How the CIA funded smears against Shostakovich

How the CIA funded smears against Shostakovich


norman lebrecht

June 04, 2018

Joe Horowitz has been reading old Encounter articles by Nicolas Nabokov, a Russian emigré composer and CIA-funded propagandist who made it his business to attack the music of Soviet composers.



“It is difficult to detect any significant difference between one piece and another. Nor is there any relief from the dominant tone of ‘uplift.’ The musical products of different parts of the Socialist Fatherland all sound as though they had been turned out by Ford or General Motors.”

This October 1953 assessment of contemporary Soviet music, by Nicolas Nabokov in the premiere issue of Encounter Magazine, is fascinating for three reasons. The first is that Encounter, which became a prestigious organ of the Anglo-American left, was covertly founded and funded by the CIA via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, itself a CIA front. The second is that Nabokov, a minor composer closely associated with Stravinsky, was the CCF music specialist.  The third is that his article “No Cantatas for Stalin?” imparts blatant misinformation. And yet Nabokov was shrewd. charming, worldly, never obtuse. He was also laden by baggage of a kind that was bound to skew his every musical observation.

Nabokov’s verdict came weeks before Evgeny Mravinsky premiered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 with his peerless Leningrad Philharmonic. Some two years before that, Shostakovich completed a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano. Neither work sustains a dominant tone of uplift. In fact, both are imperishable monuments to the complexity of the human spirit, arguably unsurpassed by any subsequent twentieth-century symphonic or keyboard composition….

photos: Ullstein, OUP

Read on here.


  • Gregor Tassie says:

    I fear that not only Shostakovich’s music suffered from this organization but all the other composers of the period, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky (whose music was actually popular before the cold war), Khachaturian and Kabalevsky, and there still exists a great deal of misunderstanding about music written during the Soviet period, too many cliché ridden programme notes as well as CD booklets mostly worthless from the purely musical aspect.
    Volkhov’s book did at least turn peoples heads but not for the right reasons. Ultimately, why can’t the music be judged and not the man????

    • BenC says:

      Мясковский (Myaskovsky) is tragically forgotten, along with many other fantastic Soviet composers (Boris Chaikovskii, Sergei Vasilenko, and, to a degree Vainberg and Boris Asaf’ev, and I’m sure many, many others who are not immediately coming to mind). Unfortunately, in the West, the attitude is that the composers was a strong musical dissident or their music doesn’t matter and is corrupted. Life is so much more complicated than that! Music is so much more complicated than that. Of course, the CIA was a master of this kind of cultural manipulation and distortion, both in America and in Russia, and on the one hand, sneaking copies of Doctor Zhivago into Russia might have done something to loosening the government’s power, there are tragic lasting consequences of such activity.
      Oh, two other composers to add: Muradeli and the truly fantastic Grechaninov (he was mainly a pre-Revolution composers, but he continued writing afterwards too, and even Shostakovich considered his opera, Dobrynya Nikitich a masterpiece). We should also not forget Roslavets, who essentily came up with Serialism before Schoenberg, and was sent to prison (and returned a broken man writing popular marches and tunes).

    • Dan P. says:

      I’m not sure why at this late date anyone would be interested in, much less get exercised, over criticism in general – especially that directed at composers. An entire library could be filled with every bad notice a composer has gotten. And an even larger annex would have to be built to include criticism about performers.

      That being said, I think that it’s safe to say that music criticism published in Encounter probably had no effect one way or another – and for a couple of reasons:

      1. People tend to like or dislike music independently of what critics think.
      2. The number of people who read Encounter during its heyday could probably fill a large room at best. And, I think it’s safe to say that considering the number of performances Soviet composers were performed in the US it had no effect. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and lesser composers such as Khachaturian and Kabalevsky were frequently played during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Oistrakh and Rostropovich came here to play and record works by S and P, and many student pianists trudged through Kabalevsky’s 3rd and many pianists and violinists had more Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Shostakovich concerts in their repertoire than any other contemporary composers.

      Growing up in the 60s in a small city of less than 60,000 people, our town library had as large a sampling of recordings of Soviet music as it did contemporary music of any other type.

      So, I’m not sure what the point is beside the gov’t was saying nasty things about them. So what? And, who cared?

  • buxtehude says:

    It’s the personal side which is most pathetic, for me. S was on very thin ice at this point, not the first time in his life nor the last, and he had no choice at all when dragooned into joining “The Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace” at New York in March 1949. Nabokov was at the forefront in humiliating him but he was far from alone; such know-it-alls as William F. Buckley Jr., then at Junior at Yale, led his own aggressive campaign against the visit of this enthusiastic agent of Stalinist tyranny, as he saw it.

    To think that not only S but his Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues for Piano Op 87 (1950-51), single greatest work of the 20th century if y’ask me, was at hazard. He was scared to death, did everything he could at home to avoid controversy, keep out of sight, was already such a mess of tremors, tics and grimaces that Richter, by his own account, didn’t like to be around him.

  • esfir ross says:

    Nikolay Nabokov wasn’t minor composer, just neglected, as Nikolay Berezovsky. NN was cousin of Vladimir Nabokov and wonderful described his family and childhood in Russia in his autobio book. My piano teacher that met DS at home of his friend had same feeling as S.Richter

  • JoBe says:

    Hyperboles are rarely helpful, especially when speaking about works of art. “Both are imperishable monuments to the complexity of the human spirit, arguably unsurpassed by any subsequent twentieth-century symphonic or keyboard composition…” I won’t argue about keyboard compositions, but I’d just say that Witold Lutoslawski’s symphonies nrs 2 and 3 came well after Shostakovich’s 10th, as did Roberto Gerhard’s symphony nr 4. Not to mention Schnittke 3, 6 and 8…

  • John Borstlap says:

    Horowitz’ article is most interesting… and the prelude and fugue in d minor by Shostakovich a very impressive work. Horowitz is correct in comparing the Soviet ideology with the Western modernist one of serialism, with the difference that in the West, no government institution issued aesthetic prescriptions: the composers could create a soviet climate entirely on their own, unhindered by any pressure.

    The classical tradition (i.e. Western art music based upon tonality and all its expressive implications, in the widest sense) survived in the cage of totalitarianism, but was almost brought to death in the free West.

    • buxtehude says:

      “The classical tradition (i.e. Western art music based upon tonality and all its expressive implications, in the widest sense) survived in the cage of totalitarianism, but was almost brought to death in the free West.”

      But wasn’t that Soviet survival in large part because Stalin held his composers back from those greener pastures of yuck, toward which they had been straining? The officially organized attack on S’s op 87, for example, concentrated its heavy fire on the massively chromatic Eb major fugue.

      Repin. Tolstoy/Gorky/Chekhov. Such were the marching orders in companion arts.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, that is what a cage means. It is a miracle that Shostakovich wrote all that music at all.

        From the point of view of ‘progressivist’ new music in the last century, music like Shostakovich’ gave the puzzling impression of completely outdated, worn-out clichées, totally derivative, denying modernity. When modernism created its own totally outworn outdated clichées, and the results of both mutually-exclusive traditions could be assessed more objectively, Shostakovich began to be interesting and eventually entered the repertoire as a living item. The same happened to Britten whose music is increasingly understood as an alternative modernity to modernism. There is just much more to be experienced in those two composers.

  • Anonymous says:

    The “Congress of Cultural Freedom” – CFF (funded by the “Central Intelligence Agency” – CIA) did not only do that but also financed western avantgarde composers in order to “proof” that contemporary music from the west is stronger. Those were the days at Cold War…

  • Gonout Backson says:

    Does Mr Horowitz mean the boulezian bunch has also been funded by the CIA ? In France, in the 70s, if you wanted to insult a composer, you compared him to Shostakovich.

    Sibelius was also very much in use.

    But thanks : the “Congress for Cultural Freedom funded by the CIA” stuff made me suddenly feel 50 years younger.

    I’d rather not say who funded those who wrote this kind of things at that time.