Soviet Music under Western Eyes: Interwar Musical Exchange and the Shaping of Modern Music

5 March 2024, 4.30 PM - 5 March 2024, 6.00 PM

Victoria’s Room

Speaker: Kevin Bartig (Michigan State University)

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, over one hundred thousand foreigners visited the Soviet Union hoping to witness the enormous social and cultural changes that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. Among this group were many musicians, who gave and attended concerts, met with Soviet colleagues, and toured arts institutions. Their reactions to their experiences were varied. Some praised Soviet colleagues for integrating art music and the daily lives of Soviet citizens while others saw only heavy-handed bureaucracy and the intrusion of political ideology into art. Yet all returned home eager to share their impressions in newspapers, journals, books, and occasionally on the radio. This exchange of information shaped Western discourse on Soviet music and established critical tropes that persisted for decades. Perhaps more importantly, interwar Soviet tours left clear traces on visitors’ later commitments and projects in their home countries. In this presentation, I reconstruct the Soviet experiences of a handful of key visiting musicians, including the composer Béla Bartók, the music critics Olin Downes and Nicolas Slonimsky, and the performers Oskar Fried, Marian Anderson, and Egon Petri. I show that their stories chart a brief but consequential period of exchange that not only constructed Soviet music for the outside world but also shaped vastly different international projects such as the search for a totalizing acoustical theory of music in the 1930s and the cultivation of American folk song in the 1940s.  


Kevin Bartig has written widely on Russian and Soviet music. His books include Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film (2013) and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” (2017). Other publications address music diplomacy, audio-visual aesthetics, and the reception of Russian music in various contexts. With theater historian Dassia Posner, he coedited Three Loves for Three Oranges: Gozzi, Meyerhold, Prokofiev (2021). Bartig is Professor of Musicology at Michigan State University and is currently a fellow of the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University.  

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