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During the recent war Soviet music took on a special and dramatic significance for us and we were all stirred by certain works especially the songs of the Red Army, and Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, written during the siege of Leningrad which revealed how closely Soviet musicians were bound up with the life and struggles of their people. When the war broke out, composers, instrumentalists and performers of all kinds immediately took to making music for the war. And the Soviet government, realizing how powerful voice music was in rallying the people, never forgot even in the darkest hours to protect its musicians, and enable them to continue their work. All through the war, although half the nation was devastated, millions homeless and starving and the national finances sorely strained, the government continued to appropriate large sums every year to commission the writing of new symphonies, operas and concertos, and to ensure the performance of classic and modern music even though the orchestras and opera companies had to go to Central Asia to do it. 1
There is something awe-inspiring about a nation whose people are suffering untold misery and destruction, that yet continues to give badly needed funds so that artists may be protected and continue their work. And incidentally, the government refused to permit any composers to enter the armed forces feeling they were too precious to be exposed to danger although many volunteered for the Red Army.
During the war we began to learn a little of how the Soviet composer lives and works. Life magazine carried pictures of Shostakovich, Gliere, Khatchaturian and other composers on the Composers Farm where they go each summer to raise pigs and write symphonies. We heard that Soviet composers live in a specially constructed house in Moscow, that they have written tremendous amounts of music for the war and other things. 2
Soviet music is organized under a sub-section of the All-Union Committee of Art, which is almost like a department of the government in our country. Each year the Music Section of this Committee of Art receives a certain sum of money from the national Treasury, which it allots among its various departments: orchestras, opera houses, music publication, composers, and so forth. The composers work through what they call the Union of Soviet Composers which is not a trade union in our sense, but a sort of combination of professional guild, commissioning body, an agency to secure performances and publications, a copying bureau, and a fraternal mutual aid society, all rolled into one.
The Union consists of some 900 professional composers, both serious and popular composers. To become a member, you write a letter to Gliere, who is president of the Union, stating your qualifications and enclosing a few sample scores. If there is any doubt as to a young musician's eligibility, he is invited to appear in person before a committee on admissions and perform his own works. The Committee then decides; and if you don't get in one time, you can always apply again. The Union is not without standards, and the mere fact that your work is popular and widely performed does not automatically qualify you for admission. Peter Zburski wrote a song which became a tremendous hit during the war, called "The Blue Handkerchief." It was sung from one end of the country to the other. But he was not admitted to the Union of Composers.
When a recognized composer wishes to write a work, he submits a project to the Union committee in charge of such things, with an estimate of the length of time it will take. Usually the plan is accepted without much discussion and the composer goes ahead to write his work. Sometimes, however, a composer gets too one-sided for a time, and then the Union committee will suggest that he develop another side of his talent for a time. If a man has been writing too many chamber or theatrical works, they may suggest that he write a symphony.
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