Saturday, April 12, 2014

States of the Warsaw Pact (and more music)

After WWII and during the buildup to the Cold War, the Soviet Union effectively controlled the entirety of Eastern Europe (including Czechoslovakia) which the Allies had conceded to it because Soviet Union bore the brunt of the European theater of the war.  In 1955, these countries' status as satellite states was effectively made formal by the Warsaw Pact.  Even without the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union was itself a federation of extremely diverse, semi-autonomous states like Ukraine, Belarus, and Armenia around the core Russian territory (hence the "friendly states around our friendly states around our friendly states" cartoon).  It was a major political and propaganda challenge for the Soviet Union to maintain control over all of these completely different groups.  Moscow's generally successful approach was to create a controlled sense of nationalism among these groups and identify it with the Soviet Union.  

A major facet of the Soviet government's propaganda was classical music; many works that remain in the standard classical repertoire, like Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (which the LPO performed a few weeks ago) were originally sponsored by the Soviet government.  These works generally fall within the Soviet Constructivist style, emphasizing a sense of collective heroism over recognizable melodies or subtle emotional impact.  Several composers, including Shostakovich and Prokofiev, had to walk a fine line between satisfying the communist government and exploring a personal style.  An exceptional case, however, is Aram Khachaturian, who used a style highly independent of constructivism while running into little trouble with the government.  His style is nationalistically Armenian, using folk melodies, complex and exotic rhythms, and nationalist subject matter.  Listen, for example, to his Toccata in Eb Minor, which is a favorite among pianists for the showiness of the piece, the relative ease of playing it, and the fact that it is fun both to play and listen to:


The piece's rapid pace, eccentric harmonies, and compelling rhythm are all completely characteristic of Khachaturian.  This nationalist, blatantly emotional style was tolerated because it was entirely apolitical; it could be taken as a celebration of the Soviet Union's diversity without suggesting any sort of independence.  In retrospect, though, it was rather dangerous for the Soviet authorities to flirt with allowing nationalism to develop, as movements like the Czech Spring were fueled by nationalism, which was in that case furthered by classical music.

1 comment:

Samantha Gillen said...

I find it somewhat odd how communist countries suppress art, music, etc. I'm not sure I would ever listen to a piece of music and all of a sudden feel the need to rebel. Actually, I can imagine visual art being a problem because you could paint a scene where in the government is abusing its citizens. However, I don't see how music could have the same effect. I doubt that is the same for all people, though. I'm sure others, like you Ian, would be more moved by a piece of music than a piece of artwork to do something dangerous like rebel. I just can't personally imagine music having that strong of an effect on my perspective.