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Accompanying a people’s march

12 August 2016

Michael Bourdeaux is surprised by early Soviet repertoire


Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet musical identity under Lenin and Stalin

Pauline Fairclough

Yale £35


Church Times Bookshop £31.50



FOR a habitué of the Bolshoi Theatre and Moscow’s concert halls six years after Stalin’s death (the exchange student I was in 1959-60), this book is a revelation. Its meticulous research explains the vagaries of Soviet officialdom and control of the musical repertoire, notably an absence of any piece with a possible political or religious connotation; so it was hardly a surprise to experience a conservative repertoire. Most notably absent, as Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign was gaining momentum by the day, was the huge swath of classical music inspired by the Christian faith.

It was not always so. Pauline Fairclough has combed the Soviet archives and comes up with a different story, at least for the early period she describes. Her discoveries about the Lenin period are astonishing. Who would have thought that Mozart’s was “the Requiem of choice when Lenin died in 1924”? Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis received a performance in Leningrad in the same year, celebrating the centenary of its première in 1824.

Even J. S. Bach’s two Passions received occasional performances in Russian translation. For a time, the successor body to the St Petersburg Imperial court cappella kept this repertoire alive. In 1935, there were performances to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of both Bach and Handel. Ideologists wrestled with the idea that these events were propagating Christianity. One critic commended Bach for having broken through the “chilled academicism of Protestantism . . . and his unconscious invariably resided in the deepest . . . personal conflict with his own environment” (whatever that may mean). Another claimed that Bach could not have been a real Christian because he had 19 children (the Oxford J. S. Bach Companion states 20)!

Handel’s oratorios were popular, too. Judas Maccabeus therefore became the talisman of a downtrodden (albeit Jewish) people. One critic implied that it was all right to perform works that set the text of the Latin mass, because no one understood it anyway. The import of the truly revolutionary words of Bach’s Magnificat seems to have escaped Soviet officialdom altogether.

Fairclough correctly and carefully represents all this as deeply controversial. It was to change dramatically, and the second half of the book represents the fate of music during Stalin’s purges and then the Second World War (when German music, especially Wagner, became unacceptable). She devotes two graphic pages to those starving, heroic musicians who played on during the siege of Leningrad (1941-44), background to Tom Service’s recent stunning recreation on TV of the première of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

In 1945, there occcurred a unique event: a celebration of the part that the Russian Orthodox Church played in the war, a concert of its music in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire on 6 February 1945. There would be no similar event until the celebrations of the millennium of Russian Christianity in 1988. The author has opened our eyes to new perspectives in Soviet music.


Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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