Zhdanov

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April 10, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Andrei Zhdanov, the architect of Stalin’s cultural policy, is credited with originating one of the most chilling sentences ever applied to art: “The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between the good and the best.” Artists whose work was considered anything less than “good” ceased to exist, persecuted out of sight.

Under the Zhdanov doctrine, everything was either “imperialistic” (ie, Western) or “democratic”. His edict came into force in 1946 and survived as long as Stalin. A specific campaign against “formalism” in music (anything the regime didn’t approve of) was launched in 1948, and composers writing insufficiently revolutionary or nationalistic music came under attack.

This is what unites the three composers that the conductor Vasily Petrenko chose to put on the programme that began his tenth year with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO). Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian shared more than citizenship or a musical style – all three had their work and their lives threatened under Stalin. In the early 1940s, although Zhdanov had focused his attentions closely on the perceived Western artistic decadence of Leningrad, the likes of Shostakovich continued to be able to compose. Post-1945, as Soviet ideological control was asserted once more, writing and publishing music the authorities didn’t approve of became impossible.

In his selections for this programme, Petrenko gave us glimpses of the music that the three men were able to write in spite of, or perhaps because of, the political restrictions of the time. After cheery waves from orchestra members to the audience – typical of the relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere of RLPO performances – we began in 1917, with Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1, a compact, 13-minute effusion of neoclassical, Mozartian flourishes.

The composer had spent the first three years of the First World War studying at the St Petersburg conservatoire, but by 1917 the coming revolution had made the city too dangerous. He retired to the fashionable spa town of Kislovodsk.

Working without access to a piano, he settled upon the idea of drawing on Haydn’s through-composition techniques to write a symphony. The resulting work, performed here with great control and precision by the RLPO, even through the flurrying fury of the final movement, was hailed by a Soviet minister as “revolutionary”. A week later, Prokofiev fled the Soviet Union for what turned out to be 18 years in exile.

The joyful humour of Prokofiev’s first symphony is echoed in the work that followed it in the programme for the night. Written four decades later, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 is a riot of jaunty tunes and self-parody. In the hands of the internationally acclaimed soloist Boris Giltburg, the cheerful themes of the first movement hummed and shifted, rousing the orchestra to respond in kind. In the third movement, too, Giltburg’s minute attention to detail, coupled with Petrenko’s focused control of the orchestra, kept all seven beats of the bar in glorious time. But it was in the second movement that the tremendous feeling these musicians have for the piece came through most clearly. With its lyrical, sonorous theme reminiscent of Rachmaninov, supported by sombre descending notes in the cellos and basses, you could hear this was music that mattered to Shostakovich.

Giltburg stayed on stage for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1, joined by the trumpeter Rhys Owens. Written in 1933, over 20 years before its successor, this piece is far more typically in the Shostakovich style, packed with borrowings from sources as disparate as Mahler and contemporary jazz. Petrenko kept a very tight leash on his orchestra, allowing the soloists to do most of the work. What we ended up with was a rather mismatched duel between Giltburg’s flashing virtuosity and Owens’s rather pedestrian sound. In the music, the trumpet’s fanfare is supposed to regiment and rein in the piano’s more extreme flights of fancy. Here, the piano danced away triumphant.

It was clear that Petrenko had relaxed on the podium by the time we reached the final piece for the evening – Khachaturian’s suite from his 1942 ballet, Gayane. Where previously the conductor’s movement had been minimal and precise, for this he let himself get swept up with the rhythms of the various dances. The suite, and the evening, culminated in the orchestra’s spirited performance of the “Sabre Dance”. Familiar from its use in dozens of films and television programmes, it defied the Zhdanov doctrine by becoming a jukebox hit in the US in 1948. It is surely not a coincidence that after Petrenko and his orchestra took in the rapturous applause, that was the tune that followed us out into the night.

Adapted from Newstatesman.

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Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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20 Comments


  1. Three composers united by the Z doctrine / performing as a method of speaking out against soviet / real motiv of this music forgotten = hits

    Reply

  2. Zhdanov doctrine = set Stalin’s cultural policy = writing & publishing music w/o authorization is impossible
    Three composers and conductor Petrenko defied Zhdanov by their RLPO performances + became a hit

    Reply

  3. soviet culture =/= revol orchestra, 3 composers went against it

    Reply

  4. Petrenko defied Zhdanov doctrine, considered revolutionary yet well acclaimed.

    Reply

  5. MIP: Soviet =/= accept composers orchestra = composers revolt

    Reply

  6. Writing+publishing=controlled by authorities; 2 composers went against it.

    Reply

  7. MI: Z Doc halted music production in Soviet Russia, Three composers rose thru the doc became successful

    Reply

  8. Soviet Union =/= composer orchestra + Petrenko went against

    Reply

  9. Zhdanov persecuted musicians –> music = against Z = hit in the US

    Reply

  10. Music of 3 masterful composers persecuted by SU.

    Reply

  11. SPK threatened by Stalin, SPK still wrote, work was praised

    Reply

  12. In spite of political restrictions, Prokofiev’s work was an example in soviet art where his work did not cease to exist due to its greatness

    Reply

  13. SPK lead by Pet made music that was anti-Z/Soviet doctrine; considered revolutionary

    Reply

  14. MIP: musical group defied Zhandov statement; tone = neutral

    Reply

  15. Stalin’s cultural policy = music must be approved by regime. “Petrenko gave us glimpses of the music that the three men were able to write in spite of, or perhaps because of, the political restrictions of the time”.

    Reply

  16. Unapproved music by Zhdanov= Under Attack; 3 composers defied it.

    Reply

  17. Zhdanov= culture+music must be approved
    Petrenko went against Zhdanov
    Music was liked by Petrenko

    Reply

  18. Z policy = defied by Petrenko
    political restriction = 3 composers

    Reply

  19. MIP: Zhdanov = create USSR culture –> anything <good = destroyed; music written b/c restrictions

    Reply

  20. Z= disapproved of certain music
    Pentenko= enjoyed music Z disapproved up
    3 composers= wrote music Z disapproved of

    Reply

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