Inspired by Howard F. Stein’s article, I was drawn to reflect on the uses of classical music for ideological purposes and exclusion as well as, on the contrary, for deepening self-exploration. The receptions of Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) music serve here as my examples of the Soviet-time propagandist exploitation of music and the subsequent widening perspective.

Music Ideologized

The early American reception of Shostakovich’s music was a part of the cultural exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Shostakovich was appreciated as the first important Soviet composer who was educated and whose works were controlled under Soviet political orders. In the U.S., his music was interpreted, in the 1930s and 1940s, as purposefully supporting patriotic and nationalistic aims. Shostakovich’s popularity in the U.S. peaked around 1942-1945. As Terry Klefstad (2003) has researched, American audiences and critics acclaimed Shostakovich’s works that were at that time held to be politically associated—the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the Fifth Symphony, and the Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony—while those that were less explicit politically—the Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies—were more neglected. Later, during the 1960s and 1970s, Shostakovich’s works gained renewed popularity around the world.

This kind of reception of music follows political climates and ideological guidelines rather than primarily aesthetic and musical qualities. I am not going further into the complex debate on Shostakovich’s position (compliance vs. “hidden” dissidence) in the Soviet system and the effects of the ideological realities on his personal life and musical creativity. However, I want to pick up some points concerning the changing roles of—and the interplay between—the historical context and personal transference in interpreting Shostakovich’s music.

It is a historical fact that Shostakovich also wrote music for celebrating and honoring the Soviet Union. For example, in 1939, when Stalin planned for the Russians to invade Finland, Shostakovich was commissioned to write celebratory music for the marching bands of the Red Army that were supposed to parade through Helsinki when ending the Winter War. Shostakovich’s “The Suite on

Page 145

Finnish Themes” was not used for the occasion because the Red Army never reached Helsinki. Later, Shostakovich disowned the work.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Shostakovich wrote two pro-Soviet cantatas, “The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland” and “The Song of the Forests,” overtly praising Stalin. Shostakovich took part in the Soviet institutes and even strengthened his participation in public offices after Stalin’s era. Post joining the Communist Party, he became chairman of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic Union of Composers (1960-1968) and a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union (1962-1975, the year he died). Shostakovich was awarded many times with the U.S.S.R. State Prizes and the Order of Lenin. He refrained from expressing any public disagreement with the government.

During Stalin’s era, Shostakovich was reprimanded, especially in connection with his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. His professional career was also at risk at the end of the 1940s, and even later in 1962 when he collaborated with poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for the Thirteenth Symphony, commemorating the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar. Despite these conflicts and controversies, when he died in 1975, Shostakovich was seen as basically having followed and obeyed the rules of the Soviet system and Communist ideology. He was even labeled by some Westerners as a naïve and cowardly conformist, reluctant to resist the establishment in order to safeguard his own position.

However, the composer’s posthumously published memoirs, Testimony, dictated to and edited by Solomon Volkov (1979), changed the public status of the composer from that of the loyal servant of the Soviet regime to that of a “secret” dissident who confined covert (“extra-musical”) symbols and meanings of dissent to his musical compositions, instead of solely relying on “pure” music. Although this “revisionist” view of Shostakovich has been repeatedly attacked by “anti-revisionist” critics doubting the authenticity of the memoirs, it seems clear that there is enough evidence of Shostakovich’s personal antipathy rather than solidarity with the Soviet establishment, even if the memoirs were not completely authentic.

Volkov (2004) has also argued that Shostakovich managed to survive through the oppressive Soviet system partly by playing the role of the “holy fool” and partly because of good luck. The

Page 146

Russian “fool” as a folkloric figure refers to a character who is stupid, irresponsible, and deliberately provoking punishment. The fool mirrors both the repressed sadistic urges and masochistic fantasies, feeding the approval of the right of beating the fool and of the necessity of being beaten out of the foolish state. As such, Shostakovich hardly suits the figure of the fool, but some of his compositions have been used to support ideological control and its cruel orders.

Another Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky (1947), who had already left Russia in the 1910s and never returned to live in the Soviet Union, could, from an outsider’s position, satirically quote a Soviet ideologically tinged review by Alexis Tolstoy of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: “Here we have the ‘Symphony of Socialism.’  It begins with the Largo of the masses working underground, an accelerando corresponds to the subway system; the Allegro in its turn symbolizes gigantic factory machinery and its victory over nature” (p. 115). He goes on to write, “The Adagio represents the synthesis of Soviet culture, science, and art. The Scherzo reflects the athletic life of the happy inhabitants of the Union. As for the Finale, it is the image of the gratitude and the enthusiasm of the masses” (Stravinsky, 1947, p. 115).

This kind of politically manipulative approach to music is a caricature that shows the ideological extremes music can be recruited to. In his lecture, “The Avatars of Russian Music,” one of the six lectures delivered at Harvard in 1939-1940, Stravinsky continued his analysis of Soviet history and culture:

[- -] we see Russia falling back into an attitude of the worst sort of nationalism and popular chauvinism which once more separates it radically from European culture. This means that after twenty-one years of catastrophic revolution, Russia could not and would not solve its great historical problem. Besides, how would she ever have accomplished this when she has never been capable of stabilizing her culture nor of consolidating her traditions? She finds herself, as she has always found herself, at a crossroads, facing Europe, yet turning her back upon it.

In the different cycles of its development and historical metamorphoses, Russia has ever been untrue to herself, she has always sapped the foundations of her own culture and profaned the values of the phases that have gone

Page 147


And now that it comes about, through necessity, that she is once more taking up her traditions, she is content with their mere simulacrum without understanding that their intrinsic value, their very life have completely disappeared. That is the crux of this great tragedy.

A renewal is fruitful only when it goes hand in hand with tradition. Living dialectic wills that renewal and traditions shall develop and abet each other in a simultaneous process. Now Russia has seen only conservatism without renewal or revolution without tradition, whence arises the terrifying reeling over the void that has always made my head swim. (Stravinsky, 1947, pp. 116-117)

Does this sound familiar? Are there not echoes and continuities of Russian cultural catastrophes and the tsarist credo of “orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism” under Putin’s rule? Should Russian music and the whole Russian culture then be banned, as many Western voices urge us to do? That would amount to purifying and mastering cultural and human expression, making tradition and renewal more regulated according to the “democratic” sanctions and censorship. It would give free rein to the hideous us/them polarization and ensuing cultural projections and projective identifications, prohibiting and denying the polyphony of the human creative endeavor.

What kind of music do the tyrants listen to? Do, for example, Stalin’s and Putin’s musical tastes resonate with nationalistic undertones or overtones? Stalin liked Russian and Georgian folk songs and opera songs. When in a bad mood, he used to repeatedly listen to his favorite song “On the Hills of Manchuria” and would become touched by its words: “Believe us, we shall avenge you / And celebrate a bloody wake!”  Among the Russian singers and cabaret artists, his absolute favorite was Alexander Vertinsky, despite his cosmopolitan and even decadent background. According to Shostakovich’s memoirs, when Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, performed by Maria Yudina, was on his record player. Putin has commented that he listens “with pleasure” to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Rachmaninov, especially loving Schubert in Liszt’s adaptation “Ständchen.”  Besides that, Putin has even confessed to being a long-term fan of The Beatles; his favorite song of theirs is “Yesterday.”

Page 148

The musical tastes of the tyrants may have a macabre resonance; they are not a far cry from music (e.g., Wagner, foxtrot, waltzes, military marches, and Zarah Leander songs) from radio or gramophones played over loudspeakers while executing the prisoners of the concentration camps. Institutions of terror have not been without entertaining, festive, beautiful, and sentimental tunes, but such tunes have been ordered at the whims of the perpetrators to accompany and celebrate rape and murder. It has been music on totalitarian command—music for punishments and executions.

Music as Self-Exploration

Most current academic musicologists tend to distance themselves from composer and context-centered views in favor of analyzing musical scores, structures, and techniques. References to the historical, political, and ideological backgrounds or the psychological issues and ethical conflicts around the composer and his music are judged to be old-fashioned biographical reductionism. Nevertheless, psychohistorical approaches to music analyze multiple historical contexts, ideological commitments, and psychobiographical details and use such material for exploring the developmental, motivational, and personal underpinnings, linking them to transference-related (and even prenatal) phenomena in musical creation and the reception of music.

The childhood of composers deserves to be recognized as a vital source of musical creation. A relevant autobiographical reminiscence concerning early-sounding memories is uttered by Igor Stravinsky in Tony Palmer’s (1962) documentary Stravinsky: Once At a Border: “My earliest memory is of the sound of the ice breaking on the River Neva in St. Petersburg near where I was born. It was a sound that marked the beginning of a new year, a new spring.”  He continued with the strongest memory of his childhood, “of the country fairs I was taken to in the Ukraine. The sounds which I heard and the dances that I saw have stayed in my imagination all my life” (Palmer, 1962).

Shostakovich, for his part, was at first not interested in learning music. However, in his childhood, he eagerly listened through the walls when there were music soirees at his home or in the neighboring apartment. Shostakovich’s music-loving family gave a supportive background to his musical education, his mother teaching him piano. In his memoirs, he mentions an event from 1917 when he, then 11 years old, witnessed how a Cossack cut a boy with a saber in a crowd. The imprinted memory was expressed

Page 149

in Shostakovich’s youth in his composition “Funeral March in Memory of the Victims of the Revolution.”

Shostakovich’s musical works still challenge listeners by upsetting their given categories and attaching them not solely to pleasant moments but also to moments of human suffering. When listening, for example, to Shostakovich’s Fifteenth String Quartet, his final quartet, I am moved by its intimate expressions of human frailty, mortality, and beauty, transposed to wider dimensions; I embrace the last trills of the Epilogue. But sensitive listening to music is not possible without resonating rhythms, nuances, colors, thematically floating modulations, and meaningful associations. Otherwise, we would hear only scattered, empty noise. Poetic-musical waves are emotionally oscillating, trembling, and calling for attending to the polyphonic realms of our experiential and memory partitions, our evergreen/transient melodies, and their resounding in the here-and-now.

Lively music is not a symptom to be clinically interpreted or a message to be ideologically transmitted and regulated. Its restrictive diagnosing and forced ideological exploitation need to be psychohistorically related and studied. Such studies do not diminish the value of music as humankind’s sonorous and symbolic self-exploration where collective and individual fantasies, reflections, and memories affectively resonate in sensitive listening.

When the “immediacy” of the emotion is present in music, containing interpreted “messages” and personal meanings, the attitudes and expectations formed during earlier listening history are simultaneously and often vibrantly present. Psychohistorical studies on music, musicians, and listeners can extend to grasp contextual, cultural, collective, individual, and transference aspects of musical creation, its performance, reception, and interpretation.

What remains beyond knowing and beyond the notes is often perceived as uncanny, strange, and unknown to oneself, and at the same time, seductive and frightening. The human mind resorts to a variety of defensive misrecognitions, including mishearing, against the fear of not knowing and the fear of the unknown. Possible ambivalent feelings, strange fantasies, dreams, and sounds are excluded from the mind. In psychoanalysis, both the analyst and the analysand may fear their potential, their unconscious dimensions, and ultimately their liveliness—the acceptance of their unconscious being “alive” and (re)sounding. The “already-known”

Page 150

will then take over a depressive stage on which there is nothing new to know.

Analysts and psychohistorians, like the listeners of music, must be prepared to sometimes sing or whistle their insights—unsure about rational knowledge. Working through not knowing allows people to experience the diversity of life and to co-create while listening to a third (fourth, etc.) dimension. However, accepting liveliness and multidimensionality beyond the notes does not mean that constructing knowledge is useless. Knowing and not knowing complement each other and transform our perceptions and imaginations of reality.

Page 151


  • Klefstad, Terry Wait (2003). The reception in America of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1928–1946. Diss. The University of Texas at Austin.
  • Palmer, Tony (1962). Stravinsky: Once at a border [Film]. Isolde Films.
  • Stravinsky, Igor (1947). Poetics of music: In the form of six lessons (Arthur Knodel & Ingolf Dahl, Trans.). Harvard University Press.
  • Volkov, Solomon (1979). Testimony: The memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov (Antonina W. Bouis, Trans.). Harper & Row.
  • Volkov, Solomon (2004). Shostakovich and Stalin: The extraordinary relationship between the great composer and the brutal dictator. Alfred A. Knopf.


Juhani Ihanus

Juhani Ihanus, PhD, is Associate Professor of Cultural Psychology at the University of Helsinki, and Associate Professor of the History of Science and Ideas at the University of Oulu. He is also an international member of the Psychohistory Forum who has published books and articles on psychohistory, cultural and clinical psychology, and the history of psychology. Dr. Ihanus may be reached at .

How to Cite This:

Ihanus, J. (2023). Music for ideology or self-exploration. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 144-151.

PDF downloads:

Download this Article PDF
Download full Issue PDF