Alexander Mosolov, The Iron Foundry, from the Ballet Steel, Op.19

By Laurel E. Fay

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

A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Alexander Mosolov (1900-73) was one of the driving forces on Moscow’s new music scene in the 1920s, a leader of the modernist direction. His reputation as a musical “constructivist” was earned with scores that plumbed the expressive potential of motoric rhythms, jagged melodic lines, percussive attacks, and pungent dissonance.

For its high-profile symphonic concert commemorating the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1927, Moscow’s Association of Contemporary Music programmed a four-movement suite from a ballet, Steel, that the Bolshoi Theater had commissioned from Mosolov. (Shostakovich’s “symphonic dedication” To October was also performed at this concert). The plot of Steel was typical of the era:

Act I. Factory (A strike.)

Act II, Sc. 1. Prison (The leader of the strikers is arrested.)

Sc. 2. The Masters of the Universe (Declaration of a lockout.)

Sc. 3. Ball for the Masters of the Universe (Ending with revolution and victory of the workers.)

Act III, Sc. 1. Stock Exchange.

Sc. 2. Seizure of the stock exchange by the proletariat, who turn it into a pantheon of work.

Mosolov’s ballet never reached the stage. And, while critics and listeners responded positively to the performance of the Suite, only its introductory episode, The Iron Foundry (drawn from Act I), survives. Along with many of Mosolov’s scores from this period, the other three movements—titled respectively, “In Prison,” “At the Ball,” and “On the Square”—were lost.

The Iron Foundry, however, was an instant hit. It remains Mosolov’s signature piece. Subtitled “Music of Machines,” the brief composition is a clamorous musical evocation of its subject matter. It was taken up quickly by conductors throughout Europe as a representative example of new Soviet art, published three times between 1929 and 1934 and, in 1936, released on disc in the West.

The artistic romance with the machine and with the industrial milieu was not uniquely Soviet. Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1923), George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (1924), and Sergei Prokofiev’s Le Pas d’Acier (The Steel Step, conceived in Paris in 1925 on a commission from Diaghilev) had all tapped into the same fascination. But among Soviet composers in the 1920s, Mosolov’s was the name most often associated with visions of the future. In 1928, the Bolshoi Theater commissioned four composers to write a collective ballet, Four Moscows, celebrating the past, present, and future of the Soviet capital; Mosolov was awarded the final act, set two hundred years after the October Revolution. (This is another ballet that never saw the light of day and for which Mosolov’s music has been lost.)

Under the title “The Spirit of the Factory,” The Iron Foundry scored a sensational success at its American premiere, in July 1931 at the Hollywood Bowl, as the music for a ballet choreographed by Adolph Bolm. Performed by two principal dancers (male and female dynamos) against interlocking lines of human switches, gears, pistons, spring valves, flywheels, and more, the mechanical precision of Bolm’s choreography produced “a tremendous spectacle of concerted rhythm.”