Russian Futurists

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Russian Futurists, performed on Jan 25, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The period from the mid-1890s to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, particularly its last years, has been termed the “Silver Age” in the history of Russian art and culture. This was an era that witnessed rapid economic development and, after the Revolution of 1905, the hesitant beginnings of political liberalization. But the First World War was a disaster for the czarist regime both at home and at the front. The success of the Bolshevik coup during the War led to years of internal strife, including a civil war and a war with the newly constituted Poland. Nevertheless, the 1917 Revolution created a sense of euphoria and optimism, particularly among Russian intellectuals and artists. From the beginning there was a group of younger but prominent figures such as Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and the violinists Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz for whom the communist Revolution spelled disaster; but for many of their contemporaries—even those without direct sympathy for the new regime’s ideology—the sense of hope prevailed, particularly concerning the role of culture in the new Russia.

In the leadership cadre under Lenin, many such as Leon Trotsky saw in the great flourishing of artistic innovation in the years leading up to the Revolution an implicit support for the regime in terms of the spread of new ideas and new directions—particularly regarding the role of art in society. It was Trotsky who coined the word poputchik for artists and intellectuals who were not members of the communist party nor subscribed to the tenets of socialism, but who had clearly despised the czarist autocracy that had been overthrown. Indeed, from 1917 to 1934, when the communist party under Stalin formally adopted the doctrine of socialist realism in art, the Soviet government (albeit with warring factions and endless disputes) supported a rather eclectic range of artistic effort in all fields from literature to painting, theater, and music. The 1920s was therefore a time of exciting and explosive experimentation and innovation. The oversight of the arts was handed to Anatoly Vasilievitch Lunacharsky (1875-1933), a playwright and a Bolshevik, who described himself as “an intellectual among Bolsheviks, a Bolshevik among the intelligentsia.” His musical tastes ranged from the classical to the mysticism of the silver age, particularly the music of Scriabin. It was he who appointed Arthur Lourié to administer the field of music. Under Lunacharsky’s leadership, Russian constructivism in painting witnessed its heyday and the visionary and theatrical daring of Vesevolod Meyerhold was celebrated. These were also the years of the experimentalism of Marc Chagall and the Kafka-like absurdist drama of Vladimir Mayakovsky.

From the outset, however, there was an ironic continuation of the tradition of czarist censorship. Intervention by the state constituted a present danger. The poet Anna Akhmatova’s husband was executed in 1921 for anti-Soviet activity. One year later Akhmatova herself was criticized as a bourgeois holdover, and after 1925, her work was prevented from being published. Nevertheless, particularly in music, the opportunity for experimentation and innovation was real and apparently encouraged, even though Arthur Lourié was one of the first to see the handwriting on the wall, as it were, and precipitously left for Berlin in 1921.

The decisive influences in the Russian context on the composers represented on this evening’s program include Russian populist and nationalist tendencies evident in the work of Rimsky-Korsakov, the more traditional yet distinctly Russian romanticism of Glazunov, the ethereal spiritualism of Liadov, and the harmonic innovations of Scriabin. But the crucial inspiration of the 1917 Revolution was the idea that history had in some profound manner stopped or come to a definite end. With the Revolution there was the sense that an opportunity had been created for a new art that could accompany a socially just future, a new age radically different from the past. Despite all this innovation, however, there was no immediate need, as there would be later, for the regime to erase or revise history. Lunacharsky saw to it that there was some substantial continuity in the cultural institutions that had come into prominence during the silver age. There is perhaps no better image of this sense of a freely determined modernist future visible against a recognized past, than perhaps the well-known—albeit late—example of the Soviet aesthetic of the 1920s: the building that won the competition for the construction of a tomb for Lenin. Lenin’s tomb, a familiar image throughout the world, is a stark example of modernist architecture, bereft of all ornament and decoration and utterly rational in its geometry. This tribute to the great leader of the Revolution was placed right next to the Kremlin, a compound that contains powerful historical examples of Russian religious and secular architecture. It is located in Red Square, diagonally across from St. Basil’s, itself a source of Russian Orthodox faith. The tomb sits across from a nineteenth-century version of a European arcade, an ornate historicist building that would become GUM, now home to Russia’s high-end consumer culture, filled with boutiques selling unimaginably expensive luxury items from the West. What the tomb signifies is the notion that the art that accompanies a rational and true end of history in communism must itself be visibly rational and logical, without superfluous and arbitrary aesthetic individualism.

The equivalent in music to the formalist experiments in art and architecture, particularly the idea of a non-objective use of form, color, and line in a manner consciously departing from traditions of realism and abstraction, are most starkly audible in Mosolov’s legendary The Iron Foundry, part of a ballet written to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The familiar aesthetic rhetoric of beauty and sentiment is set aside and modernity is embraced, as is the triumph of industrial progress. Just as social and industrial advancement are adopted as suitable subjects for art, ambient sounds of industry and progress move to the center of music itself, obliterating conventional distinctions between consonance and dissonance. This overtly radical departure into a new aesthetic was, of course, not quite as radical as it appeared. Lunacharsky and Trotsky understood the importance of supporting continuity between the explicit modernism within the silver age’s romance with symbolism, particularly its attendant forays into new kinds of harmony and sound. Mosolov would not be comprehensible without Scriabin, just as the new literature of the Soviet 1920s was a direct outgrowth of the great poetic achievements of Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Blok. This mixture of past and present elements informs the aesthetic of Shcherbachov’s Second Symphony and even his choice of Blok. Blok was the great Russian symbolist poet whose later work engaged the idea that Russia had a unique historical destiny. The Revolution, which Blok embraced, seemed proof of his apocalyptic sensibilities. Unlike Akhmatova, who suffered for decades under the Soviet regime until her death in 1966, Blok died in 1921. He was depressed and isolated from all factions, but was spared the radical disillusionment caused by the increasing tyranny of the Soviet state. Ironically, it was Blok’s death that inspired Akhmatova to write the verses that are set by Lourié on tonight’s program.

But from the outset, there was never unanimity about what new Soviet art and music was supposed to be like. All believed that the Bolshevik Revolution demanded art forms to which the masses and workers could immediately relate. Certain factions believed these forms required simplicity and tunefulness, accessible music that clearly rejected bourgeois claims of aesthetic judgment, refinement, and originality. The self-indulgent individualism and the sentimentality of late romanticism had to be purged in favor of a common aesthetic denominator. But others questioned if the role of the artist was not to educate the masses so that they could appreciate artistic creation of a higher order. Was there indeed a legacy of artistic creation that could be adapted to the new political and social ideals? If so, then the new art required a sharp leap forward into an austere, rational modernism. Or was the route to art that could serve the new state best connected more directly to transparent and recognizable folk and popular traditions?

Radical modernists like Mosolov believed their new approach to sound and music-making obliterated false refinement and created a common ground for solidarity within a radical new utopian vision, ennobling the experiences of everyday life such as working in factories. This is the ideology that also informs Gavriil Popov’s Symphonic Suite No. 1. This Suite derives from music for a film celebrating the Komsomol and the bringing of electricity to the masses. Film became a central medium in the Soviet 1920s, because it was at once modern, new, and utterly accessible. In its “silent” phase it presented an opportunity to combine the visual with musical accompaniment and literary narrative. Film quickly became an emblematic instrument of the new age, and Russian filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein pioneered camera techniques that came to define the conventions of cinematic storytelling for the rest of the world.

The question of whether to make revolutionary art into a tool that could educate the masses in the sophisticated aesthetics of modernity, or to base musical art on a language of anti-bourgeois simplicity that the masses already understood, was never resolved in practical use. When Stalin (a fan of Western classical music and secretly of cowboy films) assumed power, many in the modernist camp would be accused of self-indulgent aesthetic narcissism and bourgeois individualism because their music was “formalist,” hard to comprehend and justified only in relation to the history of art, not the history of the proletariat. Stalin effectively ended the period of artistic freedom and experimentation in the 1930s. The conclusion of little over a decade of optimism after 1917 was abrupt and cruel. The silencing, imprisonment, internal exile, persecution, and execution of artists, writers, and composers ensured that this period would be largely forgotten in later years in the assessment of the history of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s deadly suppression of “non-revolutionary” art is well understood, but the irony of what he and his cohorts promoted is sometimes overlooked. Their intent was to appropriate pre-revolutionary forms of musical expression, popular and folk music, as an accessible form of realism. Aesthetically, their revolution was no revolution at all, but the co-opting of familiarity for propagandistic purposes. We may smile today at what seems to be the propagandistic subjects of Mosolov and Popov, but they are not very propagandistic after all because these composers really believed these subjects to be suitable for the advanced music they envisioned. It was not until after 1930 that musical methods were forced upon composers and their task defined as composing for a state that understood art as nothing but a means of mass indoctrination and manipulation.

The consequences of Stalin’s rise to power were devastating for both Mosolov and Popov. The 1920s were Popov’s finest years, but he was condemned publicly along with Shostakovich in the mid-1930s. Although he would later win several official prizes, Popov retreated into a much more conventional and safe mode of composition. He died in 1972, never having realized the enormous promise and brilliance evident not only in tonight’s work but also in the 1927 Septet and the 1934 Symphony No. 1 (premiered in the US by the American Symphony Orchestra in 2003). Mosolov died one year after Popov in 1973. In the early 1930s he took the brunt of the rising criticism against modernism by advocates of proletarian simplicity. He was arrested in 1938, and after his release he spent the remainder of his career in the study of folk traditions. Mosolov and Popov demonstrate how easy it is for terror and autocracy to crush artistic expression and free speech. Although Lourié escaped and moved from Berlin to Paris and then the United States, the act of emigration was sufficiently traumatic to prevent him from producing music of the quality suggested by his early work.

Shcherbachov was an important and influential figure, particularly as a teacher, in the years following 1917. Like Popov (one of Shcherbachov’s students), he had his finest moment during the 1920s. He helped develop the curriculum of the Leningrad Conservatory and was permitted to make frequent trips to the West, allowing him to keep abreast of contemporary developments. In 1930 he was forced out. He eventually returned but was again condemned in 1948 and died in official disfavor in 1952.

The most well-known and compelling figures who came of age before 1917 were Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Prokofiev emigrated to the West but ultimately returned in the 1930s. Shostakovich was eleven years old when the Revolution occurred, and never left Russia. His is the most interesting and controversial case. He was the new Soviet regime’s poster boy. He experienced enormous acclaim with his First Symphony in 1926, and became famous abroad as the most promising new modernist voice of Soviet Russia. But his love affair with the regime came to an abrupt end in the mid-1930s when his music was condemned, probably by Stalin himself—particularly his extremely popular opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934). Unlike Popov and Mosolov, Shostakovich rebounded and found a way to continue to compose in a manner that appeared to reconcile artistic individuality with the strictures placed on a state-sponsored composer. But Shostakovich’s output can only be understood as emerging from a desperate and dangerous crucible created by the Soviet state and its relation to the arts.

Shostakovich’s music for The Bedbug exemplifies the most experimental and courageous phase of his career. Meyerhold, the great director (imprisoned and executed by Stalin in 1940), discovered the young Shostakovich, and encouraged and collaborated with him. Meyerhold was among the most visible symbols for the possibilities of modernism in the new Soviet state. At his suggestion, Shostakovich agreed to write incidental music to the era’s most adventurous and well-known poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who committed suicide in 1930 (or was perhaps assassinated).

Here, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, we live in a time in which the accepted consensus regarding music written in the so-called classical tradition is that it has lost its relevance. The important cultural and political music of our time exists outside the confines of the concert hall and opera stage. It is therefore perhaps not so easy to understand what it meant to write the compelling and daring music of nearly a century ago at a time and in a nation where those in power believed orchestral and operatic music and the work of composers was not only important, but also potentially dangerous. The significance placed on the work of these composers and the pressure to which they were subjected are hard to imagine for us, who live in a time and place in which freedom is taken for granted, individualism prized, and “high art” music in the concert and operatic traditions is most often heard as background for commercials. It was incredibly difficult to be an artist or composer in the Soviet era, when the State listened to everything that was composed and written; but as an exiled Russian poet whom I met in the 1970s and who had been sent to prison for her work told me: although in Soviet Russia one could be arrested for writing love poetry, in the United States, writing poetry—even verses that condemn politicians and the government—goes entirely unnoticed and unread.