Students of the arts might enjoy exploring the idea of studying abroad with a gap year travel program. In particular, students of ethnomusicology, a field which studies the music of different cultures and the relationship between music and culture, can benefit from studying abroad. Take, for instance, this study of Soviet musical culture.

Soviet Music Culture

When considering Soviet music culture, there are a few important periods to focus on. The first was the Civil War period (1917-1922), the second was when the Bolsheviks and other groups were in conflict, and the third was when the Soviet Union was formed.

The second period was characterized by the New Economic Plan was established by Lenin to incorporate some capitalism in an attempt to revive the Soviet Economy. During this second period, 1923-1928, the state created associations to mandate aspects of art and culture, such as the Association for Contemporary Music (ASM) and Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). The ASM and RAPM were perpetually in conflict. The RAPM was more traditional, while the ASM was comprised of younger musicians, often students, who rejected old forms of music and were interested in the Western avant-garde. An example of avant garde Russian music is a piece called the “Iron Foundry” by Alexander Mosolov, which incorporates machine sounds in a futurist gesture to technology. The RAPM took over in the final years of this conflict and put pressure on ASM musicians.

During the third period, 1929-1932, these groups dissolved and the Union of Composers formed. Walker’s piece, “Music and Soviet Power” contains bars about how the RAPM fell and Socialist Realism took its place. Socialist Realist art and music are proletariat, representative of daily life, realistic, and ideologically socialist.

Essentially, composers had to be members of the Union of Composers in order to produce music, and could not exist as outliers as some musicians had prior to its establishment. Lenin died in 1924, which results in national mourning. Stalin, the “man of steel,” took his place. Stalin was a member of the Politburo and later, General Secretary of the Central Committee. Ten to twenty million people perished under his regime, which resembled totalitarianism rather than socialism.

The borders of the Soviet states were drawn “with a ruler” in the 1920s by the USSR, resulting in massive displacements of peoples who then migrated in an attempt to reside in the territories that their ethnic groups were most affiliated with. One aspect of Stalin’s plan to unify these disparate cultures was through the so-called Friendship of the People, an attempt to establish a pan-Soviet folklore by erasing cultural differences. A strong illustration of this was the Soviet folk orchestra, which formed to incorporate many folk music traditions into a single formal orchestra, the structure of which was Westernized as dictated by the Soviet imperialists. Conservatories and operas were exported to the Central Asian steppe in an effort to involve folk musicians of the various ethnic groups in the creation of pan-Soviet music. Folk instruments were transformed to become standardized such that they were chromatic, and they lost much of the authenticity of their original sounds and methods of playing. By the 1930s, the Soviets had thoroughly adopted the notion that their culture was superior to the other states of the USSR (which some refer to as colonized states), and this orchestra became even more similar to a Western orchestra as it was further “Russified.”

After Stalin’s rule, Khrushchev took over, and there was a period of de-Stalinization. Strangely, the tradition of the Soviet folk orchestra became so entrenched in the USSR states that many of them persist to this day. Some of them are nationalistic groups that have become tourist attractions, while others perpetuate in obscurity.

The term intonazia was defined by Russian music scholar Malcolm H. Brown in the Levin reading as a word for how music carries meaning. The ambiguity of music haunted the USSR as a Soviet musical structure: “National in form, socialist in content” could never be concretely evidenced in the music produced during that period. Meanwhile, others suggested that composers’ total immersion in Soviet ideology meant that attempting to evaluate the sincerity of their conformity became impossible and was therefore unimportant.

Music and Diplomacy

For a student of music, understanding ethnomusicology can provide much needed cultural insights into the creation of various musical styles and schools of thought. As a result, there are programs for music students to travel abroad to learn more about other cultures. Even the U.S. State Department offers a public diplomacy program specifically for music exchange, giving the importance of cultural exchange for international cooperation.


Photo: Slavic and East European Collections, The New York Public Library. (1940 – 1949). Middle school students of State Conservatory of Azerbaizhan