Six of the best lesser-known works by Soviet composers
We look back over a politically charged era in Russian history, and the legendary music that was written as a result
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 8
Composed in 1943, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony was denounced by the Soviet authorities as counterrevolutionary and anti-Soviet. Shostakovich described this symphony as a ‘poem of suffering’, and publically called it ‘an attempt to reflect the terrible tragedy of war’. However, in private he admitted that the piece was for those who ‘were tortured, shot and starved to death’ in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime.
Prokofiev – Semyon Kotko
Prokofiev was one of the major composers of the 20th century and was famed for his ballet, Romeo and Juliet, and suite from Lieutenant Kijé, which both achieved great success outside of the Soviet Union. In contrast, Semon Kotko was a model Soviet Opera with its folk-like melodies. It was based on nationalist writer, Katayev’s novel ‘I, Son of Working People’. From this opera, Prokofiev produces a suite which had slightly more success on the international stage.
Khachaturian – Ode in Memory of Lenin
Khachaturian always toed a fine line between acceptance and denunciation in the Soviet Union. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Khachaturian composed this orchestral piece as an tribute to the deceased leader. Rather fittingly this recording is of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Khachaturian’s native Armenia.
Khrennikov – Adagio from 'A Hussar Ballad'
Aside from composing, Khrennikov was known for his political activities as one of the leaders of the Union of Soviet Composers which gave prescribed communist content to the composers in the Soviet Union. In 1961, he composed the score to the infamous Russian film A Hussar Ballad, which he then transformed into a ballet of the same name in 1978.
Sviridov – Suite from Time, forward!
Georgy Sviridov was a Russian neoromantic composer who was more widely known for his choral music, influenced by the chant of the Russian Orthodox Church. Time Forward! was a film score composed by Sviridov in 1965. The orchestral suite was one of the most recognisable pieces of the Soviet era, but its fame did not translate to the wider world.
Melikov – ‘A Fairy-Tale’: Symphonic poem for orchestra
Although Melikov is most associated with his ballet Legend of Love based on the legend of Farhad and Shirin, he also composed a series of symphonic poems which includes this piece ‘A Fairy-Tale’. Melikov’s music was unique due to the way he mixed classical patterns of Azerbaijani with modern Soviet music.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.