Monday, February 19, 2018

Beautiful Music for Bad People: a guest post by Andrew Morris

I've had a weird thing called a Day Off, in between rather stressful patches of work (I'm determined to try and do that more often than twice a year) and am therefore giving the Monday floor to my colleague Andrew Morris, from for an opinion piece: what happens to us listeners when music written for awful purposes turns out to be rather good? Here is his revisiting of Prokofiev's second stab at Stalinist propaganda... JD

Beautiful Music for Bad People

Andrew Morris is a writer on classical music, and teacher. He blogs at and tweets as @devilstrillblog.

Sergei Prokofiev in 1918
photo from Wikipedia

Like many of us, I worry. I worry about a lot of things, but I spend a significant amount of time worrying whether my friends, or my peers, or particularly my students will ever discover the wonder and joy of classical music. Will they ever lose themselves in Bach’s Passions, or thrill to the sound of an orchestra, or puzzle over the edges of music and noise? 

I try to smuggle a little music into my lessons. Students studying Napoleon heard snatches of Beethoven’s Eroica and the story that went with it. Recently, with a GCSE class investigating culture and politics in Stalin’s USSR, I used interview footage featuring the great Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, recounting the way in which, during the Soviet period, books themselves were altered as officials and artists feel in and out of favour. But I had an ulterior motive: the interview, from Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary The Red Baton, plays with clips of Sergei Prokofiev’s choral ode to Stalin, Zdravitsa (“A Toast” or “Hail to Stalin”). It’s beautiful, sweeping stuff.

It worked. At the end of the clip, my class had understood the Stalinist editing of history, but some had also rather liked the music. “It sounds really nice”, said one. The adjective might have needed work, but the point had been made: classical music could surprise you, and it could also dovetail with history in unexpected ways.

But I only worried more. This particular piece of music raised uncomfortable questions, and the fact of our enjoying it only made it more problematic. Zdravitsa was written in 1939, towards the end of Joseph Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party, the armed forces, and of society at large. Thousands were executed after sham trails; millions more were despatched to Siberia, as slave labour for Stalin’s gulags. And in the midst of this, Stalin had artists, writers, film makers, composers and the rest working to wreath him in propaganda glory, to ensure that the he was elevated to the level of a god in the minds of the population.

The piece was Prokofiev’s second stab at Stalinist propaganda. He’d left the country in 1917, but was tempted back by the authorities in 1936, who promised him the preeminent position amongst Soviet composers. Immediately, he set about writing an epic choral work to make the 20th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, but he made a disastrous miscalculation: against advice, Prokofiev decided to select texts from the writings of Lenin and Stalin for himself, rather than use officially sanctioned excerpts. This alone was enough to ensure that performance of the piece was refused, and when it came to Zdravitsa, the composer played it safe, writing a smaller and much less daring work.

It does, though, retain some special attraction. The opening melody glows in a way that only Prokofiev seems to have been able to manage. The ending is glittering and stirring enough to almost make one forget the final word of the piece is the name of the architect of so much misery: the choir exclaims “Stalin!” As music, it works, but it’s also very successful propaganda. And there’s the problem. If I enjoy it, am I turning a blind eye to the barbarity it celebrates? And if I invite my students to appreciate it purely musically, am I selling them not beauty, but rather an impression of beauty perverted for evil?

These are questions that belong very much to our time, and I’m puzzling them just as we’re being asked to re-evaluate the work of people guilty of immoral and, in some cases, illegal acts, and as we’re reconsidering art that reflects attitudes we now find unacceptable. A musical ode to Stalin ought to be the simplest case of unacceptable art there is, and yet I find myself unwilling to cast it aside quite so quickly. It’s often easy to discount this stuff on grounds of quality – Prokofiev penned other propaganda pieces which have none of the appeal – though it’s arguably the beauty and skill of the music that makes it such effective propaganda.

We must, though, give ourselves a certain degree of credit. I had chosen that film clip with two purposes in mind, but they were also connected. My students could understand the manipulation at the heart of propaganda while at the same time finding it aesthetically appealing. They weren’t going to become enthusiastic Stalinists because I’d played them some Prokofiev. Understanding that beautiful things could serve terrible masters is valuable in itself and sometimes the impulse to remove the morally problematic denies us the opportunity to consider these sorts of ambiguities. Appreciating the quality of Prokofiev’s music for Stalin doesn’t preclude an understanding of the regime it was created to serve; I would argue it only deepens it.