- Stalin’s Music Prize: Soviet Culture and Politics by Marina Frolova-Walker
To be clear from the outset: Joseph Stalin’s music prize was not his personal prize. This is one of the central arguments deployed in Marina Frolova-Walker’s latest study, which investigates and refutes the well-trodden myth that Stalin’s own impulses were the sole means of deciding winners of his prize. Instead, as the author points out, “Stalin’s whims had a direct effect in only a handful of cases, while the hundreds of other music prizes were the result of collective decisions” (p. 9). Frolova-Walker’s work—which offers a ground-breaking perspective into the institutional processes, individual agency, and aesthetic reasoning behind the issuing of the Stalin Prize in music—focuses on the mid-to-late Stalinist period, from the Prize’s inception in 1939 until its abolition in 1953. Since the opening of Soviet archives in 1991, studies on Soviet musical life have dominated reassessments of intersections between music institutions, creativity, and power. On the late-Stalinist period, Kiril Tomoff’s book, Creative Union: The Professional Organization of Soviet Composers, 1939–1953 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), has been pioneering in its reappraisal of the Composers’ Union as a nearly autonomous professional organization. Most recently, the trend carries on through scholarship published in the Journal of Musicology (vol. 33, no. 3 [Summer 2016]: 271–431]) in a special volume, entitled “Music and Power,” which explores both the institutional histories and multifarious decision processes behind selection of repertoire by the Soviets. Through the scope of the Stalin Prize, Frolova-Walker’s research fits nicely into this broader trajectory, representing a clear milestone in the research on the symbiotic relationship between the award processes and Soviet power.
Throughout the eleven chapters of her book, Frolova-Walker follows three fundamental objectives: to investigate the institutional history of the Stalin Prize in music, to consider the personal agency behind the award decisions, and to determine how the awards contributed to shaping a Socialist Realist aesthetic. With a nuanced understanding of the prize-awarding process, she traces the operational workings of the KSP (the Stalin Prize Committee) and the resolutions made in dialogue with Agitprop (the propaganda department), the Politburo, and Stalin. Frolova-Walker maintains that although the KSP was a “consultative body, not an executive body” (p. 18), it still played a significant role in the cultural power struggles and debates that ensued over which prizes were to be awarded. For example, the rejection of Sergey Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky from award consideration in 1941 was not the result of Stalin’s input but rather the choice of Mikhail Khrapchenko (Chairman of the Committee for Arts Affairs), who stated that the flaws in Prokofiev’s “curriculum vitae, his artistic personality and the music itself” (p. 62) were reason enough for the composer to be struck off the prize-winner list. Frolova-Walker nicely counterbalances this narrative with vignettes of Stalin taking a personal interest. In triumph at getting the KSP to change its decision February 1952, Stalin wrote “Ha-ha!” (p. 35) in the marginalia of a document that opposed his preferred choice, the Latvian writer Vilis Lācis. These finer details offer powerful correctives to narratives on Stalinism and both balance and complicate the perception of Stalin’s role in cultural affairs.
Frolova-Walker’s second aim is to trace personal agency and networks within the awarding committees, and she is particularly successful in highlighting these subtleties in the three chapters (3, 4, and 6) that outline the individual prize histories of Prokofiev, Dmitriĭ Shostakovich, and Nikolaĭ Myaskovsky. Most remarkably, [End Page 251] Shostakovich features in chapter 5 as a prominent case study that humanizes the juries of the Stalin Prize. Sidestepping the thorny path to finding authenticity in Shostakovich’s subjectivity and voice (an interpretative lens exploited predominantly in Solomon Volkov’s Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich [trans. Antonina W. Bouis (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979)]), Frolova...