Vol 1, No 1, 28 June 1999

M U S I C:
The Forgotten Avant Garde:
Soviet Composers Crushed by Stalin

By Andrew J Horton

Well known are the battles fought by Shostakovich and Prokofiev for the right to compose freely. While their integrity was repeatedly compromised by Stalin and the dogma of Socialist Realism and their personal lives were crushed by fear, they at least managed to emerge with international reputations and an admiring public. Not all Soviet composers fared so well, however, and many other inventive musical minds had to endure the same terror, only to be forgotten by history.

Turn-of-the-century Russia was a hotbed of new ideas. Collectors such as Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin were bringing Impressionist paintings back from Paris, art nouveau (or style moderne as it is known to Russians) was becoming an influential architectural style in St Petersburg, and a new class of urban workers was shaping the political consciousness. In all fields, the old order was starting to be challenged. The early 1900s were the prelude to revolutions in art, architecture and music, as well as politics.

In music, the composer Alexandr Skriabin (1872-1915) was becoming progressively more mystical and unconventional as his interest in theosophy grew. His late works, such as the Poem of Ecstasy and the Black Mass Sonata, sought to create experiences of religious intensity for the listener through a musical language that went beyond the concepts of "major" and "minor" that had dominated serious Western music for centuries. As well as being works of genius, his grand visions reflected increasing detachment from reality and even megalomania.

For many young composers emerging in Russia during the early years of the twentieth century, Skriabin's experiments were a triumphant turning point in music the importance of which ranked alongside the Impressionistic works of his contemporary in France, Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Departing from where these two great composers left off, the young Russian avant garde took tonality to its limits and beyond. Although now forgotten, composers such as Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944), Alexandr Mosolov (1900-73), Arthur Lourie(1892-1966), Vladimir Deshevov (1889-1949) and Gavriil Popov (1904-72), to name but a few, attracted international attention at the time and were praised by the likes of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

The music of Roslavets has been described as "Skriabin on acid" and his complex system of "synthetic chords," "sound centres" and "rhythmoforms" has earned him the title of "the Russian Schoenberg" (although he was actually Ukrainian). Mosolov's work is based on a similarly individualistic and complex system of tonal organization. He used it to create what one critic has described as "raging passions and dark colors, sadness, despair, longing, resignation, no resolution and no triumph." Roslavets's fame peaked in the early 1930s, when his industrial ballet, The Foundry.(1926), astonished European audiences.

Deshevov was much in demand as a composer whose orchestral works sought to recreate in music techniques used in theatre and film, whilst Popov, a contemporary of Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatoire, won the praise of Prokofiev and Glazonuv, as well as that of his more famous fellow student. Indeed, Shostakovich's admitted himself to be "a great and ardent admirer" of Popov's dissonant First Symphony (1929-34), an influence which is evident in Shostakovich's Fourth (1935-36). All in all, a notable number of composers were using techniques including whole-tone music, serialism and microtones - which were making, or would later make, composers in Western Europe famous.

However, not everyone was so keen on the new avant garde. The standard Communist line on the arts was evident even in the early years of the Soviet Union. In a 1920 interview, Lenin proudly confessed himself to be a "barbarian" and denounced Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and "other 'isms'," proclaiming that it did not matter "what art gives to hundreds, or even thousands, out of a total population numbering millions. Art belongs to the people."

While the music of the 1920s clearly went against these principles, the Party was too busy consolidating their unstable political power base to be concerned with these experimentalists, and it was not until the 1930s that Stalin started to put serious effort into controlling what Soviet artists were producing. Even so, Louriewas an early victim of the new order, emigrating to Paris in disgust of Lenin's cultural policies in 1921.

In the mid-1930s, the time was ripe for Stalin to make his grip on power absolute. In the cultural field, artists' organizations and unions were merged, reformed and reconstituted in what was then called perestroika ironically a term now associated with the fall of Communism rather than the start of its darkest years. Stalin's famous dictum - "life has become more joyous, comrades, life has become happier" - first used in 1935, led to the promulgation of Socialist Realism. Irony, angst and personal feeling had to be eliminated from art in favor of populist works which rejoiced in the glorious potential of life under Communism. Indirectly, the Soviet avant garde had foreshadowed their own nemesis and having pioneered music which celebrated the machine age in the 1920s, they were now forced into writing dreary cantatas and symphonies on the Soviet Union's industrial achievements.

Free-spirited artists who failed to toe the line were publicly denounced, threatened and had their privileges removed. The pressure to cave in and conform to the dictums of Socialist Realism was too great for many of the composers. The Soviet avant garde started to crumble, and since its initial international success could not be followed up, the names of its composers slipped from the memory of European audiences.

Composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev were able to perform clever balancing acts, pushing the authorities to the limits and then mollifying them with a mellifluous piece of populism. Not all composers were so skilled at this game, however. Vladimir Deshevov and Alexei Zhivotov (1904-1964) abandoned experimentalism altogether for the new official style, the latter leaving only a single modernist piece in his entire oeuvre - his highly respected Fragments for Nonet, Op. 2 (1928). Lev Knipper (1898-1974) also threw in the towel, although the courage to experiment returned to him in his final years. Several composers withdrew to quiet provinces, where they would not attract so much attention. Rosalvets, for example, lived in Uzbekistan for part of the early 1930s - composing innocuous folk pieces. A few composers, such as Galina Ustvolskaya (b. 1919), continued to compose in their own style, with the knowledge that these works could not be made public and were strictly "for the drawer."

For some composers , drink was a source of solace in these fearful times for some composers, and Shostakovich and Popov both succumbed to the bottle. While Popov sporadically tried to write in the modernist style after the introduction of Socialist Realism, addiction clearly impaired his musical judgement, and the majority of his pieces from this period reflect only a fraction of his former abilities. Curiously, drink was actually to aid one of his compositions, his Sixth Symphony (1970) - an outrageous evocation of totalitarianism as it would be experienced by the perpetually drunk. Alcohol was also the downfall of Mosolov, who was kicked out of the Composers' Union in 1936 on trumped up charges of being drunk and behaving lewdly, all to try and dampened the run-away success of The Foundry. When that failed, to halt his interest in the avant-garde, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years in a concentration camp.

Film music was a popular choice for many composers in these difficult times. As well as having the advantage of seeming practical and populist, it received less attention from the Party and moments of dissonance could be sneaked in to accompany the on-screen appearance of a villain. Indeed, if Popov's music can be said to have any fame at all, it is through his work for the cinema. He collaborated with Prokofiev on Sergei Eisenstein's epic Ivan the Terrible and wrote the score for the most adored Russian film of the 1930s Chapayev. Denied fame through modernism, Knipper also found popular success when he wrote the international hit song "Meadowland," a must on every compilation album of Russian folk music to this day.

However, for all the oppression directed at the early twentieth-century Russian composers, the avant garde in Russia could not be eliminated. Ustvolskaya, under the influence of her intense and enigmatic relationship with her teacher Shostakovich, started producing avant-garde works at the height of the Stalinist Terror and is believed to have in turn been the source of inspiration for Shostakovich's own experiments with atonality. Alfred Schnittke (1934-98), Arvo Part (b. 1935), Giya Kanchelli (b. 1935), and Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), all of whom attracted the wrath of the authorities, have emerged in the last decades as some of the most innovative and radical of late twentieth-century composers and have re-established the former Soviet states at the forefront of modern musical thought.

Spurred on by interest in these contemporary composers, musicians and historians are uncovering the works and lives of the avant garde that Stalin tried so desperately to stifle. No easy task, given that even after Stalin's death in 1953, these adventurous works continued, on the whole, to be ignored by performers and record labels alike. Indeed, when BMG began compiling its CD Russian Music from the 1920s from the Moscow archives of the Soviet record label Melodiya, it found so few recorded works of this period that only three of the six pieces which appear on the album were actually composed in the 1920s. The complexity of some of the pieces - particularly in the case of Roslavets and Mosolov, whose more challenging works are often written in unconventional notations - has also hindered rediscovery, deterring all but the most able virtuosos. Roslavets's reputation has been further impeded by occasionally careless work on the part of the editors trying to reconstruct his scores, and it is unclear just how much of the disappointment associated with some of his rediscovered works is due to his inherent faults as a composer.

However, the 1990s have seen a steady stream of intrepid musicians tackle the works of the early Soviet avant garde - both in recordings and at concerts. One such example is the series of eight concerts devoted to the early Russian avant garde performed at the Barbican Centre in London as part of the St Petersburg: Revolution and Romance series of cultural events. Combined with these efforts, budget labels such as BMG and Arte Nova have reissued long lost material unearthed from the Melodiya vaults.

The overall result is admittedly patchy. Some composers, such as Lourie, are still woefully under-recorded, while many of the old re-released Melodiya recordings show the limitations of outdated Soviet recording technology. However, the modest catalogue of works from this period is vastly superior to that available only a decade ago, and new additions are steadily arriving as interest in this sadly forgotten corner of musical history increases.

Andrew J Horton.

This is a first in a series of articles exploring twentieth-century music in Russia to complement the recent St Petersburg: Romance and Revolution season at the Barbican Centre in London. See the Kinoeye archives for reviews of the film series connected with the same event.

Further Surfing

Most Russian music sites concentrate on high-profile names. However, there are two major websites of serious standing which cover more obscure aspects of Soviet music. Gramphone critic David Fanning provides insightful historical analysis as well as good purchase recommendations in his David Fanning Surveys the Soviet Symphony on CD. Fanning is committed to exploring the uncharted waters of Soviet music and so ignores Shostakovich and Prokofiev in his article. If you really do wish to buy some CDs, then Central Europe Review's own Music Store allows you to buy them at bargain prices.

If the ommision of the greatest Soviet symphonists is sacrilege to you, then the Music Under Soviet Rule site may be your prefered choice. Although it devotes a lot of space to Prokofiev and Shostakovich (even including a Shostakovich chat room), it also has very good sections on Ustvolskaya, Kancheli and Schnittke.

These two look set to be joined by a third. Although currently under construction, what is already up on the ACM Archives of Russian Contemporary Music is enough to convince anyone that this is going to be the definitive net resource for biographical information on Soviet composers.





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