Book Reviews 53
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Rodion Shchedrin: Autobiographical Memories
Mainz: Schott Music GmbH & Co. KG (2012).
Translated by Anthony Phillips from Avtobiograficheskie zapisi (Moscow: AST, 2008).
286pp; 9 pages of illustrations.
€19.50 (pbk); €12.99 (e-book)
At 87, Rodion Shchedrin has enjoyed a long and eventful career as a composer, marked by early and continued success, and by friendships with great figures in his field. He knew, it seems, almost everyone of any importance in post-war Soviet classical music, and they form the glittering cast for these memoirs.
He was a wild child. He and his friends amused themselves in the early 1940s by hurling rocks through car windscreens, until the owners of one vehicle gave chase. “I ran like the wind, but was soon caught and given a severe thrashing, then hauled off to the police station where I spent a whole night during which the policemen continued to apply themselves to my body.” On another occasion, Shchedrin and friends lay down between sets of railway lines and, hoping to dispel any charge of cowardice, stayed in place as trains passed above their motionless bodies. He even made an underaged bid to join the Red Army at the Leningrad front, an escapade cut short by the intercession of a high-ranking uncle, who circulated his photograph before young Rodion could talk his way into the lower ranks. “Those days with the army that ‘really happened’ are in my memory inextricably mixed up with scenes from Soviet wartime films,” admits Shchedrin of a quite extraordinary episode that might have ended very badly.
He describes his musical education vividly. Studies at the Central Music School in Moscow came to an end after “I slightly scratched one of my schoolfellows, a clever young cellist, with a razorblade.” A fresh start presented itself in 1944, under stricter discipline, at Moscow Choral Institute. Even as a teenage student, Shchedrin found himself close to the junction of music and politics. Some of his fledgling compositions caught the eye of Aram Khachaturian, who offered Shchedrin a chance to meet for some instruction in 1948. But the morning of the meeting happened to coincide with the publication of the Central Committee’s Decree “On Muradeli’s Opera The Great Friendship,” in which the music of Khachaturian, among others, was harshly censured. Shchedrin went anyway, and found the famous composer’s mood deeply affected by the events of the morning:
“Khachaturian, pacing sweepingly up and down his study, launched into a monologue about how important it is for music to be understandable and accessible. Eventually, the lunch-fuelled energy began to weaken, and Khachaturian became morose. I stood beside the piano in complete silence, following his perambulations by turning my head from side to side and trying not to make a sound. It was clear he had forgotten my presence […] Shostakovich, I believe, was able to withstand the tragic conflict with the authorities. But Khachaturian crumbled, lost his voice and his self.”
Though a quarter-century his junior, Shchedrin, who was born in Moscow in 1932, knew Shostakovich well. The book is, as you’d hope, replete with recollections of the older man. Shchedrin was nine years old when Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was premiered in Kuibyshev and, since his father was acting as a sort of assistant to the composer, the son was able to sit in on the first rehearsal. Shchedrin recognises his youthful inability to grasp much of its depth and reach, but the invasion theme made its mark on him, even then. “The quiet life of peacetime suddenly broken by the measured, distant, frightening rhythm of the timpani,” recalls Shchedrin. “That was how it sounded, as if growing out of the quiet of the night. And then the theme, whistled—so it seemed to me—by the Fascist soldiers as they marched along.”
Shostakovich’s elusive character is captured well in Shchedrin’s reminiscences, as is his wit. He recounts the story of a provincial composer approaching Shostakovich in the dining hall of one of the Composers’ Union’s creative retreats and asking “Dmitri Dmitrievich, could you please tell me how to write a symphony?” Shchedrin continues the story: “‘Just let me finish my soup,’ replied D.D., ‘and I’ll you how to do it.’” As amusing as the anecdote is, it’s not helped in this telling by the loss of a key word from the second portion of Shostakovich’s reply (Tell? Show?). And that slip is sadly typical of the editorial quality of the text as presented here by Schott, who have not served the author well. It’s littered with misspellings, incorrect punctuation, and the occasional translation snafu. The sheer number of mistakes is astonishing; it is easily the most poorly edited book I have ever read. An extensive annotated index of names is included at the back, to which someone has neglected to add Shostakovich.
Those hoping for detailed accounts of the moments of inspiration and perspiration that led to many of Shchedrin’s scores are likely to be disappointed. Although the behindthe-scenes stories of the production of a number of his operas and ballets is related, the composer isn’t one for verbalising his own creative process:
“Any journalist who interviews a composer will ask a question about how the composer actually writes the music. Any amount of nonsense can be spouted in response, but to tell the truth I find it impossible to explain the process of how the music gets itself written.”
Shchedrin is instead particularly interested in stories of the absurdities of life (in East and West), in word-portraits of the personalities he has known, and in recalling impressions of the sometimes world-shaking events he has lived through. During the 1980s, he was elected to the First Congress of People’s Deputies, alongside Yeltsin and Gorbachev; it’s all described with wit and insight. He also uses the book to single out those who’ve stood in his way or slighted him in some way (including, ironically, a Schott Music editor guilty of sloppy work on Shchedrin’s scores).
One of his targets is Western writers who, he discovered, had been sitting in judgement upon his career while the Iron Curtain was up, and who continued to hold what he considered to be insultingly misinformed opinions in the 1990s. “All you have to do is copy down a few facts from a current compendium on the subject,” he complains, “copiously enumerate names you cull from the directories, list the compositions, mention a few dates, deliver yourself some Olympian criticisms according to your preferred stylistic ideology, identify influences—and lo, your commentary or review is all done.” The phones will ring, the faxes stream in, and all the world will regard you as an expert. “It’s a lucrative business,” he quips. To which I say: if only.
Upon travelling West after the fall of the USSR, Shchedrin learned that Edison Denisov, who’d got there first, had been busy dragging his name through the mud. Denisov, in this telling the author’s nemesis, had never forgiven his compatriot for criticising his cantata Le soleil des Incas, while Shchedrin was Secretariat of the Union of Soviet Composers. Shchedrin was just saying what he thought (as, it’s clear from the book, he would to anyone) but Denisov apparently saw it as an attempt to sabotage his career and henceforth never missed an opportunity to smear Shchedrin’s good name.
Shchedrin has a lot of lively stories to tell, but I suspect it was his critics—international and domestic—rather than his way with a tale that really prompted him to set it all down on paper. At the heart of the book is a contention, that his attempt to carve out a successful career as a composer was interpreted, by those who were themselves in no place to properly judge, as collusion with the Soviet regime:
“I am offended by people who robe themselves in the mantle of a judge in order to condemn others, thereby signalling that they and only they are the righteous, without sin, living a life wholly free from compromise, lies, or equivocation. It is not so. Everyone has in one way or another lied, made accommodations with the Soviet regime. The writer and dissident Vladimir Maximov used to say: ‘Have you ever been to the bakers and bought a loaf of bread? You have? Then you too have collaborated with the regime.’”
Shchedrin’s frustration is understandable and his objection to the Western fascination with those more politically palatable “underground” composers of the same era reminds us that accepting them uncritically as dissidents means simplifying their own relationships with the state too. But the way in which he circles the point eventually sticks in the craw, not least because his criticism of Western commentary on the topic ends up being the kind of simplified caricature he so vociferously attacks.
But for all this, Shchedrin’s autobiography is a terrific read—entertaining, contentious and sometimes frustrating, but written with genuine style and, aside from misgivings previously noted, smoothly translated by Anthony Phillips. As is often the case with this sort of book, the story of the subject’s formative years is told with a singular narrative thrust that is lost in the episodic consideration of more recent things, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this review wouldn’t want to gulp down great chunks of the tale. And if readers find themselves at odds with some of Shchedrin’s more trenchant opinions, it is at least refreshing to come across an autobiography of a major Soviet composer which unequivocally represents the character of the man and the content of the music.
Solomon Moiseevich Gershov (1906–1989) was a painter who belonged to the Russian avantgarde. He was born in Daugavpils (Dvinsk) initially studying at the Vitebsk Art School with Mark Chagall. In 1922 he moved to Petrograd, where he studied at the Institute of Arts under the guidance of Kazimir Malevich and attended Pavel Filonov’s School of Analytical Art. He painted landscapes, portraits, and compositions inspired by Biblical subjects. Exhibitions of his works were held in Moscow, Vitebsk, Leningrad, Tbilisi, USA, London, Zurich, Paris, and Jerusalem. His works are still exhibited in galleries in Russia and abroad. In the 1920s Gershov’s talent flourished, but in 1932 and again in 1948 he was arrested and deported. His first exhibition was held in the editorial office of the newspaper Leningradskaya Pravda, in 1926, but for the second exhibition the artist had to wait until 1973.
He was often inspired by music, and one of the key works by Gershov in this vein is the cycle “On D. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony,” which is to be found in this, the first published, comprehensive album of Gershov’s works.
In his memoirs, published in the DSCH Journal in 1994–5 (nos. 2 and 3), the artist related:
“I began to receive (infrequent) letters from Shostakovich. In one of them he asked me for details of the passing away of our mutual friend Boris Mikhailovich Erbstein.1 I replied with all I knew, adding that I was about to complete a series of works, of about twenty leaves, dedicated to his Seventh Symphony.
I do not know if there have been other artists’ attempts to depict this symphony on canvas. In any case I began work with enormous zeal and feelings of inspiration. This was not to be simply an illustration to [Shostakovich’s] music; the theme of fascist invasion stemmed also from the events in Spain.
Shostakovich was very interested in all this and in a letter he asked me to come to Moscow to show him my work. I gathered everything in a large folder and went to see him. Dmitri Dmitrievich lived in a house in Nezhdanova Street (where the Composers’ Union is also located). He was waiting for me. Besides Dmitri Dmitrievich himself his family and close friends were there, and after a short chat, we got down to business.
They all looked through the paintings in silence—not a word was said—of criticism or of approval. Finally I asked, “Well, what is your impression? You’re silent, you’ve said nothing.”
“I like your works very much,” said Shostakovich. “They are very impressive.”
In return I decided to show my “generosity” by offering any of the twenty works as a gift. As it happened the paintings were still lying on the floor and
all three Shostakoviches, bending down, began to choose enthusiastically. But a problem quickly arose—they didn’t know which to take. So I suggested they choose in two stages. As a result it turned out to be not one, but seven works!
“Take all seven!” I said. “I see that you like them!”
All three thanked me profusely. I gathered the remaining works and put them back into the folder, tying them up with chord and making as if to go. I felt somehow that Dmitri Dmitrievich’s free time was extremely limited: however as I parted he invited me to “Come to us tomorrow for lunch. At 2—we’ll be waiting for you.” I thanked him and said goodbye.”
The book’s preface is a 25-page essay “In the context of time” on Gershov’s life and work by Lev Mochalov (2003) and features plates of 20 works by the painter, plus archive photos. Contemporary artistic influences and attitudes are set in the context of Gershov’s life—in part tragic, in part impressively rich in accomplishment (he was a prolific worker, even towards the end of his life). In April 1932 Gershov was arrested on charges of criticising the Association of Artists of the Revolution [AKhR] and his works were destroyed. He was sentenced to three years of exile in Kursk and then in Borisoglebsk; in September 1934 he was released following artist Isaac Brodsky’s intervention. In January 1948 Gershov was arrested again and given a fifteen-year sentence. Once again all his works were destroyed. In August 1956 he was released and rehabilitated.
While Gershov’s artistic style might be characterised through its intensity of expression thanks to his stark use of colour and line, his works also “reflect deep emotionality, and the author’s dramatic and sometimes ironic world view” (Mochalov). Consideration is given to the influence of fauvism, expressionism, and primitivism in his works. Also to his diverse role models—artists from various epochs such as Rublev, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Picasso. Although an abridged English translation of the essay is provided towards the end of the book, it is hoped that any subsequent reprint includes a full version of the essay, just as the album’s impressively useful List of Works, List of Exhibitions Chronology, and Bibliography indices are dual language.
In total the book includes 195 high quality colour plates, many full page, the vast majority dating from the 1970s and 1980s. The album includes a sub-section entitled (in Russian) “D. D. Shostakovich in the Life and Creativity of M. Gershov,” and includes an early photograph of the composer and artist [reproduced below], as described by the article’s author, Albina Lazuco:
“At the exhibition dedicated to the memory of D. D. Shostakovich in the Leningrad Composers’ House (September 1977), a remarkable photograph appeared, dated 1931. The picture captures a still-young composer Dmitry Dmitrievich Shostakovich with friends—actor Erast Pavlovich Garin2 and artists Boris Mikhailovich Erbstein and Solomon Moiseevich Gershov. At the same time, alongside, a portrait of Shostakovich by Gershov from 1968. Between the photograph and the drawing almost forty years had passed. Through the lives of the country and its people, this was an era that left its indelible stamp on the personality of the composer, and on the artist, who was present at the opening of the exhibition. For those in attendance, this seemed to represent the collision of the past and the future and of emergence of an enigmatic ‘Connection of time.’
In respect of Gershov’s paintings inspired by the Leningrad Symphony: “The sketches for the Seventh (Leningrad) symphony [in fact] did not happen during the artist’s meetings with the composer during the Great Patriotic War in Novosibirsk, where Shostakovich visited and where E. E. Mravinsky was rehearsing [the Seventh]. It was only after Gershov’s rehabilitation did the musically sensitive artist begin to search for the embodiment of symphonic images in painting.”
Four of the Leningrad Symphony paintings follow this short essay.
In all, the album provides adequate proof, if such proof were needed, that Gershov belongs to the most essential of avantgarde artists who created their own style and visual media through which to depict an essentially human story, that of twentieth-century Russia.
1 Boris Mikhailovich Erbstein, 1901–1963; painter, theatrical designer, graphic artist.
2 Erast Pavlovich Garin, 1902–1980; actor, director, and screenwriter. He was, together with Igor Ilyinsky and Sergey Martinson, one of the leading comic actors of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s company and of Soviet cinema. He appeared in a few serious films, including Meeting on the Elbe (1949) which was scored by Shostakovich. He was named People’s Artist of the USSR in 1977.
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Svetik: a Family Memoir of Sviatoslav Richter
Walter Moskalew, Anna Moskalewa-Richter and Dagmar von Reincke. Edited and translated by Anthony Phillips.
Toccata Press, 2015.
Hb. 462pp. £30.00
In the late 1950s, when Sviatoslav Richter was finally allowed to play concerts in the West, audiences were astonished to discover that the stellar reports from those who had heard him were wholly justified. His subsequent appearances were highlights of many concert halls’ calendars. Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon generated huge interest and while official releases cover much of his wide repertoire, there are few classical performers whose “bootleg” discography is as large and includes so many recordings which are considered “essential.” The fascination was intensified by his late-career preference for playing small halls in almost complete darkness with little advance notice. This led to accusations of eccentricity, but rather it was to make himself simply a conduit, allowing audiences to focus on the music rather than the performer. This also suited his famous privacy. For many years, he said little about his approach to music or his private life until he agreed to extensive interviews with Bruno Monsaingeon, which led to the film Richter the Enigma (1998) and the book Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks, and Conversations (Princeton University Press, 2001). These are invaluable in getting to grips with the pianist but Svetik (to which Monsaingeon has written the introduction) is complementary in, as far as might be possible, showing us the man and particularly where he came from.
Two of the most important figures in Richter’s life were his mother Anna and aunt Tamara. Russophiles are used to people having multiple names so it may not be too challenging to learn that upon marriage his mother double-barrelled her name to become Moskalewa-Richter though she was familiarly known as Nyuta, and his aunt Germanised hers to become Dagmar von Reincke, familiarly Meri. Even so, this is a saga of renaming and the family tree and the glossary of names and mini-biogs help explain the complexities of lineage and keep tabs on who’s who.
As the subtitle reveals, it’s a family memoir, and is broken down into three parts. My Life – the Memoirs of Anna Moskalewa-Richter, the reminiscences of his mother, and Meri’s Sviatoslav Richter as a Young Boy are preceded by Walter Moskalew’s scene-setting Three Sisters – a Family History. Born in 1915 in Zhitomyr in western Ukraine, Richter’s early life was marked by the Civil War and then by the disruptions and privations of the Second World War, as well as his own and others’ illness. But there were also family difficulties, a sense of sibling rivalry between Meri and Anna—perhaps jealousy for Svetik’s affections? What led to the breakdown of Anna’s first marriage to Theo? The source materials don’t make it entirely clear, but the tiresomeness of her second husband Sergei and his endless wittering about Rimsky-Korsakov—a particular irritant to Richter—comes over strongly, even humorously.
A bittersweet streak runs through Svetik, and not just because of the difficulties of his early life. In the turbulent early years of the 20th century many things were lost or passed over. His aunt Lenochka died in 1919, her Spanish flu misdiagnosed as typhoid. Sixty years later Meri rediscovered an unfinished letter to a friend about it and sent it to Richter. It is a searing document. Meri thought her artistic career a failure though the dozens of drawings and sketches that adorn the book attest to her talent. She also wrote well; A Quite Different Sort of Boy is a delightful series of feuilletons about the young Svetik, which she distributed privately in 1964. Beyond her affection for him, she had a natural affinity for all children—a quality one feels Anna would have liked to have shared.
Anna’s memoirs initially strike a slightly different, more formal tone—well caught in Anthony Phillips’ translation. There’s a sense of this being “for the record,” especially in the brief references to political events, but it loosens up when Svetik is the subject. However, they stop when Svetik moves away: “It often seemed to me as though all sunshine and happiness had departed with him.” It was November 1960 before she finally saw him again—in New York—after a typically surreal game of Cold War politics exacerbated by Richter’s punishing concert schedule. Were there more tensions? Meri, Anna, Sergei, and Richter’s wife Nina Dorliak all trying to settle their relationships to each other and to Richter; to get along and to get what they want? Was he seeing Anna simply through filial duty? Again, much of this is Moskalew’s speculation, though there are no hints of tension in his photographs of the celebratory dinner and other meetings. Moskalew also gives his impressions of some of the concerts though of course these are filtered through the eyes and ears of a beloved relative.
Though Richter tried not to talk about music, he was—in private—more forthcoming about visual art. Meri spurred Richter’s interest in art and he became a collector and organised exhibitions in his apartment. He described Dmitri Krasnopevtsev, known for his sometimes unsettling still lives, as “an ‘abstract realist’ […] or perhaps more accurately as an ‘inspired realist’” and advocated his work though he had fallen foul of the authorities. His apartment exhibition of 28 portraits, including work by Kokoshka and Picasso, transferred to the Pushkin Museum. Photographs and layout plans give an impression of what these apartment shows looked like, and there is some fascinating correspondence between him and Meri, and even a few of Richter’s own drawings.
Svetik is an invaluable counterpoint to existing books about Richter, giving insights of touching intimacy and shining a fascinating light on his background and family life. Moskalew found an ideal collaborator in Anthony Phillips. Finding and collating many documents, investigating and teasing out their implications, they lay out their findings clearly, sympathetically, and engagingly. Phillips’ translation is in his typically fluid style, and he has also provided many useful footnotes. As someone who knew Richter and spent considerable time with him, he occasionally interjects his own thoughts and memories but these are always useful and never overdone.
John Leman Riley
De Kunst om te Overleven: Russische Muziek in de Eeuw van Dmitri Sjostakovitsj
Amsterdam: Autres directions (2019).
256pp, colour illustrations
ISBN 978-90-821384-1-2 (pbk)
The Art of Survival is on sale from https://Olof.cz
In The Art of Survival: Russian Music in Shostakovich’s century, Dutch radio producer
Arthur Olof (1954–2014) describes the history of music in twentieth-century Russia, a time when Soviet artists were forced to conform to the party line in their creative works, under the threat of persecution. The focus of the book is Dmitri Shostakovich, whose resourceful ability to compose in spite of these restrictions was of great interest to the author as an example of the art of survival. Olof explains how Shostakovich’s oeuvre was closely connected to the contemporary artistic and literary scene in Leningrad, and provides a wide-ranging, kaleidoscopic view of music history along with colourful details. These insights offer a deeper understanding of the context of Shostakovich’s work and sketch a broad cultural and socio-political framework as a background to his life. To Olof, Shostakovich’s music mirrored the political oppression and cultural life in 20th-century Russia. The fulcrum of the book is the Dutch radio series Oorgetuige (“Ear-itness”); almost 100 episodes produced for the Concertzender station between 2009 and 2014. Interspersed in the book’s text are QR-codes providing links to the Concertzender website, allowing access to the music under discussion. The book thus oﬀers a unique sound library of around six hundred compositions by twentieth-century Russian composers: from Shostakovich to Ustvolskaya, from Prokofiev to Gubaidulina, and from Stravinsky to Schnittke. In addition, there are links to visual art provided by access to the websites of museums such as the Hermitage, the Tretyakov Gallery, and the Pushkin Museum.
While the wide-ranging scope of the book necessarily excludes in-depth analyses of chosen subjects, the provided links to on-line references undoubtedly enhance the book’s appeal. In addition, the author’s selection of artists, coupled with his insightful comments on them provide an original and fascinating panoramic view. But it is Olof ’s ability to draw the reader into a realm which is so very Russian, where beauty could still save the world and a deep sense of the metaphysical is alluded to, that projects this book far beyond the mere musical history. To “set the tone” each broadcast began with a motto: “All in memory of you…,” a line of poetry by Alexander Pushkin, which Anna Akhmatova used to accompany her Northern Elegies, a cycle of poems she wrote during one of the darkest times of her country and her personal life. Chosen in turn by Arthur Olof, these words convey how music can relate to the human soul, and the power of artistic creation to connect and transcend.
Arthur Olof was the son of the well-known violinist Theo Olof, a Jewish refugee from Germany. Arthur studied Slavic Languages and Dutch Literature in Amsterdam and was a producer for Concertzender.
The idea to publish a book based on the radio series took shape around 2012. A year later Olof was diagnosed with a fatal illness. Determined to complete the book, he handed the finished manuscript over to his wife, José ten Berge, six weeks before he died in 2014. She became the driving force behind the publication and book launch in June 2019.