Under Stalin (1928/29—1953)


Under the rule of Stalin, the use of folkloristic motives was enhanced to an ideal in music. One can clearly observe this tendency in clarinet compositions as well: numerous works were composed on themes by different nations. This “ideal” of enhancing national folk music themes was on the one hand supposed to strengthen and consolidate Stalin’s expansionist politics; on the other hand, it was meant to stabilize the superiority of the Russian dominance above these “other” nations (Yoffe 2014, 543). Briefly said, the roots of this nationalistic ideal in Russian music go back at least to the 19th century, see, for instance, Glinka and later, Rimsky-Korsakov – even though Stalin’s politics were otherwise against “reactionary” tendencies from the pre-Soviet era. This topic goes beyond the frame of this study and is discussed in detail e.g. by Frolova-Walker (2007). Along with the use of national themes, the instrumentation of small woodwind ensembles (quartet and quintet) became popular in the 1930s.  The small ensembles were more mobile than orchestras, cheaper to organize and easily accessible.  Examples of typical woodwind ensemble compositions from the Stalin era include: Quartet on Turkmenian Themes op.65 by Vasilenko (1930) or 12 Pieces on Themes of Nations from the USSR by Vlasov and Fere (1935). With the clarinet in other instrumentations, Evening in Georgia by Ippolitov-Ivanov (1934), Adygeya op.48 by Gnesin (1933), Melodies from the Kazakh and Ural Tatars by Vasilenko or a Sketch on Kirgizian Themes by Korchmarev are further exemplary works in this style. Melodies from foreign countries were also in fashion, such as Japanese Suite, Chinese Sketches and Quartet on American Themes by Vasilenko. The famous Trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Aram Khachaturian (1932) fits well into this national theme. Though Khachaturian refrained from mentioning any particular nation in his title, a certain Caucasian flair is present throughout the entire work (see Chapter 9.1). One particularly interesting composer to mention in this context is Andrey Eshpay. Though Eshpay did not like to be described mainly as a Mari composer, his Suite for clarinet and flute (1948) and the Three Mari Melodies for clarinet and piano (1948) are based on original material from his father, ethnomusicologist Yakov Andreevich Eshpay, who collected over 600 Mari melodies (Tsenova 2002, 88). Concerning Jewish themes, by the 1930s under Stalin, the political atmosphere had changed so negatively against the use of any Jewish melodies that composers such as Grigory Krein had to mask traditional Jewish themes as “oriental”, or to refrain entirely from using them. The question of Jewish themes is multi-layered and therefore treated separately in Chapter 4.


Clarinet Concertos

Another tendency in the clarinet repertoire from this period is the Rise of Clarinet Concertos. Except the Concerto (Konzertstück) for Clarinet and wind band by Rimsky-Korsakov from 1878, no works for the clarinet as orchestra soloist have been composed in Russia before 1929. This is astonishing, when thinking of the rich clarinet literature in Europe, from the Mannheim school to the romantic clarinet concertos. In the Stalin era, a certain catch-up movement took place in this field. Underlying was the ideal of award-winning performers, again to prove the so-called superiority of the Soviet System. For the clarinet, the introduction of the All-Union Competitions for performers gave a strong impulse. The first clarinet competition took place in 1935 in Leningrad, followed by a woodwind quintet competition in 1936 in Moscow and the second clarinet competition in 1941, also in Moscow. Along with the further development of the conservatory education and a general rise of the professional playing level of clarinetists, the competitions stimulated especially virtuosity. The role of the clarinet as a soloistic instrument was finally reached. The amount of clarinet concertos composed in the Stalin era proves the popularity of the “new” genre.  Concertos for clarinet and orchestra were composed by Tsybin (1929), Krylov (1931), B. Aleksandrov (1936), Asafev (Concertino, 1939),  Yevseev (1943), Kapp (Estonian, 1945), Senderey (around 1947, not published), M. Magidenko (1947), Zverev (Rhapsody, 1947), Krykov (1948), Levitin (1948), J. Medinš (Latvian, 1948), Komarovsky (1948), Zhak-Martyanov (1950),  Savelev (1953), and Vasilenko (1953).



Under the totalitarian regime of Stalin, censorship was omnipresent. In the field of clarinet music —besides the examples of music with Jewish themes discussed in the previous chapter— the best-known example for a work which can be considered as nonconformist, is the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Galina Ustvolskaya (see 5.2). She composed the trio in 1949, but the first performance took place in 1968 and was published in 1970 only (Gladkova 1999, 28).

Composer Viktor Suslin describes the year 1949 in the context of Ustvolskaya’s second piano sonata, which she composed right after the clarinet trio. These two compositions show many analogies, both in music and in the surrounding context. Suslin wrote: “This year was not like any other in the USSR: Stalin celebrated his 70th birthday, and the country was struck by a wave of arrests and fear; cultural terror achieved a peak previously unseen in human history. At a time when composers of world-wide significance were humiliated in the Soviet press, at a time when they acknowledged their errors in relation to the Party and socialist realism and were ready to repent and ask forgiveness, a shy, modest, barely-known 30-year-old woman composed this music, which is so full of immense despair and furious protest, in her poverty-stricken Leningrad flat. It is not surprising that the composition was performed for the first time in 1967 only. Beyond any doubt the Sonata could only have arisen in that place and at that time” (Suslin 2003, 102-103).