Stalin's Music Prize: Soviet Culture and Politics.
To be clear from the outset: Joseph Stalin's music prize was not his personal prize. This is one of the central arguments deployed in Marina Frolova-Walker's latest study, which investigates and refutes the well-trodden myth that Stalin's own impulses were the sole means of deciding winners of his prize. Instead, as the author points out, "Stalin's whims had a direct effect in only a handful of cases, while the hundreds of other music prizes were the result of collective decisions" (p. 9). Frolova-Walker's work--which offers a groundbreaking perspective into the institutional processes, individual agency, and aesthetic reasoning behind the issuing of the Stalin Prize in music--focuses on the mid-to-late Stalinist period, from the Prize's inception in 1939 until its abolition in 1953. Since the opening of Soviet archives in 1991, studies on Soviet musical life have dominated reassessments of intersections between music institutions, creativity, and power. On the late-Stalinist period, Kiril Tomoff's book, Creative Union: The Professional Organization of Soviet Composers, 1939-1953 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), has been pioneering in its reappraisal of the Composers' Union as a nearly autonomous professional organization. Most recently, the trend carries on through scholarship published in the Journal of Musicology (vol. 33, no. 3 [Summer 2016]: 271-431]) in a special volume, entitled "Music and Power," which explores both the institutional histories and multifarious decision processes behind selection of repertoire by the Soviets. Through the scope of the Stalin Prize, Frolova-Walker's research fits nicely into this broader trajectory, representing a clear milestone in the research on the symbiotic relationship between the award processes and Soviet power.
Throughout the eleven chapters of her book, Frolova-Walker follows three fundamental objectives: to investigate the institutional history of the Stalin Prize in music, to consider the personal agency behind the award decisions, and to determine how the awards contributed to shaping a Socialist Realist aesthetic. With a nuanced understanding of the prize-awarding process, she traces the operational workings of the KSP (the Stalin Prize Committee) and the resolutions made in dialogue with Agitprop (the propaganda department), the Politburo, and Stalin. Frolova-Walker maintains that although the KSP was a "consultative body, not an executive body" (p. 18), it still played a significant role in the cultural power struggles and debates that ensued over which prizes were to be awarded. For example, the rejection of Sergey Prokofiev's cantata Alexander Nevsky from award consideration in 1941 was not the result of Stalin's input but rather the choice of Mikhail Khrapchenko (Chairman of the Committee for Arts Affairs), who stated that the flaws in Prokofiev's "curriculum vitae, his artistic personality and the music itself" (p. 62) were reason enough for the composer to be struck off the prize-winner list. Frolova-Walker nicely counterbalances this narrative with vignettes of Stalin taking a personal interest. In triumph at getting the KSP to change its decision February 1952, Stalin wrote "Ha-ha!" (p. 35) in the marginalia of a document that opposed his preferred choice, the Latvian writer Vilis Lacis. These finer details offer powerful correctives to narratives on Stalinism and both balance and complicate the perception of Stalin's role in cultural affairs.
Frolova-Walker's second aim is to trace personal agency and networks within the awarding committees, and she is particularly successful in highlighting these subtleties in the three chapters (3, 4, and 6) that outline the individual prize histories of Prokofiev, Dmitri! Shostakovich, and Nikolai Myaskovsky. Most remarkably, Shostakovich features in chapter 5 as a prominent case study that humanizes the juries of the Stalin Prize. Sidestepping the thorny path to finding authenticity in Shostakovich's subjectivity and voice (an interpretative lens exploited predominantly in Solomon Volkov's Testimony. The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich [trans. Antonina W. Bouis (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979)]), Frolova-Walker cogently presents Shostakovich as being rather vociferous in his interventions at the KSP. For instance, Shostakovich opined against Aleksandr Aleksandrov's opera Bela for lacking "definite musical characteristics" (p. 120) and, most acerbically, dismissed Aleksandr Mosolov as a composer of "modest talents" (p. 134), demonstrating the frank, blunt, and sometimes-hostile nature of the discourse employed at these meetings. Yet even though Shostakovich opposed Aleksandrov's opera, its shortcoming, according to Frolova-Walker, was that it lacked "any Socialist Realist qualities" (p. 120).
Indeed, as a third aim, Frolova-Walker suggests that the Stalin Prizes offer a unique way of analyzing how they contributed to building and shaping a "Socialist Realist artistic canon" (p. 6). Logic suggests that, in order to give them an indication of what to aim for, the artists and musicians took note of the prize lists, core genres, and styles. The staple of musical Socialist Realism was thus formed by realizing that Stalin's slogan--"national in form, socialist in content"--included folk-dominated themes and maintained the predominance of cantatas, concertos, and middlebrow works. For Frolova-Walker, the Stalin Prize was "a consistent and rule-governed practice" (p. 284); composers were therefore "diluting their own styles" (p. 291) of extreme dissonance and unstable tonality in favor of a more palatable, nineteenth-century Romantic idiom.
This final point may have been better served with a few visual illustrations or musical examples, particularly as readers have to take this interpretation at its word. Yet the acknowledgment that a Socialist Realist aesthetic exists in music, as identified through the prize results, raises an important question: do Stalin's music prizes represent a definitive characterization of Socialist Realism in music? In the final analysis, this is clearly not the case. The decision-making processes were multifaceted and analytically complex. As FrolovaWalker notes, the extra-musical reasoning behind the final results included "reputation, rumour, the weight of professional opinion (sometimes heavily biased), the exigencies of the current nominations lists and the past histories and current circumstances of the nominees" (p. 283). In chap ter 8, she contends that Lev Knipper's Serenade for Strings (Gornata serenada) and Sergei Vasilenko's Ballet Suite "could be described as 'light classical,' but the prizes they received tell us nothing about the value of the genre, since the composers, rather than the works, were being favoured in both these cases" (p. 195). Even the prize for Vasilenko was "essentially a lifetime award" (p. 196). Another hypothesis asks whether the KSP, Agitprop, or Stalin actually listened to the compositions in order to audibly identify and approve the core Socialist Realist musical tenets; in the later years of the Stalin Prize, Shostakovich complained, "why weren't they listening?" (p. 283) when questioning whether the non-musician KSP members had heard the nominated works. Yet even if they did listen, across the decade these political critics evidently responded differently to musical features, and the works frequendy traversed the boundaries of the acceptable, marginal, and unacceptable. For instance, Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (1940) and Myaskovsky's Symphony no. 21 (1940), both stylistically problematic, successfully made the 1941 first-prize list even with notable aesthetic objections. Although a correlation between the awards received and a transition in compositional aesthetics does not necessary imply causation, Frolova-Walker illustrates convincingly that there are still considerable recurrences emerging from the prize lists across the 1940s, especially in the focus on concertos, cantatas, and national folk-themed styles. Her approach here is reasonable, well-balanced, and flexible in its theoretical application. The conclusion makes clear that composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Myaskovsky were, on the whole, awarded prizes based on their prestige and reputation rather than "on the grounds that their music was good Socialist Realism" (p. 293). Although this conclusion slightly complicates the narrative, if anything it reaffirms the composite nature of an awards procedure that was not based on aesthetic reasoning alone.
One of the foremost strengths of this book is the way Frolova-Walker teases out the color, resourcefulness, and nuance from each of the committee transcripts. Without a doubt, the close reading and attention to detail in the vast swaths of primary source material is a profound accomplishment. The presentation and interpretation of letters, diary entries, plenary reports and--most impressively--Stalin's marginalia demonstrate a disciplined approach to the material at hand. The overall quality of these artifacts, handwritten in color pencil that has faded over time, often makes them visibly impenetrable. To gain access to these documents, Frolova-Walker also dealt with the formalities and bureaucratic quirks of each Russian State archive. Nevertheless, from reading the transcripts, what is most striking about the deliberations at the KSP plenary meetings is that the members, whether in agreement or not, were bound by the same discursive framework. When discussing Prokofiev's opera Semen Kotko, Aleksandr Gol'denveizer argued that "[Prokofiev] displays a certain coldness.... The opera is not meeting with a very warm response" (p. 64), whereas Myaskovsky, this time on Aleksandr Nevskii, considered Prokofiev's work to have "remarkable depth, sincerity and warmth of feeling" (p. 66). The politics of emotion, used to enunciate thoughts about both music and individuals, evidently played an important role in framing musical discussions and, consequently, determining the final awards. This research invariably opens up several new avenues of scholarly enquiry, especially in terms of how KSP associates viewed their own contributions to music culture and a wider society, the emotional and sensual resonances of music's meaning, and the extent to which non-musical KSP members relied on the professional discourse and opinion of music specialists for direction.
With the astonishing wealth of unpublished primary source materials alongside a detailed contextualization of each source, this book will be particularly useful to cultural historians and scholars of the late-Stalinist period. Through close reading of her sources, Frolova-Walker provides stimulating new insights into the complex nature of Soviet subjectivity in this period. By drawing parallels with prizes awarded in literature, sculpture, and painting, she also proposes a new musical interpretation of the evolving nature of a Socialist Realist rationale behind each prize awarded in music. While this theory has its recognized confines, it certainly adds a welcome dimension to the overall analysis. Most significantly, this book sheds new light on the intricacies of the process, and illustrates an elaborate framework on the purpose, of the music awards. Engaging throughout, Stalin's Music Prize is rigorously researched and successfully rebalances underlying perceptions of state power and music culture in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
University of Bristol, UK
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2017|
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