Zhdanov Denounces “Formalism” in Music Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union published a decree opposing “antidemocratic formalism” in the music of the country’s leading composers.

Summary of Event

On February 10, 1948, the newspapers of the Soviet Union published a decree on music by the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. The decree was preceded by a three-day conference presided over by Andrei Zhdanov, Joseph Stalin’s heir apparent, even though both Zhdanov’s health and his power were in decline. At that conference, the works of internationally famous Soviet composers—Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, and Nikolai Miaskovski in particular—were denounced and musical modernism or formalism was condemned explicitly. [kw]Zhdanov Denounces “Formalism” in Music (Feb. 10, 1948)[Zhdanov Denounces Formalism in Music] [kw]"Formalism" in Music, Zhdanov Denounces (Feb. 10, 1948)[Formalism in Music, Zhdanov Denounces] [kw]Music, Zhdanov Denounces “Formalism” in (Feb. 10, 1948) Music;Soviet regulation Formalism (music) Censorship;Soviet Union Modernism;music Realism;music Music;Soviet regulation Formalism (music) Censorship;Soviet Union Modernism;music Realism;music [g]Europe;Feb. 10, 1948: Zhdanov Denounces “Formalism” in Music[02390] [g]Soviet Union;Feb. 10, 1948: Zhdanov Denounces “Formalism” in Music[02390] [c]Music;Feb. 10, 1948: Zhdanov Denounces “Formalism” in Music[02390] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 10, 1948: Zhdanov Denounces “Formalism” in Music[02390] Zhdanov, Andrei Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;censorship Prokofiev, Sergei Shostakovich, Dmitri Khachaturian, Aram Miaskovski, Nikolai Khrennikov, Tikhon Muradeli, Vano

The Soviet Union emerged from World War II considerably enlarged in territory but suffering from the immense destruction of four years of intense, total war with Nazi Germany and its allies. Attempts to subvert the governments of neighboring countries to increase Soviet dominance led to a reaction by the Western countries, in particular the Truman Doctrine (1947) to prevent further Soviet expansion through subversion in Turkey and Greece and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. Western reaction against Soviet expansionism, poor harvests in the devastated western parts of the Soviet Union, and fear of popular disaffection resulted in an intensification of dictatorial controls after an initial relaxation of wartime stringencies. Stalin cut the Soviet Union and its client states off from contact with the West, encouraged Russian nationalism, and proclaimed hostility to all foreign influences.

Stalin’s actions usually took place behind the scenes and were revealed only obliquely by others, whose role was to take public initiatives in denouncing trends to which Stalin was hostile. Andrei Zhdanov was assigned to this role. The period of control over the arts, sciences, and philosophy between 1946 and 1948 has been called the Zhdanovshchina, or Zhdanov’s purge. Zhdanov at this time was engaged in a power struggle with Georgi M. Malenkov Malenkov, Georgi M. , minister for heavy industry, and Lavrenty Beria Beria, Lavrenty , head of the secret police, to succeed Stalin, who was in his late sixties.

Music actually was one of the last areas to be placed under tight state control. By early 1948, Zhdanov was in poor health, with a heart condition exacerbated by years of heavy drinking. His political influence had waned; his chief claim to influence was the marriage of his son to Stalin’s daughter. The Soviet people, however, did not know about Zhdanov’s eclipse, and his very appearance before the Union of Soviet Composers Union of Soviet Composers as a senior member of the governing Politburo signaled official government sanction of his decrees.

Zhdanov’s speech opening the general assembly of Soviet composers in January, 1948, began, as did the attack by the Central Committee, with denunciation of the opera Great Friendship Great Friendship (Muradeli) by Vano Muradeli, a Georgian composer of limited gifts, for its lack of melody, misuse of the orchestra, dissonant harmonies, and lack of folk music to characterize the North Georgian peoples. He compared portions of the work to “noise on a building lot, at the moment when excavators, stone crushers and cement mixers go into action.”

Zhdanov did not attack any other composers by name. This was left to Tikhon Khrennikov, the new president of the Union of Soviet Composers. He referred to an article in Pravda in 1936 condemning Shostakovich’s excesses and attacked the “formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies” in the postwar music of the leading Soviet composers, whose works were well known and popular in the West as well—Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, and others. He also denounced the overemphasis on abstract music at the expense of program music on subjects of Soviet life, and the “anti-realistic decadent influences . . . peculiar to the bourgeois movement of the era of imperialism.” His speech closed with attacks on Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, Olivier Messiaen, and such younger composers as Benjamin Britten and Gian Carlo Menotti.

One composer of popular music asked whether the workers in factories and on collective farms loved the symphonies of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Others attacked the ultraindividualist conception of life, derived from bourgeois idealism, artistic snobbishness, neoclassicism as musical escapism, a desire to startle with spicy and scratchy harmonies, and a cult of form and technique, the latter described by many as “bourgeois formalism.”

Examination of individual works criticized reveals the grounds for these criticisms. Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony Sixth Symphony (Prokoviev) (1945-1947) is not an optimistic and accessible work like the wartime Fifth Symphony; it is grim, with moments of horror in the first two movements and with a barely concealed menace in the seemingly lighthearted finale, which ends with the sad theme of the first movement. The symphony seems to be not a celebration of victory but a portrait of the horrors of war. Shostakovich’s symphonies of the 1940’s displayed even sharper contrasts. The Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony Seventh Symphony (Shostakovich) of 1941 is a textbook example of Socialist Realism Socialist Realism (although denounced in 1948 as doing a better job of depicting the advancing Nazis than of showing the resistance of the Soviets), whereas his Eighth Symphony Eighth Symphony (Shostakovich) of 1943 is a gloomy, austere work with inner movements that almost graphically depict the terrors of war. The Ninth Symphony Ninth Symphony (Shostakovich) of 1945, lightheartedly neoclassical in tone, was criticized three years later as frivolously mocking the victory of the Soviet people (there are amusing parodies of military march idioms in some movements), though the second movement did receive praise for its lyricism.

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Muradeli, Khachaturian, and the other composers made dutiful obeisance in published statements in which they repented their errors. The congress summed up its work in a letter to Stalin in which its members acknowledged the justness of the Communist Party’s criticism of Soviet music and apologized for forgetting the traditions of Russian musical realism.


For two months in 1948, none of the music of any of the denounced composers was performed publicly in Moscow, a most effective way of showing what government control could mean to composers suspected of the slightest dissidence. Prokofiev’s first wife (Spanish by birth) was even arrested as a spy and sentenced to eight years in the labor camps of the gulag.

A few of Prokofiev’s works subsequently were performed that year. He devoted most of his time, limited because of his declining health, to writing vocal works on topics fitting the Communist Party line, such as his oratorio On Guard for Peace On Guard for Peace (Prokofiev) (1950). The main work of his final period is a reworking of an earlier cello concerto as the Sinfonia Concerto for Cello and Orchestra Sinfonia Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (Prokofiev) (1950-1952), written for the young Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Prokofiev’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage on March 5, 1953, ironically was on the same day as Stalin’s death.

Miaskovski turned to a simpler style in his last piano sonatas, teaching pieces for children, and his twenty-seventh and last symphony. Khachaturian continued to compose, but none of his subsequent works achieved the popularity of his colorful scores of the 1940’s such as the piano and violin concertos of the Gayaneh ballet, from which the “Saber Dance” remains his most popular composition.

Shostakovich, after a duly submissive letter to Stalin, composed film music and Party-line works such as the oratorio Song of the Forests Song of the Forests (Shostakovich) and extremely simple and accessible works such as the Fourth String Quartet Fourth String Quartet (Shostakovich) , very placid in contrast to the grotesqueries of the preceding quartet. He was sent to the United States in 1949 as part of a peace delegation but withheld his Tenth Symphony Tenth Symphony (Shostakovich) from performance until after Stalin’s death. The tone of this work is darkly brooding, with a sense of forced gaiety in the finale. One frightening portion is said to be a musical portrait of Stalin.

The thaw of the Nikita S. Khrushchev years permitted Shostakovich to rewrite his earlier controversial opera that had gotten him into trouble with Stalin in 1936, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District (Shostakovich) as Katerina Izmailova. His two epic symphonies on the genesis of the Communist revolution, the Eleventh (“The Year 1905”) and Twelfth (“The Year 1917”), were followed by the controversial Thirteenth, which includes a setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Yevtushenko, Yevgeny poem “Babiy Yar,” "Babiy Yar" (Yevtushenko)[Babiy Yar] in which the poet condemned not only the Nazis but their local accomplices as well. Such a condemnation angered the Leonid Brezhnev regime, and the poet was compelled to change the text. The Fourteenth Symphony is a chamber symphony with solo voices; the Fifteenth, one of the composer’s farewell works, contains quotations from Gioacchino Rossini’s William Tell Overture and the “Fate” motive from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre (1856; the Valkyrie).

Shostakovich’s greatest postwar works are his string quartets. Only two of these were written before 1945. The most frequently performed is the Eighth, written during a visit to Dresden (in what was then the German Democratic Republic); the sight of the ruins left by the Allied bombardments in 1945 provoked the composer to dedicate the quartet to the victims of war and Fascism. The quartet includes citations from several of his earlier works, including the First and Fifth symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and the E Minor Piano Trio, which Shostakovich wrote in 1944 after reading about the atrocities in the Majdanek extermination camp. Its opening movement and especially the last two movements have been compared to a lunar landscape, whereas the second movement is an intensely terrifying war piece (like the third movement of the Eighth Symphony) and the third is a nightmare waltz. Other important quartets include the Twelfth, with its experimentation with serial techniques, and the last, the Fifteenth, composed of six slow movements with no fast movement to relieve the prevailingly gloomy atmosphere.

The decree on music from the Central Committee was not rescinded until 1958. Stalin, and secondarily Malenkov and Beria, were blamed for the 1948 resolution, with its harsh judgments cited as examples of the negative traits that marked the period of the cult of personality, a code phrase for Stalinism. The composers once condemned were officially rehabilitated.

Khrennikov continued to serve as president of the Union of Soviet Composers, surviving under the regimes from Joseph Stalin through Mikhail Gorbachev and able to tell composers what and how they had to write if they wanted their music played. Many of the younger composers emigrated as a result. In 1992, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Union of Soviet Composers was dissolved. Khrennikov reportedly found a position teaching composition part time at the Moscow Conservatory.

The decree of 1948 did much damage to Soviet music and also to the reputation of the Soviet Union abroad. Although the Red Army had stopped Adolf Hitler and contributed markedly to his eventual defeat, the following crackdowns on literature, art, science (especially genetics), philosophy, and finally music repelled many intellectuals in the West who originally had been grateful to the Soviets for the defeat of fascism and were attracted to communism for its alleged support of the arts, as opposed to the commercial orientation of the West. Music;Soviet regulation Formalism (music) Censorship;Soviet Union Modernism;music Realism;music

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edmunds, Neil. The Soviet Proletarian Music Movement. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Study of Soviet proletarian composers, official state policy, and the evolution of music under the Communist Party. Bibliographic references, discography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hahn, Werner G. Postwar Soviet Politics: The Fall of Zhdanov and the Defeat of Moderation, 1946-1953. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. The author advances the thesis that Zhdanov was a moderate, locked in a power struggle with such hard-liners as Malenkov and Beria, and that the attack on music came after Zhdanov had been stripped of most of his influence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuhn, Laura. Music Since 1900. 6th ed. New York: Schirmer Reference, 2001. Contains the texts of the resolutions, speeches, and letters of Soviet musical policy in 1948 and the document of rescission in 1958.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDonald, Ian. The New Shostakovich. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990. Emphasizes Shostakovich as a dissident who used a covert musical language of dissent against communism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moor, Paul. “A Reply to Tikhon Khrennikov.” High Fidelity/Musical America 36 (August, 1986): 52-54, 79. Shows the control that Khrennikov continued to exercise over Soviet music even into the years of Gorbachev’s glasnost.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norris, Christopher. “Shostakovich: Politics and Musical Language.” In Shostakovich: The Man and His Music. Boston: Marion Boyars, 1982. The author suggests that a new form of artistic biography is necessary for this composer, wherein the central themes are impulse and commitment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Harlow. Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1987. A discussion of the composer’s life more than of his music, this very readable biography places him in the Soviet context during the various changes of government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwarz, Boris. Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. An excellent study that shows the impact of Zhdanov’s purges in all areas of Soviet musical life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volkov, Solomon. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. These memoirs have been attacked as an ideological anti-Communist tract, but many passages give a strong feeling of the paranoia of the Soviet Union in 1948. Prokofiev, Muradeli, and other composers are assailed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Werth, Alexander. Musical Uproar in Moscow. London: Turnstile Press, 1949. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973. Contains a valuable discussion of Zhdanov by the Moscow correspondent of The New Statesman and the speeches of attack and defense made at the January, 1948, meeting preceding Zhdanov’s denunciation.

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Categories: History