Video: The Soviet view of how new music should sound

Video: The Soviet view of how new music should sound


norman lebrecht

January 11, 2014

Philip Nodel has sent us this grim 1981 documentary on how the state controlled creativity and what foreign music it considered acceptable.

Watch, even if you don’t understand a word of Russian. Fabulous music making and blood-chilling comments by the commissar, Tikhon Khrennikov.



  • Any chance of there existing a a version with subtitles?

  • Tom Foley says:

    Norman,I picked through this documentary and found nothing in English. It would be very interesting to hear it with English subtitles. As a non-Russian speaker, I find it meaningless in supporting your introductory comments. At what point in the documentary do the “blood curdling” comments occur?

  • Joe Shelby says: – even after his death, this website in his name reads like a Soviet-era propaganda piece.

    Interesting how some of them rate his music as being “Hollywood-ready”, where-as in the west, composers who work for Hollywood tend to be rated poorly by other composers due to their general fixation on old romantic tonality and habits. Seems they saw the money and the fame and awards that came from the non-musical world as being worth more than the respect of the musical world.

  • Brian says:

    You can get some approximation of English subtitles if you click on “CC” at the bottom of the video and bring up the translate menu, then selection English. That should work.

  • Elmira Darvarova says:

    The first few minutes of this 1981 documentary are devoted to the story of the friendship between Khrennikov and Samuel Barber – according to the narrative, Barber in his youth wrote to Khrennikov to praise his piano concerto (having heard it on the radio), and told him that his own aspirations to become a composer are being impeded by his service in the US Army, where he is not allowed to occupy himself musically (“ему не разрешают заниматься музикой”). Khrennikov wrote back to inform Barber that in the Red Army nothing like this ever happens and anyone can freely compose while serving there. Barber then showed Khrennikov’s letter to his commanding officer, and next thing he knew – he was allowed to compose…Then the narrative gives credit to Khrennikov’s letter for jump-starting Barber’s career as a composer. At the conclusion to this little episode, the narrator intones that this is how it all started in terms of the creative path of one of the most prominent American composers and great friend of the Soviet musicians – Samuel Barber.

    • robcat2075 says:

      I’m surprised to hear a US officer was so moved my a letter from a Russian composer he had never heard of. I wonder if there’s any way to substantiate this account.

    • Barber served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. However, he was already an established composer before then and even received a commission to write his Second Symphony from the Army Air Corps (all according to the biography on Wikipedia). Whether or not Barber wrote to Khrennikov complaining about not being allowed to compose while in the army, it is highly unlikely that that was the actually true.

      The biography of Khrennikov I found here…

      …states that Khrennikov and Barber only met in 1959 when Barber was already almost 50 years old and certainly not in active duty anymore, and that Barber corresponded with Khrennikov only after that meeting. But I’m not sure how reliable this bio is. At the bottom of the page it says “material used from belcanto website”. However, the bio there ( makes no mention of Samuel Barber, so I couldn’t confirm that.

      As they say, se non è vero, è ben trovato…

  • Tom Foley says:

    Thank you Elmira. I would never have guessed such a narrative, either from the documentary itself, or from Norman’s introductory comments.

    • As I pointed out previously, my comment only applies to the first few minutes of this documentary, narrating the correspondence between Khrennikov and Samuel Barber. Other stories on other subjects follow later in this 50 min. long documentary.

  • Tom Foley says:

    That’s great Elmira. I’m so appreciative. Sorry to push, but can you give some of us non-Russian speakers some idea of what the rest of it says. I’m so curious, and I’d be so appreciative.