Song from Underground
- “Art for me is something like an intellectual appendix. And when its propagandist role, which we need now, will be over, we shall–dzyyk, dzyyk–cut it out, as useless”
- “The Last Judgment is the Last Judgment, but a human being who spent his life in Russia, has to be, without any hesitation, placed into Paradise.”
Music is the universal language, and one of the most delicate things in the world. To live, it requires freedom: freedom of expression; freedom to develop; freedom of movement across national borders. During the Soviet era, composers and their work were artificially deprived of all these freedoms.
The Soviet Union was a sort of prison for its citizens. The prison had its own strict rules and regulations. Everything that went against those rules and regulations, everything that might have prevented the prison from remaining a prison, was brutally crushed. The population was divided into two categories: prisoners and wardens. The wardens wanted the prisoners to sing cheerful songs and to smile joyfully. This was the one and only purpose for which art was permitted: to praise and glorify the rules and regulations of the prison.
Art, too, was divided into two categories. The official art, recognized by those in power, was called the art of “socialist realism.” It immediately degenerated into gray, stereotyped, idle chatter and ceased to be art. The real art was the underground art. It possessed a terrible power to destroy the prison. So the warders banned it and tried to annihilate it. And they almost succeeded.
Russian artists have always been faced by a threefold dilemma: whether to leave their country in order to survive; or to stay and condemn themselves to a difficult existence, perhaps even death; or to make a compromise, that is to say, to play the game that the prison wardens would have them play. Those who in years past stayed behind had to adapt themselves to a terrible lack of freedom. It was necessary to weigh every word, think about each step, if one were not to find oneself in a place worse than that in which one already was: the dungeons of the GPU (KGB), a concentration camp, or the grave.
Music, like the other arts, was an important instrument for use as Soviet propaganda. Not only the character of music and its subject or text, but also its style and techniques were put under the strict control and censorship of Party leaders. Official control was exercised through the Union of Composers, which was a sort of a guild for the profession. It was invented and organized by the Communist Party in 1932 (simultaneously with similar Unions for writers, artists, architects, cinematographers etc.) Every member was given basic privileges, the most important of which was the right to be performed in the official concerts and festivals that were organized by the Union.
Party leaders wanted composers to be collaborators. They offered money and official recognition, titles, prizes and so on, for those who would, for instance, compose a brilliant, majestic cantata praising the regime or expressing how happy they were to be living in such a great country of real freedom. Only through membership in the Union could one publish one’s music, buy score paper, or—later—even be able to make Xerox photocopies. Those who were not Union members did not even have the right to call themselves composers.
In order to enjoy the privileges of being an “official” composer, one was obliged to subject one’s work to the scrutiny and approval of the Union leadership, a complicated, hierarchical structure culminating in the position of First Secretary of the Union of the Composers of the U.S.S.R. That title was held, from 1948 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, by Tikhon Nikolayevich Khrennikov, who was chosen for the post by Stalin himself. The leadership reviewed every composition in order to ensure that it was written “correctly,” both ideologically and stylistically.
The main yardstick offered to composers was the Russian classical tradition from Glinka to early Rimsky-Korsakov. Simplicity, the ability to be “understood by the people,” a dependence on national folk-culture: these were the most important qualities that the prison wardens wanted. All Western art of the twentieth century was held to be bourgeois and degenerate. Among the long list of forbidden music was the work of Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok and Hindemith. Likewise taboo was all religious music, from the medieval period to the present day.
The composers who did not accept this conformism and refused to play along were cut off from all the privileges of Union membership. They became “underground” composers, although that word was not used openly since it could have been interpreted to be counter-revolutionary.
Strictly speaking, neither of the two most famous composers from the time of the Soviet Union, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, were truly underground composers. They were members of the Union of Composers and were thus officially recognized. But both of them struggled against the limitations placed upon them by the Party and the Union of Composers and were forced to become great masters of compromise. Often, even when they seemed to be doing what the official culture expected of them, they were in fact doing something quite different. In this respect, they relate closely to the Underground.
In Russia, we have an expression: “To keep a fig in a pocket.” You can speak a lie—or say just what is expected of you—but at the same time you keep a fig in your pocket, and only in this way can you express the truth. Many compositions written during Soviet times were such figs. The title of the work might say one thing while the thing actually being expressed was quite different. Shostakovich and Prokofiev were often confronted and threatened by the Soviet cultural machinery, perhaps most notoriously in the Party Resolution of 1948 and the infamous auto-da-fé of the First Congress of the Union of Composers. Both composers publicly “recanted their sins,” an act that is easy now for armchair historians to criticize as weak and lacking in courage. One must remember, however, that at this point their own lives and those of their families were at stake. In spite of all the inhuman conditions through which they suffered, they still continued to create, often with the fig remaining firmly planted in their pockets.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, in the time of the so-called “Khrushchev Thaw”, it became a little easier for artists to breathe. Prominent western musicians such as Glenn Gould, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten all came to Moscow bringing new music that had never been heard in Russia. After a long isolation, musicians in the Soviet Union discovered that there was a whole world to discover, rich and interesting, beyond their borders.
During this time, Philip Herschkowitz, a pupil of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, settled in Moscow. He gave private lessons to composers and performers, though he was never allowed to hold an official teaching position. (“You had bad teachers,” he was told.) His instruction was highly influential. Through this man, many young Soviet musicians became acquainted with the music of the Second Viennese School, and the traditions of Schoenberg blossomed with bright new flowers on Russian soil.
Andrey Volkonsky was the first Soviet composer who tried to return Russian contemporary music to the stream of the twentieth-century Western tradition, experimenting with twelve-tone and serial techniques. This was a courageous act, a protest against the oppressive imposition of a few prescribed, official rules. His works had a huge impact on his colleagues. One, Musica Stricta was written in 1956. Since Volkonsky was a member of the Union, the piece had a right to be officially performed. He recalled that, “at first nobody understood what it was, and they continued to play my music for a few more years.” But once the officials discovered his work to use serial techniques, performance of it was completely forbidden. (Volkonsky emigrated to the West in 1973.)
In spite of the “Thaw,” Soviet composers were not given real liberty. Experimental and non-conformist music was still forbidden in all officially sanctioned cultural activity. But that music was not eradicated; it was merely driven underground. A number of composers began to emerge from this underground ferment, most prominently the “Holy Trinity”: Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Alfred Schnittke. After years of self-education Denisov developed his highly exquisite and vibrant individual style. Gubaidulina began to see her composition as the spiritual act of deep, mystical penetration into the nature of the sound itself. Schnittke found his musical language in the interplay and collision of different styles and techniques, which he was able to merge together with great mastery.
Their music, and that of many colleagues, could be heard on underground concerts, which, although organized at great risk, were tremendously successful with the public. These concerts would be produced in small halls, rented by performers without asking permission from the Union’s leaders. I was in the audience for quite a few such concerts. It was an unforgettable experience.
For instance, I discovered Schnittke’s music in April 1969 at an underground concert given in the Gnessiny Institute in Moscow by Alexei Lyubimov (piano), Boris Berman (piano), Lev Mikhailov (clarinet) and a few string players. This half-forbidden concert (i.e., technically illegal but not actively prevented from taking place) was organized by Alexander Ivashkin. The final segment of the three-part concert consisted of music by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, played for the first time in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. All of this music was a very important and most influential discovery for many of us.
By the same token, the music of underground composers was finding its way, by various clandestine means, to the West. It was played there and began to filter back into the Soviet Union in the form of tapes, records and printed scores.
In 1964, without official permission, Denisov sent his work "The Sun of Incas" to Pierre Boulez. Boulez immediately included it on the program of that year’s Darmstadt Festival and repeated it at a concert in Paris. The performances were a great success. Even Stravinsky, who saw the score, commented on Denisov’s great talent. The reaction from the Union of Composers was just the opposite: “This is complete composer’s arbitrariness,” “no talent at all.” Denisov was harshly criticized not only for the music itself, but also for having sent his score abroad without obtaining official permission. Khrennikov threatened to expel the composer from the Union, and also from the Conservatory, where Denisov taught. Denisov told me that he was unable to sleep for an entire year, waiting for the threatened punishment. But the punishment never came, and Denisov did not change his behavior.
The underground success of Denisov, Gubaidulina, and Schnittke was followed by the emergence of a new generation of composers. Among these were the Leningrad composer Alexander Knayfel, Estonian Arvo Pärt, Ukrainians Valentin Silvestrov and Leonid Hrabovsky, Georgian Giya Kancheli, Armenians Avet Terterian, Tigran Mansurian and Ashot Zograbian, Azerbaijani Faraj Karaev. Also included were a host of emerging Moscow composers such as Viktor Suslin, Vyacheslav Artyomov, Vladimir Martynov, Alexander Vustin, Vladislav Shoot, Nikolai Korndorf, Victor Ekimovsky, Elena Firsova, Vladimir Tarnopolsky, Alexander Raskatov, me and others.
Keeping this huge country in imprisonment and isolation behind an iron curtain was becoming more and more difficult. There were still relapses, though. The unapproved participation of some composers in a festival of Soviet music in Cologne in 1979 very much displeased the leadership of the Composer’s Union. At the subsequent Sixth Congress, Khrennikov denounced seven composers (thereafter known as “The Khrennikov Seven”), who for some reason or other had been played in the West. The tone of the denunciation harked back to the First Congress of 1948, at which Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky and others were victimized. The times had changed, though, in that the lives of the Seven were never in jeopardy, only their official performances and publications. Interestingly, a policy of “divide and conquer” appeared in the simultaneous full official recognition of Schnittke’s work.
Even into the 1980s, during Perestroika, the official threats to the Underground continued. In 1986, the Moscow String Quartet had included on their published program Elena Firsova’s Misterioso at a festival in West Berlin. When the time came for the performance, however, the musicians ended up performing the piece that they had been advised by officials to play: a quartet by Shostakovich. Ironically, by this time the work of Shostakovich and Prokofiev had come to be officially recognized as the true embodiment of “socialist realism.” One had the impression that those in power derived special pleasure from using the music of composers whom they had for so long oppressed and humiliated to oppress and humiliate a new generation.
A final sign of the demise of official Soviet control of composers came in 1990, just as the very last embers of the Soviet Union were dying out. An organization called the Association for Contemporary Music had existed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, until it was forbidden in 1931. Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Roslavetz, Mossolov and other musicians had been members. In 1990, the Association was re-established, with Edison Denisov at its head. It was chartered to continue the tradition established by its predecessor earlier in the century: to organize concerts and festivals, support its own ensemble, and generally strengthen contacts with foreign composers and musicians. At the same time, several formerly-underground composers—including Denisov and Schnittke—were invited to join the governing board of the Composer’s Union. The Underground came up to the surface. And, by so doing, it came to its end.
But there is an epilogue. As the Soviet empire fell apart and gave way to a new series of uncertainties, composers began to emigrate. By 1994, a significant portion of the old Underground—Denisov, Schnittke, and Gubaidulina, among many others—had moved to Western Europe. I, for one, would like to believe that this diaspora will be temporary. Times are now difficult in Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union, but perhaps with positive developments in these countries, the process will be reversed. It is difficult to say when this might happen, but it will eventually. Exodus will give place to Reunion.
- Published in the Booklet of the Festival "Masterpieces of the Russian Underground", Lincoln Centre, New York, USA, January 2003, pages 16 — 19, (English).
- See also the 1st version of the article.
© D. Smirnov-Sadovsky