The Composers’ Union and Sustainability

Elephantine marches and songs of the Motherland…these are some thoughts that might come to mind when thinking about music in Soviet Russia. Although there is some truth to these popular assumptions, there is much more detail about music under Stalinist Soviet Russia. Specifically, there is the detail of Stalin’s creations of creative unions. These unions had various sects for artists such as architects, cinematographers, and writers, just to name a few. This paper will focus on the union for composers. The union for composers was a time of chaos with the shift of power with the renaming of these unions at various times, a period of control, as exemplified in Dmitrii Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and an era of great artistic achievement for the State, as seen in the creation of the new national anthem. Additionally, sustainability played a part in these unions. Sustainability is the maintaining of social, economic, and environmental aspects. When all three of these are coevolving and present, sustainability is met. How does sustainability fit in the Union of Composers? What is the history of this union?


Organized musical structures in Russia can be traced back to the Russian Musical Society, which formed in 1859. In the 1920s, two associations of Russian music dominated: the Association for Contemporary Music and the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians. The Central Committee passed a resolution in April of 1932, eliminating these two associations. The resolution called for the creation of a new artistic organization. This is when the creative unions came into being. The musical sect of these artistic unions was called the Composers’ Union. The resolution eliminated all professional artistic unions except the artistic unions created by the State. However, when these unions had just begun, the Soviet government showed little leadership in the musical details of the union[i]. So, the larger cities such as Moscow and Leningrad began forming their own municipal composers’ unions. These municipal unions were highly efficient, having different departments to oversee various tasks. As these unions gained more publicity, the Soviet government formed a new, powerful committee. The Committee on Artistic Affairs, formed in January 1936, wanted to revitalize the arts in Soviet Russian. The rise of this new governmental committee eventually created a powerful, united, all-USSR composers’ union.


The creation of the Committee on Artistic Affairs dated around the same time as the denunciation of Dmitrii Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in the mid-1930s. The public condemnation of Shostakovich’s piece conveys the Soviet governments role in censorship and scrutiny of artistic expression. The Russian newspaper, Pravda, first criticized Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This opera tells the story of a Russian woman who falls in love with her husband’s worker. The story ends in murder and suicide. Pravda criticized the musical taste, claiming “the music wheezes, hoots, puffs, and pants.”[ii] Pravda described the sound as “inharmonious and chaotic…a general din of screeching and screaming.” [iii] Pravda’s critique of Shostakovich’s work brought music in the Soviet Union under much tighter scrutiny. Shostakovich decided to portray the “reality of Soviet socialist society.” [iv] He did this by depicting a Russian woman suffering within her dismal and sorrowful surroundings.  Supposedly Stalin was at a production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in January 1936, leading to its condemnation. Many historians view this denunciation of Shostakovich’s work as part of Stalin’s anti-formalist regime. However, some historians argue that the denunciation was not a threat, for he was too great a cultural asset to the Soviet Union. [v] ƒIn response to Shostakovich’s condemnation, the Committee on Artistic Affairs stated that a libretto must be sent to the committee when creating a piece. This ensures the piece is in accordance with the Communist party’s ideologies. The close inspection of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk demonstrates the Soviet Union’s control of musical production and its content in the 1930s.


Disheveled criticism of operas and no clear indication of the Soviet party’s goals led to the creation of an all-USSR Organizational Committee of the Composers’ Union in 1939. The urge for this new union started in March 1939 when the head of the Committee on Artistic Affair, A.I Nazarov, wrote to two government officials about the possibility of forming a new union. This request circulated among government leaders. In Nazarov’s proposal, he mentioned possible composers to be part of this union. The government officials liked that the proposed new members had artistic diversity. For example, some were known for their symphonies while others were known for their operas, ballets, or popular music. The inclusion of popular music in the union is important under Stalin’s rule, for it shows Stalin’s wish to appeal to the masses.


The founding of this new Composers’ Union meant more control by the Soviet government than ever. The State controlled music halls, publication, etc. The State also provided funding to composers. Most importantly, the State was more direct about what they wanted composers to produce. The State was very clear that they wanted themes of socialist realism in the music; content that reflected the ideologies of the party. [vi]


In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This regime created a new sense of nationalism among Soviet society. This new sense of nationalism gave rise to the importance of the march in music under the Soviet Union. [vii] Some musicians contributed their talents to the war by playing in music battalions, composing popular and orchestral songs, and participating in a competition for a new national anthem. The State urged composers to focus on composing war songs for soldiers.  The State also wanted composers to focus on the creation of a new national anthem. They sponsored a competition for the new anthem in 1943. A.V. Aleksandrox, a composer known for his mass songs, won the competition. The national anthem is set to a text by S.V. Mikhalkov and G.G. El’-Registan. The national anthem is also known at the Hymn of the Soviet Union. The score was written in C major, a key thought to conjure strength.



After the Second World War, a movement began for the creation of an All-Union Congress. This movement succeeded with the First Congress of Composers’ Union meeting in April 1948. During this meeting, the Organizational Committee of the Composers’ Union was replaced with the First All-Union Congress. In 1957, after Stalin’s death, a Second Congress was created. It was also in 1957 that the Union of Composers of the Soviet Union was renamed the Union of Soviet Composers. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was renamed Union of Composers of Russia.


Under Stalin’s control, the music sector of the Soviet Union was a time of much chaos, success, and control. Many people think that this period of time was simply a period of suppression for composers. Although there was much control about what composers could produce and the subject of their pieces, there was creativity within those realms. Were these unions in the Soviet Union sustainable? The renovations of unions happened quite frequently with the renaming of unions and their goals. So, in this sense, the unions were unsustainable. However, economically, these unions were quite sustainable. The problems mostly came from the social aspect of sustainability. Environmentally, this subject is indifferent. The fact that the unions survived until the collapse of the Soviet Union is remarkable. Although the names changed with some goals changing, the overall principle stayed the same. These unions in the Soviet Union, although controlling, produced many great composers and great pieces.


A visual representation of sustainability

A visual representation of sustainability

dmitri shostakovich

dmitri shostakovich

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Map of Soviet Union

Map of Soviet Union

Sheet music for Soviet Union's National Anthem

Sheet music for Soviet Union’s National Anthem



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[i] Tomoff, Kiril. Creative Union: The Professional Organization of Soviet Composers, 1939-1953. (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2006), 24


[ii] Herrala, Meri. The Struggle for Control of Soviet Music from 1932 to 1948. (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2012), 82.

[iii] Herrala, 82

[iv] Herrala, 81

[v] Herrala, 83

[vi] Schwarz, Boris. Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970. (New York: Norton, 1972), 141.

[vii] Olkhovsky, Andrey Vasilyevich. (Music under the Soviets: The Agony of an Art. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1955), 77-79.


2 thoughts on “The Composers’ Union and Sustainability

  1. You talk about the Committee of Artistic Affairs’ new policy that a libretto had to be approved before staging and how composers still found creativity within these boundaries, but what are some examples of operas made after Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? How did composers have to adapt in order to create new pieces that would be approved by the Committee?

  2. You discuss in detail how the Soviet culture influences music in the USSR (Nazi invasion, inclusion of popular music, etc.) but how does the music influence culture? It would be interesting to see how music and theater or music and art influenced each other. The Soviet era was filled with Committees, perhaps these administrative bodies influenced culture beyond their respective fields. Not specifically under your project, but consider for future research.

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