Tuesday 21 October 2014

What Have the Russians Ever Done for Us?

Igor Stravinsky

Name some great composers of the twentieth century. Chances are a few of them will be Russian: Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich. For me, the last two are particular favourites.

Dmitry Shostakovich
Igor Stravinsky was twenty-four years older than Dmitry Shostakovich, but perhaps a bigger difference between them was that Stravinsky never lived in the Soviet Union, while Shostakovich spent his entire adult life there. By the time of the Revolution, Stravinsky was already famous and travelling the world. The two composers did not meet until 1962, when the totalitarianism of Stalin had begun to thaw under Khrushchev and the eighty-year-old Stravinsky at last felt it was safe to visit his homeland. A banquet was arranged at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow in honour of Stravinsky, with Shostakovich in attendance. Aram Khachaturian, another great Russian – well, Georgian – composer, witnessed their meeting:

They were placed next to each other and sat in complete silence. I sat opposite them. Finally Shostakovich plucked up the courage and opened the conversation:

‘What do you think of Puccini?’

‘I can’t stand him,’ Stravinsky replied.

‘Oh, and neither can I, neither can I,’ said Shostakovich.1

I find it hard to disagree with them. However entertaining Puccini’s music is, it is only the climax of a West-European and specifically Italian style that had developed over the previous century. The Russian’s were doing something quite new.

Alexander PushkinAnd it wasn’t just in music. Name some great novelists – of any century. You’ll probably start off with quite a list of English or English-speaking writers, but after that it won’t be long before you get to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and not much longer to Bulgakov, Pasternak, Gogol and Nabokov (whom you might already have listed, since he wrote novels in both English and Russian). If you allow the constraints to expand a little you might also include Chekov as a playwright and Pushkin as a poet. And that’s just to list the household names (my household, anyway).

This blossoming of literary talent occurred over the shortest of periods. To go from Pushkin to Tolstoy is almost to go from Chaucer to Shakespeare. From one of the first to use his native language (as opposed, in both cases, to French) to the archetype of writing in that language. It was a transition that took Britain over two centuries, but took Russia scarcely three decades. And Britain has rarely been in the same league as Russia with regards to composers. As for artists, perhaps Britain does better overall, but just as our music has no Stravinsky, our art has no Kandinsky.

First Abstract Watercolour - Vasily Kandinsky, 1910

Like Shostakovich, Vasiliy Vasilievich Kandinsky was in Russia at the time of the Revolution, but was able to leave in 1921. He settled in Germany – until the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, where he taught. He moved to France, soon to find himself once again under Nazi rule when they invaded. He died just four months after Paris was liberated. Long before that, in 1910, he produced a painting which he appropriately titled First Abstract Watercolour. It was just that – the first truly abstract painting. Kandinsky went on to produce many others, and founded an entire art movement.

Kandinsky equated painting with music and tried to imitate music’s inherently abstract nature. He called many of his works compositions and experienced art and music synaesthetically. Early in his career he wrote:

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul. 2

Composition VII - Vasily Kandinsky, 1913

Stravinsky and Kandinsky knew each other in Paris in the 1930s, though unlike the artist, the composer left France for America before the German occupation. It was long after the Russian Revolution, and longer still after each man’s personal revolution in his own field of art. The 1910s were a decade that changed the world in many ways. Politically the impact of the First World War and the Russian Revolution cannot be underestimated, and we shouldn’t forget the Xinhai Revolution in China or the Easter Rising in Ireland. The sinking of RMS Titanic is still remembered today and marks the apogee, and therefore the endpoint, of mankind’s blind faith in technology. Kandinsky produced the first abstract painting in 1910, but it was in 1913 that Stravinsky’s revolution became violent.

Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29th May 1913. The fact that it caused the audience to riot is well-known, and not entirely overstated. But the production itself was revolutionary, both in terms of its music and its choreography. The première has been described as ‘the most important single moment in the history of twentieth century music’3. The whole of the production team was made up of Russian émigrés: Stravinsky, the composer; Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer; Nikolai Rerikh, the set designer; Sergei Diaigilev, the producer. None of them died in the country of his birth. It was in the Russian Empire that their talents first went unrecognized, but in the Soviet Union that they knew they would not be free to express themselves as artists.

Dancers from the première of The Rite of Spring

But art did flourish in the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, though the lifestyle of those who produced it was precarious. The Soviet leader regarded himself as an expert on every aspect of Russian life – military, economic and cultural. In each field he was arbitrary. In 1929 Mihail Bulgakov found himself unable to make a living when the Soviet government banned the publication of his novels and the production of his plays. But at the same time Stalin intervened personally to protect Bulgakov from arrest. And yet when Bulgakov wrote to Stalin, asking for permission to leave the Soviet Union on the grounds that he was not able to practise his profession, the dictator refused. He died in 1940, but it was more than two decades before many of his major works were published. When they were it became clear why they had been regarded as so dangerous – although he was not always critical of the regime.

Joseph Stalin
Music did not convey so obvious a message. As Kandinsky had observed, music is by its nature more abstract than literature – harder to identify with a political opinion. Dmitry Shostakovich’s work was at first found to be favourable by the authorities. His opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was initially described as a work that ‘could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture.’4 But that was before Stalin had seen the opera. Soon after he did, articles criticizing it began to appear in Pravda, and Shostakovich’s earlier works began to be critically reappraised. The same year, 1936, Shostakovich completed his Fourth Symphony. As with Bulgakov’s works, the symphony wasn’t performed until decades later, in 1961 – but at least the composer was alive to witness it. He was luckier than many around him; this was the era of the Great Purge, when many were arrested and executed, including his brother-in-law.

But Shostakovich was no fool. He changed his compositional style and his Fifth Symphony was a huge success. An official review praised him for ‘not having given in to the seductive temptations of his previous erroneous ways.’5 During World War II he wrote his Seventh Symphony – titled Leningrad. One of its first performances was in the city after which it was named, at the time under siege by the Nazis, the scores smuggled in to be performed by the city’s starving orchestra. It is still regarded as a memorial to the 25 million Soviet citizens who died in the war.

St Isaac's Cathedral, Leningrad, during the siege

But despite his success, Shostakovich was once again denounced in 1948, along with Prokofiev and Khachaturian. With Stalin’s death he gradually came back into favour. In 1960 he joined the Communist Party, but only so that he could become General Secretary of the Composers' Union.

It would be a preposterous exaggeration to claim that all of Russian culture can be compressed into a period of less than two centuries, but from the viewpoint of the West, it can seem like it. From – to choose a couple of arbitrary points – the birth of Aleksandr Pushkin in 1799 to the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 2008 one could pick almost any decade and find a great work of art produced by some Russian or other. Most of it was produced by individuals whose lives were oppressed by a totalitarian regime, or who had fled such a regime for the freedom of the West. Russia now is in a strange place politically – more liberal than it has ever been, and yet still authoritarian by the standards of the rest of Europe. In the past it has been the birthplace of revolutions in every field of culture which have swept the world. It’s difficult to see much hope for the prospect of another, but Russia – that riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma – can always surprise.

1. E.Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered
2. Hajo Düchting, Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944: A Revolution in Painting
3. Thomas Forrest Kelly, First Nights – Five Musical Premiers
4. Dmitry Shostakovich (compiled by L. Grigoryev and Y. Platek), Shostakovich: About Himself and His Times
5. E.Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered

1 comment:

  1. By lucky hap, next week's composer of the week on BBC Radio 3 is Aram Khachaturian.