Just been watching a strange programme on Mezzo, the French music channel. It was a retrospective on musicians' lives in the Soviet Union, with lots of old film:
a clip of young Stalin in colour, looking so like a robot it is hard to believe he is not a prop in an Eisenstein film; more clips showing cheering or adoring workers shouting "Stalin"
a clip of a whole orchestra of eight year old girls playing violins, as an example of the excellent musical education;
an explanation of why Shostakovich agreed to work with the Soviet regime (to help other artists)
At first it was hard to follow and I wasn't concentrating either on the Russian or the French subtitles, which seemed to be showing the standard Soviet propaganda. Today it just seems laughable or pathetic. Then I began to listen more carefully.
The Russian narrator produced the following anecdote about a rehearsal in America of a Shostakovich symphony (the 4th, 2nd movement?) where a tune on the percussion resembled to westerners the clip clop of a horse and the violinists began to laugh. The narrator gave another explanation from the composer, himself: it was a tune from the prison, a prisoner tapping on the pipes to communicate with someone else, to transmit a message. Different interpretations, from different cultures. Certainly no laughing matter.
Also the narrator showed the frequent Kafkaesque situations musicians found themselves in. Asked to authorise a concert of the first symphony of Schnittke, Khrennikov, the Secretary of the Composers Union refused to answer Schnittke except "how can I authorise what I have not forbidden", knowing perfectly well what he was doing, and that was the end of the beginning of Schnittke's career. Perhaps now, Schnittke is better known than Khrennikov.
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