The relationship between nationalism and classical music tends to be thought of as an exploration of a nation’s folk music in the high cultural realm, as discussed in a previous post, and is considered a positive nation-building tool. My current research is on how music is used by the state, and led to the discovery of this incredible story.
In 2001 it was discovered that Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) had written a Suite on Finnish Themes. The suite was never performed in Shostakovich’s lifetime, he never claimed authorship of the pieces and it was never given an opus number; only referenced once, obliquely, in his letters. On discovery, Finland and Russia raced to premiere the work. The immediate reaction to the discovery is explained in this news article.
However, as the news gathered attention in Finland, the truth behind the composition began to unravel. On November 30th 1939, the Red Army invaded Finland, beginning the Winter War. According to a researcher on this case, reported here, the Soviet government commissioned Shostakovich to write a suite based on Finnish melodies to be used as a propaganda tool. The commission was made between the 23rd and 25th of November that year, and included a set of melodies chosen by officials. The composer was given a deadline of December 2nd; thus the commission was within the time-frame of planning the invasion and the expected date of occupation.
Had the invasion been a success, the music would have been played by Red Army marching bands in Helsinki – either, as this article suggests, to “show that [the Soviets] wished to protect and nurture Finnish culture – and thus would have attempted to win over the country’s intelligentsia,” or, equally plausible, to further humiliate the Finns after their military defeat.
The article also explains the story of how the piece was buried and forgotten about, and claims “Perhaps after all it is best that a Finnish orchestra is responsible for the first performance of Shostakovich’s work,” so that it is “unlikely to stimulate much by way of thoughts of superpower politics and the Winter War.” Thus, the Soviet propaganda is reclaimed as a product of Finnish folk culture by the Finnish state.
The remaining question regards why the composer would accept such a commission only to disregard it once completed. Shostakovich is well known for his difficult relationship with the Soviet state: throughout his life trying to achieve far reaching artistic goals that went against the grain of Communist Party standards. The 1939 commission followed Shostakovich’s first denouncement by the Communist Party, in particular due to the “immoral” 1932 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Fearing for his life, this led to a conservative and more patriotic turn for the composer (the 1937 Fifth Symphony in particular). The Suite on Finnish Themes can quite easily be seen as part of the same project of forced patriotism on the part of the composer to escape Communist Party backlash and to return to Stalin’s favour.