The Song of the Forests, op. 81

1. When the war was over
2. The call rings throughout the land
3. Memory of the past
4. The pioneers plant the forests
5. Fighters of Stalingrad forge onward
6. A walk in the future
7. Glory

 

In 1948, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union condemned Muradeli's opera The Great Friendship and took the opportunity to accuse other leading Soviet composers of nursing anti-popular sentiment: “This trend attained its full expression in the works of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khatchaturian, Sebalin, Popov, Miaskovsky and others, composers in whose music formalistic degenerations and anti-democratic tendencies run amok, something alien to the artistic taste of the Soviet people. The characteristic feature of their music is that it turns away from the fundamental principals of classical music by introducing atonality, dissonance and disharmony, as if these signified “progress” and “innovation” in the development of musical forms. They reject the most fundamental bases of musical works, such as melody and enthuse for clangourous and sickly alien pairings; they transform music into a cacophony of chaotic sounds. From this music seeps the stench of European and American contemporary bourgeois music which reflects the rotting of middle-class culture, total nihilism and is a blind alley in musical art.”

 

This was not the first time in Shostakovich's life that he found himself singled out for criticism for betraying Soviet taste. Earlier he was attacked because of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and its alleged immorality (this opera received its first Hungarian premiere this spring at the Hungarian State Opera House.) Shostakovich employed the same survival strategy in 1948 as he chose in 1936: two Shostakoviches carried on working. In 1937, the “official” Shostakovich orchestrated the Internationale, which was the national anthem of the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1941. This time, after being removed from his teacher's position and with his works effectively placed on the blacklist, he chose to give the appearance of acquiescence, composing a number of scores for films praising Stalin, such as The Fall of Berlin, The Unforgettable 1919 and Encounter on the Elba.

 

It was during this era that Shostakovich wrote his Song of the Forests, a seven movement oratorio for children and mixed choir which took as its subject matter Stalin's attempt to reshape the landscape through his doomed forestation campaign. At the same time though, Shostakovich wrote a number of contrasting works in private, which were essentially illegal, such as the Violin Concerto and the cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry.”

 

The libretto for Song of the Forests by Yevgeni Dolmatovsky proved politically perfect (the allusions to Stalin in the final movement were subsequently expunged in later editions) and Shostakovich won the 100 thousand rubel Stalin prize, earning forgiveness. Song of the Forests not only met ideological expectations (“I expressed the concept of %u201Cwar for peace” in Meeting on the Elba, the Fall of Berlin and most particularly in the Song of the Forests” wrote Shostakovich in his article For Peace and Culture.) but also musical ones.

 

The 1948 decree and Andrei Zhdanov's policy speeches expressed a set of expectations for Soviet  music, which rejected music in the so-called “formalist”, “naturalist” “cosmopolitan” musical style, favouring instead music that was decreed to have “content,” was “realist” and enjoyed an organic relationship with the people.

 

“From now on and forever more, music had to be refined, harmonic and melodic. They wished special attention be paid to ensure that music had a text since music without a text only satisfied the perverted taste of some aesthetes and individualists. Finally they proclaimed that the Party had saved music from annihilation. It transpired that Shostakovich and Prokofiev wanted to liquidate music but Stalin and Zhdanov would not let them” recalled Shostakovich in the disputed set of reminiscences, Testament, edited by Solomon Volkov.

 

The Party also decreed that the programme was an important aspect of music, meaning that composers should put concrete programmes into music, “with realistic depiction”. Shostakovich was forced to admit: “Such music regularly fascinates mass audiences, concentrates attention and activates their imagination.”

 

The Song of the Forests is a classic example of this kind of Soviet programme music:  it is “melodic”, “realist” and %u201Caccessible.” As Shostakovich expressed it: “Concrete images that proved comprehensible and accessible to many listeners and provoked a lively reaction.” In the oratorio, carefree pioneers and balanced adults cheerfully plant saplings with a jolly song, rebuilding the country after the war in the hope of a more beautiful future.