This study explores Russian thought about music in thirty-five years leading up to the establishment in 1921 of the music research department at the Institute for Art History in St Petersburg, generally considered the key event in the institutionalization of musicology as a scholarly discipline, and for a decade after that. Drawing on sources that include newspapers and articles across half a century and hitherto little-known archival materials, such as transcripts of meetings, official resolutions, and personal correspondence, I show how Russian musicology grew up in dialogue with the broader intellectual developments of the period. The temporal framework of this study bridges the “revolutionary divide,” dismantling the persistent notion of 1917 as the zero hour in the history of Russian and Soviet culture. Where existing studies have tended to conceptualize writing about music in the early Soviet era either as the voluntary acceptance of ideological directives from the State or as the total ideological crackdown on free scholarly thought, my findings reveal a volatile two-way relationship between the State and individual scholars, in which musicologists themselves exhibited a nuanced range of attitudes toward the centralized ideology and could be active agents of the sweeping ideological change.
Chapters 1 and 5 deal with institutions and the thorny quest to legitimize musicology as an academic profession; Chapters 2, 3, and 4 focus on the vibrant discourse on the study of music that appeared in the press. In its earliest stage, the institutionalization of musicology was slowed by the relentless focus of the music conservatories on the social legitimization of the profession of a musician, which left no space for the advocacy of the professional scholar. During this same early period, musicological thought was being forged in the debates in the popular press over the competing claims of positivism and idealism. Where positivism upheld the idea that music scholarship should concern itself with the scientific search for universal laws governing both the historical development of music and its inner workings, the idealist camp favored the understanding of music as an ineffable art, out of reach of the rational mind.
In Chapter 1 I analyze Nikolai Findeisen’s criticism of the conservatory professor Liveriy Sacchetti, an expert in European music historiography and aesthetics, and Findeisen’s nationalist vision for musicology, which was gaining momentum in the two pre-revolutionary decades. Chapter 2 presents a longitudinal study of the Russian reception of Eduard Hanslick’s influential treatise "On the Musically Beautiful," which reveals two ideological shifts, first to positivism, then away from it. Chapter 3 concerns itself with an example of this positivist influx and the strong idealist opposition it elicited in certain avant-garde artistic circles of the 1910s: Emiliy Medtner’s criticism of Nadezhda Bryusova’s work, rife with anti-modernism, racial anxiety, and fear of the prescriptive ambitions of science. Chapter 4 looks at the same ideological clash from a different perspective. Members of the Scriabin Society, offended by the critical stance the music critic Leonid Sabaneyev took in his monograph on the recently deceased composer, attempted to besmirch his reputation by casting him as a clueless rationalist who could not approach the true meaning of Scriabin’s music. Chapter 5 examines the increasing ideological pressure that The People's Commissariat for Education (Narkompros) put on the musicologists at the Russian Institute of Art History in the late 1920s, steeped in the infamous rhetoric of “formalism” that later informed the public denunciations of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. My focus on the personal communications between Boris Asafyev and Alexey Finagin reveals that adapting one’s convictions to the changing ideological climate often came at the cost of personal relationships.