Music in the time of Stalin

Laura van der H...Wed 20th December 2017
Laura van der Heijden and pianist Petr Limonov, who have together explored music from Stalin’s Russia on their new Champs Hill releaseLaura van der Heijden and pianist Petr Limonov, who have together explored music from Stalin’s Russia on their new Champs Hill release

Cellist Laura van der Heijden explores how composers responded when their artistic freedom was challenged

We chose the date 1948 as a focus for our new release based on Zhdanov’s decree of 10th February, which condemned six composers, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, for their ‘formalist’ approaches. 

Stalin thought that art has so much influence that it needs to be controlled, which shows how highly regarded it was – and is – in Russian culture. He wanted to make music understandable by everyone. By making it more populist it wouldn’t challenge them or inspire them to rebel. He was incredibly well read and in the meetings of the board that decided who would get the Stalin Prize, he was always the one who had read the entire book, studied the painting properly, and listened to all the music.

A year before, these composers had been in high regard and doing very well, but it’s indicative of this period that you didn’t know from one day to the next whether you’d be in favour. The whole point of art is self-expression and it was such an odd situation to have rules about what you could and couldn’t write. They knew that dissent might end them in dire poverty, exile or death and it’s fascinating to see their responses.

Prokofiev is enigmatic with his Cello Sonata. It’s not always clear in his open, happy-sounding melodies whether he is being sarcastic or cutting – many of the tunes are naïve and childlike. You wouldn’t think it was anyone but Prokofiev, and yet it was accepted by Communist Party officials – although he had to write another piece to be fully accepted by Stalin. He had found a way to get around the things with which Stalin wasn’t happy, while remaining true to his own musical integrity and thought. I find it hard to understand what the authorities deemed unacceptable. I grasp the heroic idiom they were looking for, but in the chamber music area it is hard to pin down what they liked. I think sometimes it was a bit more random than they would have liked to admit.

Myaskovksy’s reactions were more muted. In his Cello Sonata you don’t hear much difference with his other works. He stuck with his melodious, slightly melancholy, tuneful style. It doesn’t push any boundaries and that may be a result of the decree. I don’t think Myaskovsky was necessarily playing the game – I think he was more going with the flow. It’s difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone from the time.

Shaporin’s Five Pieces were written much later, in 1956, but we wanted to play them because they aren’t performed very much and it’s interesting to have a character in there who didn’t ever fall out of favour with Stalin, and to hear what kind of music he was writing. Lyadov was the forefather of Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, and taught them both, and we wanted to link to him. 

One thing we puzzled with in working on our interpretation was to what extent to see this music in the light of what was going on, or whether to see the pieces as lone-standing. Knowing the history challenged us to look deeper into the music, rather than just have an interpretation that’s instinctive. It was a chance to realise how multifaceted a piece can be. The Prokofiev has so many colours and emotions and from one bar to the next he changes direction in what he’s trying to express. There’s no way of knowing what he wanted – he may not have known himself exactly, but it was an opportunity to explore it as much as possible.

Our overarching decision was not to make anything sound too easy or straightforward. I treated the Prokofiev as if I hadn’t heard it before, and that it hadn’t been performed for many years. I thought about the compositional process. Why did he choose this note at this moment? Why did he choose to go in this direction? It is a piece that will grow with me, and this is a snapshot of where we were with it at that time.

I thought hard about releasing this disc at this time when there is a lot of tension between Russia and the rest of the world. But I also wanted to show that the majority of Russian people just want peace, to have enough food on their table, to go about their day and enjoy art and music. For most people around the world, that’s all they desire, whoever is in power and making terrible decisions. It’s easy to judge a country as a whole when you’re not in it. The main reason to do this CD was to shine a light on some of the music of that period.

Laura van der Heijden’s ‘1948’ album is available for pre-order from Amazon

 

Laura van der H...

Cellist Laura van der Heijden's debut recording, ’1948’, is released on Champs Hill Records on January 5

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