Aaron Copland, the greatest American classical composer of the 20th century, and Dmitri Shostakovich, his opposite number in the Soviet Union, had more in common than is generally realized. At a time when atonality was becoming fashionable, both men continued to write unequivocally tonal music, composing in a style that was modern yet accessible to ordinary listeners. Both loved the music of Mahler and Stravinsky, and were deeply influenced by it. Though it is not known what Shostakovich thought of Copland's music, Copland wrote perceptively about the music of Shostakovich, toward which he had interestingly mixed feelings. Had they met under favorable circumstances, they might well have become friends.
But they met only twice, in 1949 and 1960, and the circumstances of their first encounter were anything but favorable. Shostakovich had come to New York City as a member of the Soviet delegation to the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Along with such other left-wing luminaries as Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, and Clifford Odets, Copland took part in this Communist-controlled conference. In the course of it, Shostakovich, whose music had been censured in 1948 by the Central Committee of the Communist party, read a speech in which he admitted his alleged wrongdoing: “My works found response only among the narrow strata of sophisticated musicians, but failed to meet with approval among the broad masses of listeners.”
At the time, which coincided with the height of the early cold war, Copland's participation in the Waldorf Conference was harshly criticized by many prominent American newspapers and magazines. Life, for example, described him as one of “a representative selection ranging from hardworking fellow-travelers to soft-headed do-gooders who have persistently lent their names to organizations labeled by the U.S. Attorney General or other government agencies as subversive.” It was one of the reasons why he was cited as a Communist sympathizer in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence on Radio and Television (1950), and was later subpoenaed to testify before the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Joseph McCarthy. As for Shostakovich, whose music had been frequently performed in the U.S. during World War II, the direct result of his Waldorf conference speech was to brand him, both here and elsewhere in the West, as a Stalinist toady. It would be many years before his music was once again taken seriously by critics outside Russia.
What caused Shostakovich's critical standing to undergo a dramatic change for the better was the posthumous appearance in 1979 of Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, a work smuggled out of the Soviet Union by Solomon Volkov. Here the composer, who had died in 1975, expressed his loathing of Communism in the frankest possible language. Though the authenticity of Testimony continues to be aggressively challenged by a group of Western academics led by the American musicologist Richard Taruskin, there is now ample corroborating evidence that Shostakovich, as Testimony indicates, did seek symbolically to portray in his music the horrors of life under Stalin (“The majority of my symphonies are tombstones”) and that his compositions were interpreted in that way by Soviet audiences.
Meanwhile, here at home, the alleged Communist sympathies of Aaron Copland, the composer of such quintessentially American works as Billy the Kid and Rodeo, faded from view as the word “McCarthyism” became synonymous with “persecution” in the lexicon of American liberalism; in time, the subject of Copland's political views ceased to be discussed, or even mentioned except euphemistically by most critics and scholars.1 In, for example, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (1999), the first full-length biography of the composer, Howard Pollock referred to Life's coverage of the Waldorf conference as marking “the beginnings of Copland's victimization by the hysteria now known as McCarthyism.” But he said nothing whatsoever about the conference itself, much less about what Copland—and Shostakovich—said and did there.
A more balanced view of the conference has now been made possible by two newly published books. Solomon Volkov's Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator contains a detailed description of the circumstances surrounding Shostakovich's 1949 visit to America.2 And Aaron Copland: A Reader, a collection of Copland's writings edited by Richard Kostelanetz, reprints for the first time the speech Copland gave at the conference, along with other material that helps clarify the nature of his long-standing relationship with the American Communist party.3
The mere fact that Copland had a relationship with the Communist party was long unknown to those too young to recall the American musical scene in the 30's. Instead, it was taken for granted that anyone who sought to tie him to the Communists was peddling McCarthyite slanders. Copland himself consistently denied having been a Communist. “I have no past or present political activities to hide,” he said in 1953. “I say unequivocally that I am not now and never have been a Communist or member of the Communist party or of any organization that advocates or teaches in any way the overthrow of the United States government.” He repeated these assertions in sworn testimony before the McCarthy subcommittee, adding, “I have never sympathized with Communists as such.”
“Whether or not Copland prevaricated under questioning,” Howard Pollock writes in his biography, “he clearly was not altogether forthcoming.” In fact, he was lying. It is just possible that Copland was not a “card-carrying” Communist, since the party discouraged some public figures from becoming actual members on the grounds that they would be more useful as fellow travelers. In every other sense, though, he was indistinguishable from a full-fledged party member. He played for Communist groups and contributed articles on music to the New Masses, the Communist magazine briefly edited by Whittaker Chambers in 1932; he also composed a “workers' song,” “Into the Streets May First,” that was published in the New Masses in 1934 and reprinted the following year in Workers Songbook No. 2, an anthology of labor-movement songs by members of the Communist-controlled Composers' Collective.4
How serious were Copland's political interests? According to Vivian Perlis, he was “not by nature a political person. . . . When questioned about his leftist activities, his answer is simply, ‘It seemed the thing to do at the time.’ ” But according to the highly sympathetic Pollock, he was “no mere fellow traveler, but rather an active, vocal ‘red.’ ” Aaron Copland: A Reader provides ample confirmation of the latter view. “Those of us who wish to see music play its part in the workers' struggle for a new world order, owe a vote of thanks to the Composers' Collective for making an auspicious start in the right direction,” Copland wrote in his New Masses review of the first Workers Songbook. He described “Into the Streets May First” as “my communist song” in a later letter to the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez, one of his closest friends.
In a letter to another friend, Copland described in detail how he spent the summer of 1934 working for the Communist party in a Minnesota mining town:
It's one thing to think revolution, or talk about it to one's friends, but to preach it from the streets—OUT LOUD—. . . . [I] learned to know the farmers who were Reds around these parts, attended an all-day election campaign meeting of the C.P. [Communist-party] unit, partook of their picnic supper and made my first political speech! If they were a strange sight to me, I was no less of a one to them. It was the first time that many of them had seen an “intellectual[.]” I was being drawn, you see, into the political struggle with the peasantry! I wish you could have seen them—the true Third Estate, the very material that makes revolution.
At the same time, Copland was uncomfortable with the output of some of the “proletarian artists” involved in the Communist party's Popular Front movement. Though he had simplified his compositional style to brilliantly compelling effect in the mid-30's, he recognized the possibility that such simplification could easily lead to philistinism—and went so far as to suggest as much, albeit tentatively, in an article published in the left-wing magazine Music Vanguard:
I look about me and wonder why I see no young composer in America with a “First Symphony” under his arm. Inevitably, one wonders where the fault lies. Does our young composer lack the necessary craftsmanship, or the sense of economic stability, or an ideological basis for his work, or what? Each young composer must examine his own conscience, and draw his own conclusions.
Writing as he was for an audience of Communists and fellow travelers, Copland was careful to add: “Undoubtedly, in the Soviet Union they order these things better.” And whatever his private reservations, they did not stop him from continuing to serve Communist-friendly ends during World War II, scoring The North Star (1943), the famously pro-Soviet Hollywood film written by Lillian Hellman, and serving as a member of the American-Soviet Music Society.
What Copland wrote about Shostakovich in his book Our New Music (1941), published eight years before the Waldorf conference, says as much about himself as it does about the Russian composer. Shostakovich seems to have been mainly of interest to him as a case study in how classical composers might grapple with “the challenge of the unsophisticated audience.” Though he acknowledged the “effectiveness” of Shostakovich's music, as well as its “extraordinary ‘flair’ and sheer musical invention,” he also found it “unnecessarily trite and conventional at times.” Both men, as it happens, were trying to strike a productive balance between self-expression and accessibility. The difference was that Shostakovich was doing it at gunpoint.
What Shostakovich endured at the hands of Joseph Stalin is now a matter of public record.5 In 1936, Pravda, undoubtedly acting on the direct instructions of Stalin, published a scathing editorial called “Muddle Instead of Music” that attacked his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “music intentionally made inside-out, so that there would be nothing to resemble classical music, nothing in common with symphonic sounds, with simple, accessible musical speech.” From then on, he lived in constant fear of being swallowed up by the Great Terror. It was only his international celebrity—along with Stalin's convoluted but nonetheless real respect for such “unworldly” artists as Shostakovich and the writer Boris Pasternak—that spared him that fate.6
Shostakovich abandoned opera after the publication of “Muddle Instead of Music,” choosing instead to pour his innermost thoughts into a series of symphonies and string quartets whose jarring combination of tortured lyricism and grotesquely exaggerated irony reflected his feelings of despair. Though he scrupulously toed the party line in all his “official” statements, Soviet listeners seem by all accounts to have understood the violence and anguish of his music as a picture of their own fearful lives.
With World War II behind him, Stalin decided that it was time once again to crack the whip, and his Central Committee duly issued a series of edicts condemning “formalism,” a portmanteau word used to describe anything that deviated from the simple-minded optimism required of Soviet artists by the cultural commissars who ruled them. Shostakovich was deemed one of the chief musical offenders, and his compositions promptly ceased to be performed, broadcast, or recorded.
By then, however, the cold war was in full swing, and Western critics took immediate and hostile note of the Soviet crackdown on formalism. Recognizing that the Waldorf conference offered an ideal opportunity to reassure American fellow travelers that things in the workers' paradise were not so repressive as they seemed, Stalin called Shostakovich and instructed him to attend. The composer pointed out that it would make no sense for him to appear in New York when his music was banned in the Soviet Union, but Stalin shrewdly agreed to lift the ban (whose very existence he nevertheless denied), leaving Shostakovich with no choice but to join the delegation.
Shostakovich's participation was important because he was the only delegate who was well known outside the Soviet Union. It would thus be a propaganda coup for him to deliver a speech (written, of course, by his handlers) in which he “freely” admitted his formalistic sins. But Stalin's henchmen had not reckoned with Americans for Intellectual Freedom, an ad-hoc group of prominent liberal anti-Communists led by Sidney Hook, whose members were determined to expose the conference as a Communist-controlled charade. Inevitably, Shostakovich became one of their chief targets.
In his speech, Shostakovich alternated between obsequiously endorsing the Central Committee's anti-formalist edicts and urging “progressive Americans” to oppose “warmongers”—that is, anti-Communists. Too nervous to read the text out loud, he was forced to hand it to an interpreter after stammering out the first few sentences. As William Barrett reported at the time in COMMENTARY:
Shostakovich has the face of a boy, sensitive, unformed, and immature; the face, not of a happy boy, but one sickly, nervous, drab. When he had to speak he hunched up his shoulders nervously, thrust his face forward, and spoke at, rather than into, the microphone in a high thin voice. “How unhappy he looks!” a good many people said to me, evidently seeing in his face the unhappy soul of a musical genius suffering under the heavy burden of Russian censorship.7
Interestingly, Barrett questioned this interpretation of the composer's obvious discomfort: “It may be some lack of pity in me, but I could see no signs in Shostakovich of a soul in torment; his record, after all, is that of an artist with a very pliant background.” That was how many liberal anti-Communists in America were inclined to view Shostakovich, perhaps in part because they were insufficiently familiar with his music to appreciate its complex ironies. But it is true that the Waldorf speech itself, like all of Shostakovich's earlier public utterances, contained no hint that he might possibly be a secret dissenter. On paper, he was a Soviet apparatchik pure and simple, making it necessary for Americans for Intellectual Freedom to brand him as such in order to discredit the conference as a farce.
That unhappy task fell to the Russian-American composer Nicholas Nabokov, who viewed Shostakovich's dilemma with more sympathy than did Barrett:
I sat in my seat petrified by this spectacle of human misery and degradation. . . . This speech of his, this whole peace-making mission was part of a punishment, part of a ritual redemption he had to go through before he could be pardoned again. He was to tell, in person, to all the dupes at the Waldorf conference and to the whole decadent bourgeois world that loved him so much that he, Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, is not a free man, but an obedient tool of his government.
At the end of the speech, Nabokov leaped to his feet and asked the interpreter, “Is Shostakovich personally in agreement with the attacks that appeared in Pravda on the music of Western composers Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith?” It was a terrible moment for Shostakovich (who would personally assure Stravinsky many years later that he had been “overwhelmed” by the latter's Symphony of Psalms), but he replied unequivocally and in the affirmative. Afterward, Nabokov recalled, “the dupes in the audience gave him a new and prolonged ovation.”8
Shostakovich's own account of the speech, recorded in Testimony, is short and to the point: “I had to answer stupid questions and keep from saying too much. . . . And all I thought about was: how much longer do I have to live?” He lived for another quarter-century and died not in a prison camp but a hospital bed, but never in his lifetime would his reputation in the West recover from the effects of his appearance at the Waldorf conference. “From that moment, regardless of his true emotions and convictions,” Volkov writes in Shostakovich and Stalin, “he was increasingly perceived in the West as a mouthpiece of Communist ideology and his music as Soviet propaganda.”
Aaron Copland also spoke at the conference. His speech, “Effect of the Cold War on the Artist in the U.S.,” published in its entirety for the first time in Aaron Copland: A Reader, is in large part a dismayingly typical piece of pro-Soviet propaganda: “I came here this morning because I am convinced that the present policies of our government, if relentlessly pursued, will lead us inevitably into a third World War. . . . We are being taught to think in neat little categories—in terms of blacks and whites, East and West, Communism and the Profit System.”
Surprisingly, Copland did criticize the Soviet Union for “officially [adopting] a disapproving attitude toward much contemporary art, and especially in the field of music,” going so far as to make specific mention of Shostakovich:
I have no wish to embarrass our distinguished composer-guest from the Soviet Union but I see no reason why we should not point out in a friendly way that all cultural interchange becomes difficult, if not impossible, when all foreign music from the West is condemned in advance. . . . As a composer from the West myself I naturally find that attitude extreme. . . . The Soviet Union is impoverishing itself in the cultural sphere by not encouraging every possible musical exchange with our country.
At the same time, though, Copland went out of his way to blame this impoverishment on “the determinedly unfriendly attitude of the Western powers to the Soviet Union. . . . To cut ourselves off from each other is exactly what the proponents of the cold war would like.”
Copland's speech makes for peculiar reading today. Had he been jolted out of his pro-Soviet complacency by Shostakovich's public degradation? But if so, was it his own Communist past that made him then unwilling to blame the Soviet Union for the cultural totalitarianism that had thereby been made so appallingly evident? Copland's friend Claire Reis, executive director of the League of Composers, recalled being “shocked” when Shostakovich said, “Stravinsky is not a good composer—he does not compose for the masses.” But what did Copland himself think?
His only known statement on the matter, made in 1953, suggests at first glance that he eventually saw the light. The conference, he claimed, had given him “firsthand knowledge in what ways the Communists were able to use such movements for their own ends. . . . I had the hope that by demonstrating that relations are possible on a cultural plane, we might encourage talks on a diplomatic plane. I sponsored no further so-called Peace Conferences, being convinced that they were being engineered by Communists.” But he made that statement in his testimony before Joseph McCarthy's Senate subcommittee—the same occasion on which he perjured himself when asked about his Communist ties.
In the revised version of Our New Music that he published in 1967, Copland appended the following remarks to his 1941 appraisal of the music of Shostakovich:
The balance sheet of Soviet composition for the quarter-century that has passed since the above comments were written reads more dolefully than we had any reason to expect. What happened? As far as can be judged from the admittedly scarce evidence that reaches us, musical creativity in the USSR has been stultified. The revolutionary fervor of the war years, exemplified in the Shostakovich works of that period, degenerated in the compositions of others into a mere conformism.
But that was all. Not a word about the reason for the “mere conformism” of Soviet composers—even though by 1967 it was self-evident. To be sure, the bulk of Copland's letters and diary entries have yet to be published, and it may well be that they will show that Copland, too, finally changed his mind about the Soviet Union. But in the absence of such evidence, one must conclude that he went to his grave having had no second thoughts about his close relationship with the American Communist party. “It seemed the thing to do at the time,” he told Vivian Perlis, and left it at that.
Copland and Shostakovich met for the second and last time in 1960. The U.S. State Department had sent Copland and the American composer Lukas Foss on a tour of the Soviet Union, where they attended a dinner party given by Shostakovich at his home. Copland wrote in his diary:
I watched Shostie while Lukas and [Russian composer Dmitri] Kabalevsky played a Haydn symphony four-hands. He loves music with a kind of innocent joy I have rarely seen in a famous composer. Music must have been a great solace to him through the tough days. I was persuaded to play my Piano Sonata. At the end, they all said Spasibo (thank you), with no comment of any kind.
“The tough days.” What, if anything, did Copland know of Shostakovich's life in the 30's and 40's? He himself, after all, had no firsthand experience whatsoever of genuine political persecution. Yes, he had testified before the McCarthy subcommittee—but the Senator let him go after a single executive session and took no action of any kind against him. In 1953, his Lincoln Portrait was dropped from President Eisenhower's inaugural concert after an Illinois congressman objected to the programming of a piece by a Communist sympathizer, and two universities cancelled lectures he was scheduled to give—but no similar incidents have been reported. And despite being cited in Red Channels, Copland was never “blacklisted” (except by the Hollywood studios, for which he composed no film scores between 1948 and 1961). Instead, his works continued to be played throughout America and around the world.
Meanwhile, Shostakovich went on writing music in which he set down the secret history of the Soviet Union. “If they chop off both my hands,” he told a friend, “I'll still write music with the pen between my teeth.” When Stalin died in 1953, he composed his Tenth Symphony, whose scherzo is a shattering portrait in sound of the dictator who had shipped him off to New York to be publicly humiliated at the sham “peace conference” in which Copland had played a key role.
But there is an additional complication: Shostakovich's own hands were far from clean. Even after Stalin's death, he continued toadying to the Kremlin. Years before, he had decided that he would say, do, or sign anything in order to stay alive and continue composing. “I've been a whore, I am and will always be a whore,” he told a friend. He went so far in his whoredom as to join the Communist party in 1960, and in 1973 he lent his signature to an official letter attacking the great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. This was only two years before his own death and long after his world-wide fame would likely have insulated him from any lasting consequences had he refused to do so.
Such craven behavior led many dissidents to view Shostakovich with contempt, knowing as they did that it would have made a tremendous difference had he not only refused to toady but instead spoken out. For them, the ends—his music—did not justify the means by which he ensured his ability to continue composing it. As Volkov observes:
They did not care that he continued to write astonishing, immortal music—not pro-Soviet, not anti-Soviet, but simply “non”-Soviet music that addressed the themes of old age, death, oblivion, return to nature—music of despair and acceptance. . . . But even in these final opuses, where he seems to be looking down at his own lifeless body, his anger and hatred toward Stalin bursts out. The man, long decomposed, took on almost mystical qualities in Shostakovich's imagination. He became the very symbol of tyranny.
So ends the sad tale of Copland and Shostakovich—and also of Stalin, who cast his dark shadow across both their lives. I, for one, cannot think about this saga without being moved to ask a question that is both unanswered and unanswerable. Aaron Copland lent his support to an evil regime, at first never saying an unambiguous word against it, then refusing to say anything at all; Dmitri Shostakovich was unwilling to defy that same regime save in his music, even when he could have done so without unreasonable risk. One was a fool, the other a coward. Both were great composers without whose music the world would be immeasurably poorer—but who was the lesser man?
1 For an account of the controversy over Testimony, see my essay “The Composer and the Commissars” (COMMENTARY, October 1999). So far as I know, the first frank discussion of the relationship between Copland's politics and his evolving musical style was my own “Fanfare for Aaron Copland” (COMMENTARY, January 1997), reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader. Articles cited from COMMENTARY can also be accessed through its website, www.commentarymagazine.com.
2 Knopf, 336 pp., $30.00. The misleading specificity of its subtitle notwithstanding, Shostakovich and Stalin is actually a wide-ranging and provocative meditation on Stalin's interest in and involvement with the arts in Soviet Russia.
3 Routledge, 368 pp., $30.00. It should be noted that Aaron Copland: A Reader is not primarily about political matters, but instead contains an exceptionally well-chosen cross-section of Copland's much-admired musical and autobiographical writings, including previously unpublished correspondence and diary excerpts.
4 The song is reprinted complete in Copland: 1900 through 1942 (1984), the first installment of a two-volume “autobiography” assembled by Vivian Perlis from oral-history transcripts after Alzheimer's disease made it impossible for Copland (who died in 1990) to write such a book himself.
5 The composer's persecution by Stalin is discussed in detail in my essay “The Problem of Shostakovich” (COMMENTARY, February 1995).
6 According to Volkov, “Pasternak used to recount that when they wanted to arrest him in the years of the Great Terror, Stalin himself objected: ‘Don't touch that cloud-dweller, that unworldly one.’ ”
7 “Culture Conference at the Waldorf” (May 1949).
8 Several reporters had previously asked Stravinsky if he would consider debating Shostakovich in public at the conference, to which he curtly replied, “How can you talk to them? They are not free. There is no discussion in public with people who are not free.”