Archives for February 1994

The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror performed on Feb 18, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The relationship between music and politics has been both ambiguous and enigmatic. Strictly speaking, music neither describes nor illustrates in the way that pictures and language seem to do. Therefore, a facile identification of political ideas with music appears problematic. However, within a particular historical context, the sound and function of music in society can assume a highly charged political meaning.

This is particularly the case in moments of history when political censorship has been severe. The Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer, whose work was subjected persistently to censorship, once commented wryly that he envied composers. With music, the censors were at a loss. If there was political meaning, it might be found, at best, in any words that were being set–as in the case of opera and vocal and choral music–but not in the music itself.

The oppressive world of the 1830s under Metternich ought not be compared to the political repression and dictatorship experienced in Europe during the twentieth century. In the Soviet Union music became politicized by the state to an astonishing degree from the mid 1920s to the late 1980s. Joseph Stalin created a world in which artists and writers were murdered, tortured, imprisoned, and humiliated. Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich both struggled to find ways to survive in the basic sense of the word and yet remain true to the notion of art as the free expression of the individual. Although musicians had an easier time under Stalinism than contemporaries who were writers (one thinks of Mandelstam and Akhmatova) the life of a composer in the Soviet Union during the twentieth century was not easy. The category of official music existed and with it a powerful central official hierarchy. Certain styles of music were suppressed.

Some quite talented composers paid direct and regular homage to the often arbitrary tastes of the ruling elite. Others sought to speak in a double voice, to escape direct censorship and reprisal and yet communicate anger, despair, and hope covertly within the textures of the music they wrote. By the 1980s, in a post-Stalinist Soviet Union, particularly under Perestroika, matters had improved. But the 1970s under Brezhnev were not so open and lenient. To the end, the fundamental structure developed under Stalin for the control of the arts by the state remained in place.

Today’s concert offers the American listener two glimpses into how two of the most important composers from the former Soviet Union (both born in the 1930s) struggled with the political context of their art. The American writer Mary McCarthy once noted with some degree of irony that it was only in conditions of “unfreedom” that art, particularly music, really mattered. Only in the darkest days of the Brezhnev era could a poet (e.g. Ratushinskaya) be imprisoned for writing about love. An underground of writing and concert life in Moscow and Leningrad mirrored an intensity of interest in artistic expression wholly foreign to ourselves. In the context of repression and censorship, music and poetry remained arenas in which free expression could more readily be realized.

Given the restricted choice of how to spend one’s time, the limitations of personal movement, and an absence of consumer economy, reading and listening were vital experiences. When a composer or writer put his or her pen to the page, the significance of what he or she was doing went well beyond issues of career, income, and fame. As Ms. McCarthy noted, in our free and open society the making of art seems too often to make no difference at all.

Alfred Schnittke’s and Sofia Gubaidulina’s music conveys, with a nearly unmatched intensity, the sense of urgency and importance that the making of and listening to music possessed for them and their publics during the 1980s. Schnittke and Gubaidulina are perhaps the most significant composers of their generation. Both occupied the tense and amorphous space in the Soviet world that can be termed “unofficial.” Both sought refuge abroad before the collapse of communism.

This concert presents contrasting works which frame the decade of the 1980s. The earlier work, the Schnittke cantata, mirrors, through the use of the Faust legend, with considerable irony, even sarcasm, the problems of the individual conscience when it is faced with the temptations of power. The cantata can be heard as a parable which warns against accepting the offer of the devil, who in Schnittke’s setting unmistakably can be associated with the blandishments and seductions offered by officialdom. It is not surprising that this work never pleased the Soviet establishment. It has the brilliance and angularity weassociate with much of Dimitri Shostakovich’s music.

If Schnittke’s work evokes the struggle between the idea that art depends on principled inner integrity (particularly when one is faced with overwhelming power) on the one hand and the corrupt traditions of the Stalinist legacy on the other, Sofia Gubaidulina’s work demonstrates the explosive energy and passion that the promise of freedom made possible at the end of the decade. Gubaidulina has long sustained artistic autonomy through her embrace of spirituality and religious faith. However, the Allelujia is not merely the culmination of a series of works by the composer with religious and spiritual content. It reflects the energy that political freedom can give to religious expression. What was once personal and private can be embraced, without restraint, in the public sphere. One can think of no more a moving and decidedly Russian expression of the possibilities presented by the long-awaited arrival of political freedom. Hope, joy, harmony, as well as the return of innocence and opportunity are communicated along with affection and a fundamental belief in the sanctity of life-sentiments wholly uncharacteristic of Stalinism and its successors.

For those concert-goers familiar with Russian history, one might suggest that in this concert we are presented with a continuation of two strains in Russian culture. The Gubaidulina work reminds one of the uniquely Russian spiritual and mystical tradition of Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900) and Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) and even the religious strain in the late work of Leo Tolstoy. The Schnittke is perhaps an extension into the twentieth century of qualities we associate with Gogol and Dostoevsky. The character and power of the two works on this concert, and indeed much of Russian music, literature, and painting from the early nineteenth century to the present, may indeed derive (albeit indirectly) from the bitter struggle between the imperatives of art and the almost unbroken history of political repression in Russia from Czarism to Communism.

As we listen to these two works, we might well reflect on what is happening today in 1994. As a result of recent political and economic events, Gubaidulina’s optimism about the post communist world might end up appearing premature and even naive. We all must work to avoid such an outcome. Even though we cherish the great works of art that were produced under political repression, we cannot glorify the past merely because we lament a certain philistinism and irrelevancy that art and music have attained in the so-called free post-Communist world. Let us hope that in the former Soviet Union and also in the West, the traditions so magnificently sustained by Schnittke and Gubaidulina remain vital without the terrifying presence of necessity in the form of oppression, censorship, and the absence of freedom.

Alfred Schnittke & Sofia Gubaidulina

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror performed on Feb 18, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

American concert-goers could hardly imagine how tremendously important the music of Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina, composers writing in today’s complicated post-modern style, was to the people of the former Soviet Union.

Crowds of happy ticket-holders and people, persistently seeking an extra-ticket, surrounded the halls where this music was being performed – even though the concerts had not been announced or advertised anywhere. The cream of the city’s intelligentsia along with students, workers, pensioners, and musicians filled the concert hall, occupying every inch of free space – stairways, window-sills, floors. Why? Because of curiosity or support of the unofficial and forbidden? There were perhaps some who came for these reasons, but they comprised only a small portion of the listeners. Most came expecting a wonderful spiritual experience, a revelation. They were never disappointed. There always was that special silence in the audience which accompanies music that is not just an organized sequence of sounds but something which touches a naked nerve, arousing a flow of emotions, images, and thoughts. This music was a part of life, and we lived and experienced this life together with its creator, with his or her intensity and passion.

The concerts ended with standing ovations, tears, screams, flowers for the composer and performers, long lines of friends and admirers backstage, and at the end, close to midnight, on the dark and empty streets, endless discussions of the music still sounding in our ears of our life, philosophy, literature-of everything meaningful and universal.

In the somber circumstances of political, intellectual, and spiritual suppression, where there was no space for either democracy or religion, the arts could not be simply a joyful experience or entertainment – they fulfilled the task and responsibility of keeping alive the holy fire of the human soul. They were the temple and the forum which attempted to inspire and feed the people’s quest for truth, freedom, justice and faith. Writers, artists, and film and stage Directors became spiritual leaders and their open or hidden struggle against the official ideology and official culture served as an example of inner freedom -of the courage to be one-self despite all outside pressures. Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina were among such spiritual leaders.

Their lives have been similar in many ways. Both were born in small cities in central-European Russia: Schnittke in 1934 in Engels on the Volga-river, Gubaidulina in1931 in Chistopol on the Kama River not far from the Volga. Both came from families of mixed origin – paradoxically, almost without Russian blood. Schnittke’s mother was a so-called Volga-German (the Germans who settled in this area in the 18th century); his Jewish father came to the USSR in 1926 from Germany. Gubaidulina’s father is a Tatar and her mother’s family had Polish, Russian and Jewish ancestors.

Both families were highly cultured and the music education of these future composers started at an early age: Schnittke’s – in post-war Vienna, where his father worked for the newspaper published by the Soviet Commandant’s office; Gubaidulina’s in her native Chistopol and later in Kazan. Both entered the Moscow conservatory in the first years of the famous “Khrushchev Thaw”, which brought to the end an almost thirty-year period of cultural isolation. Inspired by the breath of freedom and new information which flooded from the West, they, as many of their colleagues, experimented intensively with newly discovered music techniques and assimilated the experience of the Western avant-garde. Soon, however, each created a highly individual musical style: a fascinating combination of modern compositional technique, personal inclinations and the great humanistic tradition of art as a meaningful and passionate human document.

To the list of similarities we must add the fact that after a difficult period of existence as “unofficial” composers, during which both had to make a living by working in the film industry, they became internationally renowned as leading figures in the contemporary music world and recently found their new home in Hamburg, Germany. However, they frequently return to Russia where they are still admired as musical prophets.

GELD NUGHTEN UND WACHEN (A Faust Cantata) Alfred Schnittke

Yuri Lyubimov, the famous Director of the Taganka Theater in Moscow and longtime friend and collaborator (Schnittke wrote music for several of his productions) first suggested that they should create an opera based on a second part of Goethe’s Faust. Considering this idea, Schnittke turned, among other sources, to the “History of Dr. Iohann Fausten,” the collection of folk legends published in 1587 in Germany by Iohann Shpiece. Later, when the composer received a commission from the Vienna Singakademie to write a work for chorus, organ and orchestra, he immediately decided to choose the last two chapters of the “History of Dr. Iohann Fausten” as a basis for his new Cantata. Significantly, Adrian Leverkuhn, the fiction hero of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus wrote his musical composition on the same plot from the same literary source.

The premiere of Seid nuchtern und wachet or the Faust Cantata by Alfred Schnittke took place in Vienna on June 19, 1983. In four months the Cantata was performed in Moscow. It produced a real cultural shock and fiery arguments pro et contra, and, because the content looked questionable from the official point of view, it disappeared from the Soviet musical stage for several years.

The hero of the German folk book is very dissimilar to Goethe’s philosopher and scientist. He makes a deal with the devil because of curiosity and lust for pleasures and delights of life. The composer defines his work as “a “Negative Passion,” for it depicts the way to suffering of an – if not anarchistic – at least “evil” Christian.

The story of Faust’s sin, repentance and horrible end as it was fold four centuries ago sounds surprisingly modern. Schnittke says: “Faust is especially important now, when human society possesses enormous resources which are able to annihilate or transform the world, but has not found the way to restrain the energy of human consciousness, which is disposed to mistakes, to distrust and to hostility.”

As is characteristic of the genre of Passions, there is a narrator (tenor) who, as well as a chorus, tells the story and comments on it. There is also a solo part of Faust (basso) with its passionate death confession. But the most unusual part of the work is the dual, two-faced Mephisto. Schnittke gave him two voices. The First is the gentle and seductive voice of contratenor, as delightful as the devil’s promises. Just before Faust’s execution starts, the devil throws off his mask. He laughs at Faust, punishing him not only by physical pain but, more horribly, by humiliation. At this moment the devil gets another voice: a vulgar cabaret-style contralto singing with microphone (this part was initially planned for Alla Pugacheva-the most famous Russian pop-singer). This “second” devil mockingly parodies the melody of the first one, and, when the twelfth stroke of the clock marks the end of the time of the alliance and of Faust’s life, the devil’s contralto bursts out in a triumphant “Tango of death.&;amp;quot; It is constructed as a series of variations on invariable melody and culminates in a bacchanalia of syncopated rhythms, instrumental and vocal glissandi, electric guitars, saxophones and full orchestra-all that comes along with words depicting the most awful reprisal of the sinner.

Evil as a triumph of banality and the vulgar – this idea directly echoes the concepts of Dmitri Shostakovich’s music. But Shostakovich is not the only great name, which comes to mind while listening to the Cantata. The introduction, with its these heavy, anxious and solemn “steps of crowd”, reminds one of the opening bars of the Bach’s Matthew Passions. The episode “The Farewell dinner” is based on the simple texture and gracious alternating rhythms of Renaissance music. There are also tense expressionistic phrases close to those of Berg’s Wozzeck, medieval chorale, operatic melodies in the 19th century style; and many other stylistic allusions. This well known “polystylistics” of Schnittke’s, together with another feature of his style -sharp juxtapositions of the simple and complex, atonality and tonality, dissonant clusters and pure triads and so on- makes the score extremely expressive and its idea utmost clear.

The Chorale of the last movement (its melody is the same as that of the opening episode and strangely close to the theme of the devil’s tango) sounds like an ethical admonition, but the end of the Cantata does not bring a real catharsis, or real hope. The grotesquely simple, banal waltz played by prepared piano reminds one about the joys and seductions of life. An obviously dual, even multiple meaning can be sensed in the dying away final strokes of blocco di legno (wooden bars). Is it endlessness of life, silence of death or the grin of the devil, walking away to look for a new Faust?

ALLELUIA Sofia Gubaidulina

Seven years separate Alleluia by Sofia Gubaidulina from Schnittke’s Faust Cantata – years of the agony of the Soviet Empire, deaths of its elderly rulers, and the bloom and decline of Perestroika. They were also years of continued evolution toward a “new simplicity” and old spiritual values in the art world. But the central question of Schnittke’s Cantata – “Is it even possible to survive, to save your soul in the age of the devil’s temptations?” -was still pertinent in 1990 when Gubaidulina received a commission to write a new book for the Berlin Music Festival. The Subject and idea of the Festival -“Singing in Honor of God”- was very close to the composer, whose devoted and deep Christianity had an enormous influence on her creative philosophy and life and already inspired such masterpieces as Seven Words for violoncello, bayan and strings or De Profundus for solo bayan.

Alleluia came as a direct answer to the eternal question of the Faust Cantata. If the Faust is a theatrically powerful “Passions” for a new age, depicting a struggle between the good and the evil, than the Alleluia is a Mass, dedicated to the single subject -the birth and triumph of Faith. The composition premiered in West Berlin Philharmonic hall on September 11, 1990. Several other internationally acclaimed performances followed, including the performance in Spain, as one of the major cultural events of the World Exhibition. It was performed there as a part of a monumental Oratorio-Opera-Ballet production Prayer for the Age of Aquarius (incorporating also Pro et Contra for large symphony orchestra, 1989; and Three Hymns, 1991).

The seven-movement Alleluia contains very few words. Actually, during the first half, there is only a single word, “Alleuia.” It repeats in numerous textural combinations and emotional shades until the sixth movement, the climax of the whole work, brings out in a seemingly chaotic mixture of screams, whispers, and fervent recitation, as a desperate yearning for the light of hope, another word – a Russian equivalent of Credo – V’eruju. Only the last movement, the post-climax cathartic coda, comes with a revealing and quiet flow of words. The clear boy’s voice sings a Russian Orthodox Hymn prayer.

Gubaidulina’s sense of freedom and spontaneity, which has much to do with her love and lifetime devotion to the art of music improvisation, appears in Alleluia combined with logic control of the all aspects of the form and language (another typical feature of her style). Both structure and language are based on a simple and symbolically meaningful, easily read idea and method: from the strict and somber medieval monody, modality and mainly monochromatic palette through gradually and slowly increasing number of voices and strength of the sound to multi-voiced “catastrophic” clusters, convulsive rhythms and marginally complicated textures, to unusually diverse rhythms and sonorities.

But there is also a profound and mysterious sense of drama, for the way to the faith is full of inner struggles. And each moment of sound or silence (the latter is equally important for Gubaidulina as the former) has an obvious psychological, symbolic, eloquent meaning. This music is a combination of the abstract and concrete, of spiritual intensity, exaltation and depicting details.

The concept of Gubaidulina’s Alleluia has in the score one more supporting and expressive “voice”: the part for color organ. The very existence of this visual component in musical composition and especially in a composition of such a deep spiritual idea immediately brings to the mind the Promethei by Alexander Scriabin. In the 1960s and 1970s Gubaidulina, Schnittke and several friends experimented in the first and the only Soviet electronic studio, using a synthesizer named ANS (after Scriabin’s initials), which was placed in one of the rooms of the Scriabin’s house – museum. But there is a more important link between the great Russian innovator and contemporary composer. Again, as happened at the beginning of the twentieth century, several years before the Russian revolution, the country is going through a deep spiritual crisis, looking for God and faith, and turning in its quest to the ideas of cosmic unity, harmony and light.

The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror

02/18/1994 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes