The current exhibition at the Tate Modern (‘Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism’, until 17 May) is rich in cultural reference, apart from any reference to music. Here we have Popova collaborating with theatrical producers and designers, Rodchenko working alongside film-makers and poets (especially Mayakovsky), and everyone in a headlong dash away from easel work towards sculpture, and even architecture. It was a time of quite glorious redefinition of life and culture, taking in anything and everthing. Why is music kept apart?
It wasn’t that the musicians themselves were silent. The new Soviet authorities had a liking for opera, hoping that such an obvious art-form would appeal to the masses. Well-known operas were ridiculously recast with new libretti. Tosca, for example, with the action shifted to Paris in 1871, became The Battle for the Commune; Les Huguenots became The Decembrists (after the early 19th-century revolutionary movement); and Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar was reworked as Hammer and Sickle. At the same time composers were encouraged to explore modes of expression compatible with the prevailing revolutionary mood. Thus the new generation of Russian composers – amongst them Kabalevsky, Shaporin, Shebalin, Myaskovsky and Shostakovich – found themselves composing ‘Hymns to Lenin’ and programmatic symphonies on the problems of the steel industry.
Nor were the artists oblivious to the power of music. Kandinsky had experimented with musical paintings, but eventually fell out of favour and had to go into exile. Rodchenko even used the terminology of music: ‘Line is the sole essential element in a work of art. Colour, tone, texture and surface could all be eliminated as mere decoration.’ Every element in that list could have been handed to a composer and found perfect favour. Melody (or line) was seen as the perfect answer to the problem of how to make music more relevant to the struggle of the masses – it was assumed they would understand and react emotionally to melody just in the way Rodchenko believed they would react to his painterly lines.
The committees of both the visual artists and the musicians covered the same ideological ground, yet they did so in complete isolation of each other. Didn’t they notice that Shostakovich’s struggle with line was related to Rodchenko’s? Or that any of the composers who stayed in Russia – Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Prokovief emigrated – would presumably have been as delighted to hear a working men’s chorus singing their tunes as Popova was at the sight of a peasant woman buying a piece of her fabric for a dress?
This disjunction of music from the other arts has been a feature of the cultural scene in Europe for at least the last two hundred years. In the renaissance period music was as much part of a general education as drawing or astrology. In the 19th century aesthetes like Pater paid lip-service to the power of music, but one has the impression that he was already worshipping from afar. By the time of Kenneth Clark’s television series on Civilisation, music has been put to one side so that the main thrust – the visual arts – should not be too diluted. The final stage has come in our schools, where to study music (as opposed to mathematics) is something you must pay extra for, if you can have it at all.
But to expect our schooling system to reinstate music as a normal subject for study is to ask it to roll back 200 years and more of apartheid. When did music become so scary that ordinarily cultured people felt they had to hand over responsibility for its workings to experts? When did it become an art apart? My guess is when singing gave way to instrumental playing as the normal activity of a ‘musician’, i.e. when the power of the Church waned. The Soviets would have found that very correct.
This article appeared in The Spectator, dated 9th May 2009