Songs of Stagnation: Vocal Cycles from the Soviet Union, 1964-1985

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Richard Gillies


This thesis explores the ways in which the aftershock of an apparent crisis in Soviet identity after the death of Stalin in 1953 can be detected in selected musical-literary works of the Stagnation era (1964-1985). Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism in his 'Secret Speech' of 1956 brought with it the impossibility of the revival of an effectual utopian Soviet master- narrative and a consequent decline in the effectiveness of Marxist-Leninist ideology to unite citizens under a single 'Soviet' identity. This was expressed culturally by a drive towards pluralism, escapism, a desire for autonomy and self-expression, and an increasing alienation from the State-endorsed narrative of Soviet reality during the Brezhnev years. This thesis seeks to illuminate this underexplored period of Soviet musical history through an examination of vocal cycles by three prolific contributors to the genre drawn from successive generations: Seven Poems of Aleksandr Blok, Op. 127 (1966-1967) by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975); Russia Cast Adrift (1977) by Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998); and Stupeni (1981-1982; 1997) by Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937). Chapter 1 introduces the main research aims, provides some initial historical context, and outlines the methodological and theoretical framework of the thesis. Chapter 2 adopts Alexei Yurchak's concepts of 'svoy' and 'vnye' to explore the ways in which Shostakovich's compositional processes and musical peculiarities have the potential to parallel certain overarching sociological concepts applied to late-Soviet society, and answer questions about his conflicted personal and artistic identity as he entered his final decade. Chapter 3 explores how Sviridov chose to engage with the emergent Russian nationalist movement of the post- Stalinist era, expressing a thoroughly 'Russian' as opposed to 'Soviet' identity through his setting of Sergei Esenin's poetry and his dialogue with pre-revolutionary cultures. Chapter 4 looks at the ways in which Silvestrov's musical aesthetic embraced and reflected many aspects of Soviet culture and society in the years immediately preceding Perestroika at a time when, for many of the younger 'Unofficial' generation of Soviet composers to which Silvestrov belonged, political disinterestedness led to a focus on metaphysical, spiritual, surreal, and otherworldly themes. Chapter 5 concludes the thesis with a summary of the findings and suggestions for further research.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
    Award date1 Aug 2018