Unheard – music by composers in the gulag

ZOiS Spotlight 37/2018 by Inna Klause (31 October 2018)

Drawing by Viktor Grebennikov from the magazine "Volya" that has been published by former gulag prisoner Semyon Vilensky.

In Russia, 30 October is the Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression, generally meaning those who were sent to prisons and labour camps. However, in the study of the history of Soviet labour camps, one group of prisoners – the composers – has largely gone unnoticed. Although music in the gulag is mentioned in prisoners’ memoirs and some detainees were well-known performers – Lidia Ruslanova and Vadim Kozin being notable examples – little attention has been paid to the composers. After perestroika, a flurry of publications traced the lives and fates of individual artists or investigated the role of theatre in the gulag, but many of the composers who suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime are still going unheard. My contacts in Russia often associated music in the gulag with blatnye pesni – the songs of the professional criminals. There is little awareness of the role that classical music played in the camps.

Music making in the camps

Composers, as an occupational group, were not usually singled out for arrest for any particular reason: most fell victim to the apparatus of terror in the same way as other innocent prisoners. Music was performed in the gulag in a variety of contexts. Some music making was officially organised, and some was independent and self-determined. The camp system made considerable efforts to intensify the musical activities that were ordered from above. Official music making was built around the stated goal of re-educating prisoners, although in reality, it was hoped that music would increase labour productivity and improve discipline. This musical practice belonged to a set of measures that were realised in the context of so-called ‘cultural education’ work, the conditions for which varied considerably from camp to camp. Many camps had their own music ensembles, which were often required to play as prisoners marched off to work or which provided a musical accompaniment to their labours. Full symphony orchestras, choirs and even operatic groups which performed concerts, operas or operettas for camp guards, other prisoners and sometimes for the civilian population of nearby communities were by no means a rarity. Some composers were lucky enough to find a niche here and were able to devote themselves further to music despite the inhumane living conditions. Others managed to carry on composing even if they were not involved in musical activities in the camps. In addition to this official musical activity, prisoners’ independent music making – consisting mainly of self-determined singing, but also other forms of musical activity, much of it clandestine – was also important. For many prisoners, it met an existential need and helped them endure the difficult conditions of their daily lives.

Evgeny Epstein, who wrote several articles about former prisoners in the gulag for the journal Muzykalnaya zhizn (Musical life) in the early 1990s, claimed in one of these articles that when Sergei Prokofiev’s first wife Lina Prokofieva was arrested, many music manuscripts were confiscated, and that the details can be found on a list held in the archives of the Glinka Museum in Moscow. Unfortunately, no musicians or musicologists seized the opportunity afforded by perestroika to access the KGB archives and retrieve manuscripts, as the writer Vitaly Shentalinsky did in his capacity as Chair of the Commission for the Creative Heritage of Writer-Victims of the Repressions in the USSR. It is thanks to Shentalinsky that it has been possible to reconstruct the final months and days of a number of literary figures based on their interrogation files and ensure that some of their lost manuscripts see the light of day.

Concerts relating to the gulag

Despite this omission, there is no shortage of music – available as manuscripts and printed scores – by former prisoners in the gulag waiting to be performed. The Repressirovannaya muzyka (Repressed Music) project, involving young Russian musicians in Moscow in 2001, broke new ground in this regard. It featured music by former gulag inmates Vsevolod Zaderatsky, Alexander Mosolov and Alexander Veprik, by Mieczysław Weinberg, who was  never sent to the gulag but endured pretrial detention, and four composers from National Socialist concentration camps: Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff.

Similar concerts exclusively featuring works by prisoners in the gulag were performed during the Composers in the Gulag under Stalin symposium in Göttingen in June 2010 and, under the aegis of the Lev Kopelev Forum, at the DOMFORUM in Cologne in October 2011. This latter concert also turned the spotlight on women, including music for children by composer Taisiya Shutenko and songs by Svetlana Shilova. Works by victims of the gulag (Alexander Veprik and Vsevolod Zaderatsky) and National Socialism (Gideon Klein and Jakob Schönberg) featured in the inaugural lecture and concert, entitled Music as Spiritual Resistance, by pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov at the University of Music FRANZ LISZT Weimar in December 2013. Jascha Nemtsov’s very listenable CD box set of piano works by Vsevolod Zaderatsky was released in 2017. Musicologically, the cycle of 24 preludes and fugues composed by Zaderatsky from 1937 to 1939 in a remote Siberian camp where there was no musical activity is remarkable. At the initiative of the Lichterfeld Foundation, music by composers in the gulag was performed at the Anneliese Brost Musikforum in Bochum on 25 October 2018 and included premieres of at least four works. A rather different approach was adopted at a concert in the Alexander Solzhenitsyn House in Moscow in March 2008, which was organised mainly by the writer and former gulag prisoner Semyon Vilensky. It included arias from operas and operettas performed at concerts in the gulag as well as music by composers who had been imprisoned there.

Many discoveries await

Although concerts with such a direct thematic link to the gulag are rarities, music by composers in the gulag is performed in other contexts as well. This applies particularly to composers who were already well-known at the time of their arrest, such as Alexander Mosolov and Sergei Protopopov. Piano music by these two composers is beautifully interpreted by Thomas Günther on a series of CDs entitled Piano Works during and after Russian Futurism. But even with composers such as these, there are still many works to be discovered and compositions to be retrieved from the archives, as the response to the music of Alexander Veprik shows. As a result of the tireless efforts – concerts, recordings, books and articles – by Jascha Nemtsov in the 1990s, Veprik’s name and the chamber works he composed have now been rediscovered by the music community. However, his symphonic works were more or less forgotten until 2017, as the sheet music is available for just two of his orchestral works and scores for other compositions are hard to find. Thanks to Göttinger Symphonie Orchester under Christoph-Mathias Mueller, who was its Music Director at the time, a concert solely featuring symphonic works by Veprik was held in Göttingen in September 2017. One reviewer described the very moving performance: “A listener rarely remembers the familiar, but this was exciting […] From the start, the music had its own unique tone, a timbre found nowhere else.”

Let’s hope that these projects are just the beginning of a (re)discovery of composers who have quite unjustly fallen into obscurity as a consequence of their incarceration in the gulag. To quote the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich: “Our history was falsified for so long, so persistently and so pitilessly that it will take the efforts of thousands of people to restore the truth.” And, I would add, to bring this unheard music back into our concert halls.


Musicologist Inna Klause was awarded a doctorate at Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media in 2012 for her dissertation on “Music and musicians in Soviet labour camps from the 1920s to the 1950s”. She is now a script advisor and head of Göttinger Symphonie Orchester music score library. With support from a postdoctoral scholarship, she is currently working on a comparative study of musical activity in the gulag and the National Socialist concentration camps, based at the University of Music FRANZ LISZT Weimar.