Dramatic Social and Political Upheaval Following W.W. I and it's Impact on Composers of the Time
It is difficult to describe the impact of the First World War on the societies, cultures, economies, and technologies of the time; as this devastating conflict had the effect of rapidly transforming all of these in a very short time. The entire world changed as a result of the war, it went from a global monarchy-based imperial system to a modern nation-state system which was socially, economically ad technologically very different. Empires were dissolved and overthrown with governments taking their place. The war had the effect of introducing new technologies, new social structures, new systems of government, and new economic systems to the world. These changes had effects on the people who lived through these times, particularly artists. The world of music was equally transformed during this time, as expressed in the works of such artists as Stravinsky, Prokofieff, Shostakovich, and Armstrong. These artists were themselves transformed by the war and it's effects on society, but in very different ways. Stravinsky, Prokofieff, and Shostakovich were all European composers who were personally effected by the events of the time, particularly the Russian Revolution of 1917. But these changes were not limited to Europe, America was also transformed by the war and the events which came afterward. Louis Armstrong was an example of this transformation of American culture which manifested itself in the invention of an entirely new type of music, called Jazz. And Jazz would go on to have an even greater impact on the world. World War I had dramatic effects on the world at large, but also on music in particular. This essay will discuss those events and the effect they had on some of the world's most famous musicians.
One of the most dramatic changes brought about by the First World War was the Russian Revolution of 1917, which brought about the end of the Russian monarchy and the establishment of a communist state. Russian society was completely transformed from a traditional monarchy, with the accompanying aristocracy, into a dictatorship of the proletariat ruled by the workers. Society, the economy, the law, everything in Russia was transformed as a result of the Revolution. This major change in the society of Russian caused a parallel change in culture, especially in the realm of music. Many Russian born composers were directly effected by the events of 1917, something that can be demonstrated in their musical works.
One of the musicians in Russia at the time of the revolution was Dmitri Shostakovich. Born in Russia in 1906, Shostakovich was a child prodigy who was allowed to study music under the new Communist system enacted after the revolution. Shostakovich was a brilliant and experimental youth, combining the styles of various composers, both from history and from his own time. Unfortunately, he was not a very good communist as he failed Marxist methodology in 1926; he would suffer for his lack of interest in Marxism. In the Soviet system only good soviet style communists were qualified to compose music that was acceptable to the Soviet government, Shostakovich was a bad communist and was officially denounced in 1936. ("Dmitri Shostakovich") At that time Josef Stalin was engaged in the Great Terror which imprisoned or killed many Soviet citizens, including some of Shostakovich's friends and family. This had a great impact on the composer as he left his youthful exuberance and brilliance behind in order to compose more conservatively Soviet styled music.
The period after his denunciation changed Shostakovich from a brilliant composer, willing to experiment with different styles and create unique music, to a politically frightened individual who simply modeled his works to the political atmosphere of the time. Although he did not compose anything alternative to the Soviet style, conservative music used for the promotion of the state, Shostakovich did attain some success in the new medium of film scores by adapting his talent to the proper message approved by the state. ("Dmitri Shostakovich") There are some who believe that inside Shostakovich's style lay hidden anti-communist meanings, a theory recently postulated. (Mazulo 2010) In 1948 he was again denounced by authorities and his career declined for the last time.
Another Russian-born composer whose life was transformed by World War I and the events which dramatically changed the world in it's aftermath was Serge Prokofieff. Born in 1891, Prokofieff was already a well-known composer by the time of the Russian Revolution, but fled from Russia during the revolution. In the West, Prokofieff's talent as a natural melodist won him fame for his wide range of expression, and he enjoyed great success. But his life took a turn for the worse when he decided to return to Soviet Russia. Believing that his success in the West would award him some favor from the Soviet authorities, Prokofieff soon came into conflict with Soviet censors who rejected his Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution. (Nice 2003)
However, like Shostakovich, Prokofieff soon found success in creating music for films and two of greatest works were for the films: Lieutenant Kiji, and Alexander Nevsky. ("Serge Prokofieff") As with many Soviet-era artists, Prokofieff was also forced to reshape his musical talent for the Soviet system. He was forced to quell his natural urges for interesting and new musical styles and formulas in order to survive the Stalinist system of oppression and control. And like Shostakovich before him, Prokofieff was denounced in 1948 and his career came to a crashing end. (Nice 2003)
The Russian Revolution had a great effect on these men's lives, and not for the better. Soviet style of culture, particularly under Stalin, was extremely plain and modern, and this ideal was demanded of artists by the authorities. Anyone who attempted to compose music in the decadent style of the West was denounced and their careers ruined. Composers like Shostakovich and Prokofieff had their creativity stifled, and their ideas censored. They were unable to create dynamic and brilliant music for risk of being arrested and sent to prison. The only medium in which such persons could shine was in the movies, Stalin's preferred form of entertainment. Otherwise the Russian Revolution had the effect of limiting the musical abilities of some of the greats composers, and ending their careers prematurely.
One Russian-born composer who life was also changed by the First World War and events which transformed society afterwards, but did not suffer under the Soviet system was Igor Stravinsky. He was also born in Russia, but moved to Switzerland and then France, where he achieved considerable success. Particularly in the medium of player pianos, where he composed many works for the Playal player piano company. (Walsh 1999) The events of World War I had a great impact on Stravinsky who composed innovative and modern forms of music prior to the war, and retreated to the realm of the classic composers as a result of the horrors of the war. Many at this time felt that the advance of technology, politics, and culture were to blame for the carnage and destruction of the economic and social stability which had existed prior to the war. In other words, many felt a major sense of loss at the destruction of the old ways and in response turned away from "new" things and returned to the past. Stravinsky was one of these persons who rejected the modern age, along with it's chaos and destruction, in favor of the more stable world of the past, specifically classicism.
Stravinsky's genius was transformed from a modern, experimental type of music to a more conservative, more traditional style based on the old masters of classical music. Composers like Mozart, Beethoven, etc., were imitated by Stravinsky in a style he created, called "Neoclassicism." While his genius remained unaffected by political winds of the day, his music flourished as he attempted to combine the modern world of music with the world of the classical composers of the past. ("Igor Stravinsky") Stravinsky tried to retreat from the modern world, but his modern genius transformed the classical pieces of the past into a Neoclassical form of music that became very popular and had a great influence on many future composers.
Finally the last composer was not of European origin, but was an American, who transformed the very nature of music in America. Louis Armstrong was a black musician who changed American music of the South from the regional Mississippi Riverboat-style of music to something entire new and exciting: Jazz. (Miller 1994) Jazz music has had an incredible impact, not only on the history of music in America, but also American culture as a whole. Without the creation of Jazz, the big band sounds of the 1930' and 1940's, also called swing, as well as the development of Rock and Roll in the 1950's would never have happened. The societal events of WWI and it's aftereffects have had an effect on the development of music, however, in the case of…