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Vol 2, No 21
29 May 2000
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Alfred Schnittke (photo: based on an original by B Palatnika)
Alfred Schnittke:
One face of Russia's
The Experiment Continues
Russian Avant-Garde:
Past, Present and Future

David Fanning

In the visual arts and cinema the Russian avant-garde is a familiar enough concept; it even branches off into its very own "isms" (Suprematism, Constructivism...). In literature too, the activities of self-styled futurists, acmeists and other experimentalists in the 1910s and 20s are comparatively well known, at least in academic circles. So far as music is concerned, however, awareness is more patchy. Thanks to the CD industry there has been a huge increase in available recordings of all kinds of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian works, including some repertoire loosely describable as avant-garde.

But distribution of scores has been very hit and miss, making it difficult to follow up impressions and deepen interpretations. Nor have many scholars in the West have been able to surmount the language barrier with sufficient ease to conduct meaningful research; and no sooner were their colleagues in the former Soviet Union released from ideological taboos on such activity than the infrastructure to support their work collapsed. Apart from all that, appraisal of this music, as with so many unfamiliar twentieth-century repertoires, is complicated by the baleful heritage of Franco-German master narratives, from which musical historiography is still struggling to extricate itself.

So a conference on Russian avant-garde music, allied to a day of performances, was a fine idea, made possible by the recent arrival of cellist-musicologist Alexander Ivashkin as Professor at Goldsmith's College, London, and director of that institution's Centre for Russian Music. He assembled an impressive roster of British, American, Russian, German and French speakers, covering all generations from post-graduate student to elder statesman. The outcome was unfocused, the quality of papers mixed; but the fact that it happened at all was cause for celebration.

Something old and something new

Contributions ranged across the two generally acknowledged Russian musical "avant-gardes"—that of the 1920s, represented by the likes of Nikolay Roslavets, Joseph Schillinger and Alexander Mosolov, with extensions back to Skryabin and forward to Gavriil Popov in the early 1930s; and that of the "underground" composers of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, represented by Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Guibadulina, Edison Denisov and many others.

Only Svetlana Savenko, from Moscow Conservatoire, brought us close to the present, with her survey of musical life and personalities in the 1990s, reminding us in passing of the huge price Russia continues to pay in cultural terms for its post-communist "freedom." Fortunately the three best-known Russian composers currently working in Britain—Elena Firsova, Dmitry Smirnov and Vladislav Shoot—were on hand to present and discuss their recent music.

An unexpected but extremely welcome trend concerns the work of comparatively little-known émigré composers. It is a truism that giants such as Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev carried on Russian traditions in the West after the Bolshevik Revolution, in Stravinsky's case far more so than he chose to admit.

All but unknown, however, is the impact of lesser lights such as Alexander Tcherepnin, Joseph Schillinger, Alexander Grechaninov and Ivan Vyshnegradsky, all of whom were discussed at the conference, and a host of others not mentioned but deserving of investigation (such as Lazar Saminsky, Thomas de Hartmann, Nikolay Lopatnikov, Nicolas Nabokov and Vladimir Dukelsky, aka Vernon Duke). Increasing awareness of virtually uncharted repertoire is yet another factor in the ongoing shake-up of 20th-century music history.

The papers

Prokofiev and Shostakovich also featured at the conference, the latter albeit only in Dmitry Feofanov's controversial listing of Western musicologists' supposed failures to read the composer's supposed dissident messages, on which I should offer no further comment as one of those targeted by the speaker.

Nolle Mann, head of Goldsmith's College's Prokofiev Archive, gave an entertaining presentation based on Prokofiev's unpublished correspondence, drawing attention to his careful distinction between the "modern," which he associated with mere fashion, and the "contemporary," which in his view could as well manifest itself in simplicity as in complexity. In this connection Stuart Campbell's paper offered a timely reminder of distinctions between "avant-garde" and "modernist."

Marina Frolova-Walker's paper on theatrical spectacles in the early revolutionary years offered a thought-provoking illustration of these issues, noting that the cosmopolitan outlook of the much-vaunted Association for Contemporary Music was in many ways less avant-garde than that of certain immediately preceding, more ideologically conformist collective enterprises.

These papers should have given pause to many both in Russia and the West who tend to take a permissive approach to terminology. Another valuable feature of the conference was the number of straightforwardly informative papers, such as Gerald Seaman's and Erik Levi's on, respectively, Russian and German periodical literature.

Marina Rytsareva, now of Tel-Aviv University, offered a thoughtful consideration of the socio-symbolism of Sergey Slonimsky's ballet Icarus. Interestingly, in open discussion she went on to suggest that many Russians feel a more pressing need nowadays for factual research than for ideologically founded interpretation.
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In a scholarly environment where archival materials continue to be difficult to access, this line would seem to banish most commentators to the more rarefied pursuits of musical analysis, themselves represented by two student papers from America. More fruitful, or so it seems to me, would be for scholars to continue to engage in interpretation, but to take greater care not to jump to premature conclusions about musical value and ideological messages.

In the day of concerts at the Purcell Room, Ivashkin himself shouldered a massive burden of performing and organisation. He emerged triumphant, above all in his programme of Tcherepnin's cello and piano works. Yet none of this was as inspiring as the short recital of piano music by the Ukrainian Valentin Silverstrov, given by Andrew Zolinsky at Goldmith's College. This apparently beautiful and familiar-sounding music is somehow always just out of reach, as though shimmering behind a gauze, and at both musical and metaphorical levels it left a deep impression.

Less happy was the Round Table at the Purcell Room on "Russian Music in the New Millennium," at which none of the participants, myself included, were inclined to make grand prognostications. Clearly the current state of Russian music is an unenviable one. Most successful composers with contacts and linguistic skills have been living in the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union; those remaining face audience indifference and an extremely shaky infrastructure for performance and publishing. Yet so it was too, more or less, at the corresponding point after the Bolshevik revolution. And at that time there was an unknown 19-year-old student by the name of Shostakovich waiting to burst onto the scene...

David Fanning, 29 May 2000
Photo credit: based on an original picture by B Palatnika

David Fanning is a musicologist and music journalist who has a special interest in the music of Shostakovich. He is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Manchester, UK.

Other CER articles of interest:

  • The Forgotten Avant Garde
    Soviet composers crushed by Stalin
  • The St Petersburg Legacy
    Portrait of a city through its pioneering poets
    and composers
  • Zaum and Sun:
    The "first Futurist opera" revisited
  • Beyond Fission
    The interconnections between musical
    and artistic modernism
  • Moving on:


    Jan Čulík
    Foreigners, Who Needs Them?

    Brian J Požun
    in Slovenia

    David Fanning
    Russian Music:
    Still Experimenting

    Oliver Craske
    Their River,
    Their Poison

    Catherine Lovatt
    Preserving a Nation

    Michael J Kopanic Jr
    Rooms to Let

    Václav Bělohradský

    Elke de Wit
    Experimental Spaces

    Miroslav Gadgovski
    Python Invades

    Apostol Apostolov
    Global Music,
    Local Trends

    Culture Calendar:
    UK | USA

    Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?

    Czech Republic