Contemporary music, an ambiguous and controversial term used to define research music of cultured derivation, has never known easy periods, often continuing to live in a niche, if not segregated situation. Even today it is not doing so well, despite the evident fall of barriers between genders and the facilities offered by the digital revolution, remaining linked to a specialist audience. Both its academic pedigree and the eternal commonplace about listening difficulties, as well as the self-referential attitude of many authors and the intransigence of scholars and critics, often grim guardians of the subject, weigh in this regard. If these assumptions have negatively characterized European musical culture since the 1950s, in the same period in the Soviet Union, the former U.S.S.R., things were not so much better, with censorship, bureaucratic quibbles and artistic obligations of all kinds. If it was true that the state-patron guaranteed a salary and provided the necessary means, at the same time it asked the artist in exchange for a demanding social role, forced to celebrate in music the glory of the party, the race to the cosmos, the construction of a dam. With the advent of communism and under the iron guidance of Stalin, the incredible avant-garde flourishing of the early twentieth century, which had affected both painting (Futurism, Kandinsky, Malevich), theater (Mejerchol’d), literary criticism ( Propp) and poetry (Mandelstam, Achmatova, Mayakovskij, Blok, Esenin) as well as music (Roslavets, Lourié, Mosolov, Wyschnegradsky) had been silenced because it was considered bourgeois and anti-popular art. For these reasons, 1953 represented a significant date in Soviet musical history: on March 5, in fact, Stalin (and Sergei Sergeevic Prokofiev) died, finally marking the end of one of the darkest periods in history and the beginning of some opening. Starting with the Kruscevian rehabilitations, the artists had the right to be original and seek the new: the obligation to write celebratory “symphonies” and “concerts”, to exalt the glories of the nation, fell.i However, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 would have clearly shown how many and what centrifugal forces were stirring within its centralizing body: composers who did not choose the Moscow conservatory were often and willingly cut off from the artistic life of the country, in addition to playing the possibility of enjoying minimal visibility abroad.
Still in 1964 Glenn Gould wrote in his essay “Music in the Soviet Union”ii, of how Nikita Khrushchev himself, accompanied for the first time at an abstract art exhibition, reacted like so many other irritated visitors, from the East or from the West, stating that a cow tail on the canvas would give better results. The comment would not have appeared particularly lashing or original if a few days later the Ministry of Culture had not echoed it, admonishing that abstract art was never judged to be in the interest of the Soviet people, as a decadent product of bourgeois society. and reminding the artists in favor of this style that their duty is to speak to the man in the street, renouncing any abstruse language of not immediate general understanding.
In this general climate, twelve-tone music and Schoenberg’s ideas were faring no better. In 1965 Boris Schwarz wrote how the former USSR’s historically demonstrated hostility towards twelve-tone music and Arnold Schoenberg had often bordered on pure political fanaticism. Over and over again, prominent Russian composers had expressed their distaste for dodecaphony. According to Shostakovich. “the dogma of twelve-tone kills the composer’s imagination and the living soul of music”. Kabalevsky stated that: “Dodecaphony is an elaborate system of crutches for the composer”. Khachaturian saw a “danger when a young composer borrows the patterns of serial music”. Khrennikov referred to “twelve-tone gimmicks”.
In his essay “Arnold Schoenberg in Soviet Russia”, published in Perspectives of New Music Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn – Winter, 1965)iii, Schwarz, an American violinist, musicologist and teacher of Russian origin, pointed out that, at epoch for the U.S.S.R. there was an international conspiracy to contaminate the purity of Russian music. The verbal invectives against dodecaphony were accompanied by total silence regarding the music itself. Furthermore, for over thirty years Arnold Schoenberg’s compositions were excluded from the Soviet repertoire and the post-Stalin “thaw” at the time had not brought about any change in this respect. Still, things weren’t that bad at first. Before the First World War, Schoeberg was fashionable in Russian intellectual circles. In December 1912 he was invited to St. Petersburg to conduct his he orchestral suite Pelleas e Melisande, where previously, his he piano pieces op. 11 and the Second Quartet for strings op. 10 had already been heard. (Sergei Prokofiev notes in his Autobiography that he was the first in Russia to perform Schoenberg’s piano music). Schoenberg’s personal appearance in Petersburg aroused considerable interest. The critic Venturus went so far as to compare the importance of Schoenberg’s Russian visit to that of Richard Wagner in 1863. Articles on Schoenberg and his music, written by experts such as Anton Webern and Richard Specht, have been translated and published in Russian magazines , as well as the volumes of Schoenberg’s essays. His Harmonielehre, just out of the press in Vienna, has been reviewed by Russian critics. After the 1917 revolution, there was a growing Russian interest in Schoenberg and his ideas. Among his new disciples was the Russian composer Nikolai Roslavets who had some success in the 1920s, only to disappear in the 1930s. In 1923, Roslavets wrote an essay on Pierrot Lunaire which included a conscious discussion of Schoenberg’s approach to melody, harmony and rhythm and where he indicated a dichotomy between Cimud’s impressionist text and Schoenberg’s expressionist musical setting. Schoenberg’s Pierrot is not actually the ghostly “lunaire” but a “Pierrot in ferrocement, a descendant of the contemporary industrialized city of Mammouth … at whose sight you can hear the clang of metal, the hum of the propellers, the howl of the car sirens …. It is indeed a strange amalgam of irreconcilable worldviews …. “Roslavets confidently predicted that” Schoenberg’s principles and methods of creativity will gradually conquer the thoughts of contemporary artistic youth; already now we can speak of a Schoenbergian School of decisive importance for the immediate future of music. ” In 1925. Russian interest in modern Western music was stimulated by the founding of the Leningrad Association for Contemporary Music. His guiding spirit was Boris Asafiev, also known under the pseudonym of Igor Glebov, active as a composer, music historian, teacher and critic. Asafiev and his collaborators – mostly his young students – published a series of pamphlets dealing with modern music. One of these was dedicated to Alban Berg’s Wozzek, coinciding with its first staging in Leningrad in 1927. The same year, Nikolai Malko conducted the first Russian performance of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, an opera conceived in 1901. and orchestrated ten years later. In reviewing the event, the critic and composer Valerian Bogdanov-Berezoriky defined the work as a key to Schoenberg’s evolution and an “integral page of history”; however, he also added that “much of the music has lost its burning timeliness and resembles a museum piece”. Schoenberg continued to spark much discussion among Soviet musicians, although more often in the press than with public performances. A critical analysis of his piano works (up to and including Suite Op. 25) was published by Mikhail Druskin in a modestly sized book, “New Piano Music”, which was given further importance by a preface written by Asafiev. Glebov. 23-year-old Druskin was a student of Asafiev’s but had also worked with Artur Schnabel in Berlin. The traditional minds of the Leningrad Conservatory must have been stunned by some of Druskin’s evaluations, who described Opera 25 as a “champion of the highest craftsmanship, placing this Suite on the level of the best polyphonic achievements of J.S. Bach”. But there were also dissenting voices in Russia and they got stronger. In 1927, composer Alexander Veprik visited Schoenberg in Vienna and returned with negative impressions: “Today, Europe realizes that atonality is a dead end that leads nowhere. And what’s more: Schoenberg himself is constitutionally alien to it.”
When Veprik told Schoenberg that the atonal method made all composers sound the same, (the supposed “identity” of dodecaphonic music is a recurring Soviet critique) he received a predictably irritated response: “What do you mean — alike? Look at Alban Berg — that’s one way: then listen to Hanns, Eisler — that’s something quite different “The objections raised by Veprik were not only musical but also ideological. “Schoenberg’s theory of atonality, born in the laboratory, broke the link between him and the mass audience. His creative work has lost all social significance. It leans on emptiness …” And again: “You can’t break with the masses with impunity … When this happens, as in Schoenberg, the means of musical creativity degenerate. ” Within a few years, in the early 1930s, the Association for Contemporary Music vanished from the Soviet music scene as a new cultural force, the “proletarian cult”, strengthened. In 1933 the confused musical situation was clarified with the dissolution of all musical organizations, replaced by a single Union of Composers. Considered by some, including Prokofiev, who had returned to Russia that year, a breakthrough, this choice led to centralized political control of creative work. The year 1933 also brought Hitler to power. Schoenberg, branded by the Nazis as a “kultur-Bolshevik”, had to flee. The fascist ersecution assured him a certain sympathy in the Soviet Union. Thus we read in a Russian monograph on Schoenberg, published in 1934 under the imprint of the Leningrad Philharmonic that: “Schoenberg, in his fight against fascism, is aligned against Richard Straus and the Catholic semifascist Igor Stravinsky”. The author was Ivan Sollertinsky, a brilliant young music historian and close friend of Shostakovich. In his 55-page pamphlet Sollertinsky discussed the dodecaphonic technique in concrete and general terms, providing a comprehensive analysis of Schoenberg’s works up to Opus 35, never achieving absolute admiration. He called him a “musical innovator of genius, who created completely new means of musical expression and discovered hitherto unknown musical resources.” ‘Europe. “Indeed, the Soviet author speaks rather contemptuously of what he calls” post-Versailles German Expressionism. “Aside from occasional socio-political stabs, Sollertinsky expresses many views on Schoenberg, his theories and his music Some of Schoenberg’s disciples are also praised; in fact, Sollertinsky calls Wozzek, despite his “atonal language”, a musical drama of genius, worthy of being alongside Tristan, Carmen and the Queen of Spades. (For a Russian, the comparison with Tchaikovsky’s work is indeed praise.) Sollertinsky expressed the hope that Schoenberg, shaken by the political events of 1931, could find his way into the “field of the world proletarian revolution “.
After World War II, the campaign against so-called “formalism” culminated in the infamous 1948 decree which Alexander Werth described as a “musical turmoil in Moscow”. It was much more than an uproar: it was the public punishment and humiliation of nearly all leading modern-oriented Soviet and Western composers. Among the foreign musicians were Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Respected and well-informed music critics joined this concerted libel campaign. Typical is an article in the monthly magazine Sovietskaya Musyka, the official organ of the Union of Composers, which appeared in August 1949. Entitled “Arnold Schoenberg liquidator of music” it had the illuminating subtitle “Against Decadent Atonal Conducting and Its Defensive Disguise”. The author was Joseph Ryzhkin, then a member of the Moscow Institute of Musicology. Mixing music and ideological criticism, Ryzhkin claimed that, for forty years, atonality had exerted its disastrous influence on contemporary bourgeois music. The Schoenberg system. he said, it actually leads to a “liquidation of music as an art, to be exchanged for a senseless cacophony”. Atonality had become “an organization, a sect” throughout Europe and America, except the Soviet Union, with Schoenberg, settled in California, serving as a “pedagogue-consultant” for many American composers. Ryzhkin’s assessments reflect the party line when he declares that “atonality is in fact a highly reactionary system although he tries to hide behind the false legend of its alleged progressiveness.” This was the time when Pravda was referring to “reactionary composers Hindemith and Schoenberg”, when Stravinsky was called “the apostle of reactionary forces in bourgeois music”, when Izvestia described the American music scene as “dollar cacophony.” of “formalism” was not strange. In the jargon of Soviet aesthetics, “formalism” was the most infamous epithet, a term now in the West is so out of date that it has become almost untranslatable. Glenn Gould speaks of it like this:
“In a very broad sense, it could be said that it designates that art which has its own existence as its sole purpose and function: in other words, art for art. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, this term was used for a quarter of a century in such an indiscriminate way as to lose all the underlying implications and critical implications of eclecticism and academism that it could originally have: it can now appear, and indeed does appear, in contexts more unexpected, through the mouths of the most unpredictable characters. As a Czechoslovakian composer particularly persecuted by censorship said, “the word formalism refers to what colleagues write”.
Gould suggested that for Soviet musicology art should not pursue an end of its own, from which everyone was free to draw what he pleases, but to serve the end established by an omniscient patron state and make it known to the surrounding masses through aesthetic language. Art had its raison d’être in society and in exchange was required to celebrate and support the transformation of the state. While affirming that art expressed a value as a social force, Soviet society denied it a critical function and did not admit that the artist could disagree with the state, resolutely condemning the individualism of artistic knowledge.
Something, however, had to change, albeit slowly. Some fractures had to be created in the rigid state control, both for the interest of the younger generations of Soviet composers in twelve-tone, and for the obsolete concept of socialist realism, revised to adapt to the increasingly sophisticated needs of Soviet society: in 1973, the house state record company Мелодия, released an lp, entitled “Leningrad Academic Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, Igor Blazhkov – Works by A. Schoenberg, P. Hindemith and CH. Ives, ”and it was, apparently, a success.
Мелодияi (Melody, Melodia, Melodiya or Melodija)iv was a Russian state record company, founded in 1964 under the name of “All-Union Gramophone Record Firm of the USSR Ministry of Culture Melodiya”.
iPiercarlo Poggio, Musica non grata La classica contemporanea dell’era sovietica, 2016, Tuttle Edizioni, Camucia AR
iiGlenn Gould, L’ala del turbine intelligente Scritti sulla musica, 1988, Adelphi Edizioni, Milano
iiiThis article is a somewhat expanded version of a talk given for BBC (London) on Aug. 28, 1965. Reprinted by permission of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
ivфирма “МЕЛОДИЯ” (archive.org)
Melodiya: a brief history and explanation of the numbering system for shellac, vinyl and compact discs (medtner.org.uk)
It was the only record label operating in the USSR, after 1964 (the state had a number of record labels operating before 1964), but it ceased to be state-owned when the USSR collapsed. In 1973, the year of the production of Serenade Op. 24, Melodiya released a total circulation of 190-200 million LPs per year, plus over 1 million cassettes, exporting its production to more than 70 countries. The label’s production was dominated by classical music, music by Soviet composers and musicians, performances by Soviet theatrical actors and children’s fairy tales. For example, Melodiya especially published performances of works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Melodiya has also released some of the most successful western pop, jazz and rock records, including albums by ABBA, Paul McCartney, Boney M., Dave Grusin, Amanda Lear and Bon Jovi. Export versions were prepared with color covers and some English translations, while most domestic copies had generic paper covers.
Unfortunately all the editions in my possession (I have 7 out of a total of 11 reissues which took place between 1973 and 1978) are extremely lacking in any record information.
This edition was recorded by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (St. Petersburg), founded in 1882; the oldest and most well-known symphony orchestra in St. Petersburg and still in operation.i It is known that the Serenade was conducted by Igor Blazhkov (real name Игорь Иванович Блажков), born on 23 September 1936 in Kiev. Graduated in conducting from the Kiev Conservatory (1959, class of Alexander Klimov), he initially worked as a conductor in the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra. In correspondence with important Western musicians, including Igor Stravinsky, Edgar Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen, he participated in the preparation of Stravinsky’s tour in the USSR (1962). Later he studied at the graduate school of the Leningrad Conservatory with Evgeny Mravinsky (graduated in 1967). In 1963-1968. he directed the Leningrad Philharmonic. Already at this stage, as Sofya Khentova notes in 1965, “he established himself as an enterprising interpreter of forgotten and little-known works”. After a hiatus of almost 30 years, he performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s second and third symphonies. But performing contemporary music did not bring him good: he was dismissed by decision of the College of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR for having performed avant-garde music by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Edgar Varèse, Charles Ives, Valentin Silvestrov, Andrei Volkonsky, Nikolai Karetnikov and other. In 1969-1976. he led the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra, performing many works by composers from different eras and countries, from Baroque to modern Ukrainian music. Between 1988 and 1994 he was artistic director and principal conductor of the State Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, illegally fired and left without work, he emigrated to Germany in 2002. He lives in Potsdam. The only member of the ensemble known to me is baritone Alexander Tumanov. On his website ( Alexander Tumanov ) I found photos and a part of the recording of the Serenade, performed under the direction of Igor Blazhkov in 1969 in Leningrad. I have not been able to trace the name of the guitarist or to know, as it is probable, if the recording of the album itself dates back to that 1969 event. A recording which, however, even if released after a few years, was a success, given the high number of reprints, and which remains the only recording made in Russia of the Serenade op. 24.