Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 23 (1975)

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert Behind the Curtain, performed on Oct 1, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Tikhon Khrennikov. Few can utter the name without a sneer of Derision. Amidst the detritus of Soviet culture awash with so many victims, Khrennikov is the rarest of the rare, a certified villain, a target seemingly tailor-made for our righteous indignation. This is, after all, the man who was hand-picked by Stalin in 1948 to head the most influential institution in the world of Soviet music, the Union of Composers. This is a true son of the Communist Party who spearheaded the persecution of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky and the other so-called “formalist’ composers. This is the despot who clung fast to his position and privilege for over forty years, the supreme arbiter of musical taste for an entire nation, who was dislodged only by the collapse of everything the Soviet Union stood for. How easy it is to lay the blame for all the injustices of Soviet music at his feet.

Now we learn-from his recently-published memoirs-that Khrennikov (b. 1913) considers himself to be one of the victims of Stalin’s terror. He, too, lost family members to the purges. All he ever aspired to do was to write music. He was a callow 34-year-old when he was unexpectedly singled out by Stalin; it was out of fear for his life and the welfare of his family that he dutifully read the speeches prepared for him by the Central Committee. Who can blame him for that?

History will eventually come to grips with Khrennikov’s political career. How it will deal with his creative legacy is another matter. In the West, at least, most dismiss his music contemptuously without the courtesy of a hearing. In the Soviet Union, it was overexposed, flaunted ostentatiously as the “profile’ of Soviet music. But Khrennikov–who now composes in quiet retirement in Moscow–is not the hack composer he is often made out to be. If his gift is not in the same league with that of Shostakovich, he is in excellent company. Had he been an American composer, with more options (and more leagues to compete in), he might well have flourished in Hollywood or on Broadway.

It is not hard to hear from his Second Violin Concerto–composed in 1975 for Leonid Kogan–that melody is at the core of Khrennikov’s aesthetic. Perhaps influenced by his own provincial background, he became a musical populist. To write tuneful, accessible music that could engage and entertain the average listener was as lofty an ideal as he could imagine. Much of his music was composed for the theater, including operas (especially comic), and ballets. Some of his tunes did, in fact, transcend their sources to become popular hits. In his symphonies and concerti, Khrennikov made no attempt to extend the boundaries of form or tonality. As this concerto demonstrates, the anguished introspection, the tragic angst of Shostakovich’s scores is not to his taste. Khrennikov makes no apologies; the composer he has always idolized is Prokofiev, on whose First Violin Concerto his own Second leans heavily. He could have chosen a worse model.