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“Olin Downes and the Soviets, or American Music after the Bolshevik Revolution” - Dr. Kevin Bartig, Michigan State University

Distinguished Lecture in Musicology

  1. Friday September 30 5:00pm  –  6:00pm
Earl V. Moore Building, Glenn E. Watkins Lecture Hall

“Olin Downes and the Soviets, or American Music after the Bolshevik Revolution”

In 1929 and 1932, the long-serving and influential New York Times music critic Olin Downes embarked on extended tours of the Soviet Union. During these visits, Downes attended performances, evaluated new compositions, and consulted with cultural bureaucrats on the state of Soviet musical culture. As the first prominent US music critic to visit the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution, Downes understood that his first-hand observer status bestowed a transnationally constructed authority that allowed him to make big and often highly tendentious claims about what he saw and heard. In this presentation, I follow Downes on these tours to show that these claims were not simply pro- or anti-Bolshevik reactions but were in fact intertwined with a much deeper agenda: Downes’s desire to foster a middlebrow, national art music at home in the United States. Ultimately, Downes’s interest in the Soviet Union was brief, but his experience there shaped his nationalist agenda for American music for years to come. This chapter of Downes’s career is crucial to understanding both how the Soviet experiment shaped discourse around American music and how US opinion on Soviet culture took shape during the interwar years.


Dr. Kevin Bartig, professor and chair of musicology at Michigan State University, has written widely on Russian and Soviet music. His books include Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film (2013) and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” (2017). Other publications explore musical diplomacy, audio- visual aesthetics, and the reception of Russian music in various contexts. With theater historian Dassia Posner, he coedited Three Loves for Three Oranges: Gozzi, Meyerhold, Prokofiev (2021). He has also contributed to several edited collections, including Prokofiev and His World, Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema, and The Rite of Spring at 100, which won the 2018 AMS Ruth A. Solie Award. At Michigan State, Dr. Bartig received the MSU Teacher-Scholar Award in 2010.

Free - no tickets required