Song from Underground
- ‘I don’t know another country
- Where one can breathe as freely as here…’
- From «The Song about Motherland»
Music is the universal language, and one of the most delicate things in the world. The freedom of expression is the main condition of its existence. This language also needs permanent development and renovation, and, of course, it cannot stand national or state boundaries. However during the Soviet era, Russian composers were artificially deprived of these privileges. Not just 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, who treated music merely as one of the instruments of their ideology.
‘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’ — thus the leader of the Russian Revolution Vladimir Lenin explained his attitude to Art.
Russian composers had always felt themselves to be a part of the European tradition of music, but now they were isolated from it, as well as from the whole world. The music of the most influential Western composers was labelled as ‘formalism’ and ‘bourgeois degeneration’, and was forbidden. Their followers, or anyone who wanted to try something new in Russia, were accused and punished.
There were the examples of Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev who were forced to change their language under such pressure to meet the requirements of the official ideology of ‘socialist realism’. As a result, the language of hidden or two-faced meaning was developed in their music. This pressure reached its peak in the Party Resolution of 1948, and the infamous auto-da-fé of the First Congress of the Composers’ Union. However, instead of defending their aesthetic principals, the accused composers ‘publicly recanted their sins’.
It is easy now, sitting in comfortable armchairs, to blame them for their ‘weakness’ and ‘lack of courage’. Perhaps they were not heroes, but we have to remember that their own lives and their families’ were at stake. And the fact itself, that in spite of all the inhuman conditions they still continued their creative activity, sending the message they wanted to be delivered, was astonishing and could be equate with heroism. ‘The Last Judgement is the Last Judgement, — the poet Josef Brodsky said, — but a human being who spent his life in Russia, has to be, without any hesitation, placed into Paradise’.
Russian Music to some extent is ‘real’ music, but if to look deeper it is more than that. It is often pain and suffering, sorrow and chilling fear expressed in sound; or it is a song of love and beauty or smiles of joy that comes from the dungeons of a vast prison. A sensitive listener understands and co-experiences this together with a composer, and would hardly say, after a performance that it was just ‘enjoyable’. It is clear to anyone listening to Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio — the inconsolable requiem for his beloved friend, or to Ustvolskaya’s Clarinet Trio that strikes one with its enormous scale and sombre, rigid language, or to Weinberg’s Cello Sonata that predicts some late works of his great mentor, or to Schnittke’s Piano Quintet — another heart-breaking requiem written in memory of his mother.
Not every one of these composers could be labelled with the word ‘underground’ — there were some periods of their wider recognition in their own country. However, they had a close relationship with the family of composers of the ‘underground’ division. They shared the same destiny, environment and condition of non-freedom. After Stalin’s death, in the time of the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’, famous 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. But Soviet composers were not given real liberty, they were not safe in their experiments and their non-conformist activity went underground.
Philip Herschkowitz, a pupil of Alban Berg and Anton Webern, settled in Moscow giving private lessons to composers and musicians. He did not teach the twelve-tone technique, but the great tradition from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler, which led to the revolutionary New Viennese School. His teaching was highly influential, but he never obtained a legal teaching position, and he was explained: ‘That is because you had bad teachers!’
Andrey Volkonsky was the first Soviet composer who tried to return Russian contemporary music into the stream of the western tradition, experimenting with twelve-tone and serial techniques. It was a courageous act, a protest against the oppression and obligation to follow a few prescribed rules and examples. It was a real renewal and enrichment of musical language in Russia. His works had a huge impact on his colleagues. Musica Stricta was written 1956. ‘At first nobody understood what it was, and they continued to play my music for a few more years,’ — Volkonsky recalled. When they found it was twelve-tone music it was completely forbidden and barred from performance. Volkonsky emigrated to the West in 1973.
Meanwhile, the music of Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Nikolai Karetnikov, Roman Ledeniov, Alemdar Karamanov and other composers of the same generation came to prominence. Schnittke recalled how he was astonished, when Denisov, in his student days, said openly that the Resolution of 1948 was a mistake. After years of self-education Denisov developed his highly exquisite and vibrant individual style. His courageous musical experiments were also banned, but without begging for official permission, he sent them abroad, and soon achieved worldwide recognition. 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.
The success of the ‘Holy Trinity’ — Denisov, Gubaidulina and Schnittke — not only abroad, but also in the ‘underground’, half-forbidden concerts in the Soviet Union was unbelievable. They were joined soon by the Leningrad composer Alexander Knaifel, Estonian Arvo Pärt, Ukrainians Valentin Silvestrov and Leonid Hrabovsky, Georgian Giya Kancheli, Armenians Avet Terterian, Tigran Mansurian and Ashot Zograbian, Azerbaijani Faraj Karaev, and the generation of younger Moscow composers Viktor Suslin, Vyacheslav Artyomov, Vladimir Martynov, Alexander Vustin, Vladislav Shoot, Nikolai Korndorf, Victor Ekimovsky, Elena Firsova, Vladimir Tarnopolsky, Alexander Raskatov, me and others.
But their success was followed by their disregard and humiliation inside the Composer’s Union. The ‘bad days’ returned in November 1979, when at the Sixth Congress of the Composer’s Union, the music of the so-called ‘Khrennikov Seven’ was criticised as ‘pointlessness … and noisy mud instead of real musical innovation’ They were named in the following order: Firsova, Smirnov, Knaifel, Suslin, Artyomov, Gubaidulina and Denisov. This victimisation came in connection with their participation in the Cologne festival. An administrative punishment was made, preventing them from being performed on the radio and television, and prohibiting the publication of their scores. The leaders of the Composer’s Union also proclaimed the policy of ‘divide and rule’, and Schnittke, who previously had been harshly criticised, was suddenly given official recognition.
At about the same time the split in the ranks of the ‘underground’ division came to light. Some of the composers, satiated with ‘old complexity’, turned away from their early avant-garde experiments and joined the stream of ‘new simplicity’. This could be simply explained by the increasing influence of ‘minimalism’. But the effect was shocking. Opinions were divided, and many former friends could no longer understand each other. Only later it became clear that this simplification was not just a ‘step back’ or a ‘weakening of aesthetic principals’ but a natural transformation and renovation of musical language.
During the ‘perestroika’ there was a great deal more freedom in Russia and the possibility of coming together and organising an informal union had appeared. The Association for Contemporary Music (ACM) had already existed in the Soviet Union in the 20-s, until it was forbidden in 1931. Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Roslavetz, Mosolov and other musicians all were members. It was re-established in 1990. This new association headed by Edison Denisov, decided to continue the traditions of the first, organising concerts and festivals, founding its own ensemble and beginning to strengthen contacts with foreign composers and musicians. All this has borne notable fruit, and ACM still continues its activities.
Simultaneously some ‘underground’ composers, including Denisov and Schnittke, were invited to join the governing board of the Composer’s Union. There was a real believe that it could improve the situation. Thus, the ‘underground’ surfaced and its existence came to an end. But the situation changed again: composers left the breaking down Soviet Empire one after another:
- Andrey Volkonsky (b. 1933): 1973 for Switzerland and France;
- Valery Arzumanov (b. 1944): 1974 for France;
- Alexander Rabinovich (b. 1945): 1974 for France and Switzerland;
- Arvo Pärt (b. 1935): 1980 for Germany;
- Viktor Suslin (b. 1942): 1981 for Germany;
- Leonid Hrabovsky (b. 1935): 1990 for the USA;
- Alfred Schnittke (1934—1998): 1990 for Germany;
- Nikolai Korndorf (1947—2001): 1991 for Canada;
- Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931): 1991 for Germany;
- Giya Kancheli (b. 1935): 1991 for Germany and Belgium;
- w:en:Elena Firsova (b. 1950) and Dmitri N. Smirnov (b.1948): 1991 for England;
- Vasily Lobanov (b. 1947): 1991 for Germany;
- Vladislav Shoot (b. 1941): 1992 for England;
- Victor Kissine (b. 1953): left for Belgium;
- Alexander Raskatov (b. 1953): 1994 for Germany;
- w:en:Edison Denisov (1929—1996): since 1994 lived in France, etc…
Russian music, dispersed now over the world, continues to be an integral indissoluble phenomenon, a significant part of the whole spectrum of music of our epoch. It would be nice to think that this dispersion has only temporary effect. Now it is a difficult time for Russia and for the former republics of the Soviet Union. Therefore the evacuation of art, this fragile and precious thing, is necessary and justified. In the case of a positive development of events, this process could be naturally stopped. It is difficult to say when that could happen, but it will eventually. Exodus will give place to Reunion.
- See also the 2nd version of the article.
- The song by Isaac Dunayevsky from the film ‘Circus’ (1936) set the text by Vassili Lebedev-Kumach.
- From the conversation with the artist Yuri Annenkov.
- From his Notebook, 1970.
- Among those, who had contact with Herschkowitz were the composers Andrei Volkonsky, Edison Denisov, Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, N. Karetnikov, A. Lokshin, G. Zinger, M. Meyerovich, A. Muravlev, V. Silvestrov, L. Hrabovsky, V. Artyomov, A. Vustin, V. Shoot, V. Suslin, E. Firsova, B. Frankshtein, L. Gofman, me, the musicologists M. Druskin, N. Fishman, Y. Kholopov, M. Tarakanov, S. Vekshtein, A. Ivashkin, the performers O. Kagan, N. Gutman, L. Isakadze, V. Feltsman, I. Monighetti, T. Alikhanov, and others.
- From the interview in the newspaper Russkaya Mysl, Paris, 1973.
- From a private conversation in April 1989.
© D. Smirnov-Sadovsky