After the Thaw

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert After the Thaw, performed on Feb 24, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

One overtly benign but distinguishing feature of the Soviet Union was its commitment to and investment in aspects of high culture, notably music. From the early 1920s, first under Lenin and then throughout the era of Stalin’s rule, state support for musical culture created opportunities and dilemmas for composers that may be difficult for artists and audiences today to fully comprehend. At first, the success of the 1918 Bolshevik revolution inspired optimism about the possibilities of art and its role in shaping a utopian future. That optimism was rooted in the idea that a new era had begun, one unencumbered by the traditions and failures of history. During the 1920s, a confident, experimental modernism took hold. The roots of that modernism were in part borrowings from paths charted by fin- de-siècle modernists in Russia and Western Europe. One of the touchstones of early modernism was its explicit rejection of history and a determination to redefine musical logic and thereby engender a decisive break with the past.

Since in the 1920s, Communism even in Russia was viewed as an international movement. The commonplace markers of national identity historically inscribed in Russian music in many various incarnations from Glinka to Stravinsky needed to assume at best a subordinate role. The modernism that flourished not only in music but in literature and the visual arts in the early 1920s laid claim to a universalist objective vision, one that was divorced from inherited links not only to nationalism but conventional expressive rhetoric that triggered associations between music and representation and emotion. The conceit of objectivity was allied and consistent with the nearly ascetic ideas crucial to the Communist revolution: faith in the logic of science and the inexorable destiny inscribed in history. Modern art needed to serve political movements that advanced these ideas.

The era of avant-garde modernist exploration was short-lived. Modernist experiments particularly in music, whether in Russia or in the West, for all their compelling conceptual justifications, were hard for audiences to love. The rejection of comprehensible forms and melodies, as well as the framework of tonality, led to music that seemed to go over the heads of the public, even of the much maligned bourgeois educated classes. The paradox was obvious. If Communism was a political movement by and for the masses, how could its modern and ideologically consistent art be justified if the masses neither liked nor understood it? By the end of the 1920s a competing aesthetic ideology gained in ascendancy. A new orthodoxy took over that derided elitism, art for art’s sake and celebrated a utilitarian populism grounded in melody and accessible simplicity. The state sided with this idealized proletarian vision of art and called for a shift from futurist modernism to an ideal of new art capable of engendering loyalty and enthusiasm among the masses for the new order of things. Music in particular was singled out as a medium that could help disseminate values key to a Communist society such as egalitarianism and solidarity with the proletariat.

During the first decade of Stalin’s regime, an additional but predictable twist was added. Stalin recognized that the masses of Russian people were attached to nationalism and to quite conventional markers of beauty and sentiment. He rejected the idea of internationalism. The proletarian and populist art of the 1930s and 1940s celebrated a reductive simplicity and forged anew a link to the musical rhetoric, structures and nationalist markers bequeathed by the great masters of Russian music of the nineteenth century.

This shift from experimentalism to a nationalist populism in the 1930s on the part of the regime was articulated in an ominous and stark manner. In contrast to the West, the Soviet state enforced a monopoly on cultural life, controlling all the practical aspects of artistic production such as education, employment, publishing, and performance. The artistic life of the Soviet Union was designed from the top down in an effort to control artists, public spaces and public experiences. The goal of the state was control over individuals with access to the public sphere and to create an effective alternative to what was presumed to be the decadent bourgeois cultural habits of the urban capitalist marketplaces of Western Europe and North America. By the early 1940s, a musical equivalent to Socialist Realism came to dominate Soviet music. For the concert and opera stage, there was a clear mandate. Composers were expected to write music that was easy to listen to, as well as select texts and librettos with proper ideological content. The conceit was that the audience could be inspired to embrace the collectivist spirit of state socialism. In order to win the approval of official state arbiters and censors, composers turned to tradition and recognizable forms. They employed repetition, a transparent logic and explored melody and the easily memorable. The Romantic construct of the composer as a free artist exercising his or her imagination in an effort to realize individuality and originality was challenged with striking severity by the authorities as anti-Soviet and anti-Communist; thus conformity with sanctioned and quite conservative conventions vis-à-vis modernism became the necessary starting point for any young aspiring artist.

All this was no laughing matter. As the most famous of all Soviet composers, Dmitri Shostakovich, recognized in 1936 when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk received a scathing editorial in Pravda, crackdowns on deviations were backed by the power of the state apparatus, including the security forces and professional organizations such as the Union of Composers with its various oversight committees. Not even Sergei Prokofiev after his triumphant return in the 1930s was immune from censure and ostracism. Although he came back willingly to the Soviet Union in 1935 and embraced (like Shostakovich) much of the populist idealism put forward by Stalin’s regime as a challenge—how to write simple, popular but sophisticated modern music—he quickly discovered that being an official artist had consequences unimaginable to composers living in the West. There were benefits, of course, including financial security, privileged housing and goods, but these exacted significant sacrifices, spiritual and practical. Abject flattery was often not enough to mollify or distract the authorities.

The low point in Soviet history with respect to the arts occurred in 1948, when composers, including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and one composer on tonight’s program, Alexander Lokshin, were condemned. Lokshin and Shostakovich suffered loss of employment and banishment from public life. In Shostakovich’s case the punishment was brief and relatively easy compared to Lokshin’s ten years as a virtual non-person. Until the death of Stalin, modernist developments in the West were dismissed in the Soviet Union as narcissistic elitism. They enjoyed at best an underground following. Indeed in the purges of 1948, the language of condemnation against composers out of favor centered around accusations of “formalism,” a euphemism for music that lacked a reductive communicative surface and proper ideological content. Formalist music was said to be based on the self-indulgence of self-referential aestheticism and mere egoism.

Stalin died in 1953. Although there was some relaxation in the climate of fear, 1956 was the watershed year. It was defined by Khrushchev’s famous condemnation of Stalin’s rule. Between 1956 and Khrushchev’s fall in 1964, a brief moment of loosening of state control existed, known historically as “the Thaw.” This optimistic period saw the beginnings of a rapprochement with the West and a softening of the state’s prescriptions for the arts. But just as the wave of experimentalism before Stalin took power had been short-lived and brutally disrupted, this moment of opportunity after Stalin’s death proved to be transient as well. Khrushchev himself was no stranger to the Stalinist habit of delivering aesthetic judgments that determined the fate of artists. Yet Lokshin’s work on this program comes directly out of context of the Thaw.

After Khrushchev, Brezhnev ushered in a drab, dispiriting and oppressive era of neo-Stalinism. Tischenko’s symphony dates from that era. Only with Gorbachev came Perestroika, and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet system. Tchaikovsky’s 1987 work on this program was written in that context. Russian artists were cut loose into the chaotic and uncertain 1990s.

It is within this framework that one needs to consider the music on this program. The historical context has receded into memory, so much so that one can sense a misguided nostalgia among certain elites for the Soviet past evident in the revival of the autocratic habits of state control and intimidation that mark today’s Russia. But outside of Russia, the Soviet era has vanished from consciousness. Only two composers from this more than seventy-year history of Russia are widely performed today: Shostakovich and Prokofiev. This is in spite of the fact that the investment by the state in music nurtured several generations of highly talented composers, each of whom was forced, like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, to come to terms with the regime as their master.

Of all the arts music is the least susceptible to censorship (perhaps because it is less descriptive and capable of transmitting ordinary meaning, as opposed to literature or painting). Composers, if they desired, found clever ways to elude becoming mere hacks. They developed strong and powerful individual voices and ways to circumvent control by encoding complex and contradictory meanings in music where surface and interior were intentionally inconsistent with one another. Shostakovich is understood by many to have mastered this strategy, using irony and sarcasm in music to powerful effect.

The politics of the Cold War, the passage of time and the erasure of memory have determined that most of the music written by Soviet composers born after the Revolution remains largely unknown to the West. The only exceptions are a few figures from the late 1970s and 1980s, émigrés such as Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt.

But there is a good deal of irony here. Those composers who remained in Soviet Russia and managed to balance official favor with independence and originality and created work of artistic merit may have succeeded at home, but they skillfully skirted domestic danger only to be derided in the West. And those who were censured at home were effectively silenced and are now forgotten. When Rostropovich brought Boris Tchaikovsky’s cello concert to New York in 1964 it was dismissed as banal official music. Lokshin’s case is more extreme: he was totally out of sight for ten years, but then struggled to gain recognition in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the Thaw. Even though his music was influenced by the work of Schoenberg and Berg, he never attracted attention in the West. Boris Tishchenko (who admired Lokshin greatly), the one composer on this program still alive today, has the understandable need to explain his career to younger contemporaries for whom the Soviet Union is not a living memory.

But today, absent the Cold War, surely these works need no longer suffer from the political notoriety of their Soviet composers. Ironically for these composers, the advantages of state support and the association with that support have resulted in an even more recalcitrant posthumous dismissal than is routinely encountered by composers elsewhere with the passage of generations.

But how should we approach music written during the Soviet era, now that the political landscape has been so radically altered? Is it ultimately merely propaganda without value? Is the legacy of official support and success during the Soviet era sufficient justification for rejection? For all the Soviet Union’s immense evils, represented brutally by Stalin’s murder of millions, there is a fundamental difference between the Soviet Union and the other powerful dictatorship for which art was useful: Nazi Germany. Although in the 1950s these two regimes were compared under the rubric of totalitarianism, there was in the Soviet system a tension between the ideal and the real that had no parallel in Nazism. Communism may be a failed system, but one cannot deny that its utopian vision of an egalitarian world without class distinctions, politics or the state is attractive, albeit implausible. Soviet composers believed in the ideal of Communism, even though they had to contend with a reality that did not embody that ideal. To survive as a composer and even a performing artist required some dimension of collaboration.

In the Soviet case, that accommodation or collaboration does not merit blanket ethical and moral condemnation. What occurred under Hitler—the paths taken by men like Martin Heidegger and Carl Orff—should not define how we judge artists in the Soviet era . The favored artist under Hitler had choices. There was less ambiguity between right and wrong. At the same time many artists and composers saved their careers by simply continuing to work while trying to keep their noses clean of political conviction, something that was not as possible in the Soviet Union. Some indeed advanced their careers by becoming active Nazis; others sought to help victims in secret, and some went into voluntary seclusion such as K.A. Hartmann. In the Soviet Union, where one could be sent to the mines of Kolyma upon the slightest suspicion of anti-Soviet behavior, one did one’s best to conform. One had the possibility of hope, however delusive. One could believe that someday the Soviet system could become just and admirable.

The Soviet Union inspired numerous unattractive characters–sycophants who advanced their careers (e.g. Kabalevsky and Khrennikov) shamelessly and at the expense of others– but is their behavior really any more reprehensible that other artists in earlier times who were forced to flatter tsars, kings, and popes, or who, as in the case of Wagner, advocated despicable notions of racial superiority? Even Arnold Schoenberg, whose career suffered on account of Nazism, was not immune from the fascination with autocracy and intolerance that thrived in the 1930s. He developed, harbored and expressed the most unattractive chauvinist and dictatorial sentiments.

None of the composers on today’s program therefore deserve to be dismissed solely because they worked within the system of the Soviet Union. Now that the mid-twentieth-century romance with modernism is over (itself a Cold War phenomenon supported ironically in the West as underscoring the contrast between Soviet Russia and the free West), we are able to take a new look at the enormous output of new music that took place particularly after the death of Stalin. Since our political context as listeners is so different, we can discover finely crafted music that has the welcome benefit of accessibility. We can do so without bias. Boris Tchaikovsky, dismissed by critics in New York in 1964, was held in the highest regard by Mstislav Rostropovich to the end of the latter’s career. It was he who brought the cello concerto on today’s program to my attention just a few months before his death. Shostakovich’s exceptional and enormous regard for Tishchenko (and for that matter Lokshin) is itself a powerful recommendation that suggests an evaluation of his music is long overdue. Finally, Lokshin deserves what amounts to a first look. He pursued a kind of middle road between rebellious deviation and conformity. Yet, of all these three composers he suffered the most, first from the state and later from an accusation of collaboration with the state. Lokshin, the most obscure figure on tonight’s program, has a remarkable body of work ripe for rediscovery.

As time passes, we will be able to assess the place of the Soviet era, particularly its second half, in Russian history. Music since the early nineteenth century has been a central feature of Russian culture. In few nations have the traditions of concert and classical music remained so vital for so long. To restrict our appreciation of the achievements of Russian composers who lived and worked in the Soviet Union to Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and to a few signature works by Khachaturian and Kabalevsky, is to allow an inadequate construct of political history to obscure our recognition of great and memorable achievements. Without doubt a lot of propagandistic and ephemeral work was produced. But that is also the case in non-authoritarian societies where freedom and the marketplace thrive. One suspects that there may have been more music written in the Soviet Union of lasting value for performers and audiences today than was produced during the same period elsewhere. To appropriate, with some irony, a word associated with the ideological debates within Communism, enough time has passed to legitimate some active “revisionism” in our own time.

Alexander Lokshin, Symphony No. 4

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert After the Thaw, performed on Feb 24, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

If the name and music of Alexander Lokshin (1920-87) are unfamiliar to Western audiences, they are not much better known in his native Russia. Despite producing a concise but worthy catalogue of compositions regarded as exceptional by leading musicians, including Shostakovich, Boris Tishchenko and conductor Rudolf Barshai, among others; his music never established a toehold in the repertory or a level of recognition commensurate with its expressive individuality and strength.

Born in the Altai region of South-Central Siberia, Lokshin displayed musical talent early and at the age of 16 was sent at State expense to Moscow, where he studied under Nikolai Miaskovsky at the Moscow Conservatory. He was initially denied a diploma in 1941 after his graduation piece, settings from Baudelaire’s “decadent” Les Fleurs du mal were condemned in Pravda, but in 1944 he finally graduated with honors, and began teaching orchestration and score reading at his alma mater. He was fired in 1948 in the crackdown against “formalism” in Soviet music and he was never again able to land a teaching job. Frail in health, he eked out a modest living writing music for films.

There is another even more disquieting explanation for the long-term neglect. When, after the death of Stalin, two former inmates of the GULAG implicated Lokshin as the informer who had been responsible for their incarceration, he found himself ostracized by many in the musical community. Whether the allegations were true remains unclear—he denied it—but the damage was done. Disseminated along the grapevine, with no recourse to the evidence of guilt or innocence, rumor alone proved sufficient for many to condemn him, and his music, to oblivion.

Lokshin was a composer of singular integrity; he followed the dictates of his inner voice, not aesthetic standards imposed from the outside. He credited Schubert, Brahms, Berg and Mahler as the composers who had influenced him most in his maturity—Bach was a given—but literature nourished an equally important facet of his artistic sensibility. Most of his works involve settings of texts. The sources range widely, from the ancient Greeks, 13th-century Japanese poetry, Shakespeare, Luis de Camões, Goethe and Kipling, to Pushkin, Alexander Blok, and Anna Akhmatova. His First Symphony, composed in 1957 at a time when a performance in the Soviet Union was inconceivable, was a setting of the canonical Latin Requiem text. Performed once in Moscow in 1967 with a substitute Russian text in its original form, it received its premiere only after the composer’s death, in 1988, in England.

Of the eleven symphonies that are at the core of Lokshin’s output, only the Fourth (“Sinfonia stretta,” 1968) is purely instrumental. A compact, one-movement work, lasting approximately 15 minutes, it takes the form of a theme and six free variations, framed by an “Introduzione” and “Conclusione,” all played without pause. After the brief introduction, the 16-bar theme unfolds as if organically in unison violins with counterpoint from bassoons. The variations probe different tone color combinations and textures, ranging from poignant solo meditations to dramatic tutti climaxes.

Boris Tchaikovsky, Concerto for Cello and Symphonic Orchestra

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert After the Thaw, performed on Feb 24, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

His surname notwithstanding, Moscow native Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-96) was not born into a family of musicians; he bore no relation to his illustrious namesake. But his musical gift manifested itself early and at the age of nine his parents enrolled him in the Gnesin School to study piano. Shortly after, he added composition classes and as a teenager he was already studying with Vissarion Shebalin. In 1941, he was poised to enter the Moscow Conservatory when the Nazis invaded Russia. He spent the war years in Moscow, resuming his education in 1944 at the Conservatory, studying for two years with Shebalin and, from 1946, with Shostakovich. When both were fired from the Conservatory in 1948 after being branded “formalists”— their students were tarnished by association—Tchaikovsky continued his studies with Nikolai Miaskovsky, graduating in 1949.

His early brush with notoriety was short-lived. With works like the Sinfonietta for string orchestra (1953) he quickly began to find favor with the musical establishment and with performers, and his stature as one of the leading composers of his generation did not diminish during the rest of his life. He received the State Prize in 1969 for his Second Symphony (1967) and, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday in 1985, he was named a Peoples’ Artist of the USSR. He was modest, principled, and remained aloof from politics, both governmental and professional. A traditionalist by predilection, he was largely indifferent to the avant-garde experiments pursued by other composers after the onset of the “Thaw.” Within his aesthetic comfort zone, however, he was by no means indifferent to innovation. In each new composition he tried not to repeat himself, forging a recognizable style that synthesizes intellectual refinement and emotional directness.

Melody and harmony lie at the heart of Tchaikovsky’s music. Themes that evolve from a short, elemental idea developing in an unforced, reflective manner help determine the way the music is structured, which is unpredictable from piece to piece. The palette of tone colors is fresh and striking. Noted for his orchestral scores, including four symphonies, concertos for clarinet, cello, violin and piano, and symphonic poems like The Adolescent (1984, after Dostoevsky), he also made noteworthy contributions to the chamber music repertory, including instrumental sonatas and six string quartets, and vocal music, including Signs of the Zodiac, a cantata for soprano, harpsichord and chamber orchestra (1974). In addition to producing concert music, he had an active career writing for films and radio, especially for children’s shows.

Many Soviet composers wrote works for the phenomenal and musically voracious cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Boris Tchaikovsky was one of very few he rated “genius” quality. The Cello Concerto in E Major (1964) was the second of three works Tchaikovsky dedicated to the cellist, preceded by the Suite for solo cello (1960) and followed by the Partita for cello, piano, harpsichord, electric guitar and percussion (1966).

Tchaikovsky’s Cello Concerto is in four movements and employs unusual instrumentation: three flutes, three trumpets, three trombones, percussion, harp and strings. In the first movement, the introductory theme grows out of the simple melodic oscillation of the interval of a minor sixth in the opening cello monologue, becoming increasingly agitated on repetition, with jarring interjections from the orchestra. A chorale of muted brass leads to the secondary theme, arpeggiated triads in dotted rhythm traded among instruments. Rapidly oscillating seconds and thirds contribute to the mounting tension. The development of these elements is far ranging and dynamic, culminating in a chromatic fugato. The beginning of the recapitulation is breathtaking in its simple beauty: against the delicate flicker of flutes, the soloist etches the main theme in harmonics.

The remaining movements are all much shorter. The middle two are in variation forms; the second uses a primitive, arpeggiated triad figure as a rhythmic tether for forays both humorous and lyrical, and the third is built on a 10-note ostinato repeated continuously throughout. Heralded by brass fanfares, the music of the finale jauntily flirts with dance steps, march rhythms and lowbrow tunes bringing the concerto to a buoyant conclusion.

Music for Orchestra (1987) was Tchaikovsky’s penultimate symphonic work. Its form falls somewhere in between a suite and a symphony. Lasting approximately 20 minutes, the seven movements have suggestive titles and distinct moods, but they are performed without pause and material from earlier movements—especially the first and second—is developed in later ones. Once again, the orchestration is unusual: 3 piccolos, no oboes, 3 each of clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombones, percussion, celesta, 2 harps, piano and strings.

Boris Tishchenko, Symphony No. 5, Op. 67

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert After the Thaw, performed on Feb 24, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The death of Dmitri Shostakovich in 1975 left no Soviet composer unaffected. Many of them—representing all generations and stylistic inclinations—wrote pieces to pay homage to his legacy, artistic and moral, to vent their feelings of bereavement, or even to quell the sense of panic in contemplation of the “post-Shostakovich” era. To Boris Tishchenko (b. 1939), the loss was deeply personal. It was the loss of a teacher, mentor, colleague and friend.

Like Shostakovich, Tishchenko is a native of St. Petersburg with an inborn connection to its historical and cultural traditions. As a teenager, he studied composition with one of Shostakovich’s most prized students, Galina Ustvolskaya, before attending the Leningrad Conservatory. When Shostakovich agreed to resume teaching there in 1962, Tishchenko seized the opportunity to become one of his graduate students. Upon completion of his studies, he joined the faculty where he remains a professor of composition to the present day. One of the leading representatives of the “Petersburg school,” Tishchenko is a productive composer of symphonies and instrumental concerti, piano sonatas and string quartets, vocal music and music for the theater. Historical themes are prevalent in his work; his ballet Yaroslavna (1974), for example, is based on the Slavic epic poem “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” Literature has provided the stimulus for many of his works. Tishchenko has set the poetry of Josef Brodsky (with whom he was a friend), Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova. His Requiem (1966), set to texts from Akhmatova’s narrative poem (then unpublished in the USSR), had to wait twenty years for its first performance. Among his recent works are five “Dante” symphonies (1998-2005, collectively designated as Beatrice, a “choreo-symphonic” cycle) inspired by themes from “The Divine Comedy.”

The relationship between Tishchenko and Shostakovich was not one-sided; it was one of mutual respect. They corresponded, debated, and shared their music and impressions. In a rare gesture of esteem, Shostakovich re-orchestrated one of Tishchenko’s works and presented it to him as a gift. In 1966, Tishchenko dedicated his Third Symphony to Shostakovich. Tishchenko’s Fifth Symphony, completed in 1976, was his musical reaction to the older composer’s death. It, too, is dedicated to Shostakovich.

Tishchenko’s Fifth Symphony is in five movements, played without pause. In scale, in the dramatic contrast of movements, in rhetoric, in raw emotive force, it inhabits the familiar sound world of a Shostakovich symphony. There are a number of quotations from and allusions to Shostakovich’s music, most notably his musical monogram “DSCH” (D—Eb—C—B). But these are balanced by references to Tishchenko’s own works, including his Third Symphony, Concerto for Flute, Piano and Strings (1972) and Fifth Piano Sonata (1973). From this perspective, the symphony can be regarded as an imagined musical dialogue between two composers in close creative rapport.

Plaintive solos for woodwind instruments in the opening movement are offset by stentorian orchestral chords, eventually disintegrating into chaos. In the second, “Dedication,” grief expends itself in chromatic dissonance. The nervous, mechanical propulsion of the third movement builds to a terrifying climax; references to passages in Shostakovich’s Eighth and Tenth symphonies can be heard. The roiling trills and glissandi of the fourth movement contain hints of a passacaglia. The theme of the rondo finale has the quality of a stylized dance; in the penultimate episode reminders of earlier movements, including the pensive monologues and intertwined quotations, reappear.