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.

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.”

Dmitri Shostakovich, Incidental Music from The Bed Bug, Op. 19

By Gerard McBurney

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

Vesevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) was one of the most important theater directors of the twentieth century. His influence spread in every direction, even beyond Russia. Modern theater the world over is hardly conceivable without him, but he also had a decisive impact on the evolution of the cinema (through his one-time pupil Eisenstein), on a whole variety of writers and painters, and on composers. Stravinsky and Prokofiev both knew him and were affected by him, especially in their theater works, but the composer most touched by his aesthetic and techniques was Dmitri Shostakovich.

In 1928, Meyerhold plucked the young Leningrad composer, still only in his early 20s, and took him to Moscow. There Shostakovich worked for a short but important time as pianist and temporary music-director in Meyerhold’s theater and actually lived in the apartment of Meyerhold and his actress wife Zinaida Raikh, before returning home a couple of months later to work on his opera The Nose.

Some time afterwards, and with Shostakovich no longer in Moscow, Meyerhold began a spectacular new production of a brand new satirical comedy by the USSR’s most famous young poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). He first invited Prokofiev to compose the score, but when Prokofiev rejected him, he offered the job to Shostakovich who, at this stage, still had no practical experience of writing for the theater. Meyerhold also assembled a star cast and a spectacular team of stage designers, including the celebrated photographer and painter Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956).

Mayakovsky’s “fairy comedy” (the absurdly inappropriate subtitle is typical of the play) is a hilarious, buffoonish, and double-edged satire on Soviet life in the early Stalinist period, when the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP), a doctrine of relative liberalism, meant that small businesses were temporarily allowed to flourish and there was something of a consumer boom in the main Soviet cities.

The year is 1929 itself. A once active communist, Ivan Prisypkin, has done well out of the new NEP prosperity and has transformed himself into a social-climbing and corrupt little capitalist. He drops his old girlfriend (a good revolutionary girl) and sets his sights on at the daughter of a petty bourgeois lady who runs a beauty salon. To reinforce this ostentatious triumph of NEP values, Prisypkin marries his vulgar young wife in her mother’s salon. The wedding soon gets out of hand, there is a fight, and a fire starts. The firemen are called, but unfortunately not before everyone has been burned to death. In the clearing-up process, Prisypkin’s corpse is missing.

Fifty years pass and it is 1979. Prisypkin is discovered deep-frozen in a cellar and is brought back to life thanks to modern scientific techniques practiced by the Institute of Human Resurrection. Back in the land of the living, Prisypkin takes time to realize that, like Rip van Winkle, he has come back in another age. And because his head is still filled with the nonsense of the NEP era, he keeps disturbing the conventional status quo of the future communist paradise. For example, he introduces a girl to the long defunct concept of “love.”

After many adventures, the citizens of the future eventually gather at the zoo where they succeed in confining this revolting specimen of bourgeoisius vulgaris in a cage, where he is exhibited for the edification of the public alongside another useless specimen of a former life-form long since eradicated by progress, bedbugus normalis.

In later years, Shostakovich claimed that Mayakovsky had told him that his favorite kind of music was firemen’s bands and that the composer had to write music for the play in that style. In point of fact, as a glimpse of the original performing materials makes clear, it was Meyerhold the director, not Mayakovsky the author, who dictated how the music sounded.

Early on in the process Shostakovich composed quite a few numbers in a lively jazz-manner, rather in the spirit of Kurt Weill. These included a sentimental waltz, a foxtrot, and other dances to conjure up the self-indulgent atmosphere of the NEP period. From the evidence, though, it seems that Meyerhold used rather little of this pre-composed music. Instead he encouraged the young composer to write fiercer, more avant-garde music and then made sure that this noisy new stuff was heard at a number of different points in the play.

The surviving published score begins with a lively introductory March in the approved “firemen’s band” style and then goes on to a sleazy Intermezzo, vividly evoking the supposed pleasure-seeking materialism of NEP and Prisypkin’s new way of life.

The Wedding Scene, complete with a singer and chorus, was one of the episodes written most closely under Meyerhold’s supervision. The manuscript contains notes in several handwritings detailing elaborate stage-business. This is followed by the Fire, another example of Meyerhold forcing the young composer to write the precise music he needed to make his dramatic points. Meyerhold was apparently especially pleased with this episode. The first half of the play ends with the Firemen’s Fanfares and a lusty Firemen’s Chorus, a comical parody of an official Soviet song.

From the second half of the play comes the Scene in the Town Square. A group of journalists and scientists attempt to pacify the obstreperous Prisypkin by giving him beer. Unfortunately they themselves are soon overcome by the fumes.

The play ends at the zoo. Various groups of citizens turn up, each singing their tune. First comes the March of the Pioneers (Soviet girl- and boy-scouts), then the pompous March of the City Fathers. There is another Fanfare, celebrating the opening of the new exhibition, a mechanical little Waltz, and finally, a lively Closing March, both scored for Mayakovsky’s beloved firemen’s band.

Gavriil Nikolayevich Popov, Symphonic Suite No. 1

By Laurel E. Fay

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

Like his friend Dmitri Shostakovich, Gavriil Popov (1904-72) was a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory, where he studied composition with Vladimir Shcherbachov. Popov was an early and eager recruit to the task of composing for Soviet sound film, some of which contributed to his Symphonic Suite No. 1. His first completed film score was for a feature-length documentary, K.Sh.E. (the initials stand for Komsomol—shef elektrifikatsii; [Komsomol—Patron of Electrification]), directed by Esfir Shub and released in 1932, in time for the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Popov would go on to score some forty films during his career, working with many of the country’s most distinguished directors. He was the composer for the popular epic Chapayev, directed by the Vasiliev brothers; this became Stalin’s favorite film for a time after its release in 1934.

A top film editor of the 1920s, Shub perfected the techniques of “compilation” film, notably in the masterpiece The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). K.Sh.E. marked a new departure. In this pioneering documentary, one of the earliest Soviet sound films, Shub shot a contemporary chronicle of the progress of establishing electricity across the Soviet nation, an effort spearheaded by the Komsomol (the Young Communist League).

Direct sound recording and dubbed sound were combined with the symphonic music Popov scored for the film. Although it occupies a modest amount of time, Popov’s original music injects an imaginative element: the “waltz” danced by automated light-bulb manufacturing equipment (corresponding to the fourth movement of the Suite) is a highlight. And the opening sequence, set in a recording studio where we see Popov’s “overture” being performed and recorded, is a masterstroke. Appropriately, the performance features a theremin, an electronic instrument invented in Russia in the 1920s by Lev Termen (1896-1993). In his score, Popov offset the futuristic sound of the “electric” theremin with the “human” voices of a soprano and tenor.

(In the 1930s, the theremin was mass-marketed in the U.S., ultimately unsuccessfully, as “an absolutely new, unique musical instrument anyone can play.” Its eerie tone quality would later be exploited in a number of Hollywood films—Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend among them—as well as in the Beach Boys’ hit song, Good Vibrations.)

Popov’s music for K.Sh.E. attracted attention. After seeing the film, Sergei Eisenstein fired off a telegram to the composer, congratulating him on the “marvelous sound-sight victory.” (Popov would later compose the score for Eisenstein’s ill-fated movie, Bezhin Meadow.) In 1933, Popov arranged a symphonic suite from his material. This was premiered in Leningrad in December 1933 and quickly taken up elsewhere. In January 1936, the score of the Suite was in proofs, scheduled for imminent release, when it came under suspicion after the appearance of the infamous Pravda editorial attacking Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The publication was scuttled. In a Soviet survey of contemporary film music published in 1939, Popov’s music for K.Sh.E. was branded “a clear example of musical formalism.” It would not receive another performance until 1982, ten years after the composer’s death.

Arthur Lourié, Chant funèbre sur la mort d’un poète

By Klara Moricz, Amherst College

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

Chant funèbre sur la mort d’un poète [Funeral Song on the Death of a Poet] by Arthur Lourié (1891-1966), a setting of Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Today is the nameday of Our Lady of Smolensk,” commemorates the death on August 7, 1921 of the symbolist poet Alexander Blok (1880-1921). Blok’s death marked the end of an exceptionally creative period in Russian poetry frequently referred to as the “Silver Age,” in contradistinction to the “Golden Age” of Pushkin’s time. Toward the end of his life Lourié could still clearly recall the trauma caused by the poet’s death. Like other artists, Lourié stayed at the three-day vigil at Blok’s apartment. The poet was buried on August 10 in the Smolensk Cemetery, on the feast day of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God.

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), a poet who grew up in the shadow of Blok, was among the mourners. At the time of Blok’s death, Akhmatova lived with Lourié and Olga Glebova-Sudeikina in a complicated ménage à trios; she was working on a libretto for Lourié based on Blok’s Snowmask. Seeing the extent of Lourié’s grief she understood that the composer’s only real passion was his unconditional adoration of Blok whom he considered to be the epitome of the perfect artist.

Akhmatova wrote her farewell poem shortly after Blok’s funeral. She played tribute to the poet by basing her poem on word stress alone, a technique famously used by Blok in his Verses on a Beautiful Lady (1901-2). Akhmatova’s images also reflect Blok’s spiritual poetry. Her poem is framed by references to the feast of the Smolensk Icon, a religious equivalent of the “Beautiful Lady.” The description of the graveyard in the middle section of the poem purposefully mixes visual and aural effects.

Lourié set Akhmatova’s poem for chorus reinforced by oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. The sacred number of the Trinity, central in Orthodox theology and expressed by Akhmatova’s three-part division of her poem, is further emphasized by Lourié’s use of distinct musical textures for Akhmatova’s three parts, his division of woodwinds into three groups, and the threefold declaration of the first and last lines of the poem. Lourié’s slowly moving, strictly syllabic chorus recalls the sound of Orthodox church singing. His radiantly beautiful harmonies, moving in archaic parallel fifths and dissonant seconds and sevenths, provide a specifically Russian twentieth-century sound to Lourié’s music. In sections in which the recitation of the text is surrounded with parallel fifths that create the effect of ear-splitting bell ringing, the dissonance is more prominent. In the middle section, embellished short melodic fragments remind the listener of Russian folk music, familiar from Stravinsky’s music. But although some of these sounds recall Stravinsky’s The Wedding (completed 1921-23) and Symphony of Psalms (1930), Lourié’s music has its own unmistakable identity, which may have inspired Stravinsky’s better known works.

Lourié’s tribute to Blok was performed only once during the composer’s lifetime (in New York on March 16, 1929), and only in a piano/choral version. In fact, tonight’s performance marks the U.S. premiere of the full version of the work. Soon after Blok’s death, Lourié abandonded Soviet Russia and traveled to Berlin. From Berlin he went to Paris where for more than a decade he was Stravinsky’s advisor and best friend. With the help of conductor Sergei Koussevitzky, whose escape he had facilitated from Soviet Russia in 1920, the ethnically Jewish Lourié fled to New York in 1941. Unlike Stravinsky, Lourié never adjusted to the West. His music, especially his last opera The Blackamoor of Peter the Great (1949-1963), remained paradigmatic of Silver Age Russia. That epoch, represented most perfectly, according to Akhmatova, by Alexander Blok, lost one of its last ambassadors with Lourié’s death in 1966.

Vladimir Shcherbachov, Symphony No. 2, “Blokovskaya”

By David Haas, University of Georgia

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

When Shcherbachov’s Second Symphony received its premiere on December 14, 1927, more than a few music critics of Leningrad admitted preferring it to young Shostakovich’s Second Symphony and other works of overtly Soviet Marxist political content. A galvanizing figure respected as much for his integrity as his artistry, Vladimir Vladimirovich Shcherbachov had completed his musical training, begun his compositional career, and, like so many of his contemporaries, become entranced with the Russian Symbolist poet Alexander Blok all before the regime change. Consequently, it is as difficult to forge a link between his style and influences and such post-revolutionary artistic trends as futurism, constructivism, proletarian music theater, Russian atonality, or Russian quarter-tone music, as it is to align his personal belief system with Marxist-Leninism. Like Blok and many a “fellow traveler,” he found his voice early and guarded it fiercely from external aesthetic pressures, for as long as he was able.

Out of all the high praise bestowed initially on this most unconventional, ill-fated, long-forgotten work, Boris Asafyev’s simple summation of it as “a symphony born out of the romance” has proven the most enduring. During its composition, the composer had envisioned a two-evening cycle, in which poetic themes introduced in solo songs on Blok texts would be brought to a symphonic apotheosis in a five-movement work that incorporated another four poems. Even though the grand conception was abandoned, the completed Symphony is permeated with the romance element: in its pronounced lyrical tone, its scoring, its textures, and its decidedly non-schematic form.

The untexted first movement fascinates with its balance of improvisatory character and sui generis structure. As in Beethoven’s Ninth, a germinal theme emerges out of a deep inchoate open fifth. Tripartite in structure and scored for an unorthodox succession of bass clarinet, then horn, then tuba, the theme is pregnant with motives that will haunt the remainder of the work. As the opening Lento accelerates by degrees toward an eventual Allegro, new themes are spawned, each of them with a unique scoring. The movement ends with a fragmentation of themes, all of which bow out without satisfying closure.

A solo voice and chorus in dialogue make their appearance in the second movement, against a pulsating string accompaniment. Blok’s poem “Worlds Fly. Years Fly” is an anxious meditation on a universe spinning out of control. While no convincing escape from the mad rush of time is offered, momentary respites register with a slackening of the tempo. Toward the middle of the movement, obsessive rhythms coalesce into a danse infernale, which is destined to play a significant role in the Symphony’s last two movements. The rapturous D-major conclusion to the movement expresses the poet’s joy at not having to struggle alone.

The third movement’s Lento assai tempo allows the expansive main theme introduced by unaccompanied flute to provide repose to satisfy the protagonist’s yearning. Blok’s poem “A Song, a Song” turns the passage of time into lullaby. However, neither poem nor symphonic movement are entirely free of turbulence. A Shcherbachovian response to Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben trumpet fanfares opens the fourth movement. Blok’s hero now mourns the waning potential of religious symbols to provide either security or hope.

Written after a sojourn in Italy, Blok’s “Canto of Hell” is a Russian Symbolist’s Inferno in miniature, fusing pointed references to Dante with fin-de-siècle decadence. Shcherbachov’s fifth-movement setting of it commences with a Beethovenian instrumental fantasy developing previous themes, albeit arrayed with an inexhaustible stream of ever-changing colorations. The transformation of Blok’s long poem into a symphonic monologue may suggest Wagnerian music drama, but Mussorgksian speech-song is at least an equal influence. To a Russian, Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini compositions widen the net further. Whatever the musical inspirations, Shcherbachov’s Blokian journey to the underworld surpasses all precedents in orchestral audacities, horrors, and frights, aural eroticism, vampirizm, and in the strange beauty of its long lyrical lines.