David Fanning on Rodion Shchedrin and his Second Symphony and the Answer of Rodion Shchedrin
David Fanning on Rodion Shchedrin and his Second Symphony
Rodion Shchedrin is a man who dislikes stereotypes, and he certainly doesn't conform to any. True, he went through a leather jacket phase in the 1970s - a mark of the successful cosmopolitan Russian intelligentsia, proudly displayed on at least three Melodiya LP sleeves. But now he seems anything but image-conscious. There's a job to be done. He listens intently to the BBC Philharmonic committing to disc his Second Symphony under Principal Guest Conductor Vassily Sinaisky, and he takes an equal part in the critical listening with Couzens and the Philharmonic's Chief Producer Brian Pidgeon. Once or twice he goes into the studio to insist on a point of balance or soloistic characterization. He is lavish in his praise of the musicians (who have already played the First Symphony a couple of years ago) and has boundless admiration for Sinaisky.
In other words he comes across as a straightforward professional and professionalism is a leitmotif of our conversation. As a composer he has no time for fads or cliques, particularly if they involve neglecting the basic craft. "We musicians are like the leaves of a tree which is the history of music. We cannot grow on any other tree. For me 'modern music' doesn't exist. That's why I don't like festivals of contemporary music. It should be just music. It must be professional and it must be music. That's all."
The background to this view is that Shchedrin found himself for many years between two camps. As a composer with naturally cosmopolitan instincts he automatically fell foul of Soviet officialdom; yet he was also at arm's length from his 'underground', non-conformist contemporaries such as Schnittke, Gubaidulina and Silvestrov. That arose from his succession to Shostakovich as Secretary of the Russian Composers' Union, where he developed an alternative power-base to that of the apparatchik-in-chief Khrennikov at the Soviet Composers' Union. Although he claims that since Shostakovich was appointed First Secretary in 1960, "All composers from the 'Left' [i.e. the nonconformists] moved over to it", it was a position which was never likely to make Shchedrin popular with the younger generation. Before I've had the chance to get past the polite preliminaries Shchedrin is eager to put the record straight about that role, since some halfinformed journalist has apparently confused his position with Khrennikov's. If this is image-consciousness, who could blame him?
He is obviously more comfortable with his image in the West (at least before Glasnost and Perestroika) as the Soviet Union's first 'licensed modernist' - a composer who managed to stay broadly in favour while pushing at the limits of official tolerance. He is proud of the fact that many of his works were received as provocations and that he had to defend himself against the authorities' slings and arrows; all five of his booklet-essays for recent CDs of his music make the same point. His Second Symphony was composed in 1963-4 and contains 12-note elements, and he reminds me that it was the subject of a Plenary Session discussion at the Composers' Union before it could be accepted. Shchedrin goes straight into an explanation of the nature of necessary compromise for a Soviet composer. "You know Shostakovich helped [with acceptance for performance] tremendously with this work, as he did with my Carmen Suite. Yet he himself had to make all sorts of compromises. His music was much more courageous ... If you want to hear it all in the open, listen to his Fourth Symphony." He rehearses Russia's tragedy yet again. "Stalin killed 60 million people. Not one family was untouched. I lost two uncles, and both my father-in-law and mother-in-law were in prison. After his death the windows opened each month a little more." The Warsaw Autumn was one such cultural window from the late-1950s on, and Shchedrin was much taken with the works of Lutoslawski and Penderecki. But I'm finding it hard to deflect him from extra-musical generalities and get him on to the specifias of his music.
Are there subtexts to the Second Symphony? In previous interviews he has mentioned the tuning-up section at the beginning of the second movement as being inspired by a soldier who returned from the battlefront and was moved to tears by the sound of an orchestra tuning up. Shchedrin deflects the point: "Usually it's musical inspiration, not social comment." But in the next movement there's a kind of processional funeral music on the brass which seems to pre-echo Schnittke's First Symphony (it was Shchedrin in his official capacity who sanctioned the controversial première of that work in Gorky). He doesn't rise to the comparison, but he does expand on a possible background to the idea. "In my student days at the Moscow Conservatory I used to play clarinet, trumpet and piano, sometimes to earn money. I remember playing the clarinet in music for a funeral. The weather was freezing, the orchestra had red noses and frozen fingers, not like today's warm churches ... That's just an impression that stayed with me, as though tape-recorded in my brain, and maybe it's reflected in my symphony, although my aim is always to make my music more universal." Why is the symphony in the form of 25 Preludes? The answer is again characteristic in its charming evasiveness "You know, it was just an intuition that told me it should be so. Like a voice from the sky. In general our music has lost intuition. If we try to be new, that's wrong." Again that leitmotif. He is too diplomatie to say so, but I suspect that the current feting in the West of Schnittke, Gubaidulina et al rankles with him.
Like them, and most of his compatriot composers with contacts in the West, he has settled abroad since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and he now has homes in Munich and Moscow. Why Munich? "It's just Fate. I was invited in 1976 by the Akademie der schönen Künste, and I was the first Russian composer to join GEMA [the German copyright organization]. So it was natural to go there." I ask him about foreign travel in general, which Shchedrin was able to enjoy before many of his fellow-composers. "Well, you know there was a [pecking-]order which was very calculated. For instance on some trips a token young composer was needed. I admit I wanted to be a tourist. I went for the first time abroad to Bulgaria. But my visit to the USA [in 1959, at the age of 26] was extremely important for making musical contacts. It also helped me that I could go as a performer."
For all his affability there is an unmistakable element of self-justification in his conversation. It's difficult to avoid the suspicion that Shchedrin tends to rely on his audience not knowing too much about Russian music. "Who else wrote 24 Preludes and Fugues in Russia during the 1960s and 1970s?" he demands, for instance in the booklet-essay to his recording. The smarty-pants response could be: Irina El'cheva (1970) Nikolay Gudiashvili (published 1975), Konstantin Sorokin (1975), and Georgy Mushel' (1975), not to mention others in the 1980s and 1990s, the latest being Sergey Slonimsky in 1994.
Yet there are worse faults than selective memory. And it's difficult to blame Shchedrin for his eagerness to defend his position. "You in the West sometimes have a very naïve view. You think in black and white. Relations with the authorities were always complex, for Shostakovich and Prokofiev as well as others. I remember playing in a performance of Prokofiev's Zdravitsa [aka Hail to Stalin], for instance. But wouldn't you compromise if you had to save your family? Here in the West you have to make all sorts of compromises too ..."
From: Gramophone, September 1997
Rodion Shchedrin on David Fanning's publication: misinterpretations and incorrect details
In the September issue David Fanning bestowed upon me the label of the "Soviet Union's first "licensed modernist". Even if someone in the former Soviet Union had been giving out such licences (Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov?) the most I could have hoped for was ... third place. After Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
In a totalitarian system relations between the artist and the regime are always extremely complex and contradictory. If the artist sets himself against the system, he is put behind bars or simply killed. But if he does not express his disagreement with its dogmas verbally ("When you enter the city of the one-eyed, shut one eye," ancient wisdom tells us), he is not physically bothered, he is left alone. He is even rewarded from time to time. For example, Prokofiev received six Stalin Prizes (1943, 1946, 1946, 1946, 1947 and 1951) and Shostakovich five Stalin Prizes, (1941, 1942, 1948, 1950 and 1952) and two State Prizes (1968 and 1974). 1 have always believed that real music has the power to over- come the regime and all its ideological taboos. Who allowed Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 8, 10 and 13, for instance? Who gave them licences? They gave themselves permission to exist by the strength of their musical truth and musical power. The "younger generation" of composers, to whom DJF refers, are showing a clear tendency to reproach Shostakovich for the compromises he made in his life. But Shostakovich did not wish to rot in prison or in a cemetery; he wanted to tell people, through the power of his art, his pain and his hatred of totalitarianism. He wrote all his scores in a Soviet country. He was recognized and given awards there. But in his music he was always honest and uncompromising.
In his article DJF diligently and consistently attempts to persuade the uninformed musical reader that 1 have some guilt somewhere. For what? For not having been in prison? For succeeding Shostakovich as Chairman of the Composers' Union of Russia, an organization he founded? For being its Honorary Chairman to this day? For not joining the Communist Party? For refusing to sign a letter from the intelligentsia in 1968 supporting the invasion of Czechoslovakia by troops of the Warsaw Pact? For being a member along with Academician Andrei Sakharov and Boris Yeltsin in the democratic opposition in Parliament, the Interregional Group of People's Deputies, when red flags still flew over the Kremlin?
Yes, in my life 1 have made compromises (and who has not?). But I have never made a single compromise in any of my compositions. And if DJF listens to them today he will hear that - if he is not complete intoxicated by the tendentiousness and prejudice that inform the article in Gramophone. I suppose 1 could take some comfort from the fact that people do not throw stones at apple trees that have no apples, but it is cold comfort. I do not want everyone to love me. But neither do I want to have mud spewed at me from a fire-hose, motivated by nothing more than ordinary envy.
Please could DJF explain to his Russian informants among "the younger generation" (since he him- self does not speak Russian and needs guides) that the time of making political hay in music is over, that the political advances paid have long been spent (after all, more than 12 years have passed from the start of Perestroika and Glasnost) and that all they have to do is to write music that can be of interest to the public and to professional musicians. Now, just to clear up a few of DJF's factual errors: my first trip to the USA was in 1962 (at the age of 30), and not in 1959 as you state. The date my Second Symphony was written is printed on page 1 of the score published by Soviet Composer in 1969: 1962-5 and not 1963-4. A scholar should be accurate. Why did DJF distort the quotation from my booklet-essay to the CD? The word 'Russia' has never subsumed either Georgia (N. Gudiashvili) or Uzbekistan (G. Mushel). Konstantin Sorokin's 24 Preludes and Fugues were written for children. I have never heard the Preludes and Fugues by I. EI'eheya (nor has he). And finally, why did he drop the second part of my question in the essay - "And who played them in public himself'?" I completed work on the cycle in 1970 and on January 27th, 1971 I performed the entire cycle from memory for the first time in Moscow myself, repeating the concert that same year in other cities (St Petersburg and Kiev, among others). Even chronologically I had the right to pose this question in the booklet-essay. 1 was the first to compose and perform my cycle in Russia in the 1960s and 1970s. I fear that DJF's memory is not only selective (as he accuses mine of being), but also preiudiced.
I should like to conclude with an invitation. Would DJF come this December to a festival of my music in Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Samara? There, 1 think, he will sec that his informants and inspirers - my dear envious and neurotic colleagues - have misinformed him. He will sec that my image, of which he spoke, is clean and honest among music lovers in Russia. He will see that, besides the image composers of the "younger generation" have of me, there is the image among audiences, orchestral musicians, conductors, soloists and conservatory students. Mozart's image was also not very popular among some of his contemporaries. Take, for one, Salieri.
From: Gramophone, November 1997