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.