course, openly subscribed to the dehumanization slogans, proclaiming famously:

"I evoke neither human joy nor human sadness"
"Rhythm and motion, not the element of feeling, are the foundations of musical art"
"Music may symbolize, but it cannot express"
The "humanism" of Socialist Realist music turned out to be nothing other than the old Romanticism and Nationalism warmed up. Only Prokofiev and Shostakovich were, for the most part, allowed to stray well beyond the limits placed on their fellow composers. The constraints of Stalinism had been considerably relaxed by the time Stravinsky finally returned to his homeland in 1962, now as an honoured visitor. He politely applauded the Soviet works that were performed in his presence, but privately he expressed his dismay, since he found nothing to admire, whether in the post-Stalin Soviet mainstream, or in the new generation of Soviet modernists.
© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

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