What is Socialist Realism in Music?


















Report on the International Musicological Colloquium in Brno, Czech Republic, October 1-3, 2001

by Nico Schüler

"Socialist Realism and Music: Anti-Modernisms and Avant-gardes" was the topic of the 2001 International Musicological Colloquium in Brno, Czech Republic, which took place October 1-3, 2001, as part of the 36th Brno International Music Festival (the "Moravian Autumn"). The Brno colloquiums are certainly well known for their exceptional quality and, over the years, for their diversity in the musicological topics. Now, twelve years after the collapse of the Eastern European (socialist) world, it was time to draw conclusions on developments of socialist realism in music.

Five speakers were invited to give presentations on general issues of socialist realism: on socialist realism as an artificial system of ideological and aesthetic norms (Jiri Fukac, Brno), on mimesis, symbolism, and reflection as part of the understanding and interpretation of music (Hermann Jung, Mannheim), on socialist realism as a program (Klaus Mehner, Leipzig), on socialist realism as an imposed renewal of musical nationalism (Melita Milin, Belgrad), and on national-socialist realism (Per Skans, Uppsala). Although all of these speakers defined "socialist realism" in some way, all of the definitions were different from each other. Socialist-realistic music was either beautiful, understandable, monumental, or must be "positive" towards life, is connected to the peoples, is "partial", etc., or can be defined as a combination of these characteristics. Unfortunately, there was hardly any discussion time (because most speakers would not observe their time limit) to find some more common ground in explaining what "socialist realism" really was and how it was characterized, especially with regard to specific musical characteristics. As the conference with its many different definitions showed, such a (unified) comprehensive definition would have to be relatively general and would have to emphasize the flexibility of the appearance of socialist-realistic music.

The lack of a comprehensive definition and detailed musical explanation was especially obvious in the many specialized presentations. Tatjana Böhme-Mehner (Leipzig), for instance, presented a paper on realism in Kurt Weill's "Street Scene" (1946), whereby Böhme-Mehner drew parallels between socialist realism and Weill's music without reflecting on the concept of New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), which was the actual basis of the realism in Weill's compositional work. Similarly, Elisabeth Brinsden (Usti nad Labem) explained certain kinds of Hollywood music as socialist-realistic music, although it might have been just a different kind of realism in music, which can often be found in film music.

However, most conference presentations did not show such methodological problems: papers that were on very specific composers, compositions, journals, or festivals. Such papers were given, for instance, by Geoffrey Chew (Egham) on "Vaclav Dobias's Celebration of Proletarian Prague", by David Tompkins (Berlin) on the music festivals in Poland and the GDR between 1951 and 1955, and by Torsten Fuchs (Regensburg) on the East German journal "Musik und Gesellschaft" and its reflections on music-aesthetic developments.

Another group of papers was on national pecularities of socialist-realistic music. Most interesting was a presentation on socialist realism in Chinese music between the 1950s and the 1970s (Hon-Lun Yang, Hong Kong), because hardly anything is known (outside of China) about these developments. Other papers with an orientation towards national pecularities were on the ambiguous origins of socialist realism and musical life in the Soviet Union (Neil Edmunds, Gwent), on the discussions on socialist realism in the GDR between 1961 and 1971 (Lutz Winkler, Greifswald), on diversity and divergence in post-war Polish music (Adrian Thomas, Cardiff), on socialist realism and anti-realism in Czech music (Mikulas Bek, Brno), on censorship in Hungary between 1959 and 1961 (Rachel Beckles Willson, Bristol), and on elusive contents in Slovenian music (Leon Stefanija, Ljubljana).

As in previous years, the Brno conference was an excellent platform for presenting research on a current and "burning" question. In all respects, one can just congratulate the organizers of the conference (Mikulas Bek, Petr Macek, Vladimir Strakos, and Jan Spacek). Certainly, not all questions could be answered, not all problems could be solved, but the great interest in this conference (with a total of fourty presentations) and the quality of the research on many different aspects of socialist realism was/is a good sign for the future. For the immediate future, the conference proceedings will be published by Baerenreiter (Prague) in 2002.

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This report was originally published in New Sound.

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last revised: 3-20-2003