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Love and loyalty in times of war

One of the most famous music composers during the Great Patriotic War (the Russian term for the Second World War), Matvei Blanter, was born and raised in the town of Pochep during the reign of the Russian Empire. His father was a craftsman, and his uncle, Solomon Mikhoels, was an actor, director, and co-founder of the Moscow State Jewish Theater. His great contribution would be a patriotic military love song that he created during a time of loss and separation.

Early years

Matvei studied the musical arts in Kursk and Moscow, including piano, violin, and composition. In his early career, Matvei built a reputation for creating light dance and jazz songs. After the rise of Stalin, however, his vocation took a turn. The cultural environment of Russia became more ideologically strict. As a result, Matvei began producing music for propaganda purposes. A perfect example of this is the song Stalin is Our Battle-Glory. He wrote other military songs during the period before WWII.

The war years

By far, the most famous piece he ever wrote was Katyusha. The folk song is both upbeat in its character as well as militaristic in nature. The song represents a woman named Katyusha, who yarns for the love of her life, serving on the Soviet border. The woman sends her song to the young soldier to remind him of his love for her and help him protect the Motherland, while Katyusha will preserve the love and bond between them. It gained fame and popularity during WWII. It became an inspiration to participate in the war effort against Nazi Germany. More so after Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Soviet Russia.

The song was played by female students from the Soviet Industrial school in Moscow, offering a farewell to soldiers going to the front against the Nazi regime. It became an international hit, played by many singers in many nations, including Italy, where it became a favorite of Italian partisans fighting against both German and Italian Fascists in Italy.

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The Composer of Russia

The years 1939 through 1945 were a period of heavy cultural and artistic influence between Russia and the United States. During WWII, many artists moved between the two countries, including famed composer Igor Stravinsky. He is widely known for The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, which influenced the American composer Aaron Copland’s influence. Of course, Aaron was one of the most formative American composers of the 20th century. In addition, he became a citizen of the United States in 1945.

Challenges in Russia

Stravinsky initially sought to leave Russia during the political turmoil of 1917. Initially, he settled in Switzerland, later moving to France until the outbreak of WWII in 1939. Six years later, after the war, Stravinsky would become a citizen of the United States. Stravinsky was known to incorporate polyrhythmic structures and folk elements that were not common at the time. For example, His Rite of Spring drew heavily from Russian folk music, with the opening melody coming directly from an anthology of folk songs and the entirety of the composition drawing from what Stravinsky described as “some unconscious folk memory.”

Innovator of Music

Stravinsky’s other experiments with dissonance, polyrhythm, stress, and tonality helped to inspire an entire generation of composers. Aron Copland described Stravinsky as his “hero” and The Rite of Spring, particularly as a masterpiece that created an entire era of composition featuring displaced accents and polytonal chords. Stravinsky would go on to compose serialist works in the 1950s, which along with the 12 tone innovations of  German composer Arnold Schoenberg, himself an ex-pat to the United States during WWII, would go on to heavily influence American avant-guardists like John Cage, Robert Morris, and Morton Feldman.

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The Pianist from Saint Petersburg

The son of an engineer and grandson of a Polish revolutionary, Dmitri Shostakovich, was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with a musical talent noted by his mother, a pianist. Dimitri went to study the Dimitri went to study the musical arts at the Petrograd Conservatory at 13 and graduated when he was 19 years old.

Political sensitivities

Because of the nature of the political environment he lived in, the composer and pianist had a difficult career. Pravada, a newspaper owned and operated by the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, harshly criticized his work for the first time after Joseph Stalin himself attended to listen to one of his early works, known as Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Other artists felt the pressure to criticize his job even if they admired him.

After his light ballet, The Limpid Stream, Dimitri feared that he will go to jail. The Chairman of the USSR State Committee on Culture instructed him to reject his “formalist errors”. Formalism was form of music or art that simply lacked the political propaganda. Because of the Soviet campaign against art that did not toe the line, Shostakovich’s income fell sharply. This repressive environment affected the work of the composer and got him in trouble during his later years.

WWII and the Battle of Leningrad

However, the Soviet government supported his art during WWII. His most famous work is the Seventh Symphony, which he composed while living under the siege of German forces in his home city (named “Leningrad” at the time). The Soviet forces conducted offensive operations against the Germans to silence them during the Philharmonic Hall’s performance to lift the residents’ spirits from mass starvation and sickness and use it as a form of psychological warfare against German forces.

The piece was played by hungry, sick, and tired musicians who were victims of a brutal siege. It displayed the peaceful life before the Nazi invasion, the horrors and pains of the war, and the heroism of Leningrad’s population in the face of brutality. The symphony was heard by some in the German army stationed at Leningrad and were touched by the music. It displayed a strong will that Leningrad’s people had when placed against the most hopeless situation humanity can experience.

Photo Credit: Tahir Salahov. Portrait Of Dmitri Shostakovich (1974-1976). The link:

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